web analytics
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

The Costa Rican Riverbird Flush

Cost Rica abounds with rivers, streams, rivulets, brooks, ravines, and glens. Even aquatic ecologists bound by profession to maintain strict definitions for bodies of water that flow down gradients would find all of the above and more in Costa Rica. The mountainous terrain and giant bucketloads of rain combine forces to fill the country with so much rushing water that they would probably feel obliged to come up with new terms to describe their observations.

“Dr. Perry, what definition would you give to this body of water? I can’t seem to find a definition for its clear, then muddy, then marshy appearance.”

“Yep! It’s one of those crazy tropical bodies of water that seems to defy an easy definition! Let’s call it a streamaswampus!”

“Ok, I noted that, have taken water samples, and pictures above and below water with the waterproof camera to document our find.”

“Great! Now back to looking for giant neotropical crayfish.”

While Dr. Perry and his trusty graduate students were marveling at tropical aquatic ecosystems and broadening the lexicon of their field of study, even if they weren’t looking for birds, they probably would have gotten the Costa Rican Riverbird Flush. This doesn’t mean that they would have contracted some unfortunate and frightening skin disorder. No, what I am referring to is seeing at least five bird species that are principally found on rivers when birding Costa Rica. These are the birds that make us stop at every bridge to scan the rocky shore with our binoculars, that encourage us march down steep sets of stairs constructed for viewing scenic waterfalls, and that even drive some of us to risk killing our digital cameras by picking our way upstream on slippery rocks until the feathered, riparian-loving quarry is glimpsed.

Three of these species are perennial favorites on target lists of birders visiting Costa Rica, the fourth is frequently overlooked as a possibility by North American birders because it is more commonly seen in the Rocky Mountains, and the fifth can be any one of a number of river-loving bird species that are practically a given when birding Costa Rica.

The three Costa Rican river birds that get top honors are: Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and Torrent Tyrannulet.

The Sunbittern is so strangely cool that even non birders should want to see it. Is it a rail? Some freaky anhinga thingy? How about a heron (after all it does have bittern in its name)? The Sunbittern is none of the above although it kind of looks like a mutant avian patchwork quilt of all of the above and more. Recent molecular studies have shown that its closest relative is the Kagu, a bizarre and very wanted bird species from New Caledonia that has also defied clear taxonomic placement since its discovery. The Sunbittern gets its name from the large, sunburst-like patches on its wings that it shows when excited or threatened. They can turn up along just about any river or stream that runs through humid forest in Costa Rica but are most easily and regularly seen on the Sarapiqui River near Puerto Viejo. In fact, this might be the easiest place to tick this bird away from the Llanos of northern South America and the Pantanal of Brazil and Paraguay.

Any birder visiting the Sarapiqui area has a very good chance of seeing this species if they just keep scanning the river during their stay. A boat trip should also do the trick but watching for it from the bridge at Chilamate will probably work. You should also see one if checking the river from such hotels as Selva Verde, Tirimbina, Chilamate Rainforest Retreat, or El Gavilan. On a recent trip to the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat, we spotted our first Sunbittern as it foraged on the other side of the river and then were spoiled by an individual that frequented the lodge’s football pitch and area right next to their cabins!

Unless they are standing on a football pitch (aka soccer field), Sunbitterns can be surprisingly difficult to spot because they tend to move slowly and carefully along the edge of the river and blend in very well with a background made mottled by shadow, river rocks, earthen banks, gravel, and sand bars. Watch especially for the white markings in their wings.

birding Costa Rica

The one on the other side of the river.

birding Costa Rica

The unofficial mascot of the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat!

The Fasciated Tiger-Heron is also more easily seen along rocky sections of the Sarapiqui than at many other sites in its range. This species isn’t more common in Costa Rica than elsewhere, it’s just that birding guests at any of the eco-oriented hotels located along the Sarapiqui can sit around and watch the river until one moves through its necessarily linear territory. We also had one of these very cool herons while river watching from the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat. Like the Sunbittern, the tiger-heron also blends in amazingly well with its background. The one we recently had at Chilamate looked a lot like the gray river rocks when seen from behind (so much so that I never would have seen it without binoculars). Fasciated Tiger-Heron could turn up at any number of rocky rivers in Costa Rica but it seems to be easiest along the Sarapiqui.

Torrent Tyrannulet is the third of the five most wanted river birds in Costa Rica. like the other two esteemed species that crown a Costa Rican Riverbird Flush, this little flycatcher has a large range outside the country. In my opinion, it’s easier to see in South America and may have declined in Costa Rica in some areas but it can still be found at a number of in-country sites. You probably won’t see it while scanning the river rocks for the Sunbittern or tiger-heron around Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui but could find it at any number of middle elevation, forested rivers. I recently got my 2011 bird along the Balsas River down the road from the San Luis Canopy.

The fourth bird species of the flush is the American Dipper. These plump, aquatic passerines are widespread along clean rivers of the Costa Rican mountains but are rather uncommon. You might see one while looking for the tyrannulet as they occur in the same sort of habitat. I was surprised to get one at Quebrada Gonzalez two years ago but regularly see them at Tapanti National Park and also recently had one on the same stretch of river as my 2011 tyrannulet.

Once you have the four more challenging species, getting the fifth is a far easier task. Just go out birding along any middle elevation stream or river in humid forested areas of Costa Rica and you will see Black Phoebe (a common and conspicuous bird at any time of the year), Lousiana Waterthrush (fairly common during the winter months), or at least a Buff-rumped Warbler (also common in the lowlands).

