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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Looking for Year Birds on the Pacific Slope

It being September and still hoping to reach 700 species, we are getting into crunch time for a birding year. Yeah, we still have a few months to go before the cavalcade of fireworks announce the end of 2019 but now is when Cerulean Warblers move through the country. Now is when we have a chance at Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and some other choice species making their way to wintering grounds further south.

Mississippi Kite is one of those birds moving through Costa Rica right now.

With those avian options in mind and a day or two to work with in Costa Rica, it’s hard to pick where to go. The cloud forests at Tapanti and other sites hide several uncommon and rare species , most of which would be new for the year. There might be interesting migrants down there near sea level on the other side of the mountains, especially on the Caribbean. Then there are the shorebird sites on the Pacific. Throw in a chance at Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl and other high elevation birds on Irazu and the best spot for a bit of year birding in Costa Rica become less than obvious.

Scenery on Irazu.

Taking various factors into account, not the least of which was seeing how we could blend birding with some pool action for a non-birding 9 year old, we settled on the Pacific Coast. The warm lowlands are literally just down the “hill”, are relatively close and easier to do than say the cold mountains, and we could stay somewhere with a pool. Not to mention, sites like Punta Morales, Chomes, and other places on the Gulf of Nicoya always offer chances at the rare and unusual in addition to expected species.

We ended up staying at the Brisas del Mar Cabinas in Punta Morales. A small family run hotel with rooms that had air-conditioning, cable TV, and a fridge, although they didn’t have hot water, there was a nice little pool outside and shorebird-rich salt pans a brief jaunt down the road. The birds at the hotel were pretty standard dry forest species, our best being Spot-breasted Oriole singing from a tall tree in the garden. Just outside the hotel, a birder also finds a bird-rich blend of open fields, woodlands, and wetlands ripe for exploration.

With limited time, our exploration was likewise limited so we focused most of our birding time at the salt pans. After an early morning of occasional Dickcissel flocks flying high over the hotel, the afore-mentioned Spot-breasted Oriole, and a fantastic, rare Cave Swallow moving with Bank, Barn, and Cliff Swallows, we drove to our meeting with the wading birds from the Arctic.

As usual for Cocorocas at Punta Morales during high tide, the salt pans were dotted with at least a few hundred shorebirds, many of them calling and chattering from the shallow mud. Knowing that the birds can get up and leave at any moment, we got to scoping and scanning straight away. The most abundant species were Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Plover, and Willet with lesser yet still impressive numbers of Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Phalarope, Least Sandpiper, and a few others.

Among those others were several chunky-cool Surfbirds, a few choice year Red Knots, one lone long overdue year Collared Plover, a single lesser Yellowlegs, and some terns. The long-winged swallows of the sea were mostly Royal and Sandwich (Cabot’s) Terns along with one Gull-billed and our third year bird for the site, a single Caspian Tern. It was sweet to take in the deep red bill of that the big Caspian, finally marking that gullish tern down for the year.

We didn’t luck out with finding an American Golden Plover or other not so common shorebirds, nor did we find fortune with Mangrove Cuckoo or Mangrove Rail or the wood-rail but the birding was still satisfying (if mosquitoey). Nor did we find any of the few Upland Sandpipers that were moving through the country but just the day before a few had been seen at a site that we could fit in on the drive back so we still had a chance, and a good one. So, we did just that, exiting the busy highway to take the much quieter road from Ceiba to Orotina.

This is a really cool road because it passes through some interesting wide open wet pastures that tend to attract interesting birds. The only shame was not being able to take a lot more time to check out the area. Our birding was thus essentially a quick drive-by experience with occasional brief stops to scan the grass, and during light rain. Despite giving it a good try, no Uplands were to be had by us that day, nor any Buff-breasteds for that matter. As consolation, at least we know that other local birders who checked the site shortly after we did likewise dipped on the grasspipers.

However, we didn’t leave empty-handed. One female Purple Martin made an appearance to up the year list, and driving that road was a good reminder to dedicate more birding time on another day, preferably for a few hours in the morning. Grasshopper Sparrows have been seen there and I bet other surprises await on the Ceiba Road.

I’m not sure if we will get in any birding next weekend, but if so, no matter where we go, I know the birding will be satisfying. It always is in mega birdy Costa Rica.

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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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Costa Rica Beaches Costa Rica living Costa Rica trips public transportation Introduction

Trip to Tambor (not the Barcelo) by public transportation

“Tambor” means drum. Here in Costa Rica, it  also the name of a very tranquil, family friendly beach. At least that’s what the internet searches say. What they don’t tell you is that it’s almost too quiet. My wife, daughter and I recently made Tambor our first family destination and although we relished the tranquility, we also found ourselves hoping for a bit more. Although the information I found on the net was accurate in some ways, the personal perspective of someone who had traveled there was absent like humor at a funeral. In this post I will paint a detailed picture of a trip to Tambor by public transportation, my words revealing the bright spots and dim corners of the beach of the drum.

