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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

A Morning at Tapanti National Park

Last weekend, I made my almost annual trip to Tapanti National Park. Like most places in Costa Rica, it’s not that far away, but like most places in Costa Rica, it’s also not the easiest of drives to make as a day visit. It is if you live around Cartago but if you happen to reside over near San Jose, there’s just no way to avoid the traffic, especially on the slow drive back. That’s the only thing that keeps me from visiting more often and I always wish I could because it’s one of the easiest places in the country for accessing high quality middle elevation forest.

road-through-tapanti

The road through Tapanti.

We see similar forest types on the drive through Braulio Carrillo National Park but the lack of trails and places to stop means that “thou can look, but ye cannot touch” those areas where Rufous-breasted Antthrushes call, and Ochre-breasted Antpittas hide. Since there’s some other species at that elevation that I would love to get for the year, rarely see or hear, and for which we also need images for the birding field guide apps I work on, I’m always wanting to walk in those mossy middle elevation forests.

Tapanti provides a chance at those species and more, and although birds like Rufous-rumped Antwren and Red-fronted Parrotlet are still rare, this national park is one of the better places to look for them. Since there was also a recent bamboo seeding event in the park, Susan and I decided to risk the traffic and do a day trip to Tapanti. On the way there, we made the usual brief stop in front of Lankester Gardens to see if we could come across Sedge Wren and White-throated Flycatcher. No luck on Sunday although we only made a brief check for them on the edge of the remnant, endangered sedge field. Here’s an eBird list from the brief stop: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31425150

Next, we cruised over to Tapanti, stopping just before the entrance to the park (since it doesn’t open until 8). Luckily, you can still see quite a few cool birds in that first area of forest, including the Streaked Xenops that we got. No luck with the monklet or antpittas but it’s always worth it to try for them.

collared-trogon

We also had Collared Trogon.

Once the park opened, we waltzed on in and began with the birding. Our first species in the park were Ruddy Pigeons calling behind the HQ, expected Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and looks at Red-headed Barbet. Shortly after, we came across the first area of seeding bamboo and stopped to investigate. Seeds were still present but sadly, there wasn’t any sign of Slate-colored Seedeater, Blue Seedeater, nor Slaty Finch. However, intriguing glimpses of something moving in the bamboo resulted in scope views of Barred Parakeets!

barred-parakeet

This was the first time I have seen this species perched.

Although it’s easy to see this small parakeet calling and flying high overhead at various sites, it’s a real treat to see them perched. As we watched them, I understood why I have seen hundreds (probably thousands) of Barred Parakeets in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Ecuador without ever see the small green parakeet off the wing. This perched pair of very unobtrusive parakeets reminded me of owls the way they blended in with their surroundings. If we hadn’t seen them move, we would have just walked on past, oblivious to their presence. It was even hard to find them after knowing where they were.

barred-parakeets-hidden

There are Barred Parakeets somewhere in this image.

We enjoyed those Barred Parakeets for a while, hoping for other bamboo birds to show. They never did but it was still a treat to see the parakeets allopreen, and see one of them making what appeared to be soft calls that we couldn’t hear.

Further up the road, we ventured onto the steep Arboles Caidos trail but with the sunny weather and walking on it during the most non-birdy time of the day, we saw very little. There were some Spotted Barbtails, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and some other expected species but we dipped on antpittas, the outside chance at the Central American form of the Black-banded Woodcreeper, and didn’t even hear Rufous-breasted Antthrush. It was still nice to get some exercise in beautiful forest though.

wedge-billed-woodcreeper

We also had several Wedge-billed Woodcreepers.

After exiting the trail at 11, a lot of Sunday visitors had arrived in the park, and some rain started to fall. We cruised the main road looking for mixed flocks and had a bit of luck but not with THE mixed flock I was hoping for (that would be the one with the rare birds). When the rain picked up and turned into a constant downpour, we decided to call it a day and make the drive back. The drive wasn’t all that bad although the pouring rain pounding the roadway wasn’t so fun.

