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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction

Morning birding near the Hotel Catalina, Costa Rica

The Hotels Catalina and Blanca Rosa are visible from my house. I don’t mean the hotel buildings; they are unobtrusive, one story structures in any case.  I mean the shade coffee plantations and a wooded hillside that provide a sanctuary for birds in a landscape where sun coffee, farm fields, and houses are the theme. This close birdy habitat (about a half mile away as the Cattle Egret flies) and its connection to a nearby riparian corridor allow me to see and hear things like Short-tailed Hawk, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and Blue-crowned Motmot just about every day. It also makes for a nice, bird-filled morning walk. Although I have to take a longer roundabout route to get there, at least it cuts through quiet coffee plantations and forces me to exercise (especially because it’s uphill).

This morning I headed up there for a couple of hours mostly to make bird recordings. Although I didn’t bird the grounds of the hotels, the surroundings are similar. With that in mind, the following account should give you an idea of what to expect if you stay at either of these hotels (which are nice options for common birds of the Central Valley).

As the 5:30 dawn began to lighten up the hilly flanks of Volcan Barva, I was out the front door as soon as I finished my morning coffee. Before I had even reached the curb, though, a Social Flycatcher singing its dawn song convinced me to head back into the house and go to the backyard to see if I could record it. I stepped into our small backyard, and Sennheiser microphone in hand, pointed it at the flycatcher that sang from a neighbor’s antenna. Just as I was about to press the record button, though, it flew off fast and furious to some distant, apparently safer perch. I think it didn’t like the idea of me pointing this dark, sinister-looking object at it. I can’t blame it. I mean I would probably run off too if some usually loud and dangerous being pointed a strange, dark object at me. After my unwittingly scaring the Social Flycatcher,  it was back once again out the door, this time no turning back, no stopping until I reached the Hotel Catalina area.

Why not stop along the way to bird from the roadside? Because the occasional fast cars, barking dogs (one of the banes of bird recordists), houses with crowing roosters, and whistling, singing, or talking pedestrians encountered on the road give bird recordings an ambiance that I would rather do without. I am often surprised as what the microphone picks up in the hills above Santa Barbara- coughs, laughter, music at 6 in the morning, and occasional birds that I didn’t notice. I get some of this around the Catalina but far less than along the road up to the place.

On the way up, some of the birds I passed were various Red-billed Pigeons singing (cooing) from the tops of trees and telephone wires, White-tipped Doves, Yellow-faced Grassquits, Crimson-fronted Parakeets screeching from the orange-flowered Poro trees (an Erythrina sp.), Flame-colored Tanagers singing here and there- burry phrases a lot like the congeneric Scarlet and Western Tanagers, and Blue-crowned Motmots hooting from hidden ravines.

Once I got to the entrance road to the hotel (and had distanced myself form yet another dog barking zone), I got out the microphone and waited for birds to express themselves in a vocal manner. Great Kiskadees complied immediately with a plethora of loud calls and a Lineated Woodpecker revealed itself by giving its call that sounds a bit like fairly slow, measured laughter. The Lineated was joined by its mate, Hoffman’s Woodpeckers, and a few Baltimore Orioles that chattered and sang snippets of their songs as they foraged in a grove of tall trees along the road. From the coffee plantations and wooded areas, Boat-billed Flycatchers complained from tall trees, Rufous-capped Warblers sang their sputtering songs (this species appears to have adapted well to coffee bushes), Blue-gray Tanagers squeeked, both Grayish and Buff-throated Saltators sang their short, whistled songs, Blue-black and Yellow-faced Grasquits tried to sound like insects in the grass, and Brown Jays “shouted” in the distance.

Other bird species that I heard and saw the whole time were Plain and House Wrens, Melodious Blackbirds (should have been called “ringing” blackbirds because of the frequent noises they make), Rufous-collared Sparrows, Tropical Kingbird, Clay-colored Robin, and Blue-and white Swallow.

