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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands

More Organic Farm Birding in Costa Rica at The Finca Luna Nueva

Sadly, the places that act as true models for sustainable living are far and few between. This is all too apparent when driving along just about any road in Costa Rica. Look out the window in any direction and you come face to face with urbanization, pasture, or intensively farmed land. Patches of habitat are seen here and there and intact forest is found in protected areas but sustainability is clearly not part of the picture. If maintaining biodiversity were an essential part of land use, then there would be more forest, no monocultures, much less pasture, and more green space shared on private lands and connected to large areas of forest on public lands. Although most land owners don’t manage their property in such a fashion (and we can’t blame them if they don’t know how to), there are a few people here and there who make serious efforts to use their natural resources in a sustainable manner.

One such place that acts as a model for sustainable farming and living is the Finca Luna Nueva eco-lodge near San Isidro de Penas Blancas. An active, successful, organic farm and eco-lodge, the Finca Luna Nueva is also an excellent site for birding. Unlike farms that use chemicals, grow just one or two crops, and cut down most of their forest to make room for Zebu Cattle, the Luna Nueva cultivates a wide variety of crops, has limited areas of pasture, and leaves nearly half of the farm cloaked with lowland rainforest. The fact that they are managing the land in a way that preserves and promotes biodiversity is apparent in the numbers and types of birds that you can see there.

Over 200 bird species have been recorded at Finca Luna Nueva and more are expected for their site list. In fact, as testament to the seasonal variation and low population densities so typical of birding in Costa Rica, we recorded 7 new species for the list. These were Bat Falcon, Uniform Crake, Mealy Parrot, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Northern Bentbill, and Canada Warbler. The crake was species 547 for my year list and would have been missed had a pair not given their usual duet at dusk. Whether in the humid forests of Costa Rica or the Amazonian lowlands or Ecuador and Peru, this is how I have always recorded this species. Now if I could just see one, I could remove the “h” in front of its name and increase my official life list by one.

The birds mentioned above were all nice to see or hear but our main quarry was another, much rarer species; the clownish White-fronted Nunbird. It cackles like a maniac, has a crazy, big, orange bill, and used to be common on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It’s still fairly common in the lowland forests of Hitoy Cerere Reserve but has either disappeared from or become rare just about everywhere else in the country. The nunbird is apparently very susceptible to edge effects as it has even disappeared from La Selva for unknown reasons (although an overabundance of peccaries are probably to blame). It hangs on at Luna Nueva though and I suspect that its continued occurrence there is just as much a result of pesticide-free habitat as the presence of intact lowland forest.

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White-fronted Nunbird a good bird to get when birding Costa Rica.

In being one of the apex insectivores of the lowland rainforest, nunbirds require a steady diet of large katydids, hefty  bugs, and small frogs and lizards. Luna Nueva offers up a smorgasbord of items to Nunbirds because they simply don’t try to kill off those forms of life. The limited area of rainforest at Luna Nueva keeps the nunbirds at low levels but they are still around and birders should see them during a weekend tour. We got our nunbirds back in the beautiful primary forest on the Cabalonga Trail although they also show up on the Rainforest Mystery Trail and in the biodynamic areas of the farm (basically where most of the cultivations are located). While looking for the nunbird, we also had a male Great Curassow calling from a cecropia (another indicator species of quality, protected habitat), Crested Guans, toucans, and Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogons.

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Black-throated Trogons prefer the interior of lowland rainforest.

The Rainforest Mysteries Trail was also productive and gave us mixed flocks of Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Western Slaty Antshrike, Plain Xenops, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Northern Bentbill, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, and Canada Warbler. Migrants weren’t as abundant as I had hoped but several Canada Warblers, a few Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Eastern Wood Pewees, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and hundreds of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows were reminders that birds are definitely passing through Costa Rica. We saw some of these birds from the tower along with flybys of Red-lored Parrots and close looks at a female Black-crested Coquette that visited Porterweed growing in planters on the tower itself.

