Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction preparing for your trip

Updates on birding at the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station, Costa Rica

I had the fortune of birding Quebrada Gonzalez for two consecutive Saturdays after a three or four month hiatus.

birding Costa Rica

The entrance to Quebrada Gonzalez.

It was good to be back, especially so because it wasn’t pouring down monstrous sheets of rain. Yes, the area does get its fair share of precipitation. The heavy load of epiphytes and moss growing on everything from metal railings to understory leaves hints at the 6 or meters (18 feet) of rain that soaks the area on an annual basis. What’s even crazier is that locals claim that the northern Caribbean lowlands and foothills used to be deluged with even more falling water in the past.

Therefore, I always appreciate sunny weather at Quebrada Gonzalez despite the fact that it tends to make the forest quieter than the steps of a dormouse ninja.  While I relish the fact that my  umbrella (a poncho is too hot) can remain rolled up and tucked out of sight in my day pack, I wonder why the darn birds can’t also enjoy the absence of rain by becoming more active. Maybe they’re sun bathing up in the canopy? Whatever the antbirds, tanagers, toucans, and trogons are up to, they sure don’t shake the foliage and sing to their hearts content like they do on cloudy days.

So things were pretty quiet on Saturday but as with every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez, we still saw birds, including several species that are tough to see elsewhere in Costa Rica. One of our best sightings was Dull-mantled Antbird. This ravine-inhabiting, understory bird is regular at Quebrada (and at most Caribbean slope foothill sites) but it’s always a pleasure to watch them sing and show off the white patch on their backs.

Where we saw the Dull-mantled Antbirds.

Other bird species from the morning included a Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher flitting around the undergrowth, Emerald and Black and Yellow Tanagers feeding on berries in the subcanopy, and Buff-rumped Warblers hanging out on the trails.

Buff-rumped Warbler birding Costa Rica

A blurry, Buff-rumped Warbler that was foraging in the parking lot on different, rainy day.

With the hope that the sunny weather would encourage raptors such as Barred Hawk and hawk-eagles to show themselves, we made our way back to the parking lot by 10 am.

Where we watched the skies for raptors.

It took awhile for anything to show itself but eventually we were rewarded with 2 King Vultures. We also saw the other two commonly occurring vultures but no other raptors whatsoever! This was rather surprising to me because I usually see one or two other species of soaring raptor from the parking lot on every visit. Did they take to the air earlier than expected? Were they pretending to be antbirds? We will never know but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that one of our group was hoping to see his first hawk-eagle. No doubt, all three hawk-eagles showed up on Sunday or as soon as we left the area.

Still hoping for soaring raptors, we took the trail on the other side of the road to an overlook with a broad view of a forested ridge. We watched and watched and heard some Dusky-faced Tanagers in the nearby undergrowth and scoped a nearby Broad-billed Motmot but saw nary a vulture! Out on a river island, however, we noticed over 100 Band-tailed Pigeons hanging out in the crowns of a few trees!

birding Costa Rica

The gray things are distant Band-tailed Pigeons.

I have seen these elevational migrants on several occasions at Quebrada Gonzalez but never at this time of year and never in such large numbers. This sort of unpredictable occurrence is one of the reasons why I always love birding at this site- no matter how often I visit, I never really know what I am going to see. There are several species that I encounter on a regular basis but the vagaries of fruiting trees and other not so obvious factors that influence bird distribution in tropical forests always keeps me wondering what will turn up as I walk down the trail.

The trail of surprises.

The solitaires and White-crowned Manakins of the previous week had mostly returned upslope to their usual middle elevation haunts but we still managed to get looks at one female White-crowned Manakin. Hyperactivity on the manakin’s part conspired with vines and leaves to keep us from getting a clear look at her head (and thus identifying her) but perseverance eventually paid off with prolonged views of two diagnostic field marks- a mostly gray noggin and reddish eyes.

Around this time, the vocalizations of one or two Bicolored Antbirds had nearly convinced me that an antswarm was in the works but neither ants nor antbirds showed themselves. However, at least some of us got looks at a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush and Pale-vented Thrush before we headed back to the parking area for lunch.

short billed pigeon birding costa rica

We watched the antics of these three Short-billed Pigeons during lunch.

