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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Guanacaste Pacific slope

Birding Costa Rica in Chomes

Chomes, Costa Rica is this end of the road village on the Gulf of Nicoya. There is a sign for it on the Pan-American highway, but your average tourist just zooms on by as if the place never existed. I don’t know what the guide books say about Chomes but if the place is even mentioned at all, it’s surely something along the lines of, “nothing of interest there” or “don’t bother with Chomes”. If you didn’t watch birds, they would be right. A friend of mine and I went to Chomes on Saturday and we didn’t see any restaurants, hotels, or anything remotely related to tourism for that matter. That was Ok with us, though, because we weren’t visiting good old Chomes to stroll the dusty streets, watch a community soccer game, or learn how to pick pineapples. We were there for a much better reason and it was called, “shorebirds”.

Chomes is pretty much the shorebird capital of Costa Rica. As those long distance, long-legged migrants fly south, they stop off in the food-rich estuarine habitats of the Gulf of Nicoya. A lot also stay for the winter but even more pass through during the fall trifecta of August, September, and October. They use mudflats and mangroves all around the gulf but so many of those are inaccessible. Since few birders make it to hotspots that can be scanned with a spotting scope, I wonder how many rarities get missed.

We didn’t connect with any super rare birds at Chomes on Saturday but since we also couldn’t check the entire place, there could have easily been something like a Long-billed Curlew, phalaropes, jaegers, boobies, or much rarer birds among the maze of mangroves and shrimp ponds. Before the place was divied up to cultivate shrimp, it was probably a much more productive area of mangrove forests and natural mud flats. Nevertheless, a heck of a lot of birds still use the temporary mud flats that form in the shrimp ponds and you can drive along most of the dikes that criss-cross the area. Birding from the car in hot and shadeless wetlands reminded me of wildlife refuges up north and I half expected to see brown signs that depicted a flying goose. However, the total and utter lack of signage combined with the calls of Orange-fronted Parakeets and Groove-billed Anis reminded me that I was still in Costa Rica.

But before I talk any further about the wonderful, blazing hot shrimp ponds at Chomes, let me tell you about the birding on the way in. After leaving the highway, the road to Chomes goes for 9 kilometers through patches of dry forest, pasture, at least one old growth riparian zone, some wet fields, and way too many acres of bird-bereft pineapples. In case you didn’t know, do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica if you want to protect bird habitat! Lots of chemicals are used, they cover massive areas, and you would be lucky to find even one Tropical Kingbird. There should be laws that restrict the amount of land dedicated to farming pineapples and the chemicals used on them because it’s an incredibly unsustainable way to misuse invaluable natural resources.

Away from the pineapple fields, the birding was pretty good (surprise surprise)! With our hearts set on shorebirds and shrimp ponds, we only made a few stops in the dry habitats along the way but were immediately impressed by a Crane Hawk doing its usual floppy foraging act, flybys of Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, and calling White-fronted and Yellow-naped Parrots. On another conservation note, Yellow-naped Parrots have become rather uncommon due to the cage bird trade. You can still see them in a lot of areas of Costa Rica, but we need to do more to protect nesting sites and educate people that keeping birds in cages is cruel and just plain wrong.

Other species near the Crane Hawk included White-lored Gnatcatchers, hordes of Yellow Warblers, one Red-eyed Vireo, a few Eastern Wood Pewees, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Blue Grosbeak, White-collared Seedeaters, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Anis, a bunch of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Gray Hawk, White-winged, Inca, and Common Ground-Doves, Violaceous (Gartered Trogon), Turquoise-browed Motmot, Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Rufous-naped Wren. All of these are a typical litany of birds that you run into when birding Costa Rica’ Pacific northwest and I’m sure we would have seen more had we started birding at dawn and concentrated our efforts in the riparian zones.

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The road to Chomes.Here is what it sounded like: chomes road medley1.

Just before we reached Chomes, a field with tall grass and a hidden wetland yielded a dozen Double-striped Thick-Knees and a bunch of Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets. We wouldn’t have known about the wetland had we not seen the heads of the tall wading birds at the far end of the field. It was a shame that we couldn’t get closer to the wet area because it looked like perfect habitat for Pinnated Bittern- a potential lifer. I bet there was one or two out there in the tall, wet grass but my lifer P. Bitty will have to wait for a day with better visibility.

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One of 12 Double-striped Thick-Knees near Chomes.