We aren’t even done with the first month of 2011 and I already have my Costa Rican Riverbird Flush. I hope this is a good portent for the year and a sign that I will reach 600 species by December 31st.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope Introduction lowlands

Exciting Birding in Northern Costa Rica at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to finally get the chance to bird Laguna del Lagarto during three days of guiding. I emphasize “finally” because I had wondered how the birding was up there near the Nicaraguan border ever since my first trip to Costa Rica in the early 90s. It was so far off the beaten track, though, that I just never made it up that way despite always hearing promising accolades about the place.

So, when we were at long last on our way to Laguna del Lagarto, we drove up and over the mountains through the town of Zarcero with uplifted and excited hearts. Our hopes were boosted by their checklist and the fact that so much of the surrounding area was still heavily forested. Much more so in fact than Sarapiqui or any other part of the Caribbean lowlands. This certainly explains why Laguna has recorded such tough to see bird species in Costa Rica as Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, Red-throated Caracara, and Tawny-faced Quail. None of these were guaranteed by any means but we knew that just being in the area would improve our chances. Heck, we even had a remote chance at Crested and Harpy Eagles. Given the amount of unbirded habitat near Laguna del Lagarto and the fact that a friend of mine had seen Harpy Eagle up that way in 1998, it isn’t entirely out of the question to hit the jackpot with those mega-raptors on a visit to Laguna del Lagarto and surrounding areas.

Heading into the Caribbean foothill town of Ciudad Quesada (aka San Carlos), constant rain and heavy skies threatened to put a damper on our excitement. It didn’t faze us too much, though, because we were familiar with the long term downpours of the Caribbean Slope. I sure hoped that it would give us a break, however, and much to our delight, the falling water diminished to occasional, inconsequential drips just as we headed north from Pital.

Pital is the last bastion of asphalt as you make your way to the lodge but the gravel is actually pretty nice all the way to the village near Laguna known as Boca Tapada. It’s not as smooth going as a tarred road but it also had fewer potholes than the heavily traveled byway that leads to Arenal National Park. If one drove straight to the lodge from San Jose, I estimate a trip of just 4 hours or less. Birders, though, are going to take much longer because once you get 15 or so kilometers past Pital,the birding is pretty good!

Roadside marshes should be checked for rails, Pinnated Bittern, and other aquatic species, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch could show up (we didn’t see it but it certainly occurs), forest patches somewhat near the road should be scanned and scoped for toucans, parrots, and (most of all) raptors, and areas with old second growth should be checked out for a wide variety of species.

With brief stops in such habitats, we probably recorded 60-70 species, highlights being Gray-headed Kite, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Pied Puffbird, Olive-throated Parakeet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and White-lined Tanager. Mind you, this was mid-morning and although the overcast conditions were ideal for bird activity, I would love to see how many species I could record along that road during more productive early morning hours. It’s not ideal habitat but there is enough extensive forest within scoping distance to make it pretty exciting.

The birdiest stretch of the road is arguably the area between Boca Tapada and the lodge. At this point, productive second growth and primary forest are found on both sides and a large number of species are possible, the nunbird included. It’s worth birding even though it’s just two kilometers more to the lodge. Laguna del Lagarto has a sign but even if they didn’t, you wouldn’t miss the “v-shaped” lagoon at the entrance. No matter when you walk or drive by that lagoon, it should always be checked for Agami Heron. Although this splendiferous wader is often seen by visitors to Laguna who take a canoe out onto the muddy waters, we got ours on our last day by scanning the shaded shore right from the entrance gate to the lodge. I suspected that I had the bird because I saw a suspicious-looking gray shape in the shadows of some overhanging vegetation but it wasn’t until the heron thrust its rapier of a bill into the water that I knew for a fact that I was looking at an Agami Heron. It’s incredible how stealthy and still this species can be so it pays to very carefully scan the shores of their preferred haunts- streams, pools, and muddy lagoons in lowland forest.

birding Costa Rica

There is an Agami Heron somewhere in this image at the most reliable lodge to see it in Costa Rica- Laguna del Lagarto.

You could probably get the Agami from the lodge itself if you keep scanning for it as several of the rooms overlook the lagoon where we saw it. Speaking of the lodge, I was especially impressed with the excellent service and management provided by the manager, Alfaro. He took time out of his day to assure that each guest was getting the most out of his or her stay and kept us updated on where the Agami Heron had been sighted as well as other signature species such as Great Green Macaw. He also invited us to his “bird garden”- his very bird friendly backyard. We didn’t get the chance to visit it but from the photos of honeycreepers and tanagers that were taken at his garden, it should be a must see for any birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto with a camera.

birding Costa Rica

Rooms were comfortable and clean, the food average to good, and the feeders spectacular!

The feeders a Laguna del Lagarto consisted of a large bunch of bananas or plantains that are somehow placed on a platform twenty feet above the ground. BUT, since the dining area of the lodge is built on top of a hill, the birds that come to the feeder are seen at eye level! You almost feel as if you are sharing lunch with the toucans, parrots, oropendolas, and tanagers that visit the feeder because you can easily watch them sans binoculars while you eat.

birding Costa Rica

A head-on view of a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

birding Costa Rica

Keel-billed Toucans are incredibly colorful when seen at close range.

birding Costa Rica

Collared Aracaris also partook in the feeder food but weren’t as common as their bigger bethren.

birding Costa Rica

Montezuma Oropendolas also came close enough to allow detailed studies of their clown-like faces.

The best of the larger birds, however, were Brown-hooded Parrots. There aren’t many places where you can see these guys at a feeder!

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Smaller species showed up once the larger birds left. Passerini’s Tanagers were of course very common.

birding Costa Rica

Black-cheeked Woodpeckers were also present

birding Costa Rica

as were Buff-throated Saltators among a few other common species.

birding Costa Rica

It was also worth it to scan forest canopy visible from the restaurant and some of the rooms. We had looks at Great Green Macaw and more than one perched King Vulture in this way.