A few of the more interesting species were Crested Bobwhite (several heard- a nice addition to my year list), Black-shouldered Kite, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Sulpher-bellied Flycatcher (just one calling from someone’s yard), Masked Tityra, Indigo Bunting (a few beautiful males reminding me of the Pennsylvania woods where I first saw them in 1981), Blue Grosbeak (always love to see this gorgeous bird), and White-eared Ground-Sparrow. I am pretty sure I got a glimpse of Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow too but didn’t bring my binoculars so am not positive about that. Yes, I left my binoculars at home. I was concentrating on getting a few recordings and I sometimes like to bird without binoculars for the challenge and the different perspective it gives.

Another nice bird was Montezuma Oropendola. Although common on the Caribbean slope, this crow-sized Icterid also occurs uncommonly in the Central Valley and in the foothills of the north Pacific slope (I have also seen them on the river trail at Carara).

Nothing super rare but overall just nice birding for the Central Valley and I am sure the area holds a few surprises.

If you have read this far and are wondering where the heck the photos are, I have literally hundreds of images on a different camera I have been using (there are some pretty good birds in there!) but haven’t been able to download them because I don’t have the correct cable! Thanks to my Dad, though, he found the right cable and sent it my mail- with luck I will pick it up tomorrow.

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Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Where to stay when birding Carara, Costa Rica; Cerro Lodge

I made a short trip to the Carara area this past Friday to scout the vicinity of Cerro Lodge, a new option for accommodation near the national park. From visiting their website, communicating with the owner, noting its proximity to Carara, and taking into account the habitats near Cerro Lodge, I had a hunch that these cabinas could finally be just the sort of place I have been waiting for as a good, moderately priced option for birders visiting Carara. Even with a short visit during non-birding hours (9-12), I could tell that my hunch was right. A problem with birding Carara has always been the limited number of options for accommodation near this top birding site. Don’t get me wrong, there are places to stay but they are pricey, horrible, or just not geared towards birders or ecotourists. The two main ecolodges that are geared towards birders, Villa Lapas and the Tarcol Lodge are, at well over $100 per person per night for lodging and meals, just absurdly pricey for Costa Rica.

At Villa Lapas (expensive number 1) the grounds and rooms are nice, the food and service good, and there is good birding on the grounds (including their canopy bridges), but you will see the same bird species on visits to the National Park. As for the Tarcol Lodge (expensive number 2) I have heard both positive and negative comments about their rooms, the food is good, and it is situated in a mangrove estuary with good birding although many of the aquatic and mangrove species that occur at the lodge can be seen on the mangrove boat trip or on your own. If you would rather not pay over $100 per person per night (in all fairness Villa Lapas sometimes has discounts during the wet season), I always felt that birders could see just as much and eat just as well by staying at a moderately priced hotel with comfortable, clean rooms and either taking meals there or dining at nearby sodas. The problem with this, however, was that the only moderately priced hotel near Carara was the basic “Hotel Carara” in Tarcoles village. Resembling a North American motel, although the rooms are ok and are sometimes offered at discounted prices, for not being located in particularly birdy habitat, the $70 rooms just never seemed worth it. I don’t think dining at their restaurant is worth it either. The small fish pond, pleasant decor, “relaxing” new age elevatorish music, and seaside location will never be enough to overcome the shortcomings of their small menu with overpriced, mediochre food that sours the dining experience like a lemon flavored slap in the face.

There have always been cheaper digs available at quiet, ramshackle cabinas along the beach just north of Tarcoles, but unless you are filiming a horror movie, on a scorpion hunt, or don’t mind sharing the place with cockroaches, then you probably shouldn’t stay there. Don’t be fooled by the $30 rooms offered at the Crocodile restaurant either (the one at the bridge on the highway). Those are the worse I have stayed at in Costa Rica mostly because upon opening the bathroom door, I was greeted by a small bat who was squinting and squeeking at me from the grimy floor. He was probably pleading for help out of that dirty place and after evicting (or maybe saving) him, I became honestly concerned about his bloodsucking cousins attacking me in the night after seeing the large hole in the bathroom ceiling combined with the fact that there were horses and cattle in back of the place that were probably fed upon by vampire bats on a regular basis. At least I didn’t have to worry about spending any time in the bathroom since nary a drip came out of the naked pipe that protruded from the wall. Although the room was so dirty that not showering seemed to be part of the theme, unless you are an adamant follower of Pigpen, I wouldn’t call that a plus. The bed was also uncomfortable, the fan didn’t really work, nor was the birding good at the Cabinas Crocodilos so do yourself a favor and don’t ever stay there even if the restaurant is ok.

