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Birding Costa Rica common birds identification issues Introduction lowlands

Identifying Variable and Thick-billed Seed-Finches in Costa Rica

People on birding trips to Costa Rica usually don’t have the seedeaters and seed finches at the top of their target lists.  Now if they looked like some of those fantastic, brightly colored, and beautifully patterned finches that provoke “oohs and aahs” among birders in Africa and Australia, the story would be different. BUT, since they are mostly plain old black or brown, the majority of seedeaters and seed-finches aren’t even considered for a Costa Rican birding hit list.

And who can blame such birders when the small, dull finches have to compete with the iridescent, heavenly plumaged, breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal? Or the bizarre-looking, dove-sized, crazy-sounding (in name and in life) Three-wattled Bellbird? Or when there are a bunch of stunning tanagers and honeycreepers with glowing colors that are visiting a feeder? No, it’s easy to see why seedeaters and some finches aren’t exactly a top priority when birding Costa Rica. Nevertheless, let us not discriminate. Heck, some finches you may not even see like the Blue Seedeater, Slaty Finch, or Pink-billed (Nicaraguan) Seed-finch. Except for the Tricolored Munia and House Sparrow, all of those little seed-eating birds sharing pastures with those big introduced bovines are  native birds and lifers for first-time visitors to the neotropics. AND, when those unfriendly antpittas are refusing to show themselves, that Keel-billed Motmot is giving you the silent treatment, or any and all coquettes are out to lunch on the other side of the mountain, never fear because the seedeaters, seed-finches, and grassquits are here!

Well, they will be “here” if you are in pasture or young second growth, and are also usually pretty easy to watch. The three most common species are the Blue-black Grassquit,

male

female

the Yellow-faced Grasquit,

and the Variable Seedeater. To see how it got its name, when birding Costa Rica, check out a Pacific slope male

compared to a Caribbean slope male.

Don’t worry about looking for any “variableness” between the females because they look the same. In fact, a lot of female seedeaters look very similar (more so in South America) and present a major headache for identification not only because they look alike, but also because it’s just so hard to study female seedeaters when there are hundreds of other, more visually appealing birds flying around.

While the Yellow-faced Grasquit is pretty easy to identify, the Blue-black Grasquit, Variable Seedeaters on the Caribbean Slope, and the Thick-billed Seed-finch can be tough to separate at first glance. With a close look at the right features, though, they are actually pretty easy to identify. Instead of obsessing about the white spot in the wings, or that the bird looks mostly black, concentrate on the bill shape. The shape of the bill reflects how some of these seed-eating species can avoid competition with each other by eating different sized seeds. It’s kind of analogous to flycatcher and woodcreeper identification where the shape and/or size of the bill is often a more important field mark than plumage characteristics.

Although the Blue-black Grasquit is also pretty easy to identify by plumage (no white in the wings, blue-black coloration in the male, the female sparrow-like with dull streaks on the breast), notice how its bill is straighter and more sharply pointed. Sure it eats seeds, but this little finch (or tanager, emberezid, or 9-primaried oscine) is not a vegetarian by any means. With that bill shape, it’s probably bulking up on protein meals of grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects of the grass. And taking into account the number of times males do their little jumping display (hundreds each day during the breeding season), it needs a lot of protein!

Separating the Variable Seedeater and the Thick-billed Seed-finch is trickier. Although the seed-finch is bigger, don’t fall into the trap of using size as a field mark. Stick to the bill shape. The Seed-finch isn’t called “thick-billed” for nothing. Their bills are noticeably larger and more angular as opposed to the small, rounded bill of the Variable Seedeater. It might look challenging when studying the book, but if you get a good look, you won’t have any doubt in your mind about which species it is. The female Seed-finch is actually even easier to identify because she not only has that big, black bill, but also has more ruddy brown plumage than the olive-brown plumage of the female Variable.

Male Thick-billed Seed-finch. Compared to the dainty seedeater, this bird looks downright tough. It’s like he’s saying, “You talking to me..?” , or “Did you say something about my bill?!”

whereas the male Variable Seedeater is more along the lines of, “Would you ummm, maybe like to buy some Girl Scout cookies”?