Kind of distant for a photo but there’s no mistaking a white vulture with black flight feathers  for anything other than a King.

birding Costa Rica

Laguna del Lagarto lodge also has trails through beautiful lowland rainforest. This type of habitat has become pretty hard to access on the Carbbean Slope so we were looking forward to spending quality birding time beneath the tall canopy. Most people experience it at La Selva but edge effects (and an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) have eliminated a number of understory bird species at that classic birding site. It was a shock, therefore, to see that a fair portion of Laguna’s forest looked as if it had been selectively logged! Apparently in 2010, a rare tornado had torn through parts of their forest and knocked over several, massive, old growth trees. It was a sad sight as we walked along muddy trails through open forest and I wondered why that tornado had to touch down at such a rare, complex, sensitive habitat instead of twirling around in some dusty, overgrazed pasture. There are still trails through intact forest at Laguna del Lagarto but I wonder if or to what extent the tornado affected bird populations. A local guide told us that canopy birds were easier to see but it looked as if understory species were less common and monkeys had certainly declined. Fortunately, the forest grows up pretty quick in the humid, rain-soaked lowlands so it will come back eventually.

During our three days at Laguna, our experiences in the forest echoed the sentiments of the guide. Canopy flocks were of regular occurrence but there were very few understory flocks and I heard very few understory species during our time there (even if you don’t run into mixed flocks of understory insectivores, you still usually detect them by sound), I have to believe that they are still around because the forest at Laguna is connected to a much larger forest block.  I suspect, though, that they aren’t as common as they were in the past. Perhaps birds such as antwrens, spadebills, antvireos, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet will increase in abundance as the forest grows up. I certainly hope so but in the meantime, to see them at Laguna del Lagarto, you may need to focus on trails through more intact parts of the forest.

Some of the highlights of our stay at Laguna del Lagarto were:

Helping out with the annual Christmas Count (run by the Rainforest Biodiversity Group– the organization that created and promotes the Costa Rican Bird Route) while birding with David and Alfredo Segura. David is a young Tico birder, Alfredo his non-birding father. They make a great team and sharing much of Laguna’s birdlife with them was a memorable experience. Maybe I will interview them some day for the blog.

Agami Heron- Laguna is certainly the most reliable and accesible site for this species in Costa Rica.

Semiplumbeous Hawk– A scoped, calling individual deep inside the forest was a major highlight of the trip.

Great Green Macaw– This lodge and surroundings have long been known as a regular site for this endangered species. We saw maybe 7 individuals and had them on each of three days.

Brown-hooded Parrots at the feeders.

Mottled Owl seen at dawn on the road in front of the lodge. Black and white was also seen around the cabins by others and we heard but did not see Central American Pygmy-Owl.

Common Potoo– We didn’t see it but we did hear it and that earns it a position on my year list!

Pied Puffbird– We saw several of this cool, little bird.

White-fronted Nunbird– One of main targets fell on our last day at the forest edge in the back part of the garden and even allowed me to take its picture.

birding Costa Rica

Thrushlike Schiffornis– We heard one of this deep forest species.

Brown-capped Tyrannulet– We had a few of these tiny, canopy flycatchers but they were always tough to see because of their size (or lack of).

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant– A common bird at Laguna del Lagarto and not to difficult to see with patience.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher– We had a few inside the forest with canopy flocks but they were very difficult to see well.

Slate-colored Grosbeak– Three birds seen together and one heard.

After leaving the lodge, we drove further up the road that follows the San Carlos River and although we saw little on a sunny afternoon, the whole area looks very promising. The road signed to the San Juan Biological Reserve in particular looked fantastic as it passed through intact, primary lowland rainforest but I am honestly concerned about the safety of birding it because you are in the middle of nowhere and close to the river that marks the border with Nicaragua (which may or may not be used by drug traffickers). That might sound paranoid but since a large amount of drugs are believed to pass through Costa Rica and the tendency for rural areas in the country to be quite lawless, it’s probably best to avoid birding along that road for the time being.

birding Costa Rica

Fantastic road for birding but I don’t know how safe it is. I am sure it’s safe most of the time but it would be best to ask locals about it before birding there.

I would head back to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge or other lodges in the area in a second however, as they are safe, harbor some of the best lowland forests on the Caribbean Slope, and they probably hold some nice, feathered surprises too.

Below is a list of bird species we recorded from Pital to Laguna del Lagarto for the dates of January 7th, 8th, and 9th.

