Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Good Birding on the Manuel Brenes Road- It’s All About the Habitat

Birding tours in Costa Rica tend to visit the best sites, especially when the tour is organized local experts. However, no matter how good a site is, it might not make it onto a tour because of factors related to logistics. For example, even if a Great Jacamar was living in those woods, visiting the area may require too much of a detour from the tour route. Or, the site with the hawk-eagles and parrotlets is just too difficult to bird with a group. This is why most tours don’t make it to Rara Avis, El Copal, or sites south of Limon. Some do, but most don’t and it’s also why most birding tours in Costa Rica don’t check out the excellent sites along the San Ramon-La Fortuna road. Although that route is a good and paved road and easy to visit, it’s just hard to fit into most of the classic Costa Rica birding itineraries.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that a birder can’t visit on his or her own and possibly see Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Three-wattled Bellbird. Go to the right places and you might see those megas and much more! I was reminded of the quality birding in this area during a recent morning on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve.

Although I never actually make it to the excellent cloud forests of the university owned reserve, high quality birding on the road there is par for the course and with good reason. As with so many other great birding sites, it’s all about the habitat and since this road passes through an extensive area of mature foothill/middle elevation rainforest, the species count is typically high and punctuated with the uncommon.

Some highlights and tidbits from a recent morning:

Three-wattled Bellbird

Although it is likely seasonal, this mega cotinga is regularly heard and seen in the area of the Manuel Brenes Reserve. The one on Monday was a female that appeared in the mist, a dove-sized bird perched on an exposed branch of a roadside Cecropia. She let us watch her for a good spell before swooping off her perch and into the misty green of the forest.

Mixed mega flock

White-throated Shrike-Tanager

Mixed flocks can be composed of a handful of birds, ten species, or many birds of many species racing through the trees for some frenzied over stimulation of the avian kind. Usually, the better the habitat, the more likely a birder will encounter such a memorable experience. We had one of these the other morning, although I couldn’t get on all of the birds, we had nice looks at White-throated Shrike-Tanager along with various other tanagers, woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, flycatchers and so on.

Umbrellabird or Toucanet?

Just before we saw the mixed flock, I glimpsed what appeared to be a large black bird fly over the card. The view was the briefest of brief but I swear it was black underneath and was fairly large. Unfortunately, although I tried, I just couldn’t find where it had flown, maybe it went too far in to see. Based on what I saw, I suspect that it was either an umbrellabird or a Yellow-eared Toucanet. Both are possible at this site, I wonder which of those choice species it was!

Tawny-chested Flycatcher!

I have had this local near endemic just down the road at Lands in Love but never at the Manuel Brenes road. It was nice to find one, I hope it sticks around!

No monklet, Lattice-tailed Trogon, or quail-doves

I just mention that we did not find these species to emphasize that one doesn’t usually see every possible bird on every visit, no matter how nice the habitat is. Maybe we would have found that Lattice-tailed Trogon in the afternoon? I wasn’t surprised about the monklet but it’s always worth it to listen and look for this miniscule puffbird in the right places. The more you visit a site with high quality habitat, the better because every time you bird that same forest, the laws of probability make it more likely to find that Sharpbill or even an RVG Cuckoo.

State of the road

Four wheel drive can be required in a few spots. You might make it with a small car but if it has been raining for several days before the visit, you might also get stuck!

Most of all, I was reminded that the best places to see more birds in Costa Rica are the places with the best high quality forest. To learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Now is a Good Time to See Yellow-eared Toucanet in Costa Rica

At times, the number of birds on the Costa Rica list seems endless. Although some websites mention a robust 850 plus species, actually, the total has grown a fair bit since the list was pegged at that number. Some new birds were expected, some weren’t, but in any case, at the moment, the official list stands at more than 920 species, one of which was added just the other day (Great Black-backed Gull in Tortuguero!).

With such a large number of birds, we can also expect a fair number to be rare or hard to find. As anyone who has tried to see Tawny-faced Quail, Gray-headed Piprites, or Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica can tell you, this is indeed true. Those three and several other species can be pretty tough whereas quite a few others are just plain uncommon. The uncommon ones are the birds that frequently escape detection on brief trips or even when you only have one day to bird a site. Check that same area over three days and you have a much better chance at connecting with the uncommon and secretive ones but who has the time for that when you have other sites to get to and just ten days to work with?

At the end of the day, this means that whether a birder resides in Costa Rica or visits once a year, he or she always has the chance to see new birds, at least for their country list. One species that frequently escapes detection during an average tour is the toucan species that most folks still need after two or even three trips to Costa Rica. The lack of a check (or tick in Brit-birder lingo) next to its name derives from its decidedly reclusive behavior, likely low density population, and often inaccessible foothill forest home.

