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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica central valley high elevations

How and Where to See Buffy-Crowned Wood-Partridge When Birding Costa Rica

Domesticated jungle fowl have given a bad rap to other Gallinaceous birds. Tragopans and pheasants are made exempt by merit of their un-chickenlike shape, fantastic glittering plumages, and fancy feathering but there is a tendency to put less importance on seeing the more somberly attired wood-quails, grouse, and wood partridges. I admit that the difficulties in espying these shy birds makes it all that much easier to just focus on brightly colored tanagers, hummingbirds, and trogons. After all, they don’t seem to mind being watched whereas since those chicken-like birds don’t want to be seen, why waste precious birding time by peering into dense thickets and vainly looking for invisible calling birds? Difficulties in seeing them aside, I am convinced that they are somewhat discriminated against because of their vaguely chicken-like appearance.

We are so used to viewing chickens as familiar barnyard animals that we easily forget that they descend from wild Red Jungle Fowl that need to watch out for Leopard Cats and Burmese Pythons as they carefully forage in south Asian leaf litter. We forget their wild side and transfer this neglect over to similar looking creatures. It’s not that we don’t want to see wild, chicken-like birds, it’s just that they usually aren’t all that high on most birders’ target lists. One such chicken like bird in Costa Rica is the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. Birders coming to Costa Rica wouldn’t mind seeing one but most don’t really expect it or make much of an effort to tick it. With so many other very cool birds that are much easier to see in the country, I can’t say I blame them but that doesn’t mean that wood-partridges should entirely written off when birding Costa Rica. It is true that they like the thick stuff but they are also common enough to show themselves if you spend a modest amount of time searching in the right places.

Here is how to see a Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge in Costa Rica:

  • Look for them in the right places– The B.C.W.P. commonly occurs in coffee plantations and scrubby habitats in the upper part of the Central Valley. They don’t really like forest all that much so you need to stick to the “trashier” habitats. Some of the better sites for this species are the Orosi Valley, on the slopes of Irazu as well as in the paramo vegetation of the crater, and up above Grecia. They also occur in the Dota Valley but I don’t think they are as common there.
  • Go birding with a dog– Well, not seriously but that is how I saw my first one! While walking along the road near Kiri Lodge some years ago, a dog that was in the area began to investigate some thick, scrubby, streamside habitat. Next thing I knew, two or three Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges burst out of the grass and one even perched long enough on top of the vegetation to allow me perfect looks. A nice surprise tick!
  • Check trails and little traveled country roads at dawn or late afternoon– Keep an eye out on the road ahead, use binoculars to scan that path through scrubby grass as far as you can, and watch the edges of coffee plantations.
  • Listen for their song– This of course let’s you know where they are. Use playback and they just might show themselves (with the caveat of not overdoing it of course).
  • Go to the Los Lagos restaurant in the Dota Valley– Ok, so you may or may not see a wild B.C.W.P. there but when I visited in February, the people next door had two in a cage!

Sad as it was to find them being held captive, at least you can see what they look like.

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and for a closer look…

birding Costa Rica

Of course I would much rather hear that you saw one of these beautiful birds in the wild.  Follow the tips given above and you have a fair chance of seeing Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge when birding Costa Rica.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Costa Rica Birding Highlights from Guiding at Carara National Park

I would love to guide three week tours in Costa Rica that culminate in 500 plus bird species. We would stalk mossy, middle elevation forests in search of Ochre-breasted Antpitta, quail-doves, and Lanceolated Monklet. Mid-morning skies above Quebrada Gonzalez would be scanned for hawk-eagles, King Vulture, and other raptors. Exciting, bird filled days would be had in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and south Pacific slopes and the hot, dry forests of Guanacaste would yield things like Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Double-striped Thick-Knee, Pacific Screech-Owl, and other birds with multi-syllabic names.  It would be a great old birdy time BUT family matters keep me from even thinking about organizing such an adventure so I do day trips or short overnights.

