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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

10 Reasons to Visit Costa Rica for Birding in July and August

One of the great things about living in a place where the latitudes are closer to zero than a hundred is that temperatures are fairly stable. Where I live, I can already tell you what the thermometer is going to read tomorrow, next week, and next year (as long as the global climate doesn’t get too wacky before then). It’s going to range from 68 to about 88 degrees f. with fluctuations within those parameters being a function of time of day. Seasons are measured in rainfall here in Costa Rica so you don’t have to worry about shoveling snow in December. Nor do you need to worry about feeling the oven blast of a heat wave such as the one that is attempting to roast my friends and family up the northeastern USA. That’ s the first great reason for coming to Costa Rica now! Here are some other arguments for heading on down to quetzal-land during July and August:

  • It’s not blazing hot: Ok, so I already mentioned that but feel the need to reiterate because so many people conclude that Costa Rica is always hotter than home in the north because it’s so much further south. While the sun’s rays are definitely stronger and should be approached with caution, nope, it’s not hotter here than say New Jersey in the summer. The highest heat index occurs in places with about 90 or 91 with humidity on the central Pacific slope. Now that is surely hot but you won’t see crazy temps of 100 with humidity and you can always escape to the mountains where it’s a fair deal cooler.
Sooty Robins only live in the cool high elevation habitats of Costa Rica and Panama.
    • The Veranillo: “Veranillo” means “little summer” and refers to a week or two in July when it doesn’t rain as much as on the Pacific slope. We did have beautiful sunny days like that just last week but I think that was the extent of it. Nevertheless, it’s a little extra bonus for visiting around this time and this is reflected by the scheduling of several birding tours.
    • Wandering frugivores: It’s important to bird in the right habitat when looking for certain birds but it’s also nice when various seriously cool frugivores disperse in search of fruity food. This means that if you find a fruiting fig or Lauraceous tree, you might also find a wandering bellbird, Turquoise or Lovely Cotinga, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and who knows what else. Although you can’t expect to see those species, all of them seem to kind of wander a bit at this time of the year…
    A Turquoise Cotinga from Rincon de Osa.
      • Oilbirds: Yes, as in the big weirdo nocturnal things that are crazy about oily fruits! One or more were recently seen on a night hike in Monteverde and have been found pretty much on an annual basis there and have shown up at other spots between now and the next few months. Although this could also be placed in the “wandering frugivores” category, it merits its own special mention. Sure, they are easier to see in other places but wouldn’t it be cool to say that you found an Oilbird in Costa Rica?
      • No wintering species to deal with: Ok, so if you are not from North America, that would be something you would happily deal with but for those of us who have already had our fair share of Yellow Warblers, we tend to be more interested in the resident species. Shorebirds are showing up so you might see a few of them but that possibility can be avoided by hanging out in the rainforest and looking for (cursing at) antpittas.
      • Cloudy weather: I have said it before and will keep on preaching that cloudy weather is better for tropical birding! Although a sunny morning gives you better chances at seeing hawk-eagles and some other raptors, the forest is going to be pretty quiet for much of the day. Contrast that with cloudy or misty conditions and the tropical forest seems to be alive with birds! It’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!! My best days in tropical forest at any elevation have always been on cloudy days. For example, a few of my memorable misty mornings have included a light morph Crested Eagle that flew over a Peruvian Amazonian clay lick covered with hundreds of parrots and Chestnut-fronted Macaws. They flew into the air while a pair of Red and green Macaws flew above the eagle and screamed their heads off. Talk about overload. Twas another memorable misty morning on the entrance road to Mindo, Ecuador road when I saw something like 110 species including Andean Cock of the Rock and several White-throated Quail Doves walking right on the road. I have spent more than one fine cloudy day on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve in Costa Rica when birds stayed active kind of all day long. We had to pull ourselves away from the birds to eat lunch. Not all cloudy days in Costa Rica are like that but the sunny ones sure aren’t. Oh, and it’s cloudy here just about every day in July and August.
      The road to Manuel Brenes on a misty day.
        • But what about the rain?: Yes, it does rain more right now but it won’t ruin a trip, there’s a higher degree of bird activity on account of cloudy weather, it’s cooler, and you can also get rained out on the Caribbean slope during the dry season months.
        • Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds: You will see them with the same frequency as other months and they will look just as cool!
        Fiery-throated Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.
        Volcano Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.
          • Scarlet Macaws will also be just as easy to see: These crazy, colorful birds are doing quite well in Costa Rica thanks to measures to protect and reintroduce them.
          Scarlet Macaws!
            • The trogons won’t be going anywhere either: Quetzals are actually here at all times of the year and not just during the dry season. Visit good habitat for these eye-stunning creatures and you have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you can find the fruiting trees they like. The gorgeous Gartered Trogon should be easy enough to see too.
            A beautiful male Gartered Trogon.
            Resplendent Quetzal with a tasty avocado fruit.