If you plan on visiting Tapanti, try and speak with the rangers the day before to ask about an early entrance. If you can do that, head right over to the Oropendola trail and scan for Scaled Antpitta. It’s also better during mid-week. Bring your own food or have lunch at the small soda just outside the park- take the first right just after the forest and drive up to the small diner.

Happy birding!

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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

A Day of Birding at Tapanti National Park is Always a Good One

One of the best and most accessible sites for middle elevation birding in Costa Rica is just 30 minutes from Cartago. It’s the place where most birders in Costa Rica see their first Streaked Xenops, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and other decidedly uncommon, middle elevation species that are much easier to see in the Andes. Although these can still be easily missed at Tapanti, it is the most reliable site in Costa Rica for the birds mentioned above (except the antthrush- easier at the San Gerardo field station). Lots of other quality birds also show up in the quality, mossy forests at Tapanti, including Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Sharpbill, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and so on. So, why is it then, that I rarely bird there? After all, it’s pretty close to the Central Valley.

Some fine forest at Tapanti.

Ironically, the vicinity to the Valley is also what keeps me from going there. You see, it’s near the eastern side of the Valley while I live on the western side. Lack of a good ring road means a trip through the traffic of San Jose and then Cartago to get there, and then again to come back. Hit the rush hour traffic and we are talking two to three hours of slow going vehicles with more than a few people who appear to not know how to operate them. And that’s just one way. So, that’s what keeps me from Tapanti and I wish it didn’t because the birding is always good and the forests are fantastic.

Last weekend, since we hadn’t been there in more than a year, Susan and I decided to visit Tapanti on Saturday. A weekend always means more people in the park but I doubt that it affects birding that much. There was some light rain, but for the most part, we lucked out with cloudy weather and had around 70 species.

One of the first was a Streaked Xenops seen just outside the park!
We also saw a flock of Barred Parakeets in flight.

I was very pleased with the xenops because in Costa Rica, Tapanti seems to be the only accessible, reliable place for it. A year bird and also one that I needed for the Birding Field Guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama. It was hanging out with a small mixed flock that also had Slaty-capped Flycatcher, some tanagers, and a few other species.

Slaty-capped Flycatchers are common in Costa Rica.

After hanging with the xenops, we headed towards the entrance. It was still too early for the eight o’clock opening time but you can still run into quite a few good birds in that stretch of forest before the gate. We checked the streams for lancebills without any luck, but saw another mixed flock with several expected, small bird species. No rarities but still nice to watch Tawny-capped Euphonias, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Spangle-cheeked Tanager,  and so on.

Spangle-cheeked Tanagers are common at Tapanti.

Once the park opened, we went in, paid our entrance fees, and birding along the main road to the Pavas Trail. The cloudy weather resulted in lots of activity including Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds. Still none of my other targets (which are pretty rare anyways), but still fun birding in beautiful surroundings.

We saw a few Ruddy Treerunners.
And more than one Spotted Barbtail.

I figured we would check out the Waterfall/Pavas Trail to look for forest birds. It’s not as steep as the Arboles Caidos, and based on habitat, looks ideal for everything from antpittas to Sharpbill and maybe even Lanceolated Monklet. Although we didn’t find any of those, I bet you could. The thing about tropical birding is that birds can be present but go unseen one day and then be hopping on the trail the next. It also means that it’s worth it to spend several hours of several days in quality forest. You will see new birds every day and probably eventually run into most of the rare species. I bet that would happen on the Waterfall/Pavas Trail, I sure wish I had the time and resources to test that hypothesis with four or five days of surveying that site!

On the Waterfall Trail.

We had more of the same that we had already seen along with heard only Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that showed well but just wouldn’t stop long enough for photos. Even if it had stopped for more than three seconds, the understory was probably too dark anyways. By then, it was around 11, and the rain was starting up so we walked out of the trail and checked along the road a bit higher up. Things were pretty quiet but we had nice looks at a female Black-bellied Hummingbird.

Female Black-bellied Hummingbird.
This Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush was having a picnic.