Looking forward to shorebirds, we drove with determination through the dusty streets of Chomes and after 4 blocks, came to a halt at the end of town. Where were the shrimp ponds? Why don’t they have a sign that shows a proud Marbled Godwit standing next to a smiling, claw-waving crustacean? If everyone was a birder, we would see so many cool avian-themed signs. There would be an annual laying of wreaths at monuments to the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Paroquet. We would see top ten hits of songs that paid homage to Nightingales, Northern Cardinals, and pratincoles, and poems and jokes about birds would grace greeting cards throughout the world.

“Your eyelashes are more beautiful than a Rhea’s, your voice more lovely than the caroling of a Hermit Thrush. Be My Valentine!”

“Macaws and albatrosses still look great at 65 and so do you. Happy Birthday!”

“If heaven exists, she is watching a flock of Pink-headed Ducks as a parade of Great Auks and Moas march through the streets. Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.”

But alas, crowds of New Yorkers aren’t exactly pulling out binoculars from briefcases to scan the sky for peregrines and residents of Chomes don’t hang out at the shrimp farms to count shorebirds. They are, however, aware of birders, friendly, and told us how to get to the shrimp ponds. When you get to what appears to be the last block in town (there aren’t that many), go left until you see an obvious gate with a blue archway. Ask for permission to enter and say that you would like to watch birds (for the non-Spanish speakers out there, you could say, “Podemos entrar para ver aves?”).

Someone should let you in and may also tell you that the main road to the beach is impassable. This was true on Saturday and so we could only check out a few of the ponds but we still saw a bunch of cool birds. Black-necked Stilts were the most common shorebird.

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Black-necked Stilt. My camera really hates to focus on this skinny bird.

There were also quite a few Short-billed Dowitchers, plenty of yelping Willets, and lots of Whimbrels. Hundreds of Black and Least Terns also entertained us by flying around and calling but we had to walk to the last shrimp pond on the right to hit the shorebird mother lode.

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A glimpse of the Chomes shorebird mother lode.

That wonderful mud flat was pretty much crawling with shorebirds. A group of orangey Marbled Godwits held court in the middle with a bunch of Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers, Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed Terns, two Elegant Terns, and one Black Skimmer! Elsewhere on the mud flat, there were a bunch of Spotted, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, and White Ibis. Yeah, it was pretty damn cool, especially because I picked up a few new year birds.

There might have been something else in that muddy shrimp pond but to keep from turning into dried out, wraith-birder husks, we walked back to the car for rehydration and AC. In checking out the road to the beach, we discovered that a massive water-filled hole was indeed preventing any further passage and therefore proceeded to do a 10 point turn to aim the car towards the exit.

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Heading towards the exit. Note the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

At the entrance (now exit), we had to wait five minutes for a friendly shrimp pond worker to unlock the gate. I don’t know how frequently people come and go at the shrimp farms so if you do go birding there, don’t stay until evening or you might spend the night in your car (or on dike with the mosquitoes for company).

I hope I make it down to Chomes at least one more time before the end of the year to pick up a rarity or two. It would be nice if I could drive to the beach but I don’t expect them to fill that huge hole anytime soon.

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Willet pretending to be a dead branch at Chomes.

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More Organic Farm Birding in Costa Rica at The Finca Luna Nueva

Sadly, the places that act as true models for sustainable living are far and few between. This is all too apparent when driving along just about any road in Costa Rica. Look out the window in any direction and you come face to face with urbanization, pasture, or intensively farmed land. Patches of habitat are seen here and there and intact forest is found in protected areas but sustainability is clearly not part of the picture. If maintaining biodiversity were an essential part of land use, then there would be more forest, no monocultures, much less pasture, and more green space shared on private lands and connected to large areas of forest on public lands. Although most land owners don’t manage their property in such a fashion (and we can’t blame them if they don’t know how to), there are a few people here and there who make serious efforts to use their natural resources in a sustainable manner.

One such place that acts as a model for sustainable farming and living is the Finca Luna Nueva eco-lodge near San Isidro de Penas Blancas. An active, successful, organic farm and eco-lodge, the Finca Luna Nueva is also an excellent site for birding. Unlike farms that use chemicals, grow just one or two crops, and cut down most of their forest to make room for Zebu Cattle, the Luna Nueva cultivates a wide variety of crops, has limited areas of pasture, and leaves nearly half of the farm cloaked with lowland rainforest. The fact that they are managing the land in a way that preserves and promotes biodiversity is apparent in the numbers and types of birds that you can see there.