              That’s enough for now. It’s time for me to take advantage of this cloudy weather and go birding in Costa Rica.

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              Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

              Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

              One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

              This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

              On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

              Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

              Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

              Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

              Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

              birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

              Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

              We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

              At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

              After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

              birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

              White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

              Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

              Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

              After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

              Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

              Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

              Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

              Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

              birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

              Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

              We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

              After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

              At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

              After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

              birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
              "Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

              Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

              By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.

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              Birding Costa Rica identification issues

              Costa Rica Birding: Trogons

              Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).

              In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.

              Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.

              In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).

              The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):

              Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:

              violaceous trogon1

              and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.

              Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.

              Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.

              Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).

              Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

              Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.

              Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

              Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.

              Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.

              Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.

              Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.

              Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).

              Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.

              Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.

              Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.

              Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

              Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.

              Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.

              Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.

              Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.

              Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!

              White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.

              Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

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              Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Costa Rica Beaches Introduction lowlands

              Manzanillo; an excellent, cheap Caribbean slope birding destination in Costa Rica

              There are at least 5 distinct regional habitat types or ecosystems in Costa Rica; dry forest, middle elevation cloud forest, high elevation rain forest, Pacific slope lowland rain forest, and Caribbean slope lowland rain forest. Birding in this latter habitat type is especially exciting because it harbors ecosystems with the highest number of bird species in Costa Rica (around 400). Despite having birded in Costa Rica since 1992, I probably get just as excited as visiting birders do when the road through Braulio Carrillo National Park suddenly announces its exit from the steep mountains with a panoramic view of the Caribbean lowlands. Just as the feelings of anticipation and excitement never fail to spring forth upon entering this highly biodiverse region, the obvious deforestation on the lowland plain tempers my excitement with a sharp stab of reality that goes too deep to ignore. In these “modern”, overpopulated times, banana fields, pineapple plantations, and cattle pastures have replaced much of the forest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. There are birds but instead of seeing a few hundred species in tall, incredible rain forest, birders might encounter 40 or so bird species in scrubby fields with isolated trees and even fewer among the bananas and pineapples. Birding in good, lowland rain forest is still possible but the heavy pressure upon the land has given birders very few options.

              Pineapple farms- an avian desert.

              The principle site most folks visit for their fix of Caribbean Slope birding in Costa Rica is at the “La Selva” biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. One of the easiest sites to visit (1.45 hours from San Jose), the good trails and facilities, and legendary reputation of La Selva keep it on the list of must see places when birding in Costa Rica. The birding is good with species such as Great Curassow, Great Potoo, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Semiplumbeous Hawk more easily seen at the station than elsewhere, but in reality, several species have sadly disappeared from or have become very rare in the forests of La Selva (Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, and most understory insectivores). Another disadvantage is that unless you pay close to $90 per person to stay in a rather basic bunk bed, you can only access the station on short, guided tours that cost $30-$40 per person. In that most of the birds at La Selva can be seen along the entrance road and around nearby hotels such as Selva Verde and El Gavilan, birders will do just as well or better by birding around their hotel, visiting Quebrada Gonzalez for a day, and taking one of La Selva’s guided walks rather than staying at the station itself. I am by no means saying that the birding at La Selva is bad (it’s still very good for a wide variety of bird species), just that birders should be aware that many formerly common, forest based species no longer occur at La Selva and that most of the birds that still occur can be seen elsewhere.