That’s fine with me because the manageable size of Costa Rica makes it plausible to visit several habitats on different day trips and living here means that I can easily get to some of the more far flung sites (to boost the year list of course). High bird diversity in Costa Rica also means that I see a bunch of birds every time I head out in any case so I’m not complaining! Take for example two recent trips to Carara National Park and vicinity. On one day trip, even though the focus was on bird photography, we still ended up identifying over 140 species (!). This reflects the amazing bird diversity in and around Carara as do the 120 or so species identified from a morning of guiding done there yesterday.

A high number of species were identified on the forest trail behind the HQ in part because the birds were singing up a storm. Mornings in Costa Rica are filled with bird song because March is nesting season for a number of bird species . It can be frustrating when they chortle, trill, and chirp yet refuse to come out from behind that wall of green but at least we know that Green Shrike Vireos are hanging out in the canopy and that Blue-black Grosbeaks are haunting the undergrowth. With a little luck and patience, though, the majority of vocalizing species show themselves and this  was how we got Black-faced Antthrush, Rufous-breasted, Riverside, and Rufous and white Wrens, and Dusky Antbird among others. These species are pretty much par for the course at Carara although the antthrush isn’t always guaranteed. We did pretty good on woodcreepers for birding just one morning. Five species were seen (Wedge-billed, Northern Barred, Streak-headed, Cocoa, and Long-tailed) and one was a heard only (Black-striped). The pickings were slim on trogons however, with just one Baird’s heard and a pair of Black-throated seen.

birding Costa Rica

Black-throated Trogon.

Both spadebill species were calling (Stub-tailed and Golden-crowned), the buzzy trills of Northern Bentbills were heard throughout the morning, and we had very close looks at a good number of Chestnut-backed Antbirds. Mixed flock activity was fair and resulted in niceties such as Slaty Antwren, Royal Flycatcher (pretty scarce this year), and Tropical Parula.

Cloudy weather made it easier to see Lesser Swallow-tailed and Costa Rican Swifts above the forest and also revealed a few migrating Cliff Swallows. Back down in the understory, Streak-chested Antpitta was a non-heard no show but we did get nice looks at both White-tipped and Gray-chested Doves and a pair of beautiful Ruddy Quail-Doves seen at the Heliconia patch on the “Universal Trail”. This spot also had Long-billed and Bronzy Hermits chasing each other around and was close to where we had perfect, close looks at three Great Tinamous. Conspicuously absent were the odd, metallic calls of Three-wattled Bellbird. Maybe they will show up next month to feed on fruiting figs but for the moment they have mostly (or only?) been seen in the hills above Carara (you might get them along the road to Bijagual).

As far as colorful birds go, Turquoise-browed Motmot showed nicely near the trail entrance, Scarlet Macaws made regular flybys through the canopy, and we had several sightings of Red-legged Honeycreepers, Bay-headed Tanagers, and Golden-hooded Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

Red-legged Honeycreeper

During a day of guiding on Sunday, a different set of more than 100 species were seen in much wetter, middle elevation forests near San Ramon. Over there on the Caribbean slope, we started things off with Least Grebe, Ringed Kingfisher, and Solitary Sandpiper on a lake along with flyovers of Red-billed Pigeons, Brown Jays, and Montezuma Oropendolas. This was quickly followed up by Crested Guan posing for us in a Cecropia, a Stripe-breasted Wren that thankfully revealed itself in a mossy vine tangle, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner coming into playback of its song, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush showing well, Tropical Parulas trilling from the treetops, and several tanagers that called but remained oddly elusive.

We eventually got good looks at Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Emerald, Silver-throated, Speckled, Passerini’s and Crimson-collared Tanagers but Black and yellows and Carmiol’s (Olive) afforded very few good looks and White-throated Shrike Tanager ended up being a heard only. Not fully connecting with a good mixed flock was also why we missed out on fairly common species such as Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, and Slaty-capped Flycatcher.

