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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

A Brief Trip Report from Guiding in the Poas Area, November Third

Sort of continued from A Brief Trip Report from Guiding El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez One Day and the Poas Area the Next..

As it turned out, hitting sites from the Central Valley and the Poas area was a much better idea than birding on Irazu. Sure, we sacrificed sightings of the junco and wren and missed a few other species that we would have probably gotten at Irazu but also saw probably 50 more species than we would have ticked at the larger volcano. The day began once again at the Bougainvillea and after a quick breakfast stop at the 24 hour McDonald’s in Heredia, we drove on through the empty streets to an area near San Joaquin that has coffee bushes, brushy fields, and a good number of birds.

Coffee fields where we had the ground sparrow.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by flyby flocks of Red-billed Pigeons (in the Central Valley, more common than the good old feral Rock Pigeon), flocks of White-winged Doves, a flock or two of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and a nice bunch of other birds.  The best was actual looks at two toughies- Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite, and after a fair bit of waiting and watching, a Prevost’s Ground Sparrow! As with any quail like bird, the bobwhite is typically tough to see while the ground sparrow is just all too uncommon and skulky. Those were our “best” birds but we also saw Rufous-capped Warbler, Grayish Saltator, White-tailed Kite, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and two surprise Orange-fronted Parakeets among other more common species.

A nice look at a Boat-billed Flycatcher.

The dawn drive through small town streets was pretty birdy and we eventually got hoped for looks at Blue-crowned Motmot perched on a roadside wire, a Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, and a surprise Black-headed Saltator (seems this Caribbean slope species has become established in various parts of the Central Valley). Those fine sightings were followed by the drive up the curvy road to Varablanca with a few stops en route to try for various highland species including the likes of Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Yellowish Flycatcher, and other species of the upper Central Valley zone. During one stop, spishing produced a bonanza of migrant warblers including a year bird- Townsend’s Warbler! The hoped for toucanet failed to show but we still had plenty of time to connect with that little green toucan. Happily, we hit a jackpot of birds at our next stop, a riparian zone that featured a fine mixed flock of highland birds. In a matter of minutes, we got both redstarts, Ruddy Treerunner, Red-faced Spinetail, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Yellow-thighed Finch, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Mountain Thrush, Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds, and others. It’s so nice when the birds show!

A Yellow-thighed Finch hiding its yellow thighs and looking very blackbirdish.

Further on, the other riparian zones were quiet but we were in for a bunch more birds for the day, the next ones being Yellow-winged Vireo, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Gray-breasted Wood Wren behind the parking lot of a small shop in Varablanca. It’s always worth it to keep an eye open for birds at the Varablanca crossroads because I have seen everything from Prong-billed Barbet to Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Emerald Toucanet, and even Yellow-bellied Siskin in that area.

Although I knew that road work was being done on the road that leads to the La Paz waterfall, I still hoped we could hit a few spots on the way down. That didn’t work out due to heavy vehicles parking in the spots where I usually stop so I decided that we should bird a bit along the turn off to San Rafael. This turned out to be a good choice because it yielded our two target regional flycatchers- Golden-bellied and Dark Pewee, finally glimpsed Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, saw Brown-capped Vireo, and saw at least two Emerald Toucanets! We heard but did not see Tufted Flycatcher and got a few other highland species.

After that stop, we drove back uphill and went to the Volcan Restaurant to check the quality riparian habitat and hummingbird feeders before lunch. As usual, the guy who watches the cars there told me about seeing quetzal that morning. Since he is there most of every day, he sees one or two as they move through the riparian corridor and sometimes sees Black Guan as well. It was way more quiet than normal while we were there but the feeders complied with Violet Sabrewing, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, and five other species of hummingbirds.