Birding on the way out was likewise quiet so we decided to check out a soda (small diner) just outside the park entrance. The place is called “Los Maestros” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a shame that I didn’t know about the place before I finished my bird finding/Costa Rica birding companion e-book but at least I can mention this special spot now. Los Maestros is up the first small road outside of the entrance to the park with a sign that says “Tapanti Ecoturs”. Go up that road (and watch birds on the way, this is where we had the xenops), and walk up to the small soda on the left. It seems connected to a house but don’t worry about that. The food was surprisingly good and is inexpensive, the view looks suitable for raptors and seeing other birds in the treetops (we didn’t see much because of the rain), the owner has her heart in the right place (she talked about our need to improve the environment, has worked with local kids along those lines, and has a grandson who is a birder), and Black-billed Hummingbirds fed in the Porterweed. A fruit feeder and food scraps on the ground for other birds could bring in everything from tanagers and barbets to Scaled Antpitta. I hope I can somehow convince her to do that…

The sign for the soda.

After lunch, the rain lessened so we gave the entrance to the park one more check. Once again, we ran into another nice mixed flock with several expected species. Nope, nothing rare but you gotta keep trying!

On a sobering note, large areas of semi-shade coffee have been cut down on the way to the national park. These areas were very birdy, acted as habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and many other species, and will now be rather birdless. Will the Golden-wings that wintered there survive? Who knows but most probably won’t. Some of the shade coffee is still around but who knows for how long? I suspect that the coffee bushes stopped producing due to drier, hotter weather, so the landowners cut everything down and planted tomatoes and other crops instead. It was a sad reminder of the link between a suddenly warmer world, shifting agriculture, and the subsequent, detrimental effects on biodiversity.

Sobering.
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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

Long Awaited Life Bird at Tapanti National Park

Yes! I finally got a new bird for my Costa Rica list! I think the last addition was Blue-headed Vireo at the Children’s Forest Reserve above Grecia (although it was looking kind of like a Cassin’s…) but as rare as that species is for Costa Rica, I have witnessed its spectacled appearance since the 1980s. The bird I saw at Tapanti National Park, however, was a definite, long awaited life bird. Technically, I have seen it in Ecuador, but didn’t feel right about making an addition to my life list based on a brief glimpse of beige movement. I haven’t counted Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo nor Red-fronted Parrotlet for similar reasons. The non-countable sighting of the cuckoo was a look at a long tail of a bird that rushed off into the undergrowth at Quebrada Gonzalez while my two sightings of parrotlets were  brief silhouettes- parrotlets obviously deserve better.

Fortunately, the new bird I saw on Sunday couldn’t have given better views and even sat long enough for one picture:

birding Costa Rica

My lifer Ochre-breasted Antpitta from Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

I have visited Tapanti numerous times hoping for this bird and have seen the much larger Scaled Antpitta, uncommon foliage-gleaners, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and even Rufous-rumped Antwren, but this little antpitta has always eluded me. Others have seen it at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and (much more so) near the San Gerardo Station at Monteverde, but I always missed the bird at those places too. I don’t know where the Ochre-breasted Antpittas were hiding on my previous visits to Tapanti, but the bird on Sunday wasn’t feeling the least but shy. It got our attention with a raspy, antbird-like call, and shortly thereafter was spotted by Susan Blank. After getting that one shot, it moved to a few other visible perches before fitting too far away from the trail to see.

We saw my first countable Ochre-breasted Antpitta on the Arboles Caido trail about 200-300 meters up from the exit (it’s easier to walk up the trail from there). Walk this fairly steep trail and you might get lucky too! It may or may not respond to playback of recordings from Andean Ochre-breasted Antpittas  because the birds in Costa Rica are said to give a rattling trill. This is particularly intriguing since Grallaricula antpitta species are thought to give either one note songs or trills but not both song types. Maybe some day, someone will show that the birds in Tapanti and elsewhere in Costa Rica merit species status.