              Another good option for lowland Caribbean Slope birding that is much further afield but well worth the visit is the Manzanillo-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge. Situated in the southeastern corner of Costa Rica, this little-visited, 12,000 acre (4 times the size of La Selva) reserve protects lowland rain forest and swamp forest, has no entrance fee, and has accommodations that range from inexpensive, basic lodging to costly resortish hotels. Since it is not a national park, there are people who live within the refuge (this includes the village of Manzanillo). Nevertheless, they don’t appear to have much of an impact upon the refuge itself according to my observations from this past weekend and the opinion of a local guide. The main drawbacks to Manzanillo are its distance from San Jose (4-4.5 hours drive) and that you can’t drink water from the tap (but plenty of bottled water soldin the village). I suppose the lack of general information for the refuge could also be a drawback but that makes it all the more exciting to explore in my opinion. In any case, there are a few guides for the refuge, one of the best for the area being Abel Bustamente. Although he told me he was a general naturalist guide rather than a strict birding guide, from what I saw, he knows the local birds well enough to guide visitors, probably knows about the wildlife of the refuge better than anyone, speaks English well, and is also personable. I don’t know how much he charges but here is his email if you are interested. He is also easy to find upon arrival at Manzanillo; just inquire at the house to the right of this sign before entering the village.

              With the caveat that I was mostly guiding begining birders for a day and a half, and that we hardly entered into the primary forest of the refuge, I still have to say that my general impression of birding in Manzanillo was so good I would go back there in a heartbeat. The only other time I have been to Manzanillo was in 1994 and although I had good birding and a bunch of lifers on that first trip, the lack of infrastructure made it difficult to visit (I camped on the beach and battled mosquitoes on horribly mucky trails). Things have greatly improved since those early days with lodging to fit most budgets available in the village or along the road to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Our group stayed in Manzanillo at the aptly named Cabinas Manzanillo ($30 for a basic, clean double with fan). The service was fine, but best of all, they had a fruit feeder that attracted a variety of birds including Golden-hooded and many Passerini’s Tanagers

              and flowering bushes that attracted Blue-chested Hummingbird. In fact, Manzanillo is the best place I have seen for this hummingbird species in Costa Rica.

              Also in the village were many Pale-vented Pigeons, the usual host of edge species, a plethora of Gray-necked Wood Rails (you cannot miss this species here), Common Black Hawk, flyovers of parrots and parakeets, lots of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, White-lined Tanager, and more. Our best birds in the village were Green and Rufous Kingfisher and American Pygmy Kingfisher (sorry- no pics!). The Green and Rufous was a wonderful surprise-it was actually perched on a telephone wire above a small stream with thick vegetation near the hotel but flew off before I could get a shot. An hour later, I checked the same spot with the group, heard a ticking noise that the small neotropical kingfishers make and found a pygmy kingfisher instead! I was pretty happy with both of these since I needed them for my casual Big Year.

              Outside of the village things were even better and we didn’t have to go far since primary and secondary forest, and abandoned cacao plantations that resemble primary forest surround Manzanillo. Birding along the main road out of town and on side roads (especially the one leading to a recreation center) were so birdy that we barely made progress. Migrants such as Eastern Wood Pewees and Red-eyed Vireos were the most common species along with good numbers of Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks that were bringing up the tail end of the fall raptor migration. Other, less numerous migrants were a hefty Peregrine Falcon that was casually making her way south, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Bay-breasted, Tennessee, Mourning, and Blue-winged Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the beach scrub.

              A near constant movement of Barn Swallows, Bank Swallows, and Chimney Swifts also kept us busy although we were more interested in the residents. There were also plenty of those to look at with red flowering bushes attracting at least 6 hummingbird species and Bananaquits, and the old cocao plantations harboring Cinnamon Woodpecker, three toucan species, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Plain-colored, Passerini’s, Palm, and Blue-gray Tanagers, Western Slaty and Fasciated Antshrikes, Cocoa, Black-striped, and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Bay, Black-throated, and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Northern Bentbill, Bright-rumped Attila, Cinnamon Becard, White-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange-billed Sparrow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, etc.

