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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography

Quality Birds at Cope’s

Every once in a while, I pay a visit to Cope’s place. When passing through his lowland rainforest neighborhood, I stop in to say hello, exchange stories, and see what’s around. I also visit when guiding clients, usually starting the day at El Tapir. That way, we can begin with Snowcap and end the morning with a potoo or roosting owl (par for the birding course with the Cope experience).

One of those roosting owls.

This past Saturday, while guiding some friends from the Birding Club of Costa Rica, the El Tapir/Cope experience combination paid off with some quality birds. These are the species that a birder either doesn’t see that often or are only at specific sites. Although the universal rules of birding state somewhere up in the clouds that every bird is worth just as much as the next, the unwritten rules on the other side of the sky state that some species are worth ten or more Blue-gray Tanagers, or like twenty or more Rock Pigeons. Not on a Big Day mind you but during a regular, average day of birding, maybe yes.

Snowcap is one of those quality birds. It’s not your average, everyday hummingbird and not just because the male looks like some exotic piece of flying candy. Not only is this hummingbird accessible at few sites, this fantastic creature also looks like it belongs in the Harry Potter universe. Exaggeration? Wait until you see one flying around! We had a male and one or two females at El Tapir. As a bonus, Tapir was also rocking with several other hummingbirds including such standouts as Brown Violetear and Blue-throated Goldentail.

Over at Cope’s, the feeders were predictably quiet. Cope explained that it’s usually quiet at this time of year because birds are out nesting and taking care of their young, they don’t have time to feast on fruit. Nevertheless, we still had the pleasure of being investigated at close range by several White-necked Jacobins and had good, close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Crimson-collared Tanager.

After some feeder action, we paid a visit to another quality bird, a Great Potoo. And, it was with a baby!! A baby potoo is about as precious as precious gets. Forget your puppies, never mind that big (bug?)-eyed Pug, a baby Great Potoo looks like something from the planet of weird, ultra cute fuzzballs. Come to think of it, the adults sort of look like that too but the baby really is something else.

It can sort of be seen in this phonescope image.

After our fill of potoo cuteness, off we went to the nearby rainforest where Cope often has owls and other species staked out. It was actually pretty quiet but we still had scoped views of Spectacled Owl.

The views of the Honduran White Bats were also priceless. These little living plushies are so amazing they should be allowed on bird lists.

However, despite the quite nature of the forest, chance was in our favor because we saw an Agami Heron! One of the prize species of the Neotropical region, the Agami is widespread yet typically difficult to see. Unlike so many other waders, this exquisite heron species skulks along forested streams. On Saturday, we lucked out big time when one in beautiful breeding plumage flushed from the side of the trail and perched where it could be admired for several minutes! It was only the fourth time Cope had ever seen it at that site. A fantastic year bird for Mary and I, lifer for others, and much appreciated by all.

We finished the day at Guarumo, a nearby bird photography and lunch site owned by a local birder. Things were quiet although we still managed to add our 12th hummingbird species for the day when a Blue-chested Hummingbird came to the Porterweed.

Guarumo also had cool birding and nature tee-shirts– check these out…

Snowcap, Great Potoo, Spectacled Owl, and Agami Heron in one morning of easy-going birding. We might not have been at the Biggest Week in Birding, but we still enjoyed some quality birds!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope

Easy, Great Caribbean Lowland Birding in Costa Rica at El Gavilan Hotel

A lot of birders automatically assume that they have to stay at La Selva when birding the Caribbean lowlands near San Jose. Although that was probably true 30 years ago, birders have had their pick of accommodations ranging from Bed and Breakfasts to full scale eco-lodges since the early 90s. Although you can still stay at La Selva, it’s not a requisite for getting in some great Caribbean lowland birding. In fact, I always tell birders that they are better off staying outside of the biological station and signing up for the early morning birding tour than staying at the station itself.

No doubt, some who are reading this may be thinking that, “What?! Not stay at La Selva? You must be joking!”

Yes, that’s right, no laughter, and no stay at La Selva. The reasons why I don’t feel that you absolutely need to stay at La Selva are:

1. Cost: Staying there is expensive and the cafeteria fare isn’t exactly a taste tingling experience either. You get better value for your bucks at true hotels and restaurants outside of the station.

2. Birding: Strange to say that but you can see the same birds and more by combining a visit to La Selva with other sites in the area. The birding at La Selva is still a great experience but it’s not the fantastic birding that it used to be. Nunbirds are now very rare at best (used to be common), many understory insectivores have become very rare or disappeared, and most terrestrial species have become much less common due to an overabundance of Collared Peccaries.