Fortunately, two moderately priced options have become available near Carara! Although they are too far to walk to the park entrance, no present or future hotel will ever be close enough to the entrance for most folks to get there by foot because the HQ it is several kilometers from the limits of the park on a busy highway. The cheaper but noisier and less birdy option is the Cabinas Vasija (or something like that). Found along the main highway about 15 minutes from Carara on the east side of the road, they charge around $20 for basic, dingy rooms and also have a cheap restaurant on site. Being located along the highway though ensures that earplugs will be necessary for a good night’s sleep. The birding in the vicinity (especially along the road towards the river), however, is OK for dry forest and open country species.

Although more expensive, ($50 single, $70 double room), in my opinion, Cerro Lodge is the place I and other birders have been waiting for. This price includes all taxes and breakfast served from 5:30 A.M. at a restaurant that looks into the canopy of trees that host, among dozens of other bird species, Scarlet Macaws. Although these spectacular parrots move around in search of seeding and fruiting trees and thus might not visit the trees at the Cerro Lodge restaurant at all times of the year, they certainly do in October. It was especially interesting to note that the macaws fed upon the seeds of Teak (an introduced species) in addition to foraging at the more typical “Almendra” trees.

The view from the restaurant.

The rooms are in six, clean, pleasant cabinas equipped with ceiling fans and a bathroom that is partly outdoors (in a good way).

Plenty of heliconias, Verbenia, and other flowering plants were attracting hundreds of butterflies during our visit and should also attract hummingbirds. Although we saw few of these glittering, hyperactive sprites, we were told that they sometimes visit the flowers that graced the tables of the restaurant. More exciting was  hearing about the pair of owls that make nightly visits to the light in their parking area. Although I wasn’t there at night, I am betting that they are Black and White or Striped Owls.

There is a trail on the Cerro Lodge property (a small, working farm) that passes through pasture, dry, scrubby habitat, and streams with moister, taller riparian growth. Birding in similar habitats is also possible along the quiet, 3 kilometer entrance road, and along the 4 kilometers of this same road that continues past Cerro Lodge and accesses dry forest, small wetlands, provides distant views of the Tarcol River. There is no traffic of note along these roads which helps make Cerro Lodge a very quiet, tranquil place.

Being there at the wrong time of day for birding, we didn’t see very much but still managed around 30 of the 150 species recorded at Cerro Lodge. Our best birds being Scarlet Macaws, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tityra, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Lesser Ground Cuckoo (h), Violaceous Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. In that some of these birds are signature dry forest species, combining the drier habitats around Cerro Lodge with the rain forests of Carara should result in a quite a large list of species.

This Lineated Woodpecker loved its dead, palm trunk!

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are a common, open country species in Costa Rica.

The Pacific Slope subspecies of the Variable Seedeater.

This is why these used to be known as Black-bellied Tree-Ducks.

Another nice thing about Cerro Lodge is that birders who feel like eating outside of the hotel can do so at a good soda just across the highway from the entrance road. The entrance to Carara National Park is ten minutes further along the highway from this point.

To get to Cerro Lodge, just follow the main road to Carara and Jaco and watch for the large Cerro Lodge sign at the entrance road about 10-15 minutes after Orotina.  From there it is 3 kilometers up a well graded dirt road to the best option for birders and aficionados of tropical tranquility who have Carara National Park on their itineraries. I can’t wait to go back and seriously bird the place at dawn, during the evening, and at night.