              One of the best birds was Purple-throated Fruitcrow; we heard several and saw a few of this cotinga species that has become uncommon in many areas of Costa Rica. A rare cotinga we did not see but that Abel has seen in the area is Lovely Cotinga. Another good we saw that has become rare is Costa Rica was Yellow-tailed Oriole that visited the feeder at Cabins Manzanillo.

              Although trogons are tough at this time of year because they don’t sing, we at least got perfect looks at this male Violaceous Trogon that perched on a wire in front of Abel’s house.

              During the very brief amount of time spent on trails in the primary forest of the refuge, we also had Crested Guan, Little Tinamou, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, and Song Wren.

              During our short visit to the area, since rather casual birding turned up 132 species without spending much time within the forest proper, I am pretty sure Manzanillo has a great deal of potential. I really can’t get back there soon enough not only because the place is very birdy in general but also because there has been so little birding done in Manzanillo. We missed out on night birding because of the rain but this site probably has both potoos, several owls, and Short-tailed Nighthawk. Manzanillo also has a great Caribbean restaurant, a soda that served us coffee at 5:30 A.M. with advance notice, and if you need to beef up your fish list, a coral reef just offshore. Getting there is pretty easy-just follow the signs from Limon to Puerto Viejo or take the bus (one a day).

              Categories
              big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction

              A Big Day in Costa Rica

              This past Saturday, I attempted my first Big Day in Costa Rica. “Big Days” should always be capitalized by the way. I mean we aren’t talking about some casual walk in the park while you smell the roses and waltz through the tulips. No, a Big Day is more like a frantic race through time and space with your head out the window to pick up the call note of a Bobolink or Squirrel Cuckoo or whatever. It is a 24 hour marathon of concentrated birding; an attempt at identifying as many species as possible within whatever size area you can manage by foot, car, boat, biplane or rickshaw. This usually means Nascar street driving your Toyota from woodlot to National Park to seashore to mountaintop to maximize birding time and increase your chances of getting more bird species.

              Costa Rica is an exciting place to do a Big Day; the country is jam packed with bird species (over 800 recorded), has many accessible protected areas, is small enough to feasibly visit several distinct bioregions in one day and has twisting, narrow streets that are very conducive to Nascar street driving. The fact that so many bird species are possible, though, ends up being a bit frustrating because there is no way to get all of them. For example with the route we did, over the course of the day, we probably came within one kilometer of around 500-600 bird species total. No kidding and no exaggeration. We might have been within flying distance of all those birds but recorded far less, even missing several “common” species while seeing some rarities. For example, we missed Blue-black Grasquit and Squirrel Cuckoo but had close looks at three Yellow-eared Toucanets and Blue and Gold Tanager. The Grasquit we missed because we just didn’t spend enough time in pasture while the Cuckoo was just bad luck. If you are thinking of blitzing through Costa Rica for a few days and seeing everything, reconsider and spend more days in fewer areas. You will probably see more and it will be a lot more relaxed.

              In any case, I think our total of 233 species was alright for a first attempt; especially without the benefits of scouting. Below is a summary of the day.

              2:40 A.M.

              I get out of bed, shave and am ready to roll out into the urban wonderland of Tibas to listen for Tropical Screech Owl. I hear a horn outside and am out the door to join my team members; Dieter, Johan and Ineke. Dieter is the tall guy in shorts. Hailing from Namibia, Dieter met his wife while guiding in South Africa. Now they live in Costa Rica and watch Motmots instead of elephants. Johan (Nascar street driver) and Ineke are from Holland originally. They have also lived in Africa; Mozambique and Zimbabwe before Mugabe went haywire. Now they too live in Costa Rica watching Motmots instead of elephants. I am originally from Niagara Falls, NY. I met my wife some years ago, we got married and now we live in Costa Rica with our 7 month old future kung-fu birder (fingers crossed) daughter and watch TV (for the most part) instead of Motmots.


              After explaining the Big Day rules, we drove a few blocks to my old apartment to try for the Tropical Screech Owl that calls at night and is never seen. Almost as soon as we stepped out of the car, both Ineke and I heard it! It sounded distant but there it was- how fortunate we were! And then Johan pointed out that the sound appeared to be coming from the car. A few more owl calls and yes he was right, it was coming from the car alright; actually from inside my bag to be precise. Not only that but it sounded more like Spectacled Owl which of course it was; my cd player had somehow turned on by itself. If there was a Tropical Screech nearby, it made nary a peep and who can blame it after that display of silliness.