This female seed-finch is like, “Yeah, that’s right. This is MY stream! Don’t make me use my hefty bill!

whereas this female Variable Seedeater is saying, “Oh how I enjoy nibbling on flower buds and itsy, bitsy seeds”!

On the Pacific slope, you won’t have to worry about copycat male Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-finches because the Variable of the west has a white belly, rump, and collar. It does look kind of like a White-collared Seedeater though. The White-collared, however, has a larger white collar, is more buff on the belly and rump, and most of all, has two white wing bars. The female White-collared also has this handy field mark.

Check out the white wings bars on this male White-collared.

As for other seedeater species, the Ruddy-breasted is pretty distinctive and always has a light speculum in the wing, the Blue looks a lot like a Blue-black grassquit but has a different shape (more sparrow-like), and skulks in cloud forest bamboo and edge, and the Pink-billed Seed-finch really does have a massive pinkish bill that would frighten even the toughest of Thick-billed Seed-finches!

In conclusion, although I completely understand why you may not want to put the more common seedeaters, grassquits, and the like on your target list for birding in Costa Rica, they can still be fun birds to watch (especially if you make up personalities for them).

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Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Where to stay when birding Carara, Costa Rica; Cerro Lodge

I made a short trip to the Carara area this past Friday to scout the vicinity of Cerro Lodge, a new option for accommodation near the national park. From visiting their website, communicating with the owner, noting its proximity to Carara, and taking into account the habitats near Cerro Lodge, I had a hunch that these cabinas could finally be just the sort of place I have been waiting for as a good, moderately priced option for birders visiting Carara. Even with a short visit during non-birding hours (9-12), I could tell that my hunch was right. A problem with birding Carara has always been the limited number of options for accommodation near this top birding site. Don’t get me wrong, there are places to stay but they are pricey, horrible, or just not geared towards birders or ecotourists. The two main ecolodges that are geared towards birders, Villa Lapas and the Tarcol Lodge are, at well over $100 per person per night for lodging and meals, just absurdly pricey for Costa Rica.

At Villa Lapas (expensive number 1) the grounds and rooms are nice, the food and service good, and there is good birding on the grounds (including their canopy bridges), but you will see the same bird species on visits to the National Park. As for the Tarcol Lodge (expensive number 2) I have heard both positive and negative comments about their rooms, the food is good, and it is situated in a mangrove estuary with good birding although many of the aquatic and mangrove species that occur at the lodge can be seen on the mangrove boat trip or on your own. If you would rather not pay over $100 per person per night (in all fairness Villa Lapas sometimes has discounts during the wet season), I always felt that birders could see just as much and eat just as well by staying at a moderately priced hotel with comfortable, clean rooms and either taking meals there or dining at nearby sodas. The problem with this, however, was that the only moderately priced hotel near Carara was the basic “Hotel Carara” in Tarcoles village. Resembling a North American motel, although the rooms are ok and are sometimes offered at discounted prices, for not being located in particularly birdy habitat, the $70 rooms just never seemed worth it. I don’t think dining at their restaurant is worth it either. The small fish pond, pleasant decor, “relaxing” new age elevatorish music, and seaside location will never be enough to overcome the shortcomings of their small menu with overpriced, mediochre food that sours the dining experience like a lemon flavored slap in the face.

There have always been cheaper digs available at quiet, ramshackle cabinas along the beach just north of Tarcoles, but unless you are filiming a horror movie, on a scorpion hunt, or don’t mind sharing the place with cockroaches, then you probably shouldn’t stay there. Don’t be fooled by the $30 rooms offered at the Crocodile restaurant either (the one at the bridge on the highway). Those are the worse I have stayed at in Costa Rica mostly because upon opening the bathroom door, I was greeted by a small bat who was squinting and squeeking at me from the grimy floor. He was probably pleading for help out of that dirty place and after evicting (or maybe saving) him, I became honestly concerned about his bloodsucking cousins attacking me in the night after seeing the large hole in the bathroom ceiling combined with the fact that there were horses and cattle in back of the place that were probably fed upon by vampire bats on a regular basis. At least I didn’t have to worry about spending any time in the bathroom since nary a drip came out of the naked pipe that protruded from the wall. Although the room was so dirty that not showering seemed to be part of the theme, unless you are an adamant follower of Pigpen, I wouldn’t call that a plus. The bed was also uncomfortable, the fan didn’t really work, nor was the birding good at the Cabinas Crocodilos so do yourself a favor and don’t ever stay there even if the restaurant is ok.