Great Tinamou- a few heard and two seen
Little Tinamou- one heard
Neotropic Cormorant- one on San carlos River
Great Blue Heron- one at laguna
Great Egret- one along road
Snowy Egret- one on river
Little Blue Heron- one along road
Cattle Egret- several along road
Agami Heron- one seen along edge of lagoon, athers also saw from canoe
Green Ibis
Black Vulture- several
Turkey Vulture-several
King Vulture- 3-4 each day from lodge
Muscovy Duck- 2 along road
Osprey- one along road
Roadside Hawk- one along road
Broadwinged Hawk- one along road
Gray-headed Kite- one along road
Laughing Falcon- several along road and near lodge
Collared Forest-Falcon- 2 heard near lodge
Crested Caracara- a one along road
Semiplumbeous Hawk- 2 in forest
Gray Hawk- one along road
Crested Guan- a few in forest
Great Currasow- 1 heard, others saw a few at lodge
White-throated Crake- several heard along road
Gray-breasted Crake- one heard along road
Gray-necked Wood-Rail- one seen compost
Purple Gallinule- a few seen along road
Red-billed Pigeon- several along road
Short-billed Pigeon- several at lodge
Gray-chested Dove- a few at lodge
White-tiped Dove- one along road
Ruddy Ground-Dove- several along road
Olive-throated Parakeet- several
Orange-chinned Parakeet- just a few
Great Green Macaw- 6-7 at lodge
White-crowned Parrot- several
Brown-hooded Parrot-several at lodge and feeders
Red-lored Parrot-a few near lodge
Mealy Parrot- several at lodge
Groove-billed Ani- several along road
Mottled Owl- one seen
Central American Pygmy-Owl- a few heard at lodge
Common Pauraque- one along road
Common Potoo- one heard near lodge
Gray-rumped Swift- many
Long-billed Hermit- a few at lodge
Stripe-throated Hermit- a few at lodge
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird- a few along road
Purple-crowned Fairy- one in forest
Violet-headed Hummingbird- one in garden
Violet-crowned Woodnymph- a few in forest
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- several
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- a few
Slaty-tailed Trogon- several heard in forest
Black-throated Trogon- one seen in forest
Broad-billed Motmot- a few heard
Ringed Kingfisher- a few near lodge
Green Kingfisher- a few on lagoons
Pied Puffbird- several in area
White-fronted Nunbird- 2 in back of garden
Collared Aracari- several in area
Keel-billed Toucan- several in area
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- several in area
Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several
Smoky-brown Woodpecker- one along road
Lineated Woodpecker- a few along road
Pale-billed Woodpecker- a few in forest
Cinnamon Woodpecker- 2 heard near lodge
Slaty Spinetail- several heard along road
Plain-brown Woodcreeper- one heard
Cocoa Woodcreeper- a few heard
Streak-headed Woodcreeper- several
Black-striped Woodcreeper- several
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- several
Northern Barred Woodcreeper- a few heard
Barred Antshrike- one heard along road
Western Slaty Antshrike- a few in forest
Dot-winged Antwren- a few near lodge
Chestnut-backd Antbird- a few in forest
Black-faced Anttthrush- several heard
Thicket Antpitta- one heard along road
Brown-capped Tyrannulet- several heard and a few seen at lodge
Yellow Tyrannulet- a few along road
Paltry Tyrannulet- several
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant- several
Common Tody-Flycatcher- a few heard
Yellow-olive Flycatcher- one heard at lodge
Yellow-margined Flycatcher- a few heard and seen in forest
Tropical Pewee- one heard along road
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- several
Long-tailed Tyrant- a few along road
Rufous Mourner- one seen near lodge
Dusky-capped Flycatcher- a few heard
Great-crested Flycatcher- a few
Great Kiskadee- a few along road and at lodge
Boat-billed Flycatcher- two at lodge
Social Flycatcher- a few along road
White-ringed Flycatcher- one heard near lodge
TK- several
Thrushlike Schiffornis- one heard in forest
Red-capped Manakin- a few in forest
White-collared Manakin- a few along road
Black-crowned Tityra- one near lodge
Cinnamon Becard- several
Tawny-crowned Greenlet- a few heard in forest
Lesser Greenlet- many
Bay Wren- several heard
House Wren- several on road
White-breasted Wood-Wren- several in forest
Tropical Gnatcatcher- a few
Wood Thrush- several in forest
Clay-colored Robin- a few
Yellow Warbler- a few
Chestnut-sided Warbler- many
Hooded Warbler- one in forest
Northern Waterthrush- one at lagoon
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- one near Boca Tapada
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one heard at river
Bananaquit- several
White-shouldered Tanager- several in forest
Tawny-crested Tanager- a few in forest
White-lined Tanager- one along road
Summer Tanager- several
Red-throated Ant-Tanager- one heard at lodge
Passerini’s Tanager- several
Blue-gray Tanager-several
Palm Tanager- several
Golden-hooded Tanager- several
Olive-backed Euphonia- several
Green Honeycreeper- a few
Shining Honeycreeper- several
Red-legged Honeycreeper- a few at lodge
Blue Dacnis- a few in forest
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- one along road
Blue-black Grasquite- many
Variable Seedeeater- many along road
White-collared Seedeater- several along road
Thick-billed Seed-Finch- a few along road
Yelow-faced Grasquit- a few along road
Buff-throated Saltator- several
Black-headed Saltator- two along road
Slate-colored Grosbeak- three near lodge and one heard in forest
Orange-billed Sparrow- a few heard in forest
Black-faced Grosbeak- a few along road
Blue-black Grosbeak- several
Melodious Blackbird- a few along road
Red-winged Blackbird- a few along road
Bronzed Cowbird- a few along road
Baltimore Oriole- several
Scarlet-rumped Cacique- several in forest
Chestnut-headed Oropendola- a few in forest
Montezuma Oropendola- many
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Christmas Counts Introduction Pacific slope

The 2010 Carara Christmas Count

In the latter months of 2010, we opted for traveling to Niagara Falls, NY for Thanksgiving in lieu of Christmas. We may have missed out on watching “A Christmas Story” with the family and couldn’t go to my Aunt Florence’s and Uncle Kevin’s on Christmas Eve but the fact that we also missed out on massive snowfalls, blizzard conditions, and sleeping in airports kind of tells me that we made the right choice.

Another bonus of heading back to the falls for Turkey Day instead of being there for December 25th was the chance to participate in Christmas Counts. The count for Carara was held on December 28th and as you could expect for one of the best birding areas in Central America, it proved to be a very birdy time with around 360 species recorded!

