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Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Antswarms at Carara National Park on

This past Saturday, I spent most of the morning in the rainforests of Carara National Park. I usually visit this birdy protected area for guiding, but on Saturday, I cruised down the new highway to the hot coastal plain not to help birders see Turquoise-browed Motmots, Great Tinamous, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatchers, and Spot-crowned Euphonias, but to make recordings of their voices and digitally capture them. Well, at least that was the plan. The recordings were fairly productive but good photos were as elusive as sightings of the Selva Cacique.

The cloudy, humid weather in the already dim understory of the rainforest just couldn’t provide enough light for my digiscoping set-up no matter how much I fiddled with the camera. For unknown disappointing reasons, my camera also demonstrated its propensity to focus on sticks instead of birds even when the bird was smack dab in the center of the screen. I realize that the Sony Cybershot wasn’t developed for getting shots of birds, but it surely wasn’t designed to amass a photographic catalogue of twigs either. Oh well, I’m sure there’s a way to take better bird pictures with it, I just need to figure out how to do it.

Since the park doesn’t open until 8 a.m. during the low, rainy season, I started my birding day along the road to Bijagual. This is the same dirt road that passes in front of Villa Lapas and is always productive for birds. Although you don’t see species of the forest interior such as Great Tinamou and Black-faced Antthrush, views of the forest edge and hillsides are good for mixed flocks and raptors. On Saturday morning, I picked a spot that lacked stream noise and recorded such targets as Rufous and white wren1 and Northern Bentbill. Cocoa Woodcreeper and other species called in the distance as did Marbled Wood-Quail (species 527 for the year). There was also enough light for me to adequately capture Scrub Euphonia and Northern Bentbill.

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Scrub Euphonia- these guys are actually related to goldfinches.


Northern Bentbill- Carara is an excellent site for this species.

Once the clock “struck” 8, I headed over to the park entrance, paid my fee, and entered the forest. Shortly after, I realized that I had made a grave error in not bringing along some serious plastic melting DEET as I was assaulted by a healthy population of thirsty mosquitoes. Those little vampires are around during the dry season too but their numbers pale in comparison to what I experienced on Saturday. It’s still not as bad as any wet, summer woodland of the far north but be forewarned that you will need repellent in Carara during the wet season!

To avoid recording cars along with bird sounds, I walked straight back into the forest as far as the figure eight trail would go before setting up my LS10 recorder, Sennheiser microphone, and headphones. I walked through the forest with headphones on and it must have looked a bit strange, but if only those bemused non-birding tourists could hear what I did!  Black-faced Antthrushes were especially vocal, Plain Xenops bickered, Rufous Pihas occasionally called in the distance, and a Black-striped Woodcreeper sang from some canopy tree trunk. Long-tailed Woodcreeper also vocalized once in a while but I wasn’t able to capture its song (unfortunately as there are few recordings of this taxon that almost certainly deserves to be split from Amazonian Long-tailed Woodcreepers because it sounds radically different from them).

The back part of the trail also resulted in a neotropical prize- an army antswarm! I noticed the columns of ants crossing the trail but it wasn’t until I scanned the forest floor in the direction they were heading that I saw some birds. Two Black-faced Antthrushes were running back and forth in the front of the swarm and a handful of Bicolored Antbirds clung to vertical stems as they pumped their tails and quietly “churred” (new word describing the vocalizations that this and other related antbird species give). A pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds and Riverside Wrens were also taking advantage of the easy pickings but other birds such as woodcreepers, tinamous, Gray-headed Tanager, and Spectacled Antpitta were strangely absent.

So it is with antswarms. You will see some birds with the swarm but you often need to wait around and follow the front until other birds show up. Even if you don’t see much at first, it’s always worth it to follow the swarm if you can because in addition to the expected bunch of ant following birds, things like motmots, foliage-gleaners, and even forest-falcons will suddenly pop into view. Of course, you have to be in a position where you can follow the ants though, and on Saturday, as the nomadic predators marched off into thick second growth, I realized that this wasn’t one of those occasions.

Nevertheless, I still managed to get some grainy shots of:

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birding Costa Rica

Black-faced Antthrush,

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Bicolored Antbird,

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and Riverside Wren.

