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big year Birding Costa Rica

End of a BIG YEAR and birding highlights for Costa Rica in 2009

2009 is officially coming to a close and so is my BIG YEAR. Since I didn’t do the usual things one does during a BIG YEAR such as travel long distances on short notice, stumble around in the dark of the night while hooting like an owl, or risk my life, I feel a bit apprehensive about using caps for my BIG YEAR. Nevertheless, there aren’t any stipulations or rules for doing a BIG YEAR stating that reckless behavior is required so I won’t feel too bad about keeping the Caps Lock on. I did what I could with the handicaps of new family, young daughter, work, and no private vehicle for most of the time. This means that I couldn’t spend too many nights away from home (nor too many days for that matter), and that my birding time was very limited overall. In fact, a lot of the birds for my BIG YEAR were identified while guiding as opposed to birding on my own. That was perfectly fine with me because no matter what someone else’s birding level might be, I would much rather share birding with others- something that probably has a lot to do with mostly birding alone from the age of 7 to 12 and wondering where the other birders were. In any case, whether out alone, guiding, or birding with friends (especially Janet Peterson), my final total for 2009 for all species seen or heard in Costa Rica is: 510.

There are a fair number of gaps in this list due to not birding Guanacaste, not getting up to Monteverde nor down into La Selva, and doing almost no shorebirding. Therefore, things like Great Currasow, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Elegant Trogon, Streak-backed Oriole, and a whole flock of shorebird species didn’t make it onto my 2009 list. Nor did pelagic species but due to the long standing disagreeent between myself and bouncing up and down on the open ocean, pelagic species hardly exist for me as possibilities in any case. My first species was a TK while my last was Blue-headed Parrot. The TK was heard singing its dawn song from our apartment while the parrot was heard flying overhead as I awoke in a hotel in the border town of Paso Canoas on December 18th. 

Although it is still 2009 as I write this, I won’t be seeing anything in Costa Rica until 2010 because I traded the warm, tropical latitudes on December 22nd for the freezing, boreal, treeless landscape of western New York to spend the holiday with family and friends. There are some birds around here but my BIG YEAR is restricted to Costa Rica so I won’t be adding Ring-billed Gull or Eurasian Starling to the list. Here are some of my birding highlights from 2009 in taxonomic order:

King Vulture or the one and only KV or Big K: Although expected, a mostly white vulture that is not a BV or TV is always a highlight. Saw these on just about every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez and at such sites as Pocosol and a new birding site near San Ramon that I hope to blog about sometime soon.

Plumbeous Kite: Easy elsewhere but uncommon in Costa Rica, I had one gracing the skies above the Arenal hanging bridges in March.

Tiny Hawk: Just a glimpse along the La Selva entrance road but enough to identify this reclusive little raptor.

Crane Hawk: Regular around Carara, I had three birds this year. I put it as a highlight because this species was my neotropical nemesis for several years. I finally caught up with it at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru in 2001. My current neotropical nemesis bird is Masked Duck (which I hope to get in 2010!).

Black-eared Wood-Quail: Very good to see this tough species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Olive-backed Quail-dove: A pretty uncommon bird anywhere, I was excited to see one at Quebrada Gonzalez where they are rare residents.

Great Green Macaw: A few heard at Termales del Bosque near La Selva, and near Braulio Carrillo. Always a highlight and especially so because there are fewer around with every passing year. Although the trees this species needs for food have protected status and are planted in northern Costa Rica, it will be a long time before we see any population increase due to their low reproductive rate and the lack of cavities for possible nest sites.

Yellow-naped Parrot: Another parrot that had declined but is still seen in small numbers in the northwest and around Carara. Had great views of a few at Cerro Lodge.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo: It was nice to pick up this species by call in the western Central Valley because I didn’t get a chance to make it to Guanacaste where it is pretty common.

Costa Rican Pygy-Owl: A lone bird being harrassed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird in the wonderful forests of La Georgina was one of my favorite highlights of 2009.

Short-tailed Nighthawk: One of the last birds on our Big Day, Johan, Ineke, Dieter, and I had fun watching one hawk bugs at the La Selva entrance road.

