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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Testing a new camera

Some readers may have noticed a general paucity and possible recycling of bird photos on this blog. The reason that posts may have been a bit more wordy than “imagey” for the past two months is because my other digiscoping cameras weren’t cooperating very much for bird photos. Well, most birds didn’t either but although my old Nikon Coolpix was trying its best, its  four megapixels just weren’t giving me the type of resolution I wanted. My formerly trusty Sony Cybershot would probably still be dishing out beautiful images just as it did during its glory days but ever since I subjected it to digital camera surgery, it sucks up battery juice faster than a vampire robot. I kid you not. The little AA battery image is bright with energy when you turn it on and then just five minutes later is anxiously blinking on and off to warn you that the camera is going to shut down for lack of power.

Taking pictures with it had not only become nearly impossible but the endeavor was also as frustrating as bites from a ravenous band of chiggers so I made the decision to buy a new camera. Since my camera requirements are not what those hand-held image gathering devices were engineered for, it took some research and gambling to get the right one. I don’t have the bucks for any serious digital SLRs so I opt for point and shoots that will work with my scope.

This basically means that in addition to taking beautiful pictures, the camera in question has to have a bunch of pixels so that when I crop it to rid the image of vignetting and make the bird look bigger, there were still be enough resolution to show some sweet details. My other main requirement is a camera that will work well in the low light conditions so prevalent in Costa Rica. This second requirement is especially difficult to meet with point and shoots but a very few models at least make attempts at generating low-grain images. By “low grain” I mean pictures that don’t resemble some pointillist revival movement. No, I don’t want to be artsy, I just want detailed shots of birds that will make me say, “Ahhh, now that’ s what I’m talking about”!

Oh, I should also add that my digiscoping kit is about as survivalist as you can get. Instead of some precision machined adapter that neatly attaches to my scope, I use a small tube that was cut out of a plastic bottle with an average pair of scissors. It fits onto the viewing part of the scope and keeps the camera at just the right distance to coordinate picture taking between lenses of both camera and scope. It’s tricky to use and when the lenses refuse to cooperate or have problems with communication, shots can look pretty weird and worthy of sending to some ghosthunting outfit but with practice it works surprisingly well.

With these requirements in mind and the knowledge that reviewer’s raves about face recognition and taking action shots of sand castle contests on the beach were going to mean nothing to me, there still seemed to be enough of the stuff that I needed to take a chance on buying the “Sony Cybershot G”. Like a small metal book, its compact, solid nature makes you feel as if you have acquired a piece of alien technology or at least have a tough little camera durable enough for taking pictures in rough and tumble situations like construction sites, rainforest hikes, and high school lunch lines. In reality, like any piece of digital equipment, its tough exterior and demeanor belies a delicate interior that doesn’t take well to shaking as well as a serious, justifiable phobia of water.

So, although it feels durable, I am going to treat it like a delicate salt sculpture and keep it shock proof and dry at all costs. This will be a challenge in humid Costa Rica but nothing that a small camera bag and silica gel packs can’t handle.

As for pictures, it hasn’t been one hundred percent stunning but considering that I am still learning how to best use it with my crude, home made digiscoping device, I am pleased with the results. So without further ado,  here are a few pictures taken with my new camera at dry forest sites on my way to guiding in the Monteverde area this past weekend:

Here is a Turquoise-browed Motmot taken with the image stabilization setting for low light conditions. It’s still a bit grainy but this wouldn’t have even been possible with my other cameras.

costa rica birding

and here is the same motmot in slightly better lighting.

costa rica birding

I wish I would have gotten more shots of Nutting’s Flycatcher or at least images of one that was perching on something more natural than a telephone wire but I was happy with this shot.

costa rica birding

Here is a female Blue-black Grosbeak doing a bad job of hiding behind some twigs.

costa rica birding

Of course birds perched in good lighting conditions like this Laughing Falcon tend to come out nice no matter what the camera is.

costa rica birding

This Orange-fronted Parakeet was so compliant that it almost went to sleep as I took its picture.

costa rica birding

Languid Howler Monkeys are wonderful to photograph. This one was in a group of Howlers along the gravelly road between the highway and Guacimal. It was great for dry forest birding as most traffic on its way up to Monteverde wisely takes the more paved route through Sardinal.

costa rica birding

American Pygmy Kingfisher was a great find. I heard it ticking away from the vicinity of a small, shady stream.