In the afternoon, back into the forest we went and a mere ten minutes later I heard the telltale signs of a mixed flock as  a White-throated Shrike-Tanager called. We barely had time to prepare ourselves before we were overrun by a horde of small birds that flitted, crept, and hopped through the surrounding vegetation. As is typical of mixed flocks at Quebrada, Olive (now Carmiol’s) Tanagers were the most abundant member of the flock and their chunky, green forms manifested again and again in our binoculars. Other birds showed up too including Emerald Tanagers, Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, Russet Antshrike, a sneaky Plain Xenops that refused to give an encore, Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and the flock leader, a nice oriole-like White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

Aside from a beautiful, male White-ruffed Manakin that briefly displayed on a mossy log, that mixed flock was our last hurrah for birding on Saturday before the rains came back to push us out of the forest.

Back out in the parking lot, I met the new manager of the station, Rodolfo Tenorio. Jovial, upbeat, and friendly, Rodolfo seemed eager to support birding at the site. We will probably set up a sightings log so visiting birders will know where Bare-necked Umbrellabirds have been seen, where antswarms have terrorized communities of arthropods, or where the Tiny Hawk has been perching. He also wanted me to get the word out about rules for visiting the place before 8am:

Although the station doesn’t officially open until 8am, birders can enter as early as they want as long as they let him know in advance. He asks to be contacted at rtenorio45@hotmail.com or and can also be reached at 8823-7678.

Since he can’t check his email on a daily basis, make sure to email him at least a week before your visit to tell Rodolfo the date and time of your visit.

This is excellent news because it leaves open the possibility of looking for owls at the station-something I will certainly be doing sometime soon!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands

The 2008 OTS La Selva Christmas Count

Through the grimy window of the San Jose- Puerto Viejo bus, I discerned by chance the sign for the OTS La Selva station as another passenger disembarked. I immediately hopped off the bus into the Caribbean lowland night and started up the road to the station. Night in the humid tropics is dark as subterranean velvet. The heavy humidity traps the light just as much as the heat; it’s like walking under a hot, wet blanket that jumps and creeps with life. A flashlight was essential on the pitch black entrance road- not just to see where to walk but also where not to step as I had seen Fer-de-Lance at night along this road on past occasions.

Despite my feelings of consternation blended with excitement, my 20 minute entrance walk was snake-less. I entered the cafeteria/reception area and was greeted by a buzz of activity. The count organizer/coordinator, Rodolfo, was busy with a TV camera crew and several endeavors at the same time so I waited another 20 minutes until he was able to direct me to my bunk and place me with a count group; meeting time an unrespectable 4:30 A.M. (4:30 AM will always be an unrespectable time to be awake, much less walking round). I lucked out with my count territory as it was a trail loop very close to the reception area (others had to bike through the humid darkness to get to their count territories before dawn. Although I still don’t know the name of the trail, I can tell you that it departs from the soccer field and passes through various stages of second growth before reaching the entrance road.

After the few hours of fitful sleep that I get on my first night in humid tropical lowlands, I made it to the reception at 4:30 AM along with 30 other weary-eyed birders. Half-asleep, we ate breakfast, most importantly ingested coffee and tried to figure out if that was a real-time Crested Owl we heard outside of our cabin or a taped recording of someone reeling for a response. Although it turned out to be someone “fishing” for owls, our team recorded a true, countable Crested Owl as one of our first birds. We started out with that and a few other high quality species. Our first was actually Great Potoo. Our leader, Gilberth, knew of a roost near the start of our route and briefly put the light on the bird so we could count it in a sudden glimpse of eyeshine from a large clump of feathers.

This is what it looked like during the day.

Shortly thereafter we got the Owl followed up by a Green Ibis and then started getting other more common pre-dawn birds such as Rufous Motmot and Woodcreepers. As the sun lightened things up, the fun truly started with everything else waking up to shout out their territories; Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Red-throated Ant Tanagers, Red-capped and White-collared Manakins, Broad-billed Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, various Flycatchers and so on. It was non-stop excellent birding typical of good lowland neotropical habitat all the way to noon. One of our best birds was Bare-crowned Antbird- we heard 2 and saw one of these uncommon skulkers. I wish I had a picture but my camera set-up couldn’t deal with the dark undergrowth. Other nice birds were several Slaty-tailed and Violaceous Trogons, Rufous-tailed Jacamars, good looks at Short-billed and Red-billed Pigeons (the Red-billed being a surprise and reminder of nearby deforestation), Golden-winged Warbler, Rufous Mourner, Blue and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises, Silver-throated and Bay-headed Tanagers, White-ringed Flycatcher and more.

