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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations preparing for your trip weather

May, 2010 is a rainy time for birding in Costa Rica

While birders up north are watching  and listening to the myriads of warblers, vireos, thrushes, grosbeaks, and flycatchers that make their way to the hardwood and coniferous forests of their breeding grounds, it’s getting pretty rainy down here for birding in Costa Rica. Since the rains are often restricted to the afternoon, though, all of that falling water doesn’t hinder birding very much.  The effects of the rain on the roads, however, makes it much more difficult to get around.

The road to Guapiles and Limon (route 32) has always been subject to landslides during heavy rains and is closed on and off every year, but that usually happens during the constant rainfall of October and November. I swear, when I was birding Costa Rica in November of 1999, it rained so much on the Caribbean slope that I thought I was going to go crazy. It rained non-stop for literally weeks on end and I only recall three days when it stopped raining during the whole month! It felt like fish were going to just start swimming right through the humid air at any time.

a rainy day for birding Costa Rica on the road through Braulio Carrillo

May usually isn’t too bad, though, and the amount of rain that has fallen has seemed to be pretty much par for the course. However, so much water has been dumped on the mountains of Braulio Carrillo that the highway has suffered several big landslides. It ended up being closed for at least a week nearly a month ago and still hasn’t been fixed!

Well, the highway is open, but the road experts say that too much of the slopes along this important road are still unstable and therefore they close it for the night. This unfortunately makes it difficult and risky to get to Quebrada Gonzalez from San Jose until the road is deemed to be stabilized. On the other hand, if you have a car and are coming from Guapiles (which is closer to Quebrada Gonzalez), you can visit Quebrada Gonzalez no matter what landslides might occur because they happen further up the road near the tunnel. In fact, if a landslide does close the road and you are in the Caribbean lowlands, by all means, you should rush on over to the highway to take advantage of birding right from the road because there won’t be any traffic!

Because there are few places to park and there is a potential for thieves along the highway away from the ranger station, the fantastic forests of Braulio Carrillo are off limits when the road is open. Close the road, though, and you will probably have some of the best Csta Rica birding in your life. If the sun comes out, Black and white Hawk-Eagle and Solitary Eagle are real possibilities, the mixed flocks will be amazing and might hold Sharpbill, you could see Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a flock of aracaris and toucans, and might even get lucky with a flyover of Red-fronted Parrotlets. All of these are also possible at Quebrada Gonzalez but you would be able to cover more territory and have a better chance at seeing soaring raptors from the road. I haven’t been lucky enough to have this chance yet but I hope I do some day!

While the highway is closed, traffic in San Jose gets even worse because most traffic headed to the Caribbean (including big trucks) pass through San Jose on their way to the alternate route to Limon that passes through Turrialba.

As for other problems with natural forces that could hinder your birding trip to Costa Rica this May, 2010, I just saw on the news today that the new highway to Caldera had some problems with huge rocks falling onto the roadway. Some representative for the company that built the road said that this was expected but wasn’t a problem.

Rocks the size of a house potentially squashing a car along with the people inside not a problem? Well, I guess it isn’t a problem if it doesn’t happen to you but since they said this was expected, I will be taking the old road to the Pacific lowlands during prolonged, heavy rain.

Another potential hazard that was announced today was fairly large lava flows at Arenal. They were big enough to close the park although I doubt that anyone was close enough to them to even feel the slightest bit more warm. Tourists in the area are probably thrilled to have the chance at viewing the eruptions. The Arenal area, by the way, is a great area for birding Costa Rica with rarities such as Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Keel-billed Motmot all possible and I would go there whether Arenal was spitting out lava or not because a lot of the good birding isn’t very close to the volcano anyways.

me and the volcano on a rainless day for birding Costa Rica

Rain or not, I am eager to get out and do some Costa Rica birding even if I have to crawl over a landslide (which I actually once did in the Ecuadorian Andes). The migrants will be gone like this Tennessee Warbler,

After a bite of this banana, I am flying back up to the boreal zone!

but local birds such as the angry-looking Common Tody-Flycatcher will be around and are always fun to watch.