This is a good site to pick up Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

Lunch was delicious as always and eating early gave us more time to look for birds in the higher elevations (and hopefully see them before the afternoon rains). Although it turned out to be the busiest day for traffic I have ever seen on Poas, we still saw most of our targets. The big ones like the guan and quetzal evaded us but I’m not sure if there were that many around because I didn’t see any of the fruits that they usually feed on. However, we did get fine looks at Black-cheeked Warbler, more Collared Redstarts, Yellow-thighed Finches, and Slaty Flowerpiercers, Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, Flame-colored Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Flame-throated Warbler. We also picked up a new hummingbird for the day in the form of several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, glimpsed a Wrenthrush, saw our third nightingale thrush for the day (Black-billed), and finally got our Large-footed Finch.

A distant look at a Flame-throated Warbler.
A closer look at a Sooty-capped Bush Tanager. We had lots of those.

By the time we saw the finch, it started to rain too much to keep watching birds so we began to drive downhill with the hope that we could evade the falling water. As luck would have it, as we drove away from Poas and towards Barva, the rains came to a brief stop and we picked up a few more choice bird species. Scanning the canopy of distant trees from an overlook turned up scoped views of Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher but our best and most unexpected species was a Bicolored Hawk! Although it stayed long enough to scope it, it didn’t stick around long enough to digiscope it, otherwise I would show you its contrasting dark cap and Cooper’s Hawkish shape.

After the hawk, the rains picked up again so we didn’t get in any more birding for the day but by that point, it was 4:30 and we had seen 88 species (4 heard onlys) for a long, satisfying day of birding the Central Valley and Poas area

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

An Average Morning of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

While birders in the northeastern USA were watching some exciting species thanks to Hurricane Irene, I had an average morning of birding in the agricultural landscape near my house in Santa Barbara, Costa Rica. I so wanted to join other birders looking for migrant Cerulean Warblers on the Caribbean slope but in being temporarily car-less (hopefully it will be repaired soon), my birding was limited to where my feet could take me. When this happens, about the only option available is an uphill walk to semi-shaded coffee plantations, grassy areas, and patchy woods. The habitat could be better but at least it’s green space!

Before leaving the house around 5:30am, I listened to the gentle dawn sky with cupped ears. I keep doing this with the hopes of picking up migrants I still need for 2011 like Upland Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-billed Cuckoo, Bobolink, and Dickcissel. Unlike those “seeping” “chipping” warblers, the flight calls of these and the thrushes make them readily identifiable. On August 28th, however, nothing was heard other than a Tropical Screech-Owl, Common Pauraque, and the usual barking dogs. I wasn’t all that surprised because it’s still early for migrants. If I listen for the faint sounds of nocturnal migrants every night and dawn until November, I should pick up a few new birds for 2011. What’s also nice is that I can stare at the night sky with hands cupping my ears from the privacy of my backyard and thus avoid being labeled as an alien or freakazoid by my neighbors.

On my way uphill (in much of Costa Rica, level areas are far and few between), I walked past fields on my left, and semi-shaded coffee on my right until reaching the stinky chicken farm at the top of the hill. At that point, I left the occasional traffic of the main road behind and was able to do more focused birding along a dirt road that passes through more semi-shaded coffee. This part of my morning birding circuit also tends to be the most productive thanks to a big fat fig tree, and a few other large trees with nice, snaggy branches. My “more focused birding” took the form of alternating a maelstrom of  spishing with pygmy-owl calls, and constant careful  investigation of the surrounding vegetation, distant tree tops, and a field of posts used for growing tomatoes. The results were funny looks from a guy guarding the tomato plants, occasional barking dogs, one or two Black and White Warblers, and a pewee species. Hence, as of Sunday, there wasn’t a whole lot of migrants making their way through the Central Valley of Costa Rica. It’s still early for migrants and I was entertained by other birds in any case, so I wasn’t all that disappointed.

To give an idea of what to expect when birding agricultural landscapes in the Central Valley, here is a list and numbers of the other species I identified during three hours of morning birding:

1. Crested Bobwhite (aka Spot-bellied Bobwhite)- One of two heard calling in the distance. Uncommon but they are around.

2. Turkey Vulture- A few perched on lamp posts.

3. Red-billed Pigeon- At least 8 of this common species. One was singing, others were flying around and sitting in various trees.