Such a high total was achieved because several well organized teams were able to traverse a count circle that included such diverse habitats as lowland rain forest, middle elevation forest, dry forest, wetlands, mangroves, estuaries, edge, and the Pacific Coast.

My team covered the same route as when I did the count in 2008 and as with that CBC, I suspect that our 143 species for the day was the highest total for a team.

Although the official count was held on the 28th, it really started for most of us on the 27th with a logistics meeting held that date at 5:30 pm.

I can’t recall why I left Santa Barbara de Heredia at 2pm (instead of earlier as I had hoped) but I bet it had something to with chores around the house. The drive down was a beautiful one with sunny weather and few slow trucks on the new Caldera Highway but I still managed to arrive a bit late for the meeting because I got a bit lost while searching for shorebirds near Carara. I knew I needed them if I was going to break 600 species recorded for 2010 but high tides foiled any and all attempts at waders. Well, all except for Double-striped Thick Knee but since I already had that bird and was looking for denizens of the mudflats and not a big-eyed weird-looking thing that stands around all day in the grass, it wasn’t the type of shorebird that I had in mind.

birding Costa Rica

At least I got pictures of the Double-striped Thick-Knee.

At the meeting, Johan Fernandez, guide extraordinaire and coordinator of the count was giving the down-low on teams and areas to be covered. I met my team members, three young Tico birders and the Larsens, a couple I had guided around Arenal, we made plans to meet at 5am, and then I drove over to the lodging in the Carara field house to claim my bed for the night.

The bed was comfortable enough and I thought I was being smart by choosing one under a ceiling fan but because a peculiar ticking noise was associated with the fan, even ear plugs couldn’t help me sleep. I suppose that excitement about the count and chatting with other birders makes it commonplace to do a CBC on little sleep but I could sure do without that tradition. Maybe next time I will just pitch my tent in the woods.

So, with heavy, determined eyes, I was up by 4:30 and ready to go by 4:50. The other team members who braved the field house got into my car and we drove over to the HQ to meet up with the Larsens at 5. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that we would have to hike over to our first part of the route, The River Trail or “Laguna Meandrica” instead of casually driving 5 minutes to the entrance. We had to hike along the highway because it was too dark to follow indistinct trails in the forest and our vehicles couldn’t be left at the parking area for the River Trail because there wasn’t anyone there to watch them (there have been break-ins at that site on several occasions when guards were not present).

Hiking the two or so kilometers to the trail entrance from the HQ resulted in a few bird species such as Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Great Egret, and Eastern Meadowlark (yes, the other side of the highway is sadly deforested) but our goal was the birdy Laguna Meandrica Trail and so we didn’t tarry along the way. It was a relief to get away from the morning traffic of the coastal highway and onto such a fantastic trail for birding. Riparian forest, second growth, primary rainforest, and an oxbow lake probably make this one of the birdiest trails in Costa Rica.

The birdy Laguna Meandrica trail at Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

As with many neotropical rainforests, our first birds on the trail were Common Pauraque quickly followed by Collared Forest-Falcon. Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers were next to be tallied but the dawn chorus was overall pretty quiet and low-key compared to 2008. Nevertheless, as we slowly made our way along the trail, other species of Carara’s rainforests were counted one by one; birds such as Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrush, Slate-headed and Common Tody-Flycatchers, Northern Bentbill, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-breasted and Rufous and White Wrens, and much more. Rufous-tailed Jacamars called and things were coming along nicely when disaster suddenly struck! Well, it was a small disaster for me and the reason that you won’t see any images of birds other than the strange, big-eyed bird above. While pleasantly standing around and listening for birds, I was startled by the sound of my scope hitting the ground. Apparently, one of the legs of my tripod got tired of being extended, it folded up and the tripod fell over. Thankfully, my scope itself was OK but the head of the tripod broke in half! I could scarcely believe what had just happened but had to just keep counting the calling Black-hooded Antshrikes, twig-inspecting Plain Xenops, and chicky-tuck-tucking Summer Tanagers because unless you get tagged by a Fer-de-Lance, the CBC must go on!

I must admit that my enthusiasm for the count took just as hard a hit as the head of my tripod but the great birding helped me get over that in no time. One bird that soothed my feelings was one of our best for the day, Yellow-billed Cotinga! This species has become very rare at Carara and unfortunately, I wouldn’t even be surprised if it disappeared from the area because its population at Carara may have declined to a few pairs (!). We got the bird after spotting a few Chestnut-mandibled Toucans in a fruiting tree. As if on cue, just after mentioning that we should watch for cotingas in the same tree, a female Yellow-billed popped into view! Everyone on the team got looks at it and it may have been the only one for the count. Despite carefully scanning the foliage for a spot of shiny blue to find any hidden Turquoise Cotingas, we didn’t see any other frugivores and so continued onward to tick off flute-like Black-bellied Wrens, Pale-billed Woodpecker (via the double-knock), several more Lesser Greenlets and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Turquoise-browed Motmot.

Stoically searching a banana leaf for hidden birds after the breaking of the tripod.

Upon nearing the oxbow lake, as is usual for this part of the trail, we recorded Orange-collared Manakin and counted yet another Wood Thrush and Northern Waterthrush before heading to our little spot for viewing the wetlands. We were surprised to find that the floods from this past October had cleared out a great deal of vegetation at the oxbow lake. This made several crocodiles of all sizes easily visible but kept the wading birds rather far away. They were still identifiable, however, and we quickly found most possible herons, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, Anhinga, Prothonotary Warbler, and a few kingfishers (including American Pygmy). Of course because I couldn’t do any digiscoping, the pygmy kingfisher and then a Rufous-tailed Jacamar sat for long periods at eye level only twenty feet away. No images but still nice to see.