              3:05-4:45 A.M.

              We left that embarrassing moment behind and zoomed through the mountain night along beautifully silent roads, taking a left at La Garita to twist and turn our way out of the central valley. Our next destination was San Mateo. A small town located in the hot Pacific foothills, we tried for Mottled and Spectacled Owl at the entrance to Rancho Oropendola. Over the chorus of barking dogs and an occasional rooster, we got our first species as soon as we exited the car; a distant Ferruginous Pygmy Owl! Luckily, in addition to our two target owl species, we also tried for Pacific Screech Owl. While the two targets refused to answer my imitations, the Screech Owl called a few times and even gave us brief looks. At 4:45, we left the barking dogs behind and raced off towards Carara National Park.

              Due to confusing road work combined with a general paucity of street lamps, we missed our turn-off (apparently a hidden gap among street cones) and raced towards Puntarenas (the absolutely wrong direction). Fortunately, one of those temporary lights that sprout at one way traffic in road work areas halted our race to Big Day disaster and after receiving directions from two middle-aged road workers who were manning the light and listening to reggaeton, we were back on course. On a Big Day one hopes that a wrong turn turns out to be serendipitous with a flyby Barn Owl or other random surprise bird and everyone says things like , “Ha ha! Good thing we made a wong turn!”, “How fortunate!” or “The birding Gods are doing a Manakin dance!” but no, nothing like that happened to us; we only saw a bunch of darkness where the wind played in the warm lowland night.

              5:00 A.M.

              The Tarcol bridge is a busy place during the day; people are constantly marching out along a skinny sidewalk to see the crocodiles on the river below while the cars and buses zoom by. At night, although there aren’t any pedestrians, it’s still a pretty busy road. During traffic lulls we tried for White-tailed Nightjar and got Double-striped Thick-Knees instead as they called from the grassland. Unexpected good bird! With hints of dawn in the distance we drove to the nearby Laguna Meandrica trail. This is always an excellent birding site. Its mix of dry and moist forest species along with waterbirds always makes for a huge list. Our plan was to walk a few kilometers back to an area of primary forest for the dawn chorus, picking up nightbirds along the way. Although we didn’t get any owls, we got loads of Common Pauraques, many on the track itself. We started picking up the pre-dawners too such as Blue-crowned Motmot (only ones for the day), and Cocoa and Nothern Barred Woodcreepers. You just don’t realize how common some woodcreepers are until you hear a dawn chorus. We had at least a dozen of each of those species with lesser numbers of Wedge-billed and Streaked-headed.

              The Tarcol bridge during the day.

              What everyone is looking at.

              6:00-8:00

              As daylight quickly vanquished the night, the birds came fast and steady at this exciting site. Although we missed many of the primary forest targets I had hoped for (appear to be more likely along the HQ trail), we still got 121 species over the next two hours (yes, Carara is one of the best birding sites in Central America).We picked up most of the herons including Boat-billed, got Purple Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, had a Roseate Spoonbill drop out of the sky to feed in front of us, saw several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and much more.

              Best birds were a distant calling Striped Cuckoo, Golden-naped Woodpecker, 3 Toucan species, Three-wattled Bellbird and American Redstart. We also got many targets such as Stub-tailed Spadebill, 4 Trogon species, Orange-collared Manakin, a Crane Hawk spotted by Dieter, 4 Wrens, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Royal Flycatcher, White-whiskered Puffbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Long-billed Gnatwren, Plain Xenops, Dusky Antbird and more.

              The lagoon. This is another spot where I need to sit and watch all day sometime.


              The lagoon is an excellent spot for Boat-billed Heron.

              We found a perched Lesser Nighthawk picked out while checking out some Anis in a tree.

              This Bicolored Antbird was at an antswarm along with Gray-headed Tanagers, Chestnut-backed Antbirds and Northern Barred and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers.

              And of course we got great looks at one of the stars of Carara, Scarlet Macaws. This pair was inspecting a tree hole and preening right over the trail.