3. The early morning birding tour: Although I know some people who have run into problems in taking this tour (certain guide promised and didn’t show up or they were put with people on a regular tour), I still think it’s worth it to do this one. Although staying there gives you access to the trails on your own, you still might not find the fruitcrows, the roosting potoo, the umbrellabird, or other goodies on your own. Guides on the early morning bird tour, however, will probably bring you to those and other specialties. Just make sure to sign up for this in advance.

The other main reason is due to places like El Gavilan.  I like bringing clients to this place simply because it’s so easy to see lots of birds. The lack of extensive primary forest means that many forest understory species are absent (things like tinamous, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, etc.) but the old second growth and old growth riparian forest along the Sarapiqui River kind of makes up for that. Throw in an active fruit feeder and good viewing of fruiting trees and you will be in for some  really easy, quality birding. I was reminded of this during a recent weekend of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. Using El Gavilan as a base, we birded the grounds and trails of that hotel, the edge of La Selva, Chilamate, and hit El Tapir on the way down from San Jose and Quebrada Gonzalez on the way up.

Since El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez deserve their own posts, I’ll just mention that we got Snowcap, saw a bunch if White-necked Jacobins, Brown Violetear, and other hummingbirds at El Tapir, and got Lattice-tailed Trogon, Emerald Tanager, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Spotted Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, and some other goodies at Quebrada Gonzalez.

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The White-whiskered Puffbird must have had a nest nearby.

Down at El Gavilan, large movements of Eastern Kingbirds, Red-Eyed Vireos and several kettles of raptors (TVs, Swainon’s Hawks, and one big flock of Mississippi Kites) kept the binocular action going throughout our stay. The kingbirds would fly in, descend en-masse into a fruiting tree and then zip off to continue their journey north. They shared the fruiting trees with Keel-billed, Black (Chestnut)-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracaris, and various flycatchers and tanagers. Some of those tanagers came down to the fruit feeder now and then and included:

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Dusky-faced Tanager. This Icteridish species troops through the understory around the hotel and then comes out to the feeder for excellent, close studies.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Shining Honeycreeper. It was very nice to get such close looks at this diminutive jewel without needing to strain our necks by staring up into the canopy.

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Black-cowled Oriole was another species that came to the feeder.

The feeder is in the middle of a courtyard that is also good for watching flyovers of Red-lored, Mealy, and White-crowned Parrots, and Olive-throated and Orange-chinned Parakeets. Great Green Macaw also shows up sometimes although we only saw a pair near La Selva and Chilamate over the course of the weekend. We had great views at plenty of toucans along with

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Short-billed Pigeons

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and Pale-vented Pigeon

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The view of the courtyard at El Gavilan.

The forest birding also turned out to be pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than one Plain-brown Woodcreeper along with the expected White-collared Manakins, Gray-chested Doves, Bay Wrens, Cinnamon Becards, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Fasciated Antshrike, and Bright-rumped Attila.

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Plain-brown Woodcreeper being shy about its pointy bill.

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a male Red-throated Ant-Tanager– believe me when I say this was a tough photo to get!

Despite checking the river and oxbow creeks several times, I couldn’t find Green Ibis or Sunbittern that are regularly seen there. Nor did we get good looks at species I have seen at El Gavilan in the past like Snowy Cotinga, Black-striped Woodcreeper, or Long-tailed Tyrant. Two of the more uncommon species we did get were Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Bronzy Hermit, and a glimpse of a male Black-crested Coquette. However, the prize for best bird probably goes to Spectacled Owl.

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A pair of Spectacled Owls uses the forest around El Gavilan and are frequently found at one of their roosts. Amazingly, we also flushed one on the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez!

There are several places to stay near La Selva that fit into most budgets. El Gavilan is moderately priced, especially if you get the meal package. If you didn’t want to eat there, you can also dine at restaurants in nearby Puerto Viejo or Chilamate but then you would miss out on meals accompanied by some wonderful feeder action.

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Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Birding Carara National Park, Costa Rica on October 3rd

Most birders visit Carara National Park in Costa Rica during the dry months of January, February, and March.  Those sunny months represent Costa Rica’s high season for birding (and tourism) simply because much of the country is significantly drier at this time of the year. Coincidently, the birding also tends to be more productive so watching birds and the dry season make for a nice fit. In the latter part of the dry season, more birds are singing and responding to playback (oh yes, the majority of tours fire up those iPods), some migrants are passing through, and wintering birds boost the species list.

Those upsides outweigh the downsides such as blazing hot weather on the Pacific coast and groups of non-birding tourists that send shockwaves through the forest with garish clothing and loud voices. Many of these non-forest people also feel compelled to share their monkey and macaw sightings with you, and to make sure that you don’t miss out on this vital information, do so with booming voices.

“DID YOU SEE THE MONKEYS?!?