4. White-winged Dove- Probably 15 of this one. White-winged Doves in Costa Rica are kind of like Mourning Doves in North America, Spotted Doves in southeast Asia, and Collared Doves in Europe- common and adapted to human landscapes.

5. White-tipped Dove- One flyby and one heard. A common species of edge habitats in much of Costa Rica.

6. Crimson-fronted Parakeet- Just a few heard calling in the distance. I usually detect more of this common urban/suburban parakeet. They may be hanging out in the lowlands at this time of the year.

7. White-crowned Parrot- Just a few of these heard as well. Sometimes I see a flock of a dozen or so flying over the neighborhood, others days none.

8. Vaux’s Swift- Had one or two of these resident swifts flying around. There aren’t very common but you usually see one or two here and there.

9. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- At least 6 of this most common himmingbird.

10. Blue-crowned Motmot (yes, it’s still called “Blue-crowned” according to the AOU)- Dawn is a good time to see this shade loving bird. I had at least 3 on Sunday.

11. Hoffmann’s Woodpecker- 4 of this Central Valley woodpecker.

12. Mountain Elaenia- I was hoping to record the vocalizations of Yellow-bellied Elaenia but didn’t hear or see that common species. Instead, I saw one Mountain Elaenia feeding on figs. These are much more common at higher elevations.

13. Boat-billed Flycatcher- One calling bird at dawn and one lingering at the edge of a gang of Great Kiskadees.

14. Great Kiskadee- at least 6, most of them in a gang of loudly calling birds that were feeding on fruits in a low bush.

15. Social Flycatcher- Just two of this common, dainty kiskadee-like species.

16. Sulphur-bellied Flyatcher- One heard in the morning. These will be leaving town any day now (yes, the ones that live in Costa Rica are also migrants).

17. Tropical Kingbird- At least 10 of this super common species.

18. Yellow-green Vireo- I kept trying to turn two of these residents into migrant warblers. Like the S.F. Fly., these birds are also going to inexplicably fly south pretty soon.

19. Brown Jay- One seen and one heard. I sometimes get a flock of a dozen.

20. Blue and white Swallow- 8 of this most common swallow were flying around.

21. House Wren- 4 scolded from the undergrowth.

22. Plain Wren- At least a dozen of this common coffee plantation species sang and skulked in thick vegetation.

23. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush- Just one of this coffee plantation bird was singing.

24. Clay-colored Thrush- 6 of Costa Rica’s national bird.

25. Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one sang from a grassy field.

26. Rufous-capped Warbler- Spishing brought in several of this common species. I probably had 10 in total.

27. Flame-colored Tanager- Two of this beautiful bird were seen.

28. Blue-gray Tanager- At least 8 of this common bird.

29. White-eared Ground-Sparrow- A pair were heard giving their cascading vocalization and one was seen.

30. Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow- This uncommon species was the star of the day. One was seen and two were heard giving their high pitched calls.

31. Rufous-collared Sparrow- Probably 20 of this super common bird.

32. Grayish Saltator- At least 8 were heard and seen.

33. Buff-throated Saltator- Just 2.

34. Melodious Blackbird- 6 of this common bird were heard and seen.

35. Eastern Meadowlark- One was heard singing a lot like birds from western New York.

36. Great-tailed Grackle- Just 5 of this common bird.

37. Elegant Euphonia- I was surprised to hear two of these pretty birds calling from a treetop.

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big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction

536 species so far for 2010 with two months to go

As always, I would love to do an official Big Year in Costa Rica. Slowly track my way up and down the hot, hilly terrain of the Osa while scanning the canopy and listening for distress calls of monkeys that would lead me to a Harpy Eagle. Maybe find a Red-throated Caracara or two (if they still roam the rainforests of Corcovado), or chance upon a Speckled Mourner in some massive mixed flock.