This was undoubtedly the highlight of the day but as usual when birding Carara, I still identified a bunch of other birds. The tally for the morning in the park and along Bijagual road was 94 species and included:

Great Tinamou

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Laughing Falcon

Gray Hawk

Marbled Wood-Quail

Short-billed Pigeon

Gray-chested Dove

White-tipped Dove

Inca Dove

Scarlet Macaw

Brown-hooded Parrot

Orange-chinned Parakeet

Squirrel Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoo

Groove-billed Ani

Long-billed Hermit

Stripe-throated Hermit

Purple-crowned Fairy

White-necked Jacobin

Charming Hummingbird

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Blue-throated Goldentail

Violaceous (Gartered) Trogon

Blue-crowned Motmot

Turquoise-browed Motmot

White-whiskered Puffbird

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Golden-naped Woodpecker

Plain Xenops

Long-tailed Woodcreeper

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

Black-striped Woodcreeper

Black-hooded Antshrike

Barred Antshrike

Slaty Antwren

Dot-winged Antwren

Dusky Antbird

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Bicolored Antbird

Black-faced Anthrush

Greenish Elaenia

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

Northern Bentbill

Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Common Tody-Flyatcher

Yellow-Olive Flycatcher

Golden-crowned Spadebill

Royal Flycatcher

Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Piratic Flycatcher

Tropcial Kingbird

Rufous Piha

White-winged Becard

Rose-throated Becard

Long-tailed Manakin

Lesser Greenlet

Tawny-crowned Greenlet

Gray-breasted Martin

Southern Rough-winged Swallow

Rufous-naped Wren

Riverside Wren

Rufous and white Wren

Rufous-breasted Wren

Scaly-breasted Wren

Long-billed Gnatwren

Tropical Gnatcatcher

Clay-colored Robin

Rufous-capped Warbler

Tropical Parula

Blue-gray Tanager

White-shouldered Tanager

Bay-headed Tanager

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager

Green Honeycreeper

Variable Seedeater

White-collared Seedeater

Blue-black Grassquit

Blue-Black Grosbeak

Orange-billed Sparrow

Buff-throated Saltator

Bronzed Cowbird

Montezuma Oropendola

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Scrub Euphonia

Yellow-crowned Euphonia

Spot-crowned Euphonia

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Carara is Hot and Dry in April but the birding is still good

I guided some folks for a couple of days at Carara 2 weeks ago. As always, the birding was good; a walk in the forest near the HQ in the morning and a mangrove boat ride in the afternoon yielded 128 species. It sure was hot though; hot and dry! This is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica; the end of “summer’ for the locals. Although it hasn’t rained yet, it’s getting cloudier by the day and when those clouds burst, it’s gonna to be a daily rainfest. Shortly after the rains begin anew, Carara will green up again (and get flooded in parts). On April 10th, though, the leaves crackled under foot and the sun beat down mercilessly. At least it was cooler inside the forest.

I started the day at the bridge over the Tarcol River. Even at dawn, a few people were moving single file down the narrow sidewalk to get looks at the crocodiles. Later in the day, there is a constant crowd of people walking out to see those aquatic monsters. With the guardrails missing in places, it’s amazing that some unlucky drunk fellow hasn’t fallen over to be horrifically devoured. The crocs are certainly large enough to do it!

Scanning for birds, I saw several heron species, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt and a few groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. This is par for the course at the bridge. That particular dawn, I also saw 100s of Baltimore Orioles flying from their roosts towards the forests of Carara, along with many Barn Swallows and common open country stuff like Melodious Blackbird, Kiskadees, White-winged Doves, etc.

Melodious Blackbird has firmly established itself in Costa Rica.

Since taxis and buses were absent on Good Friday, I walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to the entrance. It was a nice morning walk actually with lots of bird activity along the way including Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendola; uncommon species for Carara.

The parking lot at HQ is a great place to see common species such as Rose-throated Becard. This is a female; in my opinion better looking than the male in Costa Rica. Although in Mexico, the bird truly has a rose-colored throat, here in Costa Rica, the male is all dark. In the same tree, I had Violaceous Trogon, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Yellow-throated Euphonia while a Northern Waterthrush was yearning for water at the edge of the parking lot.

Philadelphia Vireo- one of the most common wintering birds around Carara.