Over 200 bird species have been recorded at Finca Luna Nueva and more are expected for their site list. In fact, as testament to the seasonal variation and low population densities so typical of birding in Costa Rica, we recorded 7 new species for the list. These were Bat Falcon, Uniform Crake, Mealy Parrot, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Northern Bentbill, and Canada Warbler. The crake was species 547 for my year list and would have been missed had a pair not given their usual duet at dusk. Whether in the humid forests of Costa Rica or the Amazonian lowlands or Ecuador and Peru, this is how I have always recorded this species. Now if I could just see one, I could remove the “h” in front of its name and increase my official life list by one.

The birds mentioned above were all nice to see or hear but our main quarry was another, much rarer species; the clownish White-fronted Nunbird. It cackles like a maniac, has a crazy, big, orange bill, and used to be common on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It’s still fairly common in the lowland forests of Hitoy Cerere Reserve but has either disappeared from or become rare just about everywhere else in the country. The nunbird is apparently very susceptible to edge effects as it has even disappeared from La Selva for unknown reasons (although an overabundance of peccaries are probably to blame). It hangs on at Luna Nueva though and I suspect that its continued occurrence there is just as much a result of pesticide-free habitat as the presence of intact lowland forest.

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White-fronted Nunbird a good bird to get when birding Costa Rica.

In being one of the apex insectivores of the lowland rainforest, nunbirds require a steady diet of large katydids, hefty  bugs, and small frogs and lizards. Luna Nueva offers up a smorgasbord of items to Nunbirds because they simply don’t try to kill off those forms of life. The limited area of rainforest at Luna Nueva keeps the nunbirds at low levels but they are still around and birders should see them during a weekend tour. We got our nunbirds back in the beautiful primary forest on the Cabalonga Trail although they also show up on the Rainforest Mystery Trail and in the biodynamic areas of the farm (basically where most of the cultivations are located). While looking for the nunbird, we also had a male Great Curassow calling from a cecropia (another indicator species of quality, protected habitat), Crested Guans, toucans, and Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogons.

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Black-throated Trogons prefer the interior of lowland rainforest.

The Rainforest Mysteries Trail was also productive and gave us mixed flocks of Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Western Slaty Antshrike, Plain Xenops, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Northern Bentbill, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, and Canada Warbler. Migrants weren’t as abundant as I had hoped but several Canada Warblers, a few Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Eastern Wood Pewees, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and hundreds of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows were reminders that birds are definitely passing through Costa Rica. We saw some of these birds from the tower along with flybys of Red-lored Parrots and close looks at a female Black-crested Coquette that visited Porterweed growing in planters on the tower itself.

Night birding was more or less halted by rain but a pre-dawn walk did yield calling Spectacled Owls and Common Pauraques (no nocturnal migrants though). On a non-bird note, the food was as super healthy and fantastic as it always is, and hotel service was great. If you are headed to La Fortuna, you should seriously consider staying at the Finca Luna Nueva. Who knows, if you find a fruiting tree, maybe you will add Bare-necked Umbrellabird or Lovely Cotinga to the list!

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Birding Costa Rica Guanacaste Pacific slope

Birding Near Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

This past weekend, I got in a bit of birding around Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. When we left the house on Friday, I had visions of augmenting my year list with everything from waders to Thicket Tinamou and Elegant Trogon. I desperately need these and other “Guanacaste” birds if I’m going to break the 600 mark by December 31st. Although I realized that I wouldn’t be able to focus on birds the entire trip, I figured that I still had a pretty good chance of picking up most targets due to the sleep-in factor. Although my wife, three year old daughter, and mother-in-law don’t watch birds as fervently as myself, they won’t get out of bed until at least 8:30 or even 9 if they don’t have to. I think they love to sleep in on weekends because they need to get up by 5 or even 4 in the morning on weekdays. Whatever reasons they have for dreaming away the early morning, this works out perfectly for me because I can start birding pre-dawn and head back just as bird activity slows down around 8:30.

I planned on checking out marshy fields for White-tailed Nightjar, picking up Pacific Screech-Owl in any wooded area, and catching the dawn chorus in areas of mixed habitats. Although I lacked “gen” on the best birding spots near Playa Hermosa, I wasn’t worried at all because the undeveloped nature of Guanacaste makes it easy to find good habitat and lots of birds. Large areas of intact dry forest are hard to come by outside of protected areas but you can still get most (if not all) of the forest species in old riparian groves.