Whether I saw “the monkeys” or not, I tell them that, “Yes, I did” in the hope that they won’t proceed with telling me where they saw them. They usually do however and follow that up with information about the nesting macaws.

“WE ALSO SAW MACAWS. DID YOU SEE THOSE?” (as four of these spectacular birds flush from the canopy with intimidating screams).

Or, sometimes, it’s just one person who tells me where to see the macaws in a much quieter voice. Clad in snow-white tennis shoes, this person picks his or her way through the rainforest along with the rest of his or her repellent-doped, erstwhile companions . Many times, such a person also happens to be wearing sunglasses (which is strange because the understory of primary forest is already so dim that you might be better off wearing night vision goggles). The sunglasses seem to add to the intrigue as, unsmiling, he or she briefly stops to tell me out of the corner of the mouth, “There’s macaws by the bridge. Up in a big tree. Nest. Can’t miss em.” This purveyor of insider bird information then continues on with the rest of the group as if nothing happened. I am left enlightened, speechless, and wondering if I should leave the trail and hide along with the antthrushes, quail-doves, and other cool birds that already did so.

I would probably find my feathered friends huddling behind a log and there would be a couple of Black-faced Antthrushes, a White-whiskered Puffbird or two, Gray-chested and Ruddy Quail-Doves, and a Spectacled Antpitta. To be polite, I would ask them if they minded me joining their quietly concealed party. They would surely agree when noticing my binoculars, lack of shades, and subdued clothing and we would keep out of sight until the long line of tourists wearing spotless outfits had reached their respective habitat; the parking lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see thousands of tourists visit Carara National Park on a daily basis if that would help with conservation efforts. I know they are just trying to be helpful. I also, know, however, that finding birds in tropical forest requires constant vigilance and concentration so I do my best to avoid non-binocular wearing people. One easy way to avoid running into a bunch of non-birders when searching for antswarms and waiting for tinamous to appear at Carara National Park is by visiting in October. I did just that yesterday when guiding a client and although we ended up seeing a few non-birders here and there (and one guy who asked what we were looking at when trying to espy a Nothern Bentbill) the place was pretty quiet.

The wet season also boosted the biting bug population but not enough to chase us out of the forest. We couldn’t do the river trail because it was flooded (as it does every year during the wet season) but we still had interesting birding along the HQ trail despite a starting time of 9 am. We got lucky upon arrival with two King Vultures circling into the air on thermals above the parking lot. A dark phase Short-tailed Hawk was with them along with an accompaniment of Black Vultures. Cloudy weather kept things pretty active inside the forest and we had a pretty good number of mixed flocks for the next few hours.

Parties of Black-hooded Antshrikes, Dot-winged Antwrens, Plain Xenops, and Tawny-crowned and Lesser Greenlets moved through the tall rainforest and were joined by Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and the three most common woodcreepers- Streak-headed, Cocoa, and Wedge-billed. Greenish Elaenia, Northern Bentbill, Streaked, and Yellow-olive Flycatcher increased our list of Tyrannids and White-winged Becard was also seen well.

More colorful birds were represented by a stunning male Red-capped Manakin (sorry, too dark for a photo!), Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and Bay-headed Tanager. We didn’t see any trogons in the forest but this came as no surprise because they are decidely more difficult to see at this time of the year (they vocalize less and could be molting). Parrots were also noticeably absent. Other than hearing a few macaws, our only other psittacine was Orange-chinned Parakeet. It was interesting to find a large number of this edge species feasting on figs inside the forest. Oddly enough, we didn’t see any other birds at the fig tree.

We also did poor on ground birds and the lack of flowers resulted in very few hummingbird sightings. A couple of Spectacled Antpittas were calling but none were close enough to see, and we got a glimpse of one very shy Black-faced Antthrush as it raced away from us. The only ground bird that we got decent looks at was Gray-chested Dove.

As with every visit to rainforest, however, we had an excellent, unexpected encounter. Just past the bridge over the Quebrada Bonita, the chipping call of some unknown bird caught my attention. Since I didn’t recognize the vocalization, I figured it was probably an alarm call of sorts. Although I didn’t see what was making the call, I did find the probable reason for the alarm when my binocular turned a ball of leaves into  a roosting Spectacled Owl! I also noticed its mate when that bird looked down at us with those fierce, yellow, owl eyes.

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I almost never see roosting owls so this was a prize! It will be interesting to see if I can refind them on future visits to Carara.

As is typical of visits to Carara and surroundings, we kept on adding birds in wetlands and dry habitats outside of the park until calling it quits around 4:30. We got about 115 species and would have gotten more if we had started at dawn so I suppose the point of this post is to expect a bunch of birds when birding Carara National Park no matter what month it is.