costa rica birding

It was nice to finally get decent shots of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, the migrant Empid most commonly seen in Costa Rica.

costa rica birding

Finding a cooperative White-fronted Parrot lit up by afternoon sun was also a boon.

costa rica birding

In a few days I will be off to the Osa Peninsula for the Bosque del Rio Tigre CBC! Whether I get in more camera testing fun or not, I will post about the experience.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica identification issues preparing for your trip

Tips on parrot identification when birding Costa Rica

I never tire of watching wild parrots. Since I don’t exactly get tired of observing any birds, perhaps what I really mean to say is that an inescapable twinge of excitement accompanies every screech and sighting that can be attributed to any of Costa Ricas 17 Psittacid species.

Whether it’s the daily flyovers of Crimson-fronted Parakeets that screech from the skies above my house in the Central Valley, Scarlet Macaws that grumble from the canopy of the tall forests in Carara, or elusive Barred Parakeets that remind me of crossbills as they chirp and zip over the ridges of the high Talamancas, there’s always something special about seeing a wild Psittacid. I think “wild” might be the key word here because the parrots or macaws we saw in Niagara Falls, New York were either in the pet store or featured in television commercials. They just couldn’t be real, wild birds no matter what those bird books said because that would be just too cool to be fact. Therefore, every time I see a parrot, parakeet, or macaw in Costa Rica, I feel a flurry of excitement and recurring revelation that vanquishes my childhood doubts about the existence of such amazing birds.

Parrots in Costa Rica are as essential to the local landscape as Cecropia trees, Blue-gray Tanagers, and volcanoes and thank goodness because they add a bit of excitement to each day lived in this snow-free, tropical country. Not all are easy to see and there are identification challenges but I hope that the following information will give you a fair idea about what to expect as far as Psittacids go when birding Costa Rica:

Macaws, genus Ara– two species, easy to identify.

Scarlet Macaw: Bold, brilliant, and loud, its pretty hard to miss this species. In Costa Rica, they used to range the length of both slopes but habitat destruction and persecution have nearly eliminated them from the Caribbean slope and reduced them on the Pacific slope to two, well-known populations, one at Carara and a larger number of birds on the Osa Peninsula. There is also a small population around the dry forests of Palo Verde and Curu, and they have been making a slow comeback on the Caribbean slope.

birding Costa Rica

Scarlet Macaws are always spectacular.

Great Green Macaw: This flagship species of Costa Rican conservation is kind of like the “sea turtle of the rain forest” in terms of its status and buzz about its plight. Like sea turtles, this bird is in serious trouble and needs as much help as it can to avoid going extinct in Costa Rica. The main threat to its future existence in Costa Rica is destruction of lowland rainforests and cutting of a tree that it very much depends upon, Dipteryx panamensis or “Almendro”.  Like Scarlet and Red and Green Macaws in southeastern Peru, the Great Green relies upen big, old growth Dipteryx species trees for nesting and as a food source. Unlike, macaws in Peru, however, Great Green Macaws in Costa Rica have not used nest boxes with very much success. This awesome bird can still be seen in the Sarapiqui area and is more common in Tortuguero and near the Nicaraguan border but I doubt that I will see it again at Quebrada Gonzalez (I used to see flocks there during the wet season).

Amazona genus parrots- four species, watch for their distinctive, shallow wing beats and learn the calls!

Mealy Parrot: This large parrot is commonly seen in forested sites of the humid lowlands (although I get the impression that its numbers have decreased since I first came to Costa Rica). When perched, they are easy enough to identify but hard to see as they quietly forage in the canopy. Like most parrots, you are more likely to see them in flight. They are easily confused with Red-lored Parrots throughout their range and with Yellow-naped Parrots on the Pacific slope in the Carara area. Watch for the green front and pay attention to their harsh calls.

birding Costa Rica

A Mealy Parrot attempting to hide behind a branch.

Red-lored Parrot: Another good sized parrot, this edge species is pretty common in the lowlands and is the only Amazona species parrot in Costa Rica with a red front. Its calls can sound similar to those of the Mealy Parrot but have a more ringing quality to them, like “clink clink” rather than the harsh squawking of the Mealy.

Yellow-naped Parrot: About the same size as the Red-lored, trapping and habitat destruction have reduced its population although it is still regularly seen in a number of areas including Cerro Lodge, Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, and Palo Verde. As the yellow nape can be hard to see in flight, pay attention to its distinctive calls that have a human-like or “laughing” quality to them.