Unlike bold toucan species that yelp and rattle from exposed perches, the toucanet with the yellow ears clacks from the shady depths of tall rainforest trees. It rarely if ever ventures into the open and would rather stay quiet than demonstrate any degree of vocal capability. In other words, a real stickler to see but there’s good news! When certain types of trees are fruiting, this species can’t help its hunger and lingers for as long as the tree provides the banquet. Lately, in foothill forests, those very trees have been laden with purple, round fruits, and the toucanets have come out to dine.

This male was with a female on the Ceiba trail at Quebrada Gonzalez.

The other day, despite near constant rain, we had three different Yellow-eared Toucanets at such fruiting trees in Quebrada Gonzalez, and we weren’t the only ones to have soul satisfying looks at this local mega. Other birders have also been reporting and posting fantastic pictures of the toucanet from the Arenal area. Since I am headed there soon, it will interesting to see if we find more of this fine bird species. Whether we see more toucanets or not, it will still be worth it to watch those clumps of purple fruits because they look just as delectable for umbrellabirds and other birds, maybe even a lovely bright blue and purple one.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Hummingbirds middle elevations

More great birding near San Ramon, Costa Rica

I have been more or less stuck in the not so scenic, urbanized areas of Costa Rica for the past few weeks. Work and family duties (including a children’s birthday party replete with scary clown dancing to reggaeton blasted out of an amplifier) have kept me from birding the beautiful, exciting, rainforests and cloud forests of Costa Rica.

This past Saturday, though, I happily exchanged the cracked sidewalks, barking dogs, and honking cars for the fresh air, tropical forests, and tanagers of rainforests near San Ramon, Costa Rica.

I had the great fortune of guiding our local birding club (appropriately named, “The Birding Club of Costa Rica”) on a day trip to this wonderful, birdy area and although that was just a few days ago, I already can’t wait to go back.

The combination of light traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, accessible Caribbean slope foothill forest, and hummingbird action make this area a true, Costa Rican birding hotspot. Don’t be surprised if you have never read about this area in any trip reports though because it has been almost entirely overlooked by birders visiting Costa Rica. The probable reasons for this are because in the past, there was much less infrastructure, the road connecting San Ramon to La Tigra was pretty bad, and birders could see similar species at Virgen del Socorro.

However, since Virgen del Socorro is no longer a birding option, infrastructure has improved, and because the road is in great shape, every birder visiting Costa Rica should make efforts to include this area on their itinerary, especially so if they are headed to Arenal.

Although the hour and twenty minute drive from San Jose can be tiresome, at least its a scenic one after leaving San Ramon and heading through the cloudy pass that separates the Tilaran and Central mountain ranges.

Despite hot, sunny weather keeping bird activity to a minimum during much of the morning, we still recorded over 100 species on our day trip this past Saturday, our only waterbird being Northern Jacana.

One of our first birds was a White Hawk seen perched across the road from our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy. As we waited for the rest of the group and searched the treetops vain for Lovely Cotinga, other notables were Tawny-throated Leaftosser singing from a ravine and a gorgeous male, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis that briefly lit atop a distant tree.

birding Costa Rica White Hawk

White Hawks shine like fresh snow when the blazing, morning tropical sun lights them up.

Zip-lining mannequins assure that you can’t miss The San Luis Canopy.

Once the entire group was present, we drove 10 minutes to the entrance of our birding road at Los Lagos. The lakes gave us our jacana but nothing else save heard only White-throated Crake and a few other open country species. Further up the road, the sunny weather was great for butterflies but made for very slow birding. We heard a few things now and then like Spotted Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, and Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant but saw very little other than a lone Piratic Flycatcher, Purple-crowned Fairy, lazy Black Vultures, Bananaquit, and Green Honeycreeper.

birding rainforests San Ramon, Costa Rica

Birding the road to Manuel Brenes Biological Reserve

Although the sunny weather was keeping bird activity to a bare minimum, the dry weather was a nice break from the heavy rains that had been soaking the central valley for the past two weeks.

As we made our way up the road, I kept an eye out for fruiting trees and mixed flocks. Small red fruits on an Inga species attracted a bevy of Golden-browed Chlorophonias (at 800 meters, a bit lower than their usual haunts), more Green Honeycreepers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis but mixed flocks had evaded us so far.