Night birding was more or less halted by rain but a pre-dawn walk did yield calling Spectacled Owls and Common Pauraques (no nocturnal migrants though). On a non-bird note, the food was as super healthy and fantastic as it always is, and hotel service was great. If you are headed to La Fortuna, you should seriously consider staying at the Finca Luna Nueva. Who knows, if you find a fruiting tree, maybe you will add Bare-necked Umbrellabird or Lovely Cotinga to the list!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills caribbean slope lowlands

Good Costa Rica Birding at the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge

What makes a hotel truly worthy of the “eco-lodge” title? How about one that is also an organic farm, protects primary rainforest, provides employment to locals, prefers guests who dig the natural world, and strives to be sustainable. In all of the above respects, the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge fits the bill perfectly. I was fortunate to be able to visit this gem of a spot with my wife and daughter over the past weekend and look forward to doing a lot more birding at this site in the future.

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They also have a nice ozonated pool.

I heard about and was invited to the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge by fellow guide and birding friend of mine, Juan Diego Vargas. Juan Diego spends much of his time looking for birds in Liberia but also guides in many areas of the country and helps out with a number of ornithological projects. One of these has been inventories of the birds at Luna Nueva (check out this link for the details). A few of the more interesting finds were White-fronted Nunbird, Green Thorntail, Black-crested Coquette, and even Great Green Macaw. The nunbirds appear to have a healthy resident population and are readily seen along a trail that accesses primary forest. The hummingbirds are probably seasonal but we had one female Black-crested Coquette over the weekend. The macaw is a very rare, seasonal visitor during October but the fact that it does show up reflects the healthy bird habitat on the farm.

Yes, the fact that the place is a working farm makes it all the more interesting and acts as a ray of sustainable hope in a world whose ecosystems are stressed by the needs of several billion people. Farm workers arrive in the morning and you will probably see a few while birding, but unlike farms that raise monocultures, you will also see lots of birds. At least I did while walking past a mix of cacao, ginger, medicinal herbs, chile peppers, scattered trees, and areas that were allowed to naturally recover. White-crowned Parrots were very common and filled the air with their screeching calls. Bright-rumped Attilas, three species of toucans, Black-throated Wrens, Barred Antshrikes, and other species of the humid Caribbean slope flitted through bushes and treetops while a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails ran along paths through the organic crops. The birding was definitely good in the farmed area of the lodge but I think the food was even better.

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I finally got a good shot of an atilla!

The Luna Nueva is a proponent of what they call, “slow food”. The apparent antithesis of hamburgers, fries, milkshakes, and other quickly made, over-sugared, and fatty foods, slow food is all about the good taste that comes from using carefully groomed, high quality products. At least this was the impression I got after having eaten slow food at Luna Nueva over the course of the weekend. Everything they served was not only damn good, but it also left me feeling super healthy. Really, if you want to eat some of the healthiest, tastiest food in the country, eat at Luna Nueva.

Now back to the birds! Mornings started off with a fine dawn chorus of humid lowland edge and forest species. This means a medley of sound that included Laughing Falcons, Gray Hawk, toucans, the bouncing ball song of Black-striped Sparrow, Black-throated Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Dusky Antbirds, Barred Antshrikes, Cinnamon and White-winged Becard, Long-tailed Tyrant, Blue-black Grosbeak, and others.

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We also enjoyed a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers that worked a snag in front of our family bungalow.

A few flocks of Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets sped overhead and Red-billed Pigeons flapped their way around scattered trees. As morning progressed, hummingbirds became more obvious as they zipped and chipped between patches of heliconias and Porterweed planted to attract them. Speaking of hummingbirds, Luna Nueva is an especially good site for those glittering avian delights. I had at least 8 species during my stay and I’m sure you could see more.

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A male Violet-headed Hummingbird was one of the eight species.

In the primary forest, Western Slaty-Antshrikes, Golden-crowned Spadebills, Great Tinamou, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds called from the understory while Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and a few Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers vocalized from the canopy. That latter species is not all that common in Costa Rica so it was good to record it (my first for 2011). Although some of the deep forest species are unfortunately lacking or rare because of poor connectivity with other, more extensive forest, you could use the lodge as a base to bird more intact forests around Arenal or the Manuel Brenes Reserve (both 20 minute drives).

I didn’t do any nocturnal birding but was awakened by the calls of  a Black and White Owl on my first night. The habitat is perfect for this species so you should probably see it without too much effort around the lodge buildings.

This was what the habitat looked like around the lodge buildings,

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this was what the primary rainforest looked like,

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and this was a view from the canopy tower.