We were entertained by American Swallow-tailed Kites as we scanned the treetops of an open area but didn’t chance upon any of the toucans, raptors, parrots, or other birds that are often seen from this point. A nice surprise bird here was a Lattice-tailed Trogon that called and then gave good looks as it flew in front of us before it swooped out of sight into a dense patch of forest.

birding Costa Rica

Nothing in the trees today.

As is usual along the road to Alberto Brenes Reserve, we had nice looks at Rufous-tailed Jacamar but even one of those needle-billed iridescent beauties taking a dust bath in the road was trumped by seeing Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds. Although we couldn’t find any army ants, they must have been terrorizing invertebrate communities somewhere in the area because the presence of these two antbird species is typically associated with good old Eciton burchelli. On a side note, Ocellated Antbirds seem to be sighted with more regularity along this road than others areas in Costa Rica.

Some nice heard only birds were Black Hawk-Eagle, Nightingale Wren, and Tawny-faced Gnatwren.

Hopefully this will give readers an idea of what may be waiting for them if visiting Carara or San Ramon in the next two weeks. If you go, tell us about your highlights in the comments.


March On Into Spring – I and The Bird #146

Given the date of this #146th edition of IATB, I should be marching in some freezing cold Saint Patrick’s Day parade or at least celebrating in true form with requisite green colored spirits. Alas, living in Costa Rica means that there will be no partying  nor watching of curly-haired Irish dancers for me BUT at least some darn green birds call this tropical country home.

The Resplendent Quetzal has such ridiculously emerald hued plumage that its call should sound like “Blarney! Blarney!” or “Erin go Bragh!” (however that one is pronounced) or maybe even something like “O’Donnell! O’Donnell!” How I wish it sounded like that last ditty but in reality the voice of this wispy-tailed, red velvet bellied, breathtaking cloud forest creature either comes through as a wacky cackle or mellow whistled notes.

Lucky birders visiting the montane forests of Costa Rica at this time of the year have a good chance of hearing those vocalizations because March is breeding season for quetzals and many other reps of the local avifauna. This higher degree of bird song is probably the biggest similarity to the more dramatic Springs of temperate climes. Well, that and bird migration. It’s happening here now as I write and so I’m dying to head down to the Caribbean lowlands to catch the aerial rivers of Turkey Vultures, Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks, Eastern Kingbird flocks, and thousands of Chimney Swifts and swallows that blitz through this small country in a matter of hours.

Spring is still early in a lot of places but is definitely kicking into gear throughout the northern hemisphere.  In the state of Georgia, JSK of the “Anybody Seen My Focus?” blog reports on pairs of Eastern Bluebirds. Check out the images to see them showing off their usual beautiful blueness as they investigate neighborhood nesting boxes.

Much further north and a bit west, birders in the Twin Cities are probably still “enjoying” the tale end of winter but this also means that they still have time to get ready for Spring’s heavy avian action. The early Spring days are a good time to gaze at illustrations of ducks, sparrows, vireos, and warblers. Get up to speed on their identification and get psyched to see them with a highly anticipated field guide for the eastern region reviewed by Greg Laden at “Greg Laden’s Science Blog”. If you want to learn how window killed birds can make contributions to science,  see the video posted by Kirk of the “Twin Cities Naturalist” that shows how to prepare a study skin of a Scarlet Tanager.

Winging our way out west, Larry Jordan of “The Birder’s Report” blog entertains with gorgeous images and a video (!) of  mustard-yellow Evening Grosbeaks that brightened up his Springtime California backyard.

Much further south, Jan Axel tells us about birding the cloud forests of western Panama and posts images of some fine photogenic tropical bird species in the process at “Jan Axel’s Blog”.

Heading west across the vast Pacific Ocean, YC Wee of  “The Bird Ecology Study Group” posts fantastic video and images of Rose-ringed and Rose-breasted Parakeets feeding on the seeds of mahogany trees in Singapore.

For a globally themed post, David Ringer at “10,000 Birds” gives us a fun and informative breakdown of the “new” Suliformes bird order.

Thanks to all who sent posts for I and the Bird #146! I and the Bird is a biweekly blog carnaval organized by the people who run the 10,000 Birds website. One of them, Mike Bergin, will host the next edition of IATB (#147).  Please send links and summaries of your favorite blog posts to him by 3/29 to [email protected].