By 10 A.M., we reached a place along the road that I call “the overlook”. It’s a high point that looks down into a valley where much of the forest has been replaced by rows of plants most commonly seen in offices throughout the world. There are still number of canopy trees left standing though, and it pays to scan them for birds. Since you can look down at the huge trees, it’s a bit like birding from a canopy tower and in the past I have seen toucans, aracaris, tanagers, raptors, etc. from this point. Because of the elevation and habitat, it also looks like a good spot for Lovely Cotinga.

birding Costa Rica habitat

The overlook.

On sunny Saturday, as good as the overlook appeared, we saw zero birds. The fact that clouds were forming, though, gave us some hope that bird activity would pick up before lunch. It did and it nearly came all at once.

A massive mixed flock greeted us after we descended into the valley from the overlook. They were moving so fast and furious through the back-lit trees that most went unidentified. Those birds that stayed long enough to be seen or who at least paused to call were:

Orange-bellied Trogon (3 or 4 graced the flock), Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, and Olive, Black and yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers.

Orange-bellied Trogon, birding Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogons are endemic to Costa Rica and Panama.

The views were frustrating but at least we were seeing birds! At this point, we made an about face because venturing further up the road would have required vehicles with four-wheel drive. As it had finally become overcast, birding on the way back out was an extreme contrast to our slow morning.

While stopping for a few Olive Tanagers, we had a major bird domino effect where one bird kept leading to another.  The Olive Tanager led us to another mixed flock that suddenly revealed itself in the form of Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Golden-crowned Warblers, more tanagers, and best of all, Brown-billed Scythebill (!).

While searching for this curlew billed woodcreeper, Yellow-eared Toucanet called nearby (!). As I looked for the toucanet (never did find it), two Purplish-backed Quail-Doves began to call (!). A Plain Antvireo revealed itself and the quail-doves glided across the road for brief but tickable views. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar then began to vocalize down the road so we walked over to it, promptly found it and while watching the jacamar, became aware of another, big mixed flock.

biridng Costa Rica Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Iridescent Rufous-tailed Jacamars are fairly common in the Tilaran mountains of Costa Rica.

One of the first birds I got onto was Green Shrike Vireo. This tough canopy skulker only showed itself to a few of the group but at least there were plenty of other birds to watch: Spotted Woodcreepers, another Brown-billed Scythebill giving perfect looks, White-ruffed Manakin, Tropical Gnatcatcher, several tanagers including the likes of White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Speckled in addition to everything we had at the other, big mixed flock.

It was fast, exciting birding but it was also time for lunch so as soon as the birds trouped out of sight, we headed back to our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy to dine at the Arboleda restaurant. The food was good as always although they had “gotten smart” and raised their prices by $1 to $2 per dish. They also changed up the dynamic of their hummingbird feeders which resulted in fewer species. Nevertheless, we still managed close looks at Violet-crowned Woodnymph (the dominator), Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

Hummingbird feeders birding Costa Rica

The hummingbird feeders at the Arboleda restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Green crowned brilliant

After lunch and hummingbirds, we drove back up the highway for about 5 minutes to check out more hummingbirds at a hummingbird and butterfly garden. For $5 per person, we watched the same species as the Arboleda restaurant in addition to Violet Sabrewing and White-bellied Mountain-gem. Overall, the hummingbird watching was better at this place. The butterfly garden was good and they also had two loop trails that accessed nice, middle elevation forest.

birding Costa Rica hummingbirds

The nice, educational hummingbird feeder set up.

Coppery-headed Emerald birding Costa Rica

Coppery-headed Emeralds were the dominant species at the hummingbird/butterfly garden. This Costa Rican endemic even chased away the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

Coppery-headed Emerald female

The female Coppery-headed Emerald looks pretty nice too.

The short loop trail is maintained whereas the second, longer one is slippery and muddy. We went on both and saw things like Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanager, Slaty Antwren, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slate-throated Redstart, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Our best birds were Blue and Gold Tanager both in the forest and right at the parking lot, and Rufous Motmot here at the upper limits of its range.

Rufous Motmot birding Costa Rica

Our Rufous Motmot posing in the dim understory. Check out the mud on its bill from excavating a hole.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating the muddy trail.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating a slippery log bridge over the Rufous Motmot’s hangout.

I’m not sure what time this place opens in the morning but I suspect that their under-birded forest harbors some sweet surprises (think quail-doves and antpittas). Although the forest isn’t very wide, the back part is connected to a large block of habitat.

Lot’s of birding and places to explore along the road between San Ramon and La Tigra- I can’t wait to go back!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction middle elevations

Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).

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.