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Oops, did I say canopy tower? It turns out that the Luna Nueva has had a canopy tower for years but the birding community didn’t know anything about it! The lodge has gone unnoticed and rather undiscovered because it was marketed to student groups and botanically slanted tours for most of its history. Birders, herpitologists, and other aficionados of our natural world should start showing up on a more regular basis once the word gets out about this place.

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Hognose Viper- one of the many reasons why herpitologists will like this place. Others are frog ponds that attract Red-eyed Tree Frogs and Cat-eyed Snakes, and a healthy herp population inside the forest.

From the tower, I mostly had common edge species but the looks were sweet as candied mangos and it should turn up some uncommon raptors, good views of parrots, and maybe even a cotinga or two at the right time of the year.

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A Blue-Gray Tanager from the tower.

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A Squirrel Cuckoo from the tower.

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A Yellow-crowned Euphonia in a fruiting Melastome at the base of the tower.

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A Common Tody-Flycatcher on the side of the road (they were pretty common and confiding- my kind of bird!).

The following is my bird list from our stay (115 species):

Great Tinamou

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Gray Hawk

Gray-headed Kite

Laughing Falcon

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Red-billed Pigeon

Ruddy Ground-Dove

White-tipped Dove

Gray-chested Dove

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Olive-throated Parakeet

Orange-chinned Parakeet

White-crowned Parrot

Red-lored Parrot

Squirrel Cuckoo

Groove-billed Ani

Black and white Owl

White-collared Swift

Long-billed Hermit

Purple-crowned Fairy

White-necked Jacobin

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Green-breasted Mango

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Black-crested Coquette

Violaceous (Gartered) Trogon

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Collared Aracari

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Smoky-brown Woodpecker

Rufous-winged Woodpecker

Pale-billed Woodpecker

Lineated Woodpecker

Plain Xenops

Northern barred Woodcreeper

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Black-striped Woodcreeper

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

Barred Antshrike

Western Slaty Antshrike

Dusky Antbird

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Dull-mantled Antbird

Yellow Tyrannulet

Golden-crowned Spadebill

Paltry Tyrannulet

Yellow-bellied Ealenia

Piratic Flycatcher

Yellow-olive Flycatcher

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Common Tody-Flycatcher

Northern Bentbill

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

Bright-rumped Atilla

Long-tailed Tyrant

Tropical Pewee

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Tropical Kingbird

Cinnamon Becard

White-winged Becard

Masked Tityra

White-collared Manakin

Lesser Greenlet

Brown Jay

Gray-breasted Martin

Long-billed Gnatwren

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Tropical Gnatcatcher

Stripe-breasted Wren

Bay Wren

Black-throated Wren

House Wren

White-breasted Wood Wren

Clay-colored Robin

Buff-rumped Warbler

Bananaquit

Red-throated Ant-Tanager

Olive (Carmiol’s) Tanager

Passerini’s Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

Palm Tanager

Blue Dacnis

Green Honeycreeper

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Thick-billed Seed-Finch

Variable Seedeater

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Blue-black Grassquit

Orange-billed Sparrow

Black-striped Sparrow

Buff-throated Saltator

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Black-faced Grosbeak

Blue-black Grosbeak

Melodious Blackbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Yellow-billed Cacique

Montezuma Oropendola

Yellow-crowned Euphonia

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see puffbirds when birding in Costa Rica

The Bucconidae, or puffbirds, are one of the many families of birds that rank high on target lists of temperate zone birders on a birding trip to Costa Rica because they are just so darn different from birds of the north. A funny name for a funny bunch of birds, the large-headed, stout-bodied, tiny-footed puffbirds look like a cross between a Kookaburra and some odd stuffed animal won at the ring toss. Although they are probably easiest to see and most speciose in the forests of Amazonia, five puffbird species can also be encountered when birding Costa Rica. The five, feathered stars of this post are:

1. White-whiskered Puffbird

A male from the Trogon Trail near Achiote, Panama.

The White-whiskered Puffbird is the most common and frequently seen of the family when birding Costa Rica. A fairly common resident of humid lowland and foothill forests of both slopes, the White-whiskered Puffbird likes to trick neotropical, neophyte birders into thinking that it’s some sort of owl. One really can’t blame a birder for suspecting that the puffbird is an owl because the shape and coloration are actually a lot like a pygmy owl (and it also moves its tail back and forth like one). This species loves to lurk in the shady understory and usually makes its presence known with extremely high-pitched (and easily overlooked) vocalizations. Although they sound more like a baby bird or a strange bug, if you learn their calls, this will come in handy in looking for other similar sounding Malacoptila genus puffbirds elsewhere in the neotropics. This species is found at many sites when birding Costa Rica but is probably easiest at Carara. I also see it on most visits to Quebrada Gonzalez.

