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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction

Unpredictable Birding in Costa Rica at Quebrada Gonzalez

Costa Rica is in the tropics and every time I go birding I am reminded of this fact. Sure the rays of the sun are more intense than in western New York, winter just doesn’t exist (yay!), and there are a heck of a lot of bird species flitting around this place but that’s not what I am referring to. I know I am birding in the tropics because it’s just so darn unpredictable and this is especially the case for birding in complex habitats such as the foothill forests at Quebrada Gonzalez.

You can go birding in the primary forests of this site one day, come back the next and see a whole different set of bird species. It can be a bit frustrating if you only have one day to work with and want to see a Yellow-eared Toucanet, Sharpill, and Lattice-tailed Trogon but it ensures that when you go birding at Quebrada Gonzalez, you are bound to see something good. And if you go to the place two or three days in a row, you can bet that you will be in for some seriously exciting birding. For example, if you miss Emerald Tanager or only see some small green thing way up in the canopy on the first day, there is a pretty good chance that it will be inspecting the underside of mossy twigs at eye level height the following day.  Or if the rains keep the hawk-eagles from flying on Sunday, they might show with sunny weather on Monday.

The fact that you just never know what’s going to show up at Quebrada Gonzalez was emphasized once again this past weekend. To give you an idea of how different things can be from one day to the next, here are some similarities and contrasts between a full day of guiding with rain in the afternoon on Sunday and a sunny Monday morning of birding with Michael Retter, a friend of mine who just finished guiding a couple of excellent tours in Costa Rica for Tropical Birding:

Short-tailed Hawk– It didn’t show on rainy Sunday but made a brief appearance on sunny Monday.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle– It just couldn’t resist that sunny weather on Monday to soar high above the forest and give its distinctive call. A good bird for 2011!

Barred Forest-Falcon- While watching birds at a fruiting tree on the ridge part of the Las Palmas trail on Monday, a juvenile of this secretive species suddenly appeared and departed just as quickly. Although it didn’t catch anything, the small birds in the fruiting tree were pretty freaked out and gave alarm calls for the next ten minutes. An even greater bird for 2011!

Brown-hooded Parrots – I record this species in flight on every visit. On Monday, it was the usual flyovers but on Sunday, we started off the day by getting nice views of this rainforest species as they perched in the tops of some dead branches just behind the ranger station.

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This Brown-hooded Parrot was at Laguna del Lagarto but they look the same at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Trogons- Lattice-tailed Trogon was calling on both days but we only saw it on Monday. We also heard Black-throated and saw Slaty-tailed on Sunday.

Motmots- Broad-billed called and showed well on Sunday but was “replaced” on Sunday by a Rufous!

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Broad-billed Motmots sometimes let you get pretty close.

Woodpeckers- Rufous-winged called on Sunday but was hidden by the dense canopy foliage. On Monday, the same thing happened with a Cinnamon. On a side note, any use of the word “Cinnamon” on this website could refer to a becard or woodpecker but will have no connection whatsoever to rolls or pastries.

Striped (Western) Woodhaunter– Heard but not seen on both days. Laughing at us birders from the shadows of the forest?

Woodcreepers– The most common woodcreepers at this site, Spotted and Wedge-billed, were seen on both days while Northern Barred made an appearance on Sunday and Brown-billed Scythebill was heard but not seen on Monday.

Russet Antshrike– Seen on both days. If you find a mixed flock, this common species is more or less guaranteed at Quebrada.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Briefly seen on both days but they were as quiet as an art gallery at 2 in the morning.

Dull-mantled Antbird– Not seen on either day but frequently encountered on other occasions.

Black and white Becard– A first record for me on Monday of this uncommon species at Quebrada Gonzalez! One female was hanging out with a motley crew of tanagers and Baltimore Orioles in the canopy. Super good year bird!

White-ruffed Manakin– Dapper males seen on both days.

Eye-ringed Flatbill–  Bespectacled and wide-billed, this is one of the nerdier looking flycatchers. I usually don’t see it at this site so it was interesting to get it on both days.

Nightingale Wren– Several serenaded us on Sunday but they must have taken the day off from singing on Monday.

Brown-capped Vireo– My first record for this cloud forest species at Quebrada Gonzalez on Sunday. Maybe it went back upslope on Monday because it hates sunny weather.

Tropical Parula– A few heard on both days. I don’t get this species very often at Quebrada as it seems to prefer forests at slightly higher elevations.

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Tiny Tropical Parulas get dwarfed by large tropical leaves.

Tanagers– Pretty good mixed flocks on both days although most birds were way up in the canopy. White-throated Shrike, Emerald, Black and yellow, and Speckled all showed well but the Silver-throateds seem to have moved back upslope. Blue and gold only appeared on Monday but Ashy-throated Bush, Common Bush, and Bay-headed only turned up on Sunday.

Black-faced Grosbeak– Lots of these livened up the forest on both days!

In conclusion, if you are headed to Quebrada Gonzalez, it’s kind of hard to say what you will run into. I have tried to make sense of this forest for years but have found that there are just too many variables involved to make many predictions about what you are going to see. I suppose the most accurate birding forecast I could give for the place is just that no matter what time of year you go, you are bound to see something good!

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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.