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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding Update for June- Tapanti Birding, Yellow-bellied Seedeater in Central Valley, better access to Volcan Tenorio

Here is a hodgepodge of news items and updates related to birding in Costa Rica from this past month. They include things I have heard through the local birding grapevine, what I have noticed in local newspapers, and my own experiences:

Tapanti National Park birding on Monday– The Orosi Valley and Tapanti National Park were typically good for birding. I always like going to a place where I can get three saltator species in the same tree (what birder doesn’t?), hear the double toot call of Rufous-breasted Antthrush emanating from forested hillsides, and maybe even get a lifer or new addition to my Costa Rica list. You never know what will show up in the biodiverse forests of Tapanti but you always know that you are in for something good. Although I didn’t get my lifer White-fronted/ Zeledon’s/Rough-legged Tyrannulet nor add Lanceolated Monklet to my CR list, while guiding there yesterday, we got nice looks at a male White-winged Tanager, saw more than one Golden-bellied Flycatcher, enjoyed the antics of Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants, and admired several Elegant Euphonias. The person I was guiding also caught a glimpse of a male Yellow-eared Toucanet on the Oropendola Trail (I have never seen this uncommon species at Tapanti!).

Costa Rica birding

We also saw a pair of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers coming to the ground to feed a hidden fledgling.

Since Tapanti doesn’t open until 8am (I know- what’s up with that?!?!), we started out around Cachi and made a few stops on the way to pick up brush-finches, saltators, White-lined Tanager, and other coffee plantation birds. Once we got to the park, sunny weather kept things a bit on the down low but we still did alright, and once it clouded over, the mixed flock activity picked up. Notable was the dearth of flowering plants which resulted in no hummingbirds! Well, there were a few, but except for Green Hermit, they were just unidentified flybys. A nice day overall in any case and we still managed 86 species.

On a side note, the marshy habitat around Cachi Lake looks promising. I’m not sure about access but will be investigating it to hopefully get Masked Duck- my neotropical nemesis bird!

Yellow-bellied Seedeater in the Central Valley– Someone found a pair of this south Pacific slope species near a town about 6 miles north of the airport. This might be the first record for the Central Valley and is actually not too far from my house so I might go look for it. Not sure how they ended up there but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were cagebirds that had escaped from their dismal prisons. You never know, they could still be wild birds, but since few to no other Yellow-bellied Seedeaters have been reported between there and areas near the Osa, I am inclined towards the escapee hypothesis. Oh yes there are caged birds in Costa Rica- I routinely hear several seedeaters, grassquits, and even Golden-browed Chlorophonia calling from a house not too far from mine. Every single one was taken from the wild-how I would love to free them.  Especially discouraging was recently seeing White-collared Seedeater and two Yellow-bellied Siskins in cages at a house near Cachi on Monday. Here we have a place where there are plenty of wild birds found right around the house and yet they had two species that have disappeared from many areas in Costa Rica due to the cagebird trade.

Better access road to Volcan Tenorio National Park- In today’s “La Nacion”, one of Costa Rica’s national newspapers, there was a brief news item that talked about the inauguration of a new access road to Volcan Tenorio. The road is called “Las Aguellas” and connects Bijagua to the national park. Bijagua already has a couple roads that head up that way so I don’t know if this is an existing road that has been improved, or a brand new one. Whatever it is, this is exciting news because Volcan Tenorio has some of the best birding in Costa Rica (think Heliconias Lodge). I know, you hear that now and then (and I am guilty of making that statement), but I can’t emphasize enough how good the birding is in that area. The recipe of dry, wet, lowland, and middle elevation along with a healthy dash of high quality forest makes Volcan Tenorio and Bijagua one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. Within a half hour drive of Bijagua,  you can get all 6 species of motmots, all 5 species of tinamous, at least 10 species of owls (maybe more), and tough birds such as hawk-eagles, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Sharpbill, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, and more. Yep, a good place to base yourself when birding Costa Rica. Needless to say, I am eager to check out the new road.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley middle elevations

Tapanti National Park- good, middle elevation birding in Costa Rica

During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I visited Tapanti for a day. Back then it had wildlife refuge status and had a cheaper entrance fee but not much else has changed since then-and that’s a good thing! On subsequent trips, including a day and a half of guiding I did there recently, I still feel impressed with the birding in Tapanti and still get excited about visiting this easy to bird national park. The amazing profusion of epiphytic growth (including many orchids), the general appearance of the forest, the scented air, and certain species such as Streaked Xenops, a few foliage-gleaners, and other birds being easier to find here than other sites in Costa Rica all remind me of Andean cloud forests more than anyplace else in Costa Rica.