With my foolproof plan in mind, I aimed the car towards the promised birds of Guanacaste ready and eager to clean up on target birds, get photos of things like Banded Wren and Streak-backed Oriole, and maybe even connect with migrant shorebirds. Not far from San Jose, however,  Murphy’s Law, Bad Luck, or whatever you want to call it (I also like “throwing a spanner into the works”) hit us exactly where it counts. As we left the Central Valley, my poor little Miranda suddenly threw up all over “Vaca”, her big plush cow. We figured this stemmed from over indulging on candy as Friday was the official holiday of “Dia del Nino” or “Kids Day” but when she kept throwing up, I began to suspect that she might have some virus adapted to parasitising cells of the digestive tract. Although she wasn’t feverish, by the time we arrived at the Villas Huetares in Playa Hermosa, Miranda was undoubtedly ill. My wife and mother-in-law refused to let go of their “too much candy” hypothesis but since they also believe that you can catch a cold from rainy weather, I don’t give much weight to their diagnoses. As Miranda threw up over the course of that first night at Villa Huetares, I realized that my plan was probably going to to be put on hold. If she still threw up in the morning, had a fever, or was not holding down water, I was going to bring her to the nearest hospital (mostly to keep her hydrated).

It was a fitful night but by the time the morning sun lit up the hotel courtyard, Miranda was sound asleep. I made my way onto the balcony outside our room and looked for birds. Murphy’s Law apparently has something against Streak-backed Orioles because I just couldn’t get a good picture of them but I at least managed some Ok shots of Inca Dove,

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Stripe-headed Sparrow, and

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Groove-billed Ani.

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Other birds around the hotel included flybys of Orange-fronted Parakeets and one pair of Yellow-naped Parrots, Yellow Warblers, TKs, Social and Boat-billed Flys, Great Kiskadee, Melodious Blackbird, lots of White-winged Doves, Cinnamon Hummingbird, and Turquoise-browed Motmot. These are all par for the course in Guanacaste but were nice to see anyways.

When Miranda awoke, she wasn’t her usual jolly, mischievous self but she was certainly looking better. Much to my relief, she was also eating and drinking a bit without vomiting so it looked like we wouldn’t need to make that hospital visit after all. Over the course of that first full day, we went to the beach but it was mostly a bust for birds. Scanning the rocky shorelines didn’t reveal any Wandering Tattlers or Surfbirds and terns were 100% absent. I did pick up one year bird though; a Brown Booby that flew in and made a few dives before heading to fishier waters.

In the afternoon, I was finally able to get out and put all of my attention on the birds. I picked a route that took me towards the Tempisque River near the town of Filadelphia in the hopes of finding some birdy wetlands. While driving, I saw a flock of Yellow-naped Parrots, more groups of Orange-fronted Parakeets, Crested Carcaras, White-tailed Kite, a pair of Double-striped Thick-Knees sitting under a big tree in the middle of a very short lawn, and dozens of Blue-black Grassquits. Past Filadelphia, I realized that I had made a mistake in taking that route because the surrounding habitat consisted of sugarcane fields. Aside from an occasional roadside ditch, I didn’t come across any wetlands but got a year bird in the form of the Bank Swallows that were perched on wires and feeding above the fields. Mixed in with them were several Barn and Cliff Swallows.

As the magic hour of 4pm approached, I took the road from Filadelphia to Sardinal and realized that this was where I should have focused my efforts in the first place. The road was wide enough to pull over and bird for most of its length, and it was flanked by such habitats as scrubby fields, grasslands, a wetland or two, savannah-like habitats, and riparian growth. I couldn’t stop everywhere because I wanted to be back to the hotel by 5:30, but I still managed to get in some nice birds. The summer sounding song of White-collared Seedeaters was a constant companion, a male Blue Grosbeak that sang from a wire was pretty awesome, and I got my year Brown-crested Flycatcher. At a grassy stream, spishing brought in at least a dozen Yellow Warblers while a Green Kingfisher stared down at the water and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats sang from the fields. Rufous-backed Wrens and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers were pretty common and White-throated Magpie-Jays made occasional appearances. There were also a lot of Inca, Common-Ground, and Ruddy-Ground Doves but I couldn’t turn any of them into much wanted Plain-breasted Ground-Dove.

I had hoped to hit that area the following morning or bird the road between Playa Panama and Liberia but that plan was abandoned when I became afflicted with the same illness that had besieged my daughter. My suspicions of stomach flu were confirmed as I unwillingly emptied my gut throughout the night. The following morning was spent resting up and sipping water with a splash of Gatorade so I could drive back up to the San Jose area. As me and Miranda watched kids television shows in the cool, dark room of the hotel, I just felt relieved that we never had to go to the hospital. Even if I didn’t see or hear all my target birds, we found a great place to stay and will probably visit again before the end of 2011. Next time we visit, I will probably focus more on the road between Playa Panama and Playa Hermosa as there were several places to pull off and bird, the traffic is pretty light, and it passes through scrubby mangroves, forest, savannah, sugarcane, and some rice fields that could attract wetland species.