After substantially reducing much of our boxed lunches while sitting in the shade by the oxbow lake, it was off to explore the section of the trail that passes next to taller, more closed forest. By this time (it was 11 am), bird activity had gone waaaay down but we still got a few Riverside Wrens, and eventually hooked up with a mixed flock that gave us White-winged Becard. On our way back towards the road, Fiery-billed Aracari was recorded as was Long-tailed Manakin at the same fruiting fig but there were few other birds. Our biggest miss on this trail was Royal Flycatcher. To give an idea of how big of a miss this is, on other occasions, I have seen 6 to 7 individuals of this species literally hanging out right along the edge of or in vegetation that hangs above the trail! Such are the vagaries of tropical birding. In addition to the cotinga, one of our best finds was Ruddy Quail-Dove, a beautiful male that flew across the a stream bed and then sat still in the understory for perfect, prolonged views.

birding Costa Rica

The stream bed that held the quail-dove.

After doing the Laguna Meandrica trail for most of the morning, we trekked back along the highway to the HQ and picked up our only trogon of the day, a Black-headed that was perched on roadside wires. Trogons were another major miss. Slaty-tailed, a normally common bird at Carara, wasn’t recorded by a single team! I wonder of they went elsewhere in search of fruiting trees.

Our next major stop was the dry forest habitats found along the road known as “Guacimo” or “El Capulin”. Spishing brought out Rufous-capped Warbler, Nutting’s Flycatcher, lots of Yellow Warblers, Lesser Greenlets, and Philadelphia and Yellow-throated Vireos. We got our Plain Wren for the day in addition to Brown Jays, Blue Grosbeak, one female Painted Bunting, and Indigo Buntings. Down by the river, we were treated to very close looks at Scarlet Macaws that were feeding in short, beach almond trees, lots of Baltimore Orioles, Steely-vented Hummingbird, flocks of Ruddy Ground-Doves, and other common bird species of edge and open country habitats. We also got a few surprises though in the form of Giant Cowbird and Harris’ Hawk. The cowbird is more expected on the Caribbean Slope (where there are lots of the birds they parasitize-oropendolas) and the hawk is just really uncommon in Costa Rica. Our last bird of the day was a Plain-capped Starthroat that often hangs out at Erythrina flowers at the Cabinas La Vasija.

It was yet another productive, long day of birding at Carara and although I broke my tripod in the process, on a very bright note, Dan Fender (a birder friend of mine) has helped me fix it. We used some super strong epoxy glue that he brought down from the states and even though I treat the tripod head in a delicate manner, it appears to work for digiscoping. I hope to show some images taken with the mended tripod head in my next post!


Birding Costa Rica soon? Watch for highland species in the lowlands.

In Costa Rica, sometimes highland species take these “vacations” to lower elevations. This regular and well documented behavior of the local avifauna is most commonly exhibited by the frugivores. Sometimes White-crowned Manakins are all over the place at Quebrada Gonzalez, a quetzal or two makes it into the foothills, and Three-wattled Bellbirds give their bonking calls from the tall canopy of the humid Pacific lowlands before heading back upslope into the mossy cloud forests for breeding.

To be more specific, these “vacations” are gastronomic trips not taken by choice but are downslope jaunts done out of necessity. To put it plainly, the arboreal larders of the highlands are empty so they need to find food elsewhere and fast or they starve. Since December, something strange has been going on in the mountain forests of Costa Rica. Although from a distance, the hills look fine and inviting as ever with their jade green, forested texture, all is not well upslope. The local birding community suspects that things aren’t peachy in the cloud forest because there have been an unprecedented number of highland species that have shown up at lowland sites.

Black-faced Solitaries do appear once in a while in the foothills and even at La Selva but never in the numbers that we have experienced as of late. They have even reached Tortuguero along with other species more commonly encountered in cloud forest. Even crazier has been the sightings of a quetzal or two in the Caribbean Lowlands! I have seen female quetzals a few times at Quebrada Gonzalez after they breed but to see them at La Selva is pretty much unheard of. The most insane sighting so far, however, is that of Highland Tinamou at Quebrada Gonzalez!

While guiding there on the 2nd, a tinamou suddenly appeared at the entrance of the trail while we were attempting to stay out of the rain and hoping for some sort of bird action. My assumption that it was a Great Tinamou (because that is the expected species at this foothill site) nearly kept me from raising my bins to my eyes but I am sure glad I did because although the glimpse through the vegetation wasn’t ideal, I noticed speckling on the upperparts as opposed to barring, a gray crown, and a tawny throat. I also thought the bird looked pretty rufous below but despite such obvious signs, it still didn’t click that this was a Highland Tinamou until after it had left the trail. I kick myself for that but I was so slow in realizing that the bird in question was a Highland Tinamou because I never, ever would have expected it there.

The Highland Tinamou is a bird of the cloud forest and has been recorded down to 1,200 meters at the very lowest. Quebrada Gonzalez is at an elevation of around 500 meters! In addition, this bird isn’t exactly known for it’s arial prowess.  Heck, they barely even use their wings so for this bird to have made the efforts to walk and glide its way downslope, it must have been pretty darn hungry. What is especially alarming is that Highland Tinamous aren’t strict frugivores. They do consume fruit but also eat lots of litter animals which could indicate that small creatures of the understory may not be doing so well either.

So the million dollar question is “What is causing such a dearth of fruit in the mountains”?

