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Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica common birds #1: city birds

Costa Rica really is a birding paradise. At least five distinct bioregions and/or major habitat types are found within 2-3 hours drive of San Jose; all with fairly different sets of birds. It’s a good thing they are close to San Jose too because unfortunately, there’s not a huge number of species around here! Around here means where I live; Tibas. Tibas is like much of the central valley- urbanized, asphalted and missing the exuberant vegetation that used to be here. Lack of green space in the central valley is a topic I hope to cover on another day though because this post is the first of several about the common birds of Costa Rica.

The bird species in Tibas represent many of the first birds I saw in Costa Rica back in 1992 and will probably be some of the first species you see as well. Essentially garden and backyard birds of the central valley, they have adapted to living within a human dominated landscape. Although surely a far cry from the variety and types of species that inhabited the marshes and moist forest of pre-settlement times, there’s still some nice birds around. The common sparrow here is Rufous-collared Sparrow.

My first bird book was the Audubon guide to birds; Eastern Region. The fact that photos were used made amazing things such as Cerulean Warbler, Cedar Waxwing and Rails more credible. I first learned about Blue-Grey Tanagers on the glossy plates of that book; learned that in the U.S. they only occurred as an exotic escape in Florida. Here in Costa Rica, these natives are one of the most common bird species.

Possibly occupying a niche similar to that of Northern Cardinals, Greyish Saltators sing every morning from backyards throughout San Jose.

Doves are especially common. Although Rock Pigeons occur, White-winged and Inca Doves are the most common species.

Red-billed Pigeons can also be seen.

One of the coolest common species is Crimson-fronted Parakeet. Noisy flocks roost in the palms near our place and are often seen in flight within the city.

One of the most abundant birds is Great-tailed Grackle. They make a tremendous amount of noise in town plazas where they go to roost.

Conspicuous Flycatchers are always around such as

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

and Tropical Kingbird. If there is a neotropical trash bird, the TK is it.

Clay-colored Robin (the national bird of Costa Rica) is very common.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is pretty much the de-facto Hummingbird of urban areas.

Some of the other bird species common in urban areas of the central valley for which I still lack images are: Black and Turkey Vultures- always up there soaring around.

Tropical Screech Owl- hope to get shots of the pair that roosts at the nearby Bougainvilla Hotel.

White-colloared and Vaux’s Swifts

Hoffman’s Woodpecker- very common

Yellow-belied Elaenia

Blue and white Swallow- one of the most birds in San Jose

Brown Jay- seems to have declined with urbanized growth.

House Wren

Wintering birds such as Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Tennessee Warbler

and Bronzed Cowbird.

Costa Rica living Introduction weather

When to visit Costa Rica; not in October

Although Costa Rica is always fun to visit, some months are better than others. Two months to avoid unless you absolutely adore buckets and bathtubs of rain are October and November. October is typically the worst month of the year for rain and I’m not talking about pleasant downpours ot cool you off. No, more like giant faucets in the sky left open for too long that will remind you of a story about Noah the animal lover. The rain itself isn’t so bad (although most locals, my wife included, seem to be afraid of getting wet), but the results are; annual flooding, landslides and closed roads. At least the rest of the year isn’t too bad and I still prefer all this water over a cold, snowy, breaking the ice off your car winter. The frequent rain can be tiresome though. It’s especially bad when a cold front from the north stews like an airborn whirlpool directly above the country. I witnessed one of those temporadas when it rained for nearly all of November, 1999. And I mean nearly all, not just a downpour or two rain each day. No, CONSTANT rain day and night; it just didn’t stop! It let up and now and then to mist but the water kept coming for nearly a month. It was driving me nuts! At least I could escape it by visiting the Pacific slope as the torrents from the sky were limited to the Caribbean slope. In general though, the worst flooding occurs on the Pacific slope. At this moment, much of Parrita near Quepos is under water as are several areas of Guanacaste. The nightly news shows scenes of flooding every along with other related stories such as; 3 people bit by snakes displaced by the rains, closed roads, and various accidents; the worst of which were some poor guy who died along the road up to Monteverde and a couple kids who were crushed by a falling wall while they slept).     