Fortunately, two moderately priced options have become available near Carara! Although they are too far to walk to the park entrance, no present or future hotel will ever be close enough to the entrance for most folks to get there by foot because the HQ it is several kilometers from the limits of the park on a busy highway. The cheaper but noisier and less birdy option is the Cabinas Vasija (or something like that). Found along the main highway about 15 minutes from Carara on the east side of the road, they charge around $20 for basic, dingy rooms and also have a cheap restaurant on site. Being located along the highway though ensures that earplugs will be necessary for a good night’s sleep. The birding in the vicinity (especially along the road towards the river), however, is OK for dry forest and open country species.

Although more expensive, ($50 single, $70 double room), in my opinion, Cerro Lodge is the place I and other birders have been waiting for. This price includes all taxes and breakfast served from 5:30 A.M. at a restaurant that looks into the canopy of trees that host, among dozens of other bird species, Scarlet Macaws. Although these spectacular parrots move around in search of seeding and fruiting trees and thus might not visit the trees at the Cerro Lodge restaurant at all times of the year, they certainly do in October. It was especially interesting to note that the macaws fed upon the seeds of Teak (an introduced species) in addition to foraging at the more typical “Almendra” trees.

The view from the restaurant.

The rooms are in six, clean, pleasant cabinas equipped with ceiling fans and a bathroom that is partly outdoors (in a good way).

Plenty of heliconias, Verbenia, and other flowering plants were attracting hundreds of butterflies during our visit and should also attract hummingbirds. Although we saw few of these glittering, hyperactive sprites, we were told that they sometimes visit the flowers that graced the tables of the restaurant. More exciting was  hearing about the pair of owls that make nightly visits to the light in their parking area. Although I wasn’t there at night, I am betting that they are Black and White or Striped Owls.

There is a trail on the Cerro Lodge property (a small, working farm) that passes through pasture, dry, scrubby habitat, and streams with moister, taller riparian growth. Birding in similar habitats is also possible along the quiet, 3 kilometer entrance road, and along the 4 kilometers of this same road that continues past Cerro Lodge and accesses dry forest, small wetlands, provides distant views of the Tarcol River. There is no traffic of note along these roads which helps make Cerro Lodge a very quiet, tranquil place.

Being there at the wrong time of day for birding, we didn’t see very much but still managed around 30 of the 150 species recorded at Cerro Lodge. Our best birds being Scarlet Macaws, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tityra, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Lesser Ground Cuckoo (h), Violaceous Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. In that some of these birds are signature dry forest species, combining the drier habitats around Cerro Lodge with the rain forests of Carara should result in a quite a large list of species.

This Lineated Woodpecker loved its dead, palm trunk!

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are a common, open country species in Costa Rica.

The Pacific Slope subspecies of the Variable Seedeater.

This is why these used to be known as Black-bellied Tree-Ducks.

Another nice thing about Cerro Lodge is that birders who feel like eating outside of the hotel can do so at a good soda just across the highway from the entrance road. The entrance to Carara National Park is ten minutes further along the highway from this point.

To get to Cerro Lodge, just follow the main road to Carara and Jaco and watch for the large Cerro Lodge sign at the entrance road about 10-15 minutes after Orotina.  From there it is 3 kilometers up a well graded dirt road to the best option for birders and aficionados of tropical tranquility who have Carara National Park on their itineraries. I can’t wait to go back and seriously bird the place at dawn, during the evening, and at night.