We left in the evening, taking a cab through almost 6 P.M. San Jose to the Puntarenas bus station. The streets were congested as always at this hour; not only with vehicles but pedestrians as well- well dressed office workers with their access badges tucked into their shirt pockets, workers sans dress codes always carrying day-packs, a few over-thin drug addicts here and there itching for mental relief, mothers with children, people laughing, talking and wishing they were already home and always the rumble of trucks, a blaring of horns and occasional sonic assaults from radios. Driving through this, you have to keep the doors locked and keep bags away from windows- some people will smash a window to snatch a bag. I feel like a bodyguard whenever we drive through the city- concentrating on my surroundings, ready to react, even more so with my daughter present.

I especially feel that way at the Puntarenas bus station. Located in southern San Jose, it’s not the type of area for night-strolling. Heck, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable during the day. Upon arrival at the station, panhandlers are there to open your door and ask for money. This time I told one grimy fellow that I was going to open the door before he could do it. He backed off right away and ended up being so respectful that I gave him something anyways. Inside the bus station, at least there is an armed guard and things are pretty darn orderly by Latin American standards. Upon purchase of a ticket, you are given a plastic boarding pass then “sit” in line. Yes, you sit in line; not on the floor but in chairs lined up in three rows. Once there you can watch TV or your fellow passengers until boarding (every 40 minutes from 6 until 9 at night for Puntarenas). We ended up heading out into the tropical night on the 6:40 PM bus, trusting our driver to navigate the twists and turns of mountain roads on our way down to the old port city of Puntarenas.

Miranda was good all the way down to the hot lowlands. Good means she didn’t scream for an extended period of time and of course she didn’t because we gave her food when hungry and held her the whole time. A lot of people tell us to not pick her up too much or she will want that all the time, that we will spoil her. I think they are absolutely wrong. I tend to base my perceptions within an evolutionary framework; especially when it comes to basic survival instincts. Regarding baby-carrying, I ask myself what it might have been like for our ancestors in good old dangerous Africa. Did folks casually stroll the savannah with their babies in plastic carriages? What happened to babies that were put down somewhere and didn’t cry? Answers to those are an obvious, “No” and the understatement, “nothing good”. Babies were carried around at all times for the sake of survival. In short, since we evolved to be carried around as babies (and this behavior appears to predate the Homo sapiens species) then it’s probably a darn good idea to continue with this behavior.

After around 2 and a half hours, we arrived in Puntarenas. Puntarenas is located along a promontary that juts into the Pacific. Because of the narrow, stretched out nature of this place, when you think you have arrived, you still have 10 minutes to go before the bus stops. This turned out to be a boon for us because we got the chance to talk with some friendly Canadian surfers who had useful info. about hotels and ferry times. They let us walk with them to the “Hotel Cabezas”. Three blocks north and one east of the terminal, they charged $25 for clean, basic rooms and were very friendly (so much so I had to say it twice). After a short but pleasant night, we cabbed it pre-dawn to the first ferry of the day. Dozens of people were hanging out at the Musmanni bakery where ferry tickets were sold. Most of these people ended up waiting for the following departure because the first one had already filled up with vehicles. After buying $2 tickets, we walked aboard and chugged out into the Gulf of Nicoya at 5 AM sharp.

I was concerned about windy weather making for a rough trip, but thankfully those fears were unfounded. There were very few waves despite a constant breeze strong enough to keep the flags taut and make us wear jackets. Miranda slept on while some 20 year olds drank beer and attempted to sing and “yee-haw” Mexican songs that people always sing when they are drunk (except my father-in-law; he karaokes those ditties sober as a baby). The 20 year olds weren’t about to win American Idol but I’m glad they were having a good time. Sometimes it’s great to see people enjoying life even if they are rending the air and assaulting the ears in the process. We also met a professional clown named, “Jesus”. I know that sounds like dreams after too much guacamole but it is the plain and simple truth. He wasn’t in costume, in fact I took him to be a surfer until we conversed. He was doing a clown gig for the weekend in Montezuma. And he was sad. No, not one of those “sad clowns”; he was real-life sad. My wife even saw him cry; crying because Miranda reminded him of his estranged 3 year old daughter. Poor guy, we could tell that he truly loved kids. Luckily he didn’t jump overboard into the Gulf of Nicoya on the way over; we are sure of that because we saw him walking away from the ferry with colored hoops and other clown-like accessories.