On a side note, if you are headed to Guanacaste, there are plenty of options for accommodations. In addition to all inclusive resorts, there are also lots of smaller, very nice hotels, equipped villas, bed and breakfasts, and cheaper, backpacker options (including camping). Villas Huetares turned out to be the perfect choice for us and we hope to head back sometime soon. During the off-season, they charge $90 per night for a villa equipped with two large rooms with two beds each. The kitchen had a refrigerator, gas stove, sink, and a cupboard with pots, pans, dishes, cutlery, etc. There were also two pools, one of which is for kids, and the place is just 200 meters from the beach. The next time we visit, we hope to share a villa (and costs) with friends and their young daughter and bring most of our own food and drink. I’ll bird the road between Playa Panama and Liberia, search the rice fields and wetlands for Spotted Rail and Masked Duck, and get all of my target birds! Well, that’s the plan as long as Murphy’s Law doesn’t go into effect.

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Seeding Bamboo on the Road to Volcan Barva

Bamboo, that massive grass, is a common component of eastern Asian forests. When I was in Thailand in 2007, the huge clumps of bamboo that made up much of the understory in the forests around Doi Chiang Dao gave them an otherworldy, prehistoric appearance. Green Magpies, Lesser Yellownapes, drongos, and a bunch of other super cool birds searched the papery strips of bamboo “bark” for arthropodic goodies. It was impressive how those birds could still hide themselves and be so unobtrusive in such an open understory.

Over on the other side of the world in the American tropics, bamboo is also an important component of many tropical forests. Most of the bamboo isn’t as big as that elephantine stuff in Asia but its easily recognizable as bamboo nonetheless. You do see some tall huge bamboo clumps in Costa Rica but this is introduced Common Bamboo from Asia. The native bamboo species are thinner, daintier plants that mostly occur in highland forests. It’s pretty common but you hardly ever get to see it produce seeds. Unlike many other plants, bamboo doesn’t do the annual seed and fruit thing. It just grows and grows until an entire patch (which can be massive in size) unexpectedly produces seeds. For neotropical birders, this occurrence is somewhat akin to finding an army antswarm except that it’s an even bigger event. There might not be as many bird species as an antswarm, but it’s even more difficult to happen upon and attracts some super sweet rarities.

For example, seeding bamboo is one of your only chances at seeing Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. These birds will sometimes show up at seed spread on the ground near highland forest but what they truly relish are bamboo seeding events. The only time I have ever come across this species in Costa Rica (or anywhere else) was at a seeding event on Chirripo Mountain. Although it happened so long ago that the memory of the event is becoming fuzzy, I recall not just one bird scampering away but several individuals that were singing, feeding, and having themselves nothing short of a ground-dove jamboree.  As this was my second trip to Costa Rica, I had no idea that I had hit one of those avian jackpots we always dream of.

I don’t expect to see those beautiful little pigeons like that again but maybe I’ll get lucky and watch one or two at the seeding bamboo I found this past weekend on the road to Volcan Barva! Yes, a nice sized bamboo patch was seeding on Saturday and it looked like it was just getting started. I didn’t hear or see any ground-doves (did hear one Buff-fronted Quail-Dove) but I did catch up with one female Blue Seedeater! This is another bamboo associated bird that is always so darn uncommon. Although skulking behavior certainly plays a role in their apparent scarcity, they are too infrequently seen to not be genuinely rare. Since they are usually seen in or near bamboo, they might also be tied to seeding events. Other birds in Costa Rica that could show up at seeding events are Barred Parakeet, Slaty Finch, and Peg-billed Finch.

I could definitely use all three for my year list so I hope they show up at that patch somewhere on the mountain that looms near the house. If you take the main road up to Volcan Barva, the bamboo patch is in a riparian zone after where a light green sign points the way to “Volcan Barva”. It starts just past another sign that warns against dumping garbage. None of those special birds are guaranteed to show up but I think there’s a fair chance they will given that the seeding bamboo patch represents such an important and scarce resource.  Although much of the surrounding area is deforested, the connection that the riparian corridor provides to intact forest at higher elevations will hopefully act as a highway those target birds just can’t resist taking.