No, October isn’t the best of times to visit Costa Rica. Don’t be fooled by cheap tour packages. I mean, you can still have a good trip but there is an excellent chance that you will have problems getting around and might not be able to visit sites on your itinerary so I think it is worth considering a visit at some other time of the year.  

Here is a link to the Tico Times with english articles about Costa Rica, including the weather. This week’s edition shows someone wading through a flooded area near an oil palm plantation. Since terribly venemous Fer-de-Lance snakes thrive in oil palm plantations, you couldn’t pay me enough to wade through that water! 



Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living Introduction

A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.

We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.


Costa Rica loves the Bee Gees


As odd as the title sounds, it’s pretty much close to the truth. I first noticed this phenomenon not long after moving here. With a lot of free time on my hands combined with the constant rains of October, I found myself taking in a huge amount of Costa Rican radio. Nestled within a good variety of radio stations were (are) at least three that play English language songs; mostly pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s. On all three, songs by the Bee Gees make regular appearances; their distinctive, impossibly falsetto voices immediately recognizable. My formative years having been in the anti-disco 80s (we used to make fun of the Bee Gees and all things disco), I never paid any attention to music by those long-haired, bell-bottom wearing English/Australians. Thus biased against the Bee Gees, I thought, “how odd, the Bee Gees attained immortality by accident in Costa Rica”. I thought this, that is, until we visited my father-in-law for a party he was throwing. At first it seemed like one of those everyday parties with friends and some family where people eat grilled food, drink, laugh, reminisce and talk about old friends, etc. Well, it was that actually but what made this party extra special was the unveiling of the karaoke machine. Everything was normal until we suddenly heard the echoing voices of Paul and friends belting out Spanish soft rock songs in complement to what is probably best described as karaoke music. From what I heard, karaoke music is related to and might even be the same as elevator music, “musak” or the strange results of combining alcohol, a Casio and someone who thinks they are a musician. In other words, you sing along to tunes that are recognizable but sound like they are from a bad, surreal dream. And on my father-in-laws karaoke machine, you also get to watch a slide show of Japanese nature and villages. Things like Mount Fuji, rushing streams, a quaint waterwheel, and lots of flowers. All of these “wholesome” scenes are accompanied songs ranging from Frank Sinatra to Journey to those enduring pop stars in Costa Rica; the Bee Gees. Yes, some party guests even sang songs by the Bee Gees. Not “Staying Alive”, thank goodness, but other, slower songs such as, “How Deep is Your Love” or “Inside and Out”. Nor did they sing with high pitched voices which is unfortunate because that would have been absolutely hilarious. No matter; I was intrigued. I mean how can one not be intrigued by seeing beer drinking, fairly macho guys attempting to sing Bee Gee songs while watching a screen with “pleasant” post-card like scenes of nature; in Costa Rica of all places. It was at this time that I began to suspect that they weren’t playing the Bee Gees for nothing. Was it possible that Costa Rica actually liked the Bee Gees?!? That they listened to them on purpose? And better yet, if so why? How did thus happen? I asked Paul why they play so much Bee Gees and his answer says it all: “Ah yes, the Bee Gees! Very good music, a very good group.” Actually not all Costa Ricans are Bee Gee fans. No, its mostly 30 and 40 somethings that can’t get enough of those high-pitched voices but surprised I was and am. I had no idea just how international the Bee Gees were, nor that they actually composed some pretty good pop songs. The Bee Gees are actually one of the highest selling musical groups of all time! So, no wonder their music lives on in Costa Rica. Yes, I admit it; the Bee Gees make some good songs! Despite the strange falsetto voices from down under, many of their songs sound pretty nice. Although you won’t catch me doing any Bee Gee covers during rare karaoke sessions, I might stop the radio dial upon hearing the distinctive music of those three talented English/Australian brothers. “Night feeveeer. You know how to show it. Aaaaaah.”