White-fronted Parrot: The smallest of the Amazona genus parrots in Costa Rica, is still flies with shallow wing beats but is more frequently seen in flocks than the other Amazona species and is fairly common in dry forest. Its yellow bill, white front, and red patch on the forewing also separate it from Mealy, Red-lored, and Yellow-naped Parrots. Listen for its more rapid, staccato-like vocalizations.

birding Costa Rica

A not so great shot of a psycho-looking White-fronted Parrot.

Pionus genus parrots- two species, watch for their distinctive, deep wingbeats.

White-crowned Parrot: This edge species is one of the more common parrot species in Costa Rica and can be seen from the lowlands to middle elevations (including green spaces in the Central Valley). The white crown and bill can often be seen in flight. Also listen for their screeching, “trebled” call.

birding Costa Rica

A White-crowned Parrot hanging out in the canopy at El Gavilan lodge, Sarapiqui region.

Blue-headed Parrot: An edge species that replaces the White-crowned further south, the Blue-headed Parrot is mostly seen in the Golfo Dulce and southeastern lowlands of Costa Rica although it can show up at least as far north as Sarapiqui. They fly with the same deep wingbeats as the White-crowned but have a darker head and bill and more abrupt vocalizations.

Pionopsitta genus parrots- one species, “a parrot that sounds like a parakeet” and has wingbeats in between those of an Amazona and Pionus.

Brown-hooded Parrot: A bird of rainforests, this species is most common in heavily forested, humid zones although it is also sometimes seen in flight over the central valley or other deforested areas (how I got it on my yard list). Watch for the red on the underwings, look for the brownish head, and listen for the rather musical, parakeet-like calls. That’s probably a bad description of their vocalizations, but is what comes to mind!

Pyrrhura genus- one species, a long-tailed parakeet of the Talamancas.

Sulphur-winged Parakeet: Like most members of this primarily South American genus, it has a small range and is the only parrot species restricted to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama. It’s pretty common in the cloud forests of the Talamancas and is usually located by its high-pitched, reedy calls. It is the only long-tailed parakeet likely to be seen in its range although sometimes can overlap with Crimson-fronted Parakeets when they move to lower elevations.

birding Costa Rica

Sulphur-winged Parakeet from the Dota Valley.

Aratinga genus- four species, rather common, long-tailed parakeets.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet: One of the most common and easily seen Psittacids in Costa Rica, it has fortunately become adapted to nesting on buildings in the central valley. Long-tailed parakeets seen in the central valley are almost always this species. Watch for the red front and red underwings.

birding Costa Rica

Crimson-fronted Parakeets- I see this species on a daily basis.

Olive-throated Parakeet: A bird of the northern Caribbean lowlands, it needs more forested habitats than the Crimson-fronted. Plain-looking, long tailed parakeets seen in the Caribbean lowlands are this species. They lack red in the plumage and have wings with darker, contrasting flight feathers than the Crimson-fronted.

Orange-fronted Parakeet: This is the common, long-tailed parakeet species of dry forest. They overlap with the Crimson-fronted in the Carara area but can be told by their orange fronts and duller green plumage.

birding Costa Rica

Orange-fronted Parakeet from Tambor, Costa Rica.

Brown-throated Parakeet: A recent invader from Panama, watch for it in southwestern Costa Rica from the Panamanian border west to Piedras Blancas National Park. It overlaps with the more common Crimson-fronted Parakeet but lacks the red front and has an orangey-brown throat.

Brotogeris genus- one species, common, short-tailed parakeet of deforested lowlands.

Orange-chinned Parakeet: This common species vies with the Crimson-fronted for holding the title of the most frequently encountered Psittacid in Costa Rica. Any small parakeet with a short pointed tails seen in the lowlands is this species (it also occurs in the Central Valley).

birding Costa Rica

Orange-chinned Parakeet, a species hard to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Bolborhynchus genus- one species, an uncommon highland parakeet.

Barred Parakeet: If you are birding above 2,000 meters in the Central or Talamancan Cordilleras and see small, plain, short-tailed parakeets that remind you of crossbills or other “winter finches”, you have probably seen Barred Parakeets. They could overlap with Red-fronted Parrotlets at certain times of the year but those will show red and yellow in their plumage.