The sad clown from behind.

Nice scenery

Miranda sleeping away the ferry ride.

The Puntarenas ferry drops you off near Paquera. As soon as you arrive, you know you have escaped the city. Its not just for the absence of traffic and buildings nor the surrounding hills covered in green jungle. It’s also the guy on a horse clopping by, the vendors who don’t even bother in attempting to sell you dried plantain chips, the hot, lazy air. We didn’t have to laze around the port though because a bus met our ferry (does it meet each one?- I think so).  We hopped on with surfers, backpackers and locals and rumbled inland towards Tambor.

Tambor was about 1 hour drive through pastures and patches of forest. First we passed by the other Tambor that everyone talks about; the more well known Tambor-the Barcelo Tambor. This major resort is replete with golf course and a giant chess board (according to my father-in-law). It’s also beyond our budget and even worse, they make you wear a bracelet during your stay. If I ever by chance stay there I am going to hide my bracelet to see what happens; maybe you will read about me kung-fu fighting with the security. After the bracelet Barcelo and nearby airfield (yes you can fly there if you don’t want to meet any clowns or drunken people on the ferry) we were dropped off in Tambor center. This doesn’t sound as obvious as it might read; just a cluster of houses along the highway and a road off to the left going by a church. Yep, that’s Tambor, that’s just about everything as far as the town goes. This is one of these places where you really have to watch for a sign (which they luckily have). Hopping off the bus into the hot tropical sun, we walked over to the Cabinas Christina. We had read a lot about this place; nice cheap rooms, good restaurant, etc. We sat down and had much needed coffees (now addicted, what do you want- I live in Costa Rica) and then had a strange time finding out about room rates and availability. The lady in charge was vague about whether or not such and such room was available and kept stressing a more expensive room with cable TV. Even after I said that the TV didn’t matter and that we weren’t going to watch it, she just kept on about that darn TV. Maybe it was because the town has so little to do? In any case, I finally saw the room with the cable TV and realized why she stressed this amenity so much. The cable TV was pretty much the only amenity that $35 box with a bed had to offer. Not only did we need two beds, but my wife was feeling especially non-plussed with the odd behavior of these people so while we waited for the bill, I walked back up the road to the Cabinas Bosque. Unlike the Christina people, the Bosque gang were straighforward with the room price, it was cheaper ($24 with fan), nicer and they had vacancy. I ran back to the Christina, paid our bill and walked over to the Bosque where we established ourselves nicely.

Although we lacked the famed cable TV in our room, the Bosque offers this amenity in their more expensive room along with air for double the price. The Bosque was a nice place overall with fair birding and Howler Monkeys that came through the grounds every afternoon. We got pretty close to them!

Tambor beach was a ten minute walk from the hotel. Very quiet and with a wide stretch of sand, the water also looked pretty shallow. If you are looking for a tranquil, lonely beach lacking the glitz of over-developed areas, this one might be for you!

For eats, we saw one sketchy-looking restaurant with an unshaven drunken fellow stumbling around inside and a beautiful, expensive one. Yep, just those two options along the beach itself unless you catch and eat your own fish in the lagoon (something I plan on doing next time). In town there wasn’t much to choose from either. There was the internet-hyped Christina restaurant- we ate lunch there our first day. Sandwiches were good but absolutely no-frills and overpriced. We were also non-plussed by their menu that conveniently left out the taxes. In Costa Rica most places (and possibly by law) post their prices with taxes included. This is important when taxes are 23%. Outside of town along the main highway was a Trattoria. This looked very good and was run by an authentic Italian family . It was pricey too but looked worth it (unlike the Christina). There was a friendly soda just across the street from and to the right of the entrance to Tambor center. This place has no sign but looks like a typical small soda. The woman who runs the place was very friendly and talkative. Some of her family entertained Miranda while we ate. For that alone I would recommend this place over any other in Tambor. The dinner plate was pretty good too; I had breaded Mahi-Mahi with rice and beans, etc. for about $5. Two blocks further down the highway towards Paquera is another restaurant at the Coral Hotel. Very nice restaurant/bar; our waiter was very friendly and helpful. The food and drink were also good and moderately priced. If you go to Tambor, don’t bother with the Christina- eat and drink at this place. There was also a supermarket in town that had most of everything (closed on Sundays).

Tambor beach was pretty quiet and you might get bored but at least more touristy Montezuma is only a 30 minute bus ride away. The few days we spent were worth it and I hope to go back albeit with my own transportation to explore other beaches in the area. If you take the ferry, whatever you do, don’t put your feet in the seats!