Birding in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

A visit to Tapanti always turns up something good or at the least you can get nice, close looks at a variety of bird species. Another thing I like about it is that one can easily bird from the main road and see just about everything. For the adventurous, there are a few steep, difficult trails that access the forest interior while those who need an easier trail can bird along a short loop that parallels the river (and is very good for American Dipper).

The main place to stay near the park is Kiri Lodge. The friendly owners have a restaurant (fairly limited menu), trout ponds, and small cabinas ($45 for a double).

Vegetation at Kiri.

On our recent trip to Kiri Lodge and Tapanti, being the rainy month of November and the wettest area in Costa Rica, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by a saturating, misty downpour. The nice thing about Kiri Lodge was that we could bird from beneath the shelter of the open air restaurant and picnic areas near the trout ponds. One of the most common hummingbirds was Violet Sabrewing- a few of these spectacular, large, purple hummingbirds made frequent visits to banana plants and heliconias near the lodge.

Birds in areas of high rainfall aren’t all that bothered by precicipation. In fact, the birding is usually better when it’s raining on and off, during light rain, or in overcast weather, than on beautiful, sunny days. On our first day at Kiri and Tapanti, the light rain and heavy overcast skies kept the birds active all day long. In the second growth habitats around Kiri Lodge we were kept busy watching common, edge species as well as middle elevation species such as Red-headed Barbet, Blue-hooded Euphonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet were also common around the trout ponds.

Great Kiskadee in the rain.

Black Phoebe.

Of interest were flocks of Red-billed Pigeons that were zipping around the regenerating hillsides to feast on fruiting Inga trees, flocks of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flying high overhead as they transited between the forested ridge tops, and one Lesser Elaenia seen (an uncommon, local species in Costa Rica). The best birds though, were in the national park. Just after entering, we were greeted by a calling Ornate Hawk Eagle. After playing hide and seek with it in the canopy for 15 minutes, the adult eagle came out into the open and flew overhead for perfect looks. Around the same time, the rain stopped and bird activity picked up tremendously. Although we didn’t see any really rare species, the number of birds and great looks made up for that. We could barely take a step without seeing something- our first bird being Golden-bellied Fycatcher.

Shortly thereafter, we had Golden-Olive Woodpecker, a beautiful Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, loads of common Bush and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Black-faced Solitaires feeding on white, roadside berries, Red-faced Spinetails, Slate-throated Redstart, Tropical Parulas,

Tropical Parula

and migrant warblers such as Black-throated green, Black and white, Blackburnian, and Golden-winged.

We also managed glimpses at three hummingbirds more often seen at Tapanti than other sites in Costa Rica; Green-fronted Lancebill (at least 5), White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied.

The following day was a total contrast with sunny weather and much less activity. Our efforts at chancing upon an antpitta or Lanceolated Monklet along the easy loop trail went without reward although we did see such species as Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, American Dipper, and White-throated Spadebill, and heard Immaculate Antbird.

Quiet birding but great scenery!

Although in being such an easy, beautiful escape from the urbanized Central Valley, Tapanti can get somewhat  crowded on weekends, in my opinion, the excellent forests and perfect climate of this national park always make a visit worthwhile. The only problem is that it’s rather costly to get there without your own vehicle as one has to take a $15-$20 taxi from Orosi. The walk isn’t too bad though if you don’t mind hiking through shaded and semi-shaded coffee plantations for about 9 kilometers.

One of my hopes is to eventually have more free time to visit Tapanti more often as it always has surprises in store for the visiting birder. On a side note, the butterflying is probably also the best I have seen in Costa Rica.