Touit genus- one species, a rare, little known bird of middle elevations.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: If you see this one when birding Costa Rica, you will have hit the Psittacid jackpot. Not much is known about this species, it is seen very infrequently, and yours truly still needs a better look before counting it as a lifer! It mostly occurs in middle elevation forests and appears to make elevational movements in search of fruiting or seeding trees. Who knows, maybe it was more common in the past before so much of the Central Valley was deforested. I wonder about this because friends of mine saw a small flock for a few days in June in their urban backyard near Heredia! The birds were probably moving around in search of fruiting trees after breeding somewhere up in the Central Cordillera. They have also been recorded high up in the Talamancas as well as in lowland areas. If you see a small, short-tailed parakeet with red and yellow in the wings and lots of red on the head, then you may have gotten the coveted Red-fronted Parrotlet. On a side note, if you do see this species, take as many notes about its behavior, location, etc. as you can so we can get a better handle on its natural history.

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Birding Costa Rica

Birding Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica

Lodging near Carara has always been limited, appropriate accommodation for most birders particularly so. Birding tours to Costa Rica and independent birders birding in Costa Rica have often stayed at Villa Lapas or Punta Leona; two fairly expensive choices for lodging with good birding on the grounds. The Hotel Carara in the heart of seaside Tarcoles is moderately priced (and is close to good birding), but you can’t see a great deal of birds at the hotel itself. A moderately-priced hotel near Carara National Park that also had good birding on its grounds was non-existent until Cerro Lodge opened a few years ago. The combination of lower pricing (around $70 for a double) and strategic, dry forest location near the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles (the one with all the people checking out the crocodiles) have been making it a top choice for lodging among birders and tour companies who visit Carara National Park in Costa Rica.

On recent guiding trips to Cerro Lodge, several birders on guided tours were enjoying the morning birding from the restaurant that overlooks a ravine and distant mangroves. Although there is a rough trail that accesses interesting forest  near the lodge (I would love to survey it), most people opt for birding around the cabins and restaurant, and along the main road in front of the lodge.

Because of the view from the restaurant, this is a great place to watch a number of birds in flight. Dawn started with flybys of several Tropical Kingbirds likely coming from their roosts in the mangroves. Other, more exciting birds that spend the night in the mangroves also flew overhead and in front of us while we drank our morning coffee and filled up on gallo pinto, eggs, and tropical fruit. Some of these were:

Red-billed Pigeon,

Scarlet Macaw,

and parrots such as Red-lored, White-crowned, White-fronted, and

Yellow-naped,

and parakeets such as Orange-chinned, Crimson-fronted, and

Orange-fronted.

Waterbirds such as Muscovy Ducks, Anhingas, White Ibis, and various egrets also flew over as they traveled between wetlands, while a few Montezuma Oropendolas also did flybys.

Several raptors were also be seen flying over the cabins or seen in the distance. The most commonly seen are Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras, Grey, Broad-winged, and Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, and

Crane Hawk- seen almost daily at the lodge or along the entrance road.

The vicinity of Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica is also pretty birdy and is often frequented by edge and dry forest species such as White-tipped Dove, Cinnamon, Rufous-tailed, Steely-vented, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Violaceous Trogon, Groove-billed Ani, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Rose-throated Becard, Rufous-naped Wren, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Stripe-headed Sparrow,

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl,

and Turquoise-browed Motmot.

The road in front of Cerro Lodge hosts these species and much more including

Black-headed Trogon,

Rufous-capped Warbler,

Greenish Elaenia,

Barred Antshrike, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

The section of the road from the lodge to the where it dead ends in the river flood plain requires four-wheel drive and probably harbors a number of good species and should be checked for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Pearl Kite, rails, White-tailed Nightjar, and other owl species. Speaking of owls, the section toward the highway has Striped Owl while Black and White and Pacific Screech occur right around the cabins.

And saving the best for last, birding guide Jason Horn told me about a male Yellow-billed Cotinga that is often seen from the restaurant in the morning. The only problem is that it perches so far away, you may not even pick it up with binoculars. Scoping the distant mangroves though, might result in sighting this endangered species (expect a snow-white speck in the distance).

If interested in being guided at Cerro Lodge as well as lodging there, contact me (Pat O’Donnell) at information@birdingcraft.com

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction mangroves

Birding Tambor Beach(not Barcelo) and the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry

During our recent first family trip to Tambor (see previous post for all logistics) I also got in a good amount of birding. To be accurate, it was “digiscoping”, not birding. Although the two endeavors are similar, they are not the same.

When “birding”, I concentrate on looking for, identifying and studying all birds in a given area.