Yeah, I'm common..you wanna make something of it?
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Birding Costa Rica feeders Introduction

Costa Rica Feeder Birds

Feeders; what a great way to bring the birds to YOU, to see them up close from your nest instead of searching for theirs. Place that cornucopia of bird food strategically and you can watch the birds eat breakfast while you eat breakfast. When you get home from work, you can tune into the feeder instead of zoning out to the TV. Heck, it’s your home; if you feel like it, dress in tweed and pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, invite a friend to be Watson and solve bird ID quandaries; “No, you haven’t seen an Ivory-billed at the feeder; that is a Pileated my dear Watson” (you could also do this on field trips but unless it’s Halloween or you despise networking I wouldn’t advise it).

Watch your trusty feeder to get inspiration from Cardinals, Goldfinches, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, and Mourning Doves (yes this species CAN generate inspiration…although mostly when they get wacked by Cooper’s Hawks). I admit some feeders have a hard time at being inspirational; I know this from personal experience. I watched our family feeder as a kid in downtown Niagara Falls and to risk being called close-minded, it pretty much sucked. The few highlights at our feeder were rare visits by Downy Woodpecker and Song Sparrow. I wondered where all the Goldfinches, Grosbeaks, Redpolls and other cool birds were and eventually learned two main things from my first bird-feeder:

1.) That my backyard had an unholy affinity for Pigeons, Starlings and House Sparrows and 2.) I had to search for the “cool” birds elsewhere. I eventually found those “cool” birds and ended up in a country with a huge variety of very cool birds; Costa Rica. Here, I never have to be concerned about a trio of invasives being the only stars in the backyard bird show. Exotic bird families show up and species differ by location, elevation and feeder food offered. For the most part, fruit is used instead of seeds; papayas, ripe plantains and bananas. In fact, with feeders in Costa Rica, you almost want to go out there and feed with the birds. Birds like….

that most versatile of flycatchers, the Great Kiskadee.

These guys will eat just about anything and are far from shy; kind of like the “Blue Jay” of Costa Rican feeder birds. This one is choking down a lizard.

Blue Gray Tanagers are standard. Locals called them “Viudas” which means “Widows”. This is a true Tico entymological mystery because Tica widows don’t wear blue. One would have expected Groove-billed Anis to have this monniker but they are called “Tijos” after their call.

Instead of House Sparrows (which seem to be restricted to gas stations and MacDonalds, go figure), we’ve got Rufous-collared Sparrows. This one was at one of the only seed feeders I have seen in Costa Rica; at the Noche Buena restaurant high up on Irazu Volcano.

The common backyard finch in much of Costa Rica is the Grayish Saltator. Their finchy song can be heard all over town but they can be kind of skulky.

Clay-colored Robins, the national bird of Costa Rica are faithful feeder visitors.

Summer Tanager shows up at fruit feeders all over Costa Rica. This species has to be one of the most common wintering birds.

Another very common wintering species that loves the fruit is Baltimore Oriole.

One of the only warblers that will visit a fruit feeder is the Tennessee Warbler.

In the Caribbean lowlands, the resident oriole species is the Black-cowled. It also takes advantage of fruit feeders.

As do striking Passerini’s Tanagers

Feeders near cloud forest attract some seriously mind blowing birds. Some of the best feeders were located in Cinchona; a town tragically destroyed by the January 8, 2009 earthquake. The following images of some downright clownlike birds were taken there.

Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet,

Red-headed Barbet – check out the blue cheeks on this female

Prong-billed Barbet

Silver-throated Tanager

And Crimson-collared Tanager

The hummingbird feeders in Costa Rica are also  fantastic; so fantastic though, that I think they merit their own, separate post.