I would have raced over to Monteverde to add Oilbird to my 2010 list, shivered in the dark, high up on Cerro de la Muerte until an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl revealed itself, and birded off the beaten track at Hitoy Cerere to pick up Great Jacamar, Violaceous Quail-Dove, and Sulphur-rumped Tanager.

I would have stationed myself for a time on both coasts during both migrations to comb through waves of passerines and shorebirds in search of the expected as well as the unforeseen. I might even have braved a bout with sea-sickness to pick up the pelagics….on second thought, no I wouldn’t have subjected my wimpy inner ear to such punishment.

BUT, I would have certainly gone up north to pick up Elegant Trogon and Thicket Tinamou at Santa Rosa National Park, and would have scanned the marshes of Palo Verde National Park with the hope of espying a distant Jabiru through the heat waves, as well as getting Glossy Ibis, Snail Kite, and after the sun went down, White-tailed Nightjar.

Cost Rica birding

Wind-swept Guanacaste- Where to see Thicket Tinamous and Elegrant Trogons in Costa Rica

In short, I would love to spend a year exploring every brushy corner, wooded ravine, palm swamp, amazing rainforest, and mystical cloudforest found within the borders of Costa Rica BUT (in addition to such an endeavor being impossible), since that would require abandoning my family and becoming instantly rich (at least moderately),  I have opted for diligently keeping track of every bird species I identify by sight or sound when guiding, birding on my own, listening for nocturnal flight calls with cupped ears in my backyard, or involved in much more mundane activities such as driving my daughter to the babysitter.

Costa Rica birding

Cloud forest canopy at Monteverde, Costa Rica

Given that I do some birding at least once per week and still might get the chance to visit some of the places mentioned above before we switch our calendars over to 2011, my unofficial big year is coming along nicely (and much more comfortably than if  were camping and profusely sweating in the humid lowlands).

My latest species was Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow (also and perhaps more appropriately known as Cabanis Ground-Sparrow). I am pretty sure that I got a glimpse of one sans binoculars back in April but “pretty sure” doesn’t quite do it for the 2010 list.  Fortunately, this past Sunday, I was able to definitely mark it down for the year when an individual was spotlighted by the morning sun at the edge of a coffee plantation near my house. The view, lighting, and composition were so darn perfect that I of course didn’t have my camera with me. This species is apparently a strong proponent and practitioner of Murphy’s Law because although I got a recording of its call (and there are very few recordings of this taxon), I somehow managed to erase it the next day! Of course, it was the only recording that got banished into nothingness and I honestly have no idea how it happened.

I went back to the same site the following morning with camera at the ready but the ground-sparrow had hightailed it along with all of the Swainson’s Thrushes, migrant warblers, and vireos that had been happily chipping (and harshly cackling in the case of the vireos) from the vegetation the day before.

Here’s a a soundscape of birds from this site on the day of the ground-sparrow (October 17th):

santa barbara morning

Another recent addition to the 2010 list was a Streak-breasted Treehunter that popped into view after spishing resulted in an avalanche of curious birds in a forested ravine on the way up to Volcan Barva. I had my camera on that occasion but mist and shade combined forces to ensure that the only pictures coming out of that bastion of dimness  would have been grainier than a World War One documentary filmed at night.

Black-cheeked Warbler seen in the high-elevation forests of Volcan Barva was also a new one for the year and reflects how little birding I have done at high elevations in 2010 because this is a pretty easy bird to get. It’s hyperactive though so pictures are tough.

The ground-sparrow may have been 536 but even better was a Dickcissel that got ticked off for 2010 after one let out its rude-like, dry-rattle flight call as it winged its way over Santa Barbara de Heredia.

I kind of doubt that I will  break 600 for the year but I might come close if I can get in some shorebirding and focus on a hodgepodge of gettable target species, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron to name a few.

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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.