When “digiscoping”, I also concentrate on looking for and identifying birds, but focus on certain species and lighting situations likely to result in better photos.

On this trip, I decided to focus entirely on digiscoping, even leaving my binos at home. Although the binos would have been far better for the ferry (where digiscoping was impossible but the birding good), I still did OK looking for birds with my scope.

On the 5 AM ferry to Paquera, we saw very few birds as it was too early. Even at the Guayaba island sea stack, there were few birds flying around while in the day they are quite active with Mag. Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies for the most part. It’s probably worth scoping this sea stack for rarities.

The ferry on the way back was when I missed my binos! Birds were fairly active under overcast skies that eventually spat down rain halfway through the trip. A scattering of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were present as we left the Paquera dock. The further out we went, I started seeing more and more Black Terns. Groups of  6 or so flew by the boat again and again until they turned into feeding flocks of dozens and dozens. It was at this point when I began to see a few other species too. A few Common terns were with them while an occasional Brown Booby flapped by. I managed to scope a Sooty Shearwater sharing a  driftwood perch with a smaller Black Tern. My best bird was my only lifer of the trip and one I had hoped for; While scoping through the flocks of Black Terns, I got onto an all dark bird flying low over the water. I immediately knew that I had a Storm Petrel! The two most likely species in the Nicoya gulf are Black and Least. Although I couldn’t see the shape of the tail, this bird was smaller than the nearby Black Terns and flew with quick, snappy wing beats. Since Black SP is about about the same size as the Terns, I got my lifer LEAST STORM PETREL! -On a side note, lifers will from now on be given capital letter status.

A brief 5 second look of a small, all dark bird zipping by and no one on that ferry had any idea of what I had just personally accomplished- lifer number 2527 caught on the fly because I kept scoping the waves despite spitting rain and pitching boat. The bird had accomplished quite a feat too; migrating from a cluster of rocks off of southern California to Costa Rica, avoiding 1000s of voracious Gulls, Jaegers and who knows what else along the way. The Skutch and Stiles guide says that Least Storm Petrel is common in the Nicoya gulf. Well, maybe they are further out, but that is the only one I have ever seen after several ferry crossings.

At Tambor itself, (the village, not the big Barcelo resort), we stayed at Cabinas Bosque. Birding around the Cabinas was fair with good looks at Green-breasted Mangos. The Nicoya Peninsula is probably the best area for this species in CR. Most were staying high up, hawking for insects. Luckily, my wife spotted this juvenile which favored a low perch.

immature Green-breasted Mango

A Common Black Hawk hung out in the backyard.

As did the most common Woodpecker in CR; Hoffman’s. Yes, looks and sounds a lot like a Golden-fronted.

Spishing often brings in wintering Warblers. Northern Waterthrush is very common in wet lowland thickets and mangroves. Prothonotary Warblers are also very common in mangroves but I only got shots of this Waterthrush.

A good birding road and path is at the first right after the Cabinas Bosque, heading towards Paquera.  Staying straight on the road will take you to a path that leads through mangroves and to the beach. I spent most of my time along this road with good results.

Beautiful Orange-fronted Parakeets were pretty common.

So were White-fronted Parrots like the one below although I couldn’t get a shot of one in good light. I also had Orange-chinned Parakeets, Red-lored Parrots and even heard Scarlet Macaw near the mangroves!

Dove diversity was especially high with 7 species recorded. Here is a pair of Common Ground Doves.

This was a good area to see common, second growth species such as Barred Antshrike.

Rufous-naped Wren,

White-tipped Dove quick stepping it across a road,

And witch-like Groove-billed Anis showing off.

Near the mangroves, I was surprised to get excellent looks at Mangrove Cuckoo!

and Northern Scrub Flycatcher- note the stubby bill.

Got nice looks at Green Kingfisher too.

At the lagoon near the beach, there were a few Herons such as this Little Blue.

Always nice to see Whimbrel; a common wintering shorebird in CR.

Other species recorded around Tambor were: Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Black and Turkey Vultures, Crested Caracara, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged, Ruddy-ground and Mourning Doves, Pauraque, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-headed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Fly., Common Tody Fly., Wood Peewee sp., Scissor-tailed Fly., Great-crested and Dusky-capped Flys., Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flys., Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Barn Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Banded and House Wrens, Clay-colored Robin (not so common here!), Tenn., Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-grey, Palm and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Euphonia.