Our most interesting non-bird sighting for me was the Collared Peccary that hid in a culvert and snapped its tusks at us. The TV crew was a pretty interesting sighting was well. They filmed Trogons, Toucans and us birders. They also attempted to interview us; a fruitless endeavor. I mean who has time to do questions and answers during a Christmas count in the tropics? Not me!- I get into my hunter-Zen mode where I allocate more brain space to finding and identifying birds.

The TV crew TV-camera scoping a Toucan through my scope.

Long-tailed Tyrants are pretty common in the Caribbean lowlands.

By noon, we made it to the entrance road and looked for raptors. The more open and higher entrance road is a good spot for soaring birds. Although we missed Black Hawk Eagle, we did alright with Grey Hawk, Double-toothed and Grey-headed Kites and Osprey. We also picked up Thick-billed Seed Finch, Yellow Tyrannulet and a beautiful male Hooded Warbler. On Costa Rica bird counts, wintering Warbler species are the birds that counters really hope for since many species are far less guaranteed than resident, if spectacular, birds such as Jacamars and Trogons.

La Selva is a great place to see Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

After our Hooded Warbler, we had the pleasure of lunching at the cafeteria instead of fending off mosquitoes on a muddy trail while attempting to eat a boxed lunch surprise. Amazingly for a bird count, we even rested in comfy chairs at the reception before doing our afternoon territory. Somewhere around this time we picked up a Green Shrike Vireo (invisibly singing from the canopy as usual), Black-faced Grosbeak, and Rufous-winged, Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers. La Selva is excellent for Woodpeckers. We SAW all 7 species that were possible.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Our afternoon territory was the Arboretum trail.

This is on the other side of the river, accesses beautiful primary forest and (like its name) is an old arboretum. Before entering the trail, we kept busy with birds around the lab buildings. This is an excellent place to bird- you could probably spend a whole day there and get 60-70 species. We had more of the same along with nice looks at..


Collared Aracari

Short-billed Pigeon

Giant Cowbird and Golden-hooded Tanager

and the main reason that La Selva should still be visited on every birding trip to Costa Rica: Great Curassow! For several years, there have been tame Great Curassows frequenting La Selva. Although they can turn up anywhere at this site, they seem to prefer open areas around the buildings! This is like a birding dream come true because this species is very difficult to find elsewhere.

Here is a close up of its head. Check out the curls!

Once inside the forest, birding was another story. Although it is typically quiet inside lowland primary forest, in much of La Selva it has become a little too quiet. Bird species that were common and easier to see here than at other sites such as Great Tinamou, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, White-fronted Nunbird and Black-faced Anthrush, have become very rare. Even Chestnut-backed Antbirds have become uncommon. Most of the understory insectivores are gone too. Nowadays you would be lucky to hear a peep out of Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, understory Flycatchers, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Olive Tanager, and Tawny-crested Tanager. While these species still occur at many other sites, you probably won’t see them at La Selva. Although nobody knows for sure what has happened, and several factors related to edge effects are probably involved, one of the prime culprits is the Collared Peccary.

The theory is that the peccaries are simply gobbling up everything in the undergrowth from ground nesters to the undergrowth itself. I don’t know if anyone has tested this theory but to me, the undergrowth definitely looked overbrowsed. Collared Peccaries have became particulary abundant at La Selva; they seem to be just about everywhere close to the lab buildings. This is not what one typically sees in tropical forest in Costa Rica. Although you run into Peccaries now and then, they are never in the numbers that occur at La Selva. Hopefully studies are being carried out to address this possibility. If there is support for this hypothesis, hopefully OTS will cull peccaries; I know that Dieter and I would be first in line to volunteer.

Despite the birdless understory, we saw some canopy birds and picked up a White-Necked Puffbird customarily perched high up on a snag. We finished the count around 5 P.M., ate dinner and went over the bird list. Best birds of the day were mostly seen by other groups such as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (La Selva still a good site for this tough species), Sungrebe, Snowy Cotinga, Great Green Macaw (we got these too), and best of all; Solitary Eagle! Although this last one is rare and tough to ID, the description sounded very convincing.

One of the best things about the count is that you have access to the grounds the following morning! I birded for a few hours and got more shots of the Curassow, got nice looks at Semiplumbeous Hawk, more of the same from the previous day and excellent looks at Yellow-tailed Oriole singing from a tree top next to the HQ. We missed this rare species in our territory during the count as well as some others (Great Antshrike and Slaty Spinetail) that have become rarer as the forest has grown up along the entrance road. Nevertheless, the entrance road is still great birding and I kept seeing so many birds on my way out that I almost missed my 11 AM bus back to San Jose.