              8:20-9:45

              It can get hot pretty early along the Pacific coast and Saturday was no exception. You really have to be out and about by dawn or you are going to miss a lot of birds. On Saturday, bird activity dropped off by 8:30 A.M.; right around the time we we birded the pastures and forest edge near Tarcoles. This probably explained why we missed Striped-headed Sparrows and Blue-black Grasquits. We barely picked up Ruddy Ground Dove with just a few flybys and somehow missed Crested Caracara! We still picked up other things though like Common Black Hawk soaring way up in the blue with the Vultures, Philly Vireos, Orange-fronted Parakeets and Ruby-throated and Steely-vented Hummingbirds all feeding on orange-colored flowers, and Orchard Oriole.

              At the mangroves near Tarcol lodge, we got great looks at a few Mangrove Vireos, saw a close female Blue Ground Dove, heard Red-winged Blackbirds and picked up Ruddy Turnstones and Whimbrel that were perched on snags in the estuary.

              At the nearby beach, we did alright picking up expected species such as Osprey, Neo. Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Mag. Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and Royal Tern but aside from a distant Brown Booby, missed a chunk of shorebird and Tern species more likely during low tide.

              10:00-11:30

              Leaving Tarcoles by mid-morning we rushed to the bridge hoping for open country species and maybe a White Ibis or shorebird but were vanquished by the sun. I was starting to feel vanquished by the sun too. Unfortunately, I have been getting pretty bad headaches and feeling pretty drained when I walk around on hot days; to the point of feeling too tired to talk. Not sure why this happens but it’s a royal pain! I try to drink a lot of water so I don’t know what the deal is; maybe I’m turning into a mountain person? Maybe it was because I missed my morning coffee? In any case a couple of tylenol helped out and at least the birding was slow during my brief time of head pain.

              It was during this hot time that we tried for dry forest species around Guacimo. For our 15 minutes of effort we picked up a Nutting’s Flycatcher panting in the heat and nothing else.

              We swung by Orotina for the Black and White Owls and it was surreal as always; some non-birder guy on a bench asks me if I want to see the owls in the fairly busy plaza, I say yes please, he points to a large tree in the middle of the plaza and there they are. Just incredible. I say “gracias” and we walk back to the car noting a Turquoise Browed Motmot (which we already had but always deserve to be watched) and picked up Yellow-green Vireo via its incessant singing. Also got another urban bird here; Grey-breasted Martin. Like Purple Martins, these guys have also become completely adapted to and maybe even dependent upon the structures built by people.

              From Orotina, it was back uphill towards the Central Valley. Along the way we stopped for a drink at the Café Mirador near Atenas. This is a great place to stop for a drink or breakfast. Nice ambience and beautiful view all the way to the sea, it can also be good for dry forest birds. Can be means not at 11 A.M. though because we only saw the wind make the trees dance. We did pick up two birds though; a Yellow-bellied Elaenia was friendly enough to call once and the local Blue and White Swallows were present. It was good to stop for a drink and brief rest but this may not be the best place to stop on a Big Day; the service was just too relaxed. This is nice any other time but on a Big Day even a a few squandered minutes can mean lost birds. This may sound crazy but not if you think in terms of priorities; number of bird species being the top priority on a Big Day.

              Just past Atenas we had another brief yet fruitful stop to check out the Rio Grande reservoir. This stop was perfect; we got out of the car and picked up our targets; Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal and Black Phoebe and got one non-target; Short-tailed Hawk!

              If the A-team had converted to birding instead of firing guns and smoking cigars, they would have said, “I love it when a plan comes together”. Well, actually, their leader would have said that while Mr. T would have said, “I pity the bird who don’t show itself”. Face would have said something stupid like “I love Cowbirds” and the crazy one have mewed like a Clay-colored Robin.


              View from the Mirador café

              11:30 A.M. – 2 P.M.

              This is when we saw very few birds because Johan was getting us through the traffic obstacle and maze of roads in San Jose. Traffic wasn’t too bad except along one stretch near our turnoff to the Caribbean. It might have been worth it if we had picked up a House Sparrow but nope, we saw nothing.

