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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

An Average Morning of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

While birders in the northeastern USA were watching some exciting species thanks to Hurricane Irene, I had an average morning of birding in the agricultural landscape near my house in Santa Barbara, Costa Rica. I so wanted to join other birders looking for migrant Cerulean Warblers on the Caribbean slope but in being temporarily car-less (hopefully it will be repaired soon), my birding was limited to where my feet could take me. When this happens, about the only option available is an uphill walk to semi-shaded coffee plantations, grassy areas, and patchy woods. The habitat could be better but at least it’s green space!

Before leaving the house around 5:30am, I listened to the gentle dawn sky with cupped ears. I keep doing this with the hopes of picking up migrants I still need for 2011 like Upland Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-billed Cuckoo, Bobolink, and Dickcissel. Unlike those “seeping” “chipping” warblers, the flight calls of these and the thrushes make them readily identifiable. On August 28th, however, nothing was heard other than a Tropical Screech-Owl, Common Pauraque, and the usual barking dogs. I wasn’t all that surprised because it’s still early for migrants. If I listen for the faint sounds of nocturnal migrants every night and dawn until November, I should pick up a few new birds for 2011. What’s also nice is that I can stare at the night sky with hands cupping my ears from the privacy of my backyard and thus avoid being labeled as an alien or freakazoid by my neighbors.

On my way uphill (in much of Costa Rica, level areas are far and few between), I walked past fields on my left, and semi-shaded coffee on my right until reaching the stinky chicken farm at the top of the hill. At that point, I left the occasional traffic of the main road behind and was able to do more focused birding along a dirt road that passes through more semi-shaded coffee. This part of my morning birding circuit also tends to be the most productive thanks to a big fat fig tree, and a few other large trees with nice, snaggy branches. My “more focused birding” took the form of alternating a maelstrom of  spishing with pygmy-owl calls, and constant careful  investigation of the surrounding vegetation, distant tree tops, and a field of posts used for growing tomatoes. The results were funny looks from a guy guarding the tomato plants, occasional barking dogs, one or two Black and White Warblers, and a pewee species. Hence, as of Sunday, there wasn’t a whole lot of migrants making their way through the Central Valley of Costa Rica. It’s still early for migrants and I was entertained by other birds in any case, so I wasn’t all that disappointed.

To give an idea of what to expect when birding agricultural landscapes in the Central Valley, here is a list and numbers of the other species I identified during three hours of morning birding:

1. Crested Bobwhite (aka Spot-bellied Bobwhite)- One of two heard calling in the distance. Uncommon but they are around.

2. Turkey Vulture- A few perched on lamp posts.

3. Red-billed Pigeon- At least 8 of this common species. One was singing, others were flying around and sitting in various trees.

4. White-winged Dove- Probably 15 of this one. White-winged Doves in Costa Rica are kind of like Mourning Doves in North America, Spotted Doves in southeast Asia, and Collared Doves in Europe- common and adapted to human landscapes.

5. White-tipped Dove- One flyby and one heard. A common species of edge habitats in much of Costa Rica.

6. Crimson-fronted Parakeet- Just a few heard calling in the distance. I usually detect more of this common urban/suburban parakeet. They may be hanging out in the lowlands at this time of the year.

7. White-crowned Parrot- Just a few of these heard as well. Sometimes I see a flock of a dozen or so flying over the neighborhood, others days none.

8. Vaux’s Swift- Had one or two of these resident swifts flying around. There aren’t very common but you usually see one or two here and there.

9. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- At least 6 of this most common himmingbird.

10. Blue-crowned Motmot (yes, it’s still called “Blue-crowned” according to the AOU)- Dawn is a good time to see this shade loving bird. I had at least 3 on Sunday.

11. Hoffmann’s Woodpecker- 4 of this Central Valley woodpecker.

12. Mountain Elaenia- I was hoping to record the vocalizations of Yellow-bellied Elaenia but didn’t hear or see that common species. Instead, I saw one Mountain Elaenia feeding on figs. These are much more common at higher elevations.

13. Boat-billed Flycatcher- One calling bird at dawn and one lingering at the edge of a gang of Great Kiskadees.

14. Great Kiskadee- at least 6, most of them in a gang of loudly calling birds that were feeding on fruits in a low bush.

15. Social Flycatcher- Just two of this common, dainty kiskadee-like species.

16. Sulphur-bellied Flyatcher- One heard in the morning. These will be leaving town any day now (yes, the ones that live in Costa Rica are also migrants).

17. Tropical Kingbird- At least 10 of this super common species.

18. Yellow-green Vireo- I kept trying to turn two of these residents into migrant warblers. Like the S.F. Fly., these birds are also going to inexplicably fly south pretty soon.

19. Brown Jay- One seen and one heard. I sometimes get a flock of a dozen.

20. Blue and white Swallow- 8 of this most common swallow were flying around.

21. House Wren- 4 scolded from the undergrowth.

22. Plain Wren- At least a dozen of this common coffee plantation species sang and skulked in thick vegetation.

23. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush- Just one of this coffee plantation bird was singing.

24. Clay-colored Thrush- 6 of Costa Rica’s national bird.

25. Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one sang from a grassy field.

26. Rufous-capped Warbler- Spishing brought in several of this common species. I probably had 10 in total.

27. Flame-colored Tanager- Two of this beautiful bird were seen.

28. Blue-gray Tanager- At least 8 of this common bird.

29. White-eared Ground-Sparrow- A pair were heard giving their cascading vocalization and one was seen.

30. Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow- This uncommon species was the star of the day. One was seen and two were heard giving their high pitched calls.

31. Rufous-collared Sparrow- Probably 20 of this super common bird.

32. Grayish Saltator- At least 8 were heard and seen.

33. Buff-throated Saltator- Just 2.

34. Melodious Blackbird- 6 of this common bird were heard and seen.

35. Eastern Meadowlark- One was heard singing a lot like birds from western New York.

36. Great-tailed Grackle- Just 5 of this common bird.

37. Elegant Euphonia- I was surprised to hear two of these pretty birds calling from a treetop.

11 replies on “An Average Morning of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley”

Hey Patrick! thanks for the intention to attend the III Cerulean Warbler workshop & count. Your skills and experience are always very helpful in this kind of activities!
Since now we started with plans for the following year. We will arrange bilingual workshop and talks so more people will be able to attend. I will let you know as soon as I have something.

Best regards and happy birding,

Juan Diego and CERW CR crew

@Juan Diego- I hope the count went well. I would be happy to help promote and make it bigger for next year.

Glad you observed both ground-sparrows. I just love those little guys. “Elegant Euphonia” is a great name; I’m going to have to study up on it as I’ve never seen it (or heard it, that I’m aware of)!

@Connie- yes, those ground-sparrows are such cool looking, clown-like birds. Elegant Euphonia used to be known as Blue-hooded Euphonia until it was split from South America and Caribbean birds.

I just moved to the Central Valley (San Ramon de Tres Rios) a little over a month ago and am still getting to know all of the birds here, so this is a really helpful post for me. Random question: Lately in the late afternoon I often see flocks of white birds flying around, but they’re too far away for me to have any idea of what they could be. Would you happen to know?

@ Marie- They are Cattle Egrets. Often seen in the Central Valley as they fly to and from roosts in the early morning and late afternoon.

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