Chuck-will’s Widow: One seen perched over the trail at Quebrada Gonzalez was only my second ever.

Spot-fronted Swift: A few seen well enough to note the white spots on the face were flying around the La Selva entrance road. I think this was my only lifer for the year!

Snowcap: A male buzzing around the canopy at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of my first birds of the year.

Green and Rufous Kingfisher: A brief look at a female in Manzanillo was my first for Costa Rica. Robert Dean very accurately illustrates the distinctive bill shape of this species.

American Pygmy Kingfisher: After always being on the lookout for this species in the right places sans success, I finally caught up with it in Manzanillo.

Yellow-eared Toucanet: Several nice looks at this fancy bird at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Black-headed Antthrush: Much easier in Ecuador, I heard one at Pocosol.

Black-crowned Antpitta: A few heard and seen at one of the only accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica-Quebrada Gonzalez.

Lesser Elaenia: A local species in Costa Rica, I was happy to get brief looks as one at Kiri Lodge. 

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: I couldn’t believe that they didn’t come in to my imitation but I did hear them at Manzanillo. This is a species that has become quite uncommon with deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: Nice looks at birds at the Aerial Tram and at Rara Avis. Never guaranteed and always a highlight!

Sharpbill: Close looks at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Cerulean Warbler: My first for Costa Rica in the forests of Rara Avis!

Wrenthrush: Expected but the ridiculously close looks I got at La Georgina deserve mention.

Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager: A few seen at Quebrada Gonzalez and possibly elsewhere. Always uncommon and good to see.

Blue and Gold Tanager: Uncommon, local, but expected at Quebrada Gonzalez, Rara Avis, and Pocosol. Like a Euphonia on steroids, these are great birds.

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager: Uncommon in Costa Rica. The U of Paz is a good place for them.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch: Seen at the La Tigra wetlands near La Selva, this massive-billed little bird always deserves a mention.

Shiny Cowbird: One at Manzanillo was a new Costa Rican bird for me. 

And now for the low points, misses, and musings:

Slaty-breasted Tinamou: Didn’t spend enough time near La Selva to get this one. A bird that appears to have declined with deforestation in Costa Rica.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron: Just didn’t get around to hanging out at the stake outs for this tough species.

Black-crowned Night-Heron: Saw a few Yellow-crowns but none of this uncommon species.

Green Ibis: Not enough evenings spent in the Sarapiqui region.

Great Black Hawk: I haven’t seen this species for some time in Costa Rica whereas I used to see it regularly in Braulio Carrillo (during the 90s).

Sunbittern: Just didn’t spend enough time at stakeouts.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: This diminutive parrot eludes me for yet another year! I probably caught a glimpse of a pair at Arenal in 2008, and almost certainly had a brief flyby of a small flock near Quebrada Gonzalez (seen for a second while washing my hands and not relocated), but still need lifer views!

No Potoos!- Always tough, didn’t find any, nor spent enough time at night in their haunts.

Brown Violetear- Thought I’d get it at Tapanti but no such luck. More difficult in Costa Rica after Cinchona was destroyed by the earthquake.

Lanceolated Monklet: Still no monklet in Costa Rica despite my many attempts at whistling them in.

Ocellated Antbird: I was suprised to not get this one although probably because I ran into very few antswarms in 2009.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher: No sign of this rare bird at El Gavilan. Rancho Naturalista has become one of the only sites for this species.

Ovenbird: I was pretty surprised to not get one of these.

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Still need this local, little known species for a lifer!!

Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: Didn’t spend enough time birding coffee plantations in the Central Valley- would be good to study this species as it has lost (and continues to lose) a lot of habitat.

Giant Cowbird: No Giant Cowbird this year. A pretty uncommon bird in Costa Rica.

Good birding in 2010 and hope to see you in Costa Rica!


Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley middle elevations

Tapanti National Park- good, middle elevation birding in Costa Rica

During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I visited Tapanti for a day. Back then it had wildlife refuge status and had a cheaper entrance fee but not much else has changed since then-and that’s a good thing! On subsequent trips, including a day and a half of guiding I did there recently, I still feel impressed with the birding in Tapanti and still get excited about visiting this easy to bird national park. The amazing profusion of epiphytic growth (including many orchids), the general appearance of the forest, the scented air, and certain species such as Streaked Xenops, a few foliage-gleaners, and other birds being easier to find here than other sites in Costa Rica all remind me of Andean cloud forests more than anyplace else in Costa Rica.

Birding in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

A visit to Tapanti always turns up something good or at the least you can get nice, close looks at a variety of bird species. Another thing I like about it is that one can easily bird from the main road and see just about everything. For the adventurous, there are a few steep, difficult trails that access the forest interior while those who need an easier trail can bird along a short loop that parallels the river (and is very good for American Dipper).

The main place to stay near the park is Kiri Lodge. The friendly owners have a restaurant (fairly limited menu), trout ponds, and small cabinas ($45 for a double).

Vegetation at Kiri.

On our recent trip to Kiri Lodge and Tapanti, being the rainy month of November and the wettest area in Costa Rica, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by a saturating, misty downpour. The nice thing about Kiri Lodge was that we could bird from beneath the shelter of the open air restaurant and picnic areas near the trout ponds. One of the most common hummingbirds was Violet Sabrewing- a few of these spectacular, large, purple hummingbirds made frequent visits to banana plants and heliconias near the lodge.

Birds in areas of high rainfall aren’t all that bothered by precicipation. In fact, the birding is usually better when it’s raining on and off, during light rain, or in overcast weather, than on beautiful, sunny days. On our first day at Kiri and Tapanti, the light rain and heavy overcast skies kept the birds active all day long. In the second growth habitats around Kiri Lodge we were kept busy watching common, edge species as well as middle elevation species such as Red-headed Barbet, Blue-hooded Euphonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet were also common around the trout ponds.

Great Kiskadee in the rain.

Black Phoebe.

Of interest were flocks of Red-billed Pigeons that were zipping around the regenerating hillsides to feast on fruiting Inga trees, flocks of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flying high overhead as they transited between the forested ridge tops, and one Lesser Elaenia seen (an uncommon, local species in Costa Rica). The best birds though, were in the national park. Just after entering, we were greeted by a calling Ornate Hawk Eagle. After playing hide and seek with it in the canopy for 15 minutes, the adult eagle came out into the open and flew overhead for perfect looks. Around the same time, the rain stopped and bird activity picked up tremendously. Although we didn’t see any really rare species, the number of birds and great looks made up for that. We could barely take a step without seeing something- our first bird being Golden-bellied Fycatcher.

Shortly thereafter, we had Golden-Olive Woodpecker, a beautiful Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, loads of common Bush and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Black-faced Solitaires feeding on white, roadside berries, Red-faced Spinetails, Slate-throated Redstart, Tropical Parulas,

Tropical Parula

and migrant warblers such as Black-throated green, Black and white, Blackburnian, and Golden-winged.

We also managed glimpses at three hummingbirds more often seen at Tapanti than other sites in Costa Rica; Green-fronted Lancebill (at least 5), White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied.

The following day was a total contrast with sunny weather and much less activity. Our efforts at chancing upon an antpitta or Lanceolated Monklet along the easy loop trail went without reward although we did see such species as Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, American Dipper, and White-throated Spadebill, and heard Immaculate Antbird.

Quiet birding but great scenery!

Although in being such an easy, beautiful escape from the urbanized Central Valley, Tapanti can get somewhat  crowded on weekends, in my opinion, the excellent forests and perfect climate of this national park always make a visit worthwhile. The only problem is that it’s rather costly to get there without your own vehicle as one has to take a $15-$20 taxi from Orosi. The walk isn’t too bad though if you don’t mind hiking through shaded and semi-shaded coffee plantations for about 9 kilometers.

One of my hopes is to eventually have more free time to visit Tapanti more often as it always has surprises in store for the visiting birder. On a side note, the butterflying is probably also the best I have seen in Costa Rica.