              2-3 P.M.

              Ahhh, relief to have escaped the car conglomeration and back out on the road heading up to Zurqui. I told the team to get on any bird that fluttered a wing or peeped as everything would probably be new up there at 1600 meters. We pulled over at some roadside café near patchy cloud forest habitat and tried to hear and see some birds through mountain pass mist accompanied by the din of passing 18-wheelers. Well, it wasn’t exactly the most active time of day for birds but we managed to get a few things such as Plain Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Mountain Robin, Wilsons Warbler and our only Rufous-collared Sparrows of the day.

              Further on, we stopped at our only good cloud forest site; the Zurqui police station in Braulio Carrillo National Park. There used to be an excellent trail here with cloud forest birding as good as or even better than Monteverde. The trail is too overgrown to bother with though so we were limited to the noisy roadside during rainy weather. We picked up a handfull; Golden-bellied Flycatcher foraging around the police station, Yellowish Flycatcher, a gorgeous male Flame-colored Tanager, and our best; Emerald Toucanets flying across the road!

              Unfortunately we were slim on time, the birds were quiet at this time of day and you really can’t see too much from the side of the road so we left for lower elevations of the Caribbean slope. This was pretty frustrating since there was probably 70 new species somewhere nearby in those excellent cloud forests. Next year, we will have to figure out how to maximize our cloud forest species number. On our original route, we would have done quite well but that road no longer exists; the way through Varablanca and Cinchona which was destroyed by the January 8th, 2009 earthquake.

              Taking in the mist and not seeing much at Zurqui.

              3:30-4:30 P.M.

              Heading downhill, lucky for us, the weather cleared up by the time we reached my patch; Quebrada Gonzalez. We had some good birding for that hour. We picked up Collared Aracari and Bay Wren upon arrival, White-breasted Wood Wren and Pale-vented Thrush as soon as we entered the forest, Tawny-capped Euphonia and a good variety of other Tanagers such as Dusky-faced, Olive, Tawny-crested, Emerald, Bay-headed, Black and Yellow, and best of all, Blue and Gold! We also got Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, Green Shrike Vireo, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter and best of all, Yellow-eared Toucanet to clean up on Costa Rican Toucan species! As on other occasions when I have seen this species here, we saw three close and tame (but quiet) birds in the upper understory. I took the photo below zooming in about 3X.

              Here is a digiscoped female from another a day there in January.

              It was tough to leave with such nice bird activity but we still had to hit the Sarapiqui area so off we went; driving through the pouring rain for Carribean lowland targets. We got lucky again with the weather when it cleared up before reaching the La Selva entrance road. Along the way we got Pale-vented Pigeon perched on a roadside wire and upon arrival picked up a Swainsons Hawk amidst the 1000s of Turkey Vultures migrating en masse. It was incredible; this river of birds stretched from horizon to horizon! It was tough to pull ourselves away from this spectacle but we had targets to look for. The La Selva entrance road is always productive and we picked up several birds; the churring of White-throated Crake, Gray-rumped Swifts overhead, a Purple Martin (good bird!), a group of Olive-throated Parakeets screeching past, Golden-hooded Tanager, our only Masked Tityra and Lineated Woodpecker of the day, Fasciated Antshrike (!), Passerini’s Tanager, a distant Black-cowled Oriole scoped on a tree-top, a White-collared Manakin calling and then as dusk approached and most birds became silent we picked up our Little Tinamou and watched Crested Guans flap up above the tall trees to gracefully glide down into the shadows. As it got dark, we got one of our best birds for the day; Short-tailed Nighthawk! It gave us great looks right at the start of the entrance road, flying out on long wings a bit like a large bat. Our last bird though came at 6:15 P.M. when night had once again taken hold. It was another owl species; a distantly calling Spectacled. This was the end of our Big Day for 2009. So what if we didn’t get 300 species; its not every day that you get to identify 233 bird species while visiting lowland rain forest, montane cloud forest, mangroves, an oxbow lake and an ocean beach over the course of a single day.

              A bad pic of the 1000s of TVs going by.


              Violaceous Trogons are pretty common along the La Selva entrance road.

              Our last stop; the La Selva entrance road.