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A Day of Birding at Arenal, Costa Rica

Last week, while winter storms were wreaking havoc in northern climes, I had the great fortune to spend a day of guiding in much warmer, snow-less weather in and around Arenal Observatory Lodge, Costa Rica. Although lower temperatures than normal and saturating morning mist were a reminder that the frigid fingers of those northern blizzards can tendril their way south to Costa Rica, we still had a pretty productive day with over 130 bird species identified.

Starting out at the Miradas de Arenal Cabins, a number of common, edge species were identified as they came to fruiting trees, best birds probably being Black-cowled Oriole and Black-headed Saltator. Foggy weather didn’t let the birds show much color but at least boosted their activity. As the mist gradually lifted and visibility increased, we drove to our main birding destination, the entrance road for Arenal National Park and Arenal Observatory Lodge. The stony entrance road cuts through pasture, guava orchards, patches of old second growth forest, crosses rivers, and eventually reaches older forest to provide a variety of habitats that can turn up a large number of bird species. It’s the type of place where fruiting trees could potentially host cotingas, where crakes may lurk in marshy grass, and where uncommon raptors might fly past. One of our first birds of the day was in the latter category although instead of quickly winging its way through our field of view, it perched in a bare tree long enough to take  its picture (and some of my only shots for the day due to the inclement weather).

Bicolored Hawk!

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

This medium sized Accipiter is widespread in the neotropics but always tough to see and nearly impossible to predict when and where it will show up. A most welcome addition to my year list!

Pigeons were also plentiful along the road with Band-tailed and Pale-vented being the most common. Both species occurred in flocks of 15 to 60 individuals and were feeding in fruiting trees or hanging out in tree tops.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

There are a few side roads that can also be productive. On one of these, while getting close looks at a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, a male Great Curassow flew down from the trees to strut along the shoulder of the road! This was a nice surprise and a probable sign that the general area sees very little hunting pressure.

No image of the curassow but at least the toucan sat long enough for a photo.

birding Costa Rica

Continuing on, we added species such as Long-tailed Tyrant, Bay Wren, and other expected birds but those were nothing compared to one of our best finds of the day, Fasciated Tiger-Heron! Always a tough bird to come across, ours was an adult that gave us perfect, close looks at the river just before the entrance to the Observatory Lodge. I regret not taking photos but it was getting a bit too rainy to risk short-circuiting my camera.

After studying the tiger-heron, we paid our $4 entrance fee to use the trails of the Observatory Lodge (open 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.) and ticked off a soggy Broad-billed Motmot perched in the rain as we drove up to the restaurant and viewing platform. The looming volcanic cone known as Volcan Arenal is what is supposed to be viewed from this point but even better for birders are the fruit feeders that attract oropendolas, orioles, and tanagers. On sunnier days,  this is a perfect spot for bird photography but because the soaking rain only made mental images possible, you will just have to believe me when I say that we had eye popping views of Montezuma Oropendolas, Buff-throated Saltators, Clay-colored Thrushes, Olive-backed Euphonias, and Blue-gray, Palm, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, and Crimson-collared Tanagers. Emerald Tanager also sometimes shows up at their feeders although they didn’t make an appearance while we watched.

Despite the windy and rainy weather, we were determined to make the most of our day at this birdy site and therefore walked a short loop trail near the cabins that can be good for Thicket Antpitta. There are also Porterweed bushes near there that can attract Black-crested Coquette, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and other hummingbird species of the Caribbean foothills. If our visit was any indication, though, none of these birds come out in the rain! While on other visits, I have heard and seen the antpitta fairly easily on this trail and have seen several coquettes buzzing around like insects in those same flowering bushes, we hardly saw or heard anything. As it was mid-morning, time of day may have also been a factor but I suspect that the weather was the main culprit.