We entered the Universal Trail (named as such because it is handicap accessible) and slowly made our way through the drier secondary growth. We saw lots more Becards, Common Tody, Streaked and Piratic Flycatchers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Trogon and other common species. We also had great studies of Greenish Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatchers- both common birds of Carara.

Just as we reached the primary forest, we had good looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons as a Jacamar called in the distance. Our walk through the primary forest was quite productive, especially for flycatchers. Overall it was a great day for flycatchers with 25 species by dusk! In various mixed flocks typical for Carara, we had Cocoa and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike (just one shy bird), Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1 Tropical Parula, gorgeous Bay-headed Tanagers and White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers.

An amazing sight; a Lesser Greenlet staying still!!

Outside of mixed flocks we did alright too with Purple-crowned Fairy, Steely-vented Hummingbird, excellent looks at feeding Brown-hooded Parrots, Baird’s Trogon (had to work for that one), a few White-whiskered Puffbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbird, both Spadebill species, Royal Flycatcher building a nest, lots of Northern Bentbills, and excellent looks at Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Northern Bentbill

male Spot-crowned Euphonia

Manakins seemed to be absent and I’m not sure where the Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Antpitta were hiding but it was a good four hours of birding nonetheless. We lunched at the closest, nicest place; Villa Lapas.

Villa Lapas is pricey but has good accommodations, service and restaurant. The grounds are also pretty birdy and they have a bridge/canopy walkway.

During lunch, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron worked the stream,

and a pair of Green Kingfishers entertained.

After lunch and a short rest, we were off to the mangrove birding tour. As in some other tourist frequented sites, around Carara, the taxis were charging a mint to get around; $10 for the short drive between Villa Lapas and the Carara HQ and $50 round trip to the mangrove birding tour. The regular price for a taxi in Costa Rica for the same distances should be at the most $4 and $24 respectively. Yet another reason to rent a car.

Anyways, at the boat dock we started seeing new birds straightaway; Amazon Kingfisher perched on the dock, our first of many Common Black Hawks, Anhinga and various herons. As the boat departed, a Zone-tailed Hawk swiftly soared across the river mouth and Black-necked Stilts became visible. During the boat trip, the pair of Mangrove Swallows that nest in a box in the boat accompanied us. Despite the high tide (not ideal for birding), we identified 77 species.

After checking the river mouth, we went up a channel through tall mangroves. As with any mangrove boat trip I have done, the mangroves are tall and it’s a cool habitat but the birds are pretty scarce. We saw a few herons and got nice looks at Ringed Kingfisher then picked up Common Ground Dove (which was interesting because there wasn’t any dry ground) and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Peppershrike was a nice surprise. This widespread neotropical species is rather uncommon in Costa Rica and mostly found in underbirded areas such as the Central Valley and mangroves. After the Peppershrike excitement, we investigated a smaller mangrove channel and stopped to play tape of various species. Although we didn’t get any responses from the Wood-rail or Woodcreepers, we got nice looks at Panama Flycatcher and Common Black Hawks and one of our group almost certainly saw Mangrove Hummingbird.

Back out in the main channel, we taped in one of the common mangrove specialties; Mangrove Vireo then headed upriver. With the sun to our backs, we had beautiful looks at any birds that flew in front of us. One of the best was a quick flyby of Crane Hawk, its redddish legs standing out in the sun. We also had many Red-billed Pigeons and started to get parrot flybys as the afternoon progressed. We had a few macaws although Red-lored and Mealy Parrots were the most frequent parrot species. A green field was filled with Barn, Southern Rough-winged and a few Cliff Swallows while Costa-rican Swifts fed low over the water. One of our best birds was Double-striped Thick-knee; a pair lounging in a sparsely vegetated rocky area with half buried tires and other pieces of trash. This noctural shorebird of dry fields occurs in the extensive pastures visible from the bridge but is tough to see away from the boat tour.

Somewhere out there is a Double-striped Thick-knee, a bird that by name and appearance belongs in a Roald Dahl story.

Whimbrels were common. We also saw loads of Spotted Sandpipers, several Willets and Ruddy Turnstones.

We ended the tour with a beautiful sunset, Lesser Nighthawks feeding near the river mouth and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls calling near the dock for yet another great day of birding around Carara National Park.