2. White-necked Puffbird

A White-necked Puffbird in the canopy at Carara National Park.

This pigeon-sized, monster-headed bird is a perennial favorite and rightly so. With its oversized beak and striking black and white plumage, the White-necked Puffbird gets my vote for being one of the coolest, widespread bird species of the neotropics. Unlike the White-whiskered Puffbird, when birding Costa Rica, you will have to look high up into the canopy of tall, lowland forest to this species. Like other puffbirds, it prefers to sally out and snatch large, juicy katydids, walking sticks, and lizards from the foliage after a long, immobile wait. This behavior doesn’t make the White-necked Puffbird very easy to see but at least means that it makes for a nice photography subject when spotted. Canopy towers significantly up your chances in seeing this bird but since such wonderful birding aids are strangely absent from Costa Rica, your best bet for seeing the White-necked Puffbird in Costa Rica is to keep an eye on the tree tops and scan the canopy whenever possible (such as when hillsides in areas of lowland forest are visible). Being familiar with the rather quiet, even-pitched, prolonged  trill given by the White-necked Puffbird also helps in tracking them down. This species is widespread in tall forest of the lowlands of both slopes but might be easiest at Carara and in the Golfo Dulce area.

3. Pied Puffbird

Taken along the La Selva entrance road.

Like a miniature White-necked, the Pied Puffbird is easily overlooked when birding because of its small size and loyalty to the puffbird doctrine of lethargic meditation. Fortunately, it is more vociferous than its brethren and gives a loud, easily recognized descending series of trills which at the least make you aware of their presence. They will sometimes perch on dead branches in the open which is nice because Pied Puffbirds can be very difficult to find when calling from the canopy vegetation. The Pied Puffbird is uncommon in Costa Rica but regularly found along the La Selva entrance road. It seems to prefer the edges of lowland forests of the Caribbean Slope. Outside of Costa Rica, the best place I have seen for Pied Puffbird was in Panama around Achiote.

4. White-fronted Nunbird

A bad yet identifiable image from Bijagua.

The nunbirds are striking, strange things with their large coral-colored bills and rollicking laughter-like vocalizations. More active and easier to see than the other puffbirds, they move through the sub-canopy and take large insects and small lizards from the vegetation with frequent sallies. Nunbirds in Costa Rica and elsewhere often forage with other medium-sized birds in mixed flocks and are common in regions with extensive, lowland rain forest. They apparently need large areas of forest to survive because this formerly common species of the Caribbean lowlands has become quite rare in Costa Rica and has all but disappeared from historically reliable sites such as La Selva. It still occurs as a rare resident in lowland forests near Rara Avis, at Selva Verde, at Laguna del Lagarto, Barbilla National Park, and in the forests of the Talamancan foothills near Limon. The best place I have seen for this species when birding in Costa Rica has been at Hitoy Cerere; a little visited reserve near Limon that has the best Caribbean Slope lowland forest I have seen in Costa Rica and is one of the only accessible sites where nunbirds are still common. Other sites in Costa Rica for White-fronted Nunbird are at Bijagua, some forests in the Arenal area, probably Tortuguero, and possibly in primary forests near Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo.

5. Lanceolated Monklet

Sorry, no photo for this one! I still need this species for my Costa Rica list despite it having been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez! This fact is testament to the rarity and difficulty of connecting with this species in Costa Rica. I have often whistled like one at Quebrada Gonzalez but have never gotten a response nor have I ever heard one there so I wonder of it is still present at that site. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because its small size and firm committment to the puffbird doctrine make it very easy to overlook. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, the Lancelated Monklet is typically found near streams in mossy forest of foothill and middle elevation sites. Although you can’t really expect to get this one while birding in Costa Rica, other regular sites for this species have been VIrgen del Socorro (no longer accessible), the Tuis river near Rancho Naturalista, and Tapanti National Park. It is definitely easier to see in Ecuador (Milpe, Silanche, and Bombuscaro where I have seen several), and in Peru (the Manu Road). Listen for its vocalization to locate this tough species- a series of high-pitched, upslurred notes.