Upon exiting the trail and getting looks at Hepatic Tanager (fairly common here), it was time for lunch and I am pleased to say that their restaurant has improved! It’s still over-priced but the service was good and the food drastically better than any of my past gastronomic experiences at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

By the end of our meal, amazingly, it had stopped raining and we could even see the top of the volcano! After a quick check of the flowering bushes and only espying Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and one or two Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, it was off to the Waterfall Trail for middle elevation forest birding. Perhaps because the rain had just ended, bird activity was pretty good and constant with several mixed flocks making their way through the forest. Golden-crowned Warblers and Slaty-capped Flycatchers seemed to lead the way while Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers, Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, Olive Tanagers, and the occasional Spotted Barbtail followed. In the canopy, Russet Antshrikes, and Black and Yellow and other tanager species rustled the vegetation while Montezuma Oropendolas displayed. A quick walk down to the waterfall didn’t turn up hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet or Green-fronted Lancebill but both should be possible there (as well as Sunbittern).

We didn’t hit any antswarms inside the forest but got lucky anyways in seeing a lone Spotted Antbird. Outside the forest, before leaving the grounds of the Observatory Lodge, we made one last stop at the “Casona” to check fruiting trees and were rewarded with close looks at Short-billed Pigeons, White-crowned Parrots, Emerald Tanager (!), and Yellow-throated Euphonia. No luck with cotingas but I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned up in that area (Lovely Cotinga is occasionally seen around Arenal Observatory Lodge).

After our visit to the lodge and getting another look at the tiger-heron, we birded along the road that leads to the Arenal Sky Tram and Neopenthes. A few spots along this road pass near marshes that probably hold some rare, skulking waterbirds. We didn’t see these of course (because they were skulking) but did get good looks at Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Near there, along the roadside, we also got our only antswarm of the day. As luck would have it, the ants were moving through an open area and therefore no antbirds were present but we still got to see a bunch of thrushes that were taking advantage of the easy pickings. Clay-coloreds were the most common but there were also one or two Swainson’s, and several White-throated.

By this time, the day was coming to an end and birds were heading to their roosts for the night. As Red-lored Parrots flew past, we were treated to a beautiful view of the volcano lit up by the red rays of the setting sun; a memorable way to finish a great day of birding around Arenal.

Here is a list of all birds seen or heard from our day:

Great Curassow
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Fasciated Tiger-Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Bicolored Hawk
Double-toothed Kite
Laughing Falcon heard
White-throated Crake heard
Spotted Sandpiper
Pale-vented Pigeon
Band-tailed Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
White-tipped Dove
Red-lored Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Squirrel Cuckoo
White-collared Swift
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Green Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
Violet-headed Hummingbird
Purple-crowned Fairy
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Orange-bellied Trogon
Broad-billed Motmot
Ringed Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Rufoustailed Jacamar heard
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Hoffmanns Woodpecker
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Smoky-brown Woodpecker
Spotted Barbtail
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Spotted Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Great Antshrike heard
Barred Antshrike
Russet Antshrike
Spotted Antbird
Thicket Antpitta
Yellow Tyrannulet heard
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Slaty-capped Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Long-tailed Tyrant
Bright-rumped Attila heard
Dusky-capped Flycatcher heard
Great-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Tropical Pewee
Masked Tityra
White-ruffed Manakin
Yellow-throated Vireo
Lesser Greenlet
White-throated Magpie-Jay
Brown Jay
Northern Roughwinged Swallow
Southern Roughwinged Swallow
Band-backed Wren heard
Stripe-breasted Wren
Bay Wren
Black-throated Wren heard
White-breasted Wood-Wren heard
House Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren heard
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush
Clay-colored Thrush
White-throated Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Wood Thrush heard
Tennessee Warbler
Tropical Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat heard
Wilson’s Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
Common Bush-Tanager
Black-and-yellow Tanager
Olive Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
Summer Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Passerini´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Olive-backed Euphonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia heard
Emerald Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Variable Seedeater
White-collared Seedeater
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Black-headed Saltator
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue-black Grosbeak heard
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Black-cowled Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Montezuma Oropendola

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