Be sure to check out the usual IATB announcement at 10,000 Birds for a bonus request for information about your favorite “little brown jobs” – those small, difficult to differentiate species that drive us mad. Mike will be asking for species names, photos, and brief descriptions of why they drive people crazy. The deadline for that will be next Thursday, 3/24.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations preparing for your trip

Don’t Ignore the San Ramon Area When Birding Costa Rica

I haven’t been birding in the western end of the Central Valley for at least a month but I was reminded of how good the birding is near the town of San Ramon when the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica released the Christmas Count Results for this area on March 4th. The results can be downloaded and although there are in Spanish, even if you cant speak that language,  they are pretty easy to interpret as bird names are in English.

The variety of habitats that fall within the count circle resulted in over 340 species being identified! Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Ruddy Woodcreeper, Rufous-breasted Wren and other Pacific Slope species demonstrated that the seasonally dry forests of this biogeographic area were represented at the Eco-Musas park. Over on the other, wetter side of the mountains, several routes that accessed middle-elevation forests turned up a very good number of Caribbean Slope birds including the likes of Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Rufous Motmot, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, Thicket Antpitta, and Black-headed Antthrush. Cloud forests in the area also turned up Black-breasted Wood-Quail and Resplendent Quetzal among other species. The area around Tierras Enamoradas was especially productive for a bunch of foothill forest species. On a side note, this hotel has excellent birding near the cabins and on trails through the forest (have seen Great Curassow, lots of intact rainforest). They prefer to sell package stays that are good bargains if you want to do canopy tours and that sort of thing but while non-birding spouses and kids can zipline through the forest and ride horses, you can go birding on your own or with a resident birding guide.

Some highlights were Bare-necked Umbrellabird (3 seen, one right at the San Luis Canopy!), the trio of Costa Rican antthrushes, the triplet of Costa Rican leaftossers, Sunbittern, Tiny Hawk, 5 (!) sightings of Ornate Hawk-Eagle, two White-tipped Sicklebills, Keel-billed Motmot, Scaled Antpitta, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and four Sepia-capped Flycatchers!

Another advantage of these results is that numbers of bird species are given for each site. Now many of these species are rare so you can’t expect to just bird the routes of the count and and see them but at least you know that you have a chance! These count results show that any birder headed to the La Fortuna area should consider spending a night in the area to bird some of these sites or at least take the route from San Ramon through San Lorenzo and stop for birding along the way. I can’t wait to get back to the area as well as check out spots past Tierras Enamoradas where there is a lot of promising, underbirded habitat.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Pacific slope

Scarlet Macaw in a Beach Almond

During recent guiding in the Carara area, Scarlet Macaws were hanging out at the beach near the village known as Tarcoles. These unbelievable looking birds do this now and then to feast on seeds of the “Beach Almond” (Terminalia catappa). A common sight on beaches in Costa Rica, this tree species isn’t really an almond nor is it native to Costa Rica but the macaws sure love it. I do too and not just because it frequently plays host to Scarlet Macaws but also because its large leaves provide solid, welcome shade when the tropical sun is bombarding everything in its path with intense UV rays.

While attempting some shots of these brilliant birds, I was surprised to see that they are somewhat camouflaged in the foliage of the beach almond. The shocking red, yellow, and blue plumage of the Scarlet Macaw might be a bit too much to describe them as being “camouflaged” but they sort of blend in with the red, yellow, and green leaves of the Beach Almond.

birding Costa Rica

A Scarlet Macaw trying to hide in a Beach Almond….

birding Costa Rica

followed by an unflattering view from the rear….

birding Costa Rica

until it clambered out from the leaves to…

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munch on a seed.

As with most neotropical birding, Murphy’s Law came into effect when this and other macaws were nowhere to be found when I showed up with two serious photography enthusiasts on the following day. At least we still recorded around 140 bird species during a day of birding the wonderfully diverse area around Carara.