The answer is undoubtedly more complex but the general suspicion is that heavier rains than normal occurring when they usually don’t have delayed flowering and fruiting in the mountains (and even in the lowlands in some areas). Birds appear to be suffering from it so hopefully things will get back to normal or you may see some strange birds in the lowlands this year but quieter cloud forests the next.

big year biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Highlights from birding and guiding Costa Rica in 2010

The biggest news in 2010 for birding in Costa Rica was arguably the sightings of Harpy Eagle carrying nesting material in Tortuguero National Park. If those monstrous raptors did succeed in building one of their many-stick homes, either the nest was never found or the information was kept more secret than U.S. government embassy cables. I guided a trip there in April with the remote hope of ticking this mega bird for my Costa Rica list but left the Tortuguero area empty-handed on the Harpy front. This is the usual outcome when birding any lowland rainforests that hold Harpy Eagles because since their territories are so large, away from a nest, you just have to be extremely lucky to see one. We did, however, see another rarity albeit one that is laughably inconsequential compared to Harpy Eagle. Even though Sungrebe, Great Green Macaw, Green Ibis, Great Potoo, and other heavy hitters were seen on that trip, in terms of rarity, they were trumped by nothing less than a second year Herring Gull. I know, that sounds about as ridiculous as a Wallcreeper climbing up the Empire State Building but what can I say, a vagrant is a vagrant even if the bird is common as dirt where it is expected.

Other good birds for 2010 (and seen or heard by me) were:

The five pelagic lifers I got off the coast from Jaco along with a bunch of other open ocean birds that were new for my Costa Rican list such as Sabine’s Gull, Red-necked Phalarope, and Pomarine Jaeger.

Lesser Scaup– A bird found by Paul Murgatroyd who thankfully convinced us to make efforts to see it. I know, some highlight but as with the Herring Gull, this isn’t Kansas that we are talking about.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron– They aren’t rare and if you spend enough time watching stony rivers around Sarapiqui, you usually see one but because I didn’t do that, it was a bonus to get fantastic, prolonged, close looks at one of these sneaky river herons just outside of Arenal Observatory Lodge on December 22nd.

King Vulture– I saw quite a few at several sites but it’s always special to see a white-plumaged vulture so it makes it onto the highlight list.

Hook-billed Kite and Black-collared Hawk- Both are pretty uncommon in Costa Rica so it was nice to get them on the way into Tortuguero (where they are also pretty darn rare).

Tiny Hawk– One at Bosque del Rio Tigre perched and flew right in front of us during the Christmas Count! I also had one along the road to Nepenthes near Arenal Observatory Lodge and another that was hanging out near the entrance to Quebrada Gonzalez was seen by many other birders during February and April.

Bicolored Hawk– Seen the same day as the tiger-heron, this was a major highlight as I have encountered this species on just three occasions ever!

Harris’ Hawk– Another uncommon raptor in Costa Rica, one that showed up on the Carara CBC was a pleasant surprise.

Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Black-breasted Wood-Quail, and Marbled Wood-Quail– Wild and cool chicken-like birds are always tough to see! The wood-partridge was seen on the slopes of Poas above Grecia in second growth and heard up on Irazu and near Orosi, the Black-breasted Wood-Quail heard near Varablanca and seen in the Santa Elena Reserve, and the Marbled Wood-Quail was perfectly seen at Bosque del Rio Tigre.

Southern Lapwing– Birds near Esquinas Lodge were new for my Costa Rican list.

Great Green Macaw at Tortuguero and Sarapiqui– Expected but always a highlight!

White-tipped Sicklebill- Two roosting birds seen after marching up a stream near Bosque del Rio Tigre. I hope to refind this at Quebrada Gonzalez. They used to be regular there at a Heliconia patch just after entering the Las Palmas trail but I haven’t seen them there since those flowers were replaced with a small structure used for educational purposes (yes, thanks for destroying bird habitat to educate people about the rainforest).

birding Costa Rica

Tody Motmot– Wonderful close views of this toy-like creature at Las Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua.

Ocellated Antbird– A few with an antswarm at Las Heliconias make onto the highlights for 2010 because these fancy antbirds always look incredible.

Bare-crowned Antbird– One heard along the road to Arenal Observatory Lodge was a pleasant surprise and my last new bird for 2010.

Rufous-browed Tyrannulet– I had several of this warbler-like flycatcher at El Copal, Tapanti, and forests near San Ramon (where they are especially common).

Tawny-chested Flycatcher- Little known, hard to find, and near-threatened, it was exciting to hear and see several at El Copal.

Gray-headed Piprites– Although I didn’t see it, I was pretty happy to hear one of these rare and little known birds singing at El Copal.

Turquoise, Yellow-billed, and Snowy Cotingas (but no Lovely)– Cotingas are some of the stars of the bird world so they always rank high on the highlight list. I had Turquoise at Carara (very rare there), Talari Lodge, Bosque del Rio Tigre and Rincon de Osa,

birding Costa Rica

Turquoise Cotinga, a fantastic bird restricted to the south Pacific slope of Costa Rica and westernmost Panama.

Yellow-billed Cotinga on several occasions at Cerro Lodge ( male is sometimes seen displaying waaaaay off in the distance), along the river trail in Carara (one female on two occasions), at Rincon de Osa, and Ventanas de Osa,

birding Costa Rica

Yellow-billed Cotingas are highly endangered because they need the rare combination of mangroves growing adjacent to lowland rainforest.

and Snowy Cotinga in a patch of lowland forest near La Pavona on the way to Tortuguero, and at El Gavilan. The Lovely remained elusive.

Blue-crowned Manakin– A male displaying on a log in the forest at Carara on a recent guiding trip there was a site to behold!

White-eyed Vireo– At least two of this vagrant during Spring migration in Tortuguero.

Blue and Gold Tanager– Another given but a beautiful bird happily seen on several occasions at Quebrada Gonzalez and near San Ramon.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager– It’s an endemic with a salmon colored throat. How could that not be a highlight!

birding Costa Rica

Slate-colored Seedeater– I was surprised to get a few in rice fields near Tortuguero and then on the other side of the mountains in similar habitat near Esquinas Lodge.

Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow– You just don’t see these so often so it was nice to get perfect looks at them on more than one occasion near my house.

No shorebirds are highlights because I hardy saw any. If I had spent more time looking for migrant waders then I probably would have reached 600 species for the year. I came close though and won’t complain with 588 species for 2010. Heck, I wouldn’t even complain if I only saw 300 as long as I was able to bird at least once a week. I doubt I will be able to make the concerted effort required to hit 600 in 2011 but might have a chance if I can pull that time tested trick of doing family vacations in strategic sites. “Yes dear, we need to take Miranda to the Panamanian border near the Caribbean as well as the Pacific- don’t you want her to see a Lance-tailed Mana..ahh I mean experience cultural diversity from a young age?

bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Spring Bird Migration in Costa Rica is Happening- 5 Reasons to Keep Looking Up!

“Look up!” David Lindo, the Urban Birder, often uses that phrase and its perfect. It reminds us that whether someone realizes it or not, birds are a part of our lives. No matter how urban the situation, they share our space and as is often the case, it takes but a quick look to the skies to see something fly overhead, something with feathers.

In Costa Rica, you might even see a King Vulture.

The same goes for Costa Rica and with bird migration happening, there’s more reason than ever to keep looking up, keep watching for birds flying overhead. No doubt, many of the shorebirds and a healthy number of swallows fly too high up there to notice. Somewhere among the wisps of clouds or so high as to be a part of the pale blue ceiling, hundreds even thousands of birds are moving through the skies of Costa Rica.

Even so, enough birds venture out of the blue, come down from the night skies to keep a sharp eye on trees, bushes, anything that can shelter a migrant. These are 5 reminders and reasons to keep looking up in Costa Rica, to watch every bird:

A Brief Stop in Sarapiqui Turns Up 3 Annual Targets

Last week, while driving from the Caribbean lowlands to home in the Central Valley, we made a brief yet productive stop at the entrance to Pozo Azul in Sarapiqui. Based on past experiences of kingbird flocks and other migrants, I figured at least a brief stop might be worth our while and indeed it was. Expected and common edge species were calling and flying back and forth and, as expected, among them were a few key migrants.

The first was a striking male Scarlet Tanager! Dressed in its best Pennsylvania finery, it was literally the first bird I put bins on. Not long after, it was joined by another bird that had spent the winter in the Amazon (if that’s not incredible, what is!), an Eastern Kingbird. Both fed on small fruits along with local tanagers, a few oropendolas and other species.

An Eastern Kingbird from last year.

It was nice to connect with those two target migrants but even better was another bird on the move, a Black Swift! The swift was foraging just over the treetops with several other resident species (including a few likely Spot-fronted Swifts but they didn’t vocalize or show enough of their faces to say for sure). Unlike the tanager and kingbird, the swift was headed to western areas of North America, places with stunning scenery and waterfalls.

An Odd Martin Sp. in Brooklyn

I know, what does Brooklyn have to do with Costa Rica? Other than some of the same birds migrating through and from here to that NYC borough, a recent sighting and excellent documentation of an interesting martin species is yet another reminder for birders in Costa Rica to also be on the watch for martins that seem out of place.

Since the separation of female Progne martins is murky and in need of clarification, a name has yet to be placed on the mystery celebrity bird in New York (and might be lacking for some time to come). Even so, not knowing what it is is even better reason to try and figure that out, maybe this and other mystery martins from the north will spur studies that produce a better picture of female martin identification.

Lots of martins pass through Costa Rica, nearly all are of the expected Purple variety but how many are western Purple Martins? How many vagrant Gray-breasted Martins of the Austral subspecies find their way to Costa Rica? Most of all, do any Sinaloa Martins migrate through the country (there is at least one very possible sighting and another possible sighting from Nicaragua)? The only way to begin to answer these questions is by taking close, careful looks, and documenting whatever we can.

In Costa Rica, Hawks Can Fly Anywhere

I suppose one could say the same for just about anywhere but if we said that “thousands of hawks are flying”, we could only be talking about a handful of major raptor migration sites, Costa Rica being one of them. As the swarms of Broad-wingeds, Swainson’s, and Mississippi Kites pass through, as the endless lines of Turkey Vultures fly over Costa Rica, those migrating raptors can appear in a moment’s notice.

Although the majority fly over the Caribbean lowlands, some also pass through the Central Valley and the Pacific. There were a few Broad-wings out back this very morning, and since other birds can pass over at any time, I keep looking up.

Thousands of Birds are On The Move

I reiterate because although it might not seem like it, these days, there really are thousands of birds migrating through Costa Rica. A current cold front might be holding some birds up but once it passes, there will be a massive influx of Eastern Kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Wood-Pewees, and other birds on the Amazonian avian express.

Cerulean Warblers, Canada Warblers, and Maybe a Connecticut?

If one ever got tired of common birds, there are of course these other choice birds to float your birding boat. Ceruleans pass through Costa Rica in fair numbers, lots of Canadas will be on their way, and other, rarer species undoubtedly migrate through. The only issue is having the luck, time, and determination to find serious needle in the haystack species like a non-vocal Connecticut Warbler and other birds that typically take other routes north.

It goes without saying but no matter what birds one is looking for, you won’t see a thing unless you get outside and look for them. If you want to know where to go birding in Costa Rica, where the best birding sites are in Costa Rica, I’ll be glad to help. Contact me  and until then, happy birding!