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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Christmas Counts Introduction lowlands

The Veragua Christmas Count (part 2)

Sleep was almost as evasive as a Harpy Eagle or a dry day in Tortuguero National Park. This did not bode well for the long day of birding that awaited us in the Veragua count circle. Who knows how long we would have to hike in the humid Caribbean lowland heat? Not to mention, we also had to be as alert as hungry Bat Falcons to give an accurate count. Even though Christmas counts are more relaxed endeavors than the wild, wide-eyed craziness that happens on Big Days, you still need to give it your all and attempt to identify and count every single bird. You have to sort out the Social Flycatchers  from their Gray-capped relatives, recognize the steady, insect-like chipping notes of Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, and give an accurate count of the Cattle Egrets that fly by in white, flapping droves.

Oh, and need I forget to mention, you also have to do that all day long. You can’t give up because it is your mission to count those birds until the time is up or until you drop from heat exhaustion. And even if you are lying there in a puddle of sweat with your birding brain frazzled from counting too many gulls or cowbirds while attempting to asses numbers of Great-tailed Grackles by merit of their circus-like madcap vocalizations, it is still your duty to croak out their names and numbers with rasping, over-exhausted breaths. You can’t give up on providing that precious annual data that may or may not be used to asses avian distribution at some later time. You just don’t know what might happen with the data but that’s why it’s so darn valuable (seriously!). Or, if you don’t want to sacrifice yourself in the name of birds, you could always take a nap at some later point in the day. That is a far better alternative than sleeping in because the biggest peak of bird activity happens when the sun begins its long climb into the tropical sky. Miss those golden hours and you forgo making any real assessment of birds in tropical forested habitats.

So, when the clock struck 3:30 a.m., all 60 something participants jumped out of bed, rushed to get ready, and like sleep-depraved robots, walked over to the cafeteria to fuel up with coffee and gallo pinto. This was a very important morning of birding and each of us had a specific route to cover. Bagged lunches were handed out, people met up with route leaders and counters boarded minivans. I found my two fellow counters for the day in one of the minivans. They were Duaro and Einor (spelling might be wrong but the pronunciation isn’t); two guys who lived near and counted raptors at Kekoldi. When the minivan filled up, the driver closed the doors, put the air on full, and we shivered in the Caribbean lowlands (amazingly) as we drove through the dark to our count circle routes. At 4:30 a.m., Duaro, Einor, and I were dropped off at the entrance to the “Brisas de la Jungla“, we wished the other Veragua participants good luck, and officially started the count!

Our ears were eager and attentive as we trudged uphill in the dark. Ignoring the pleas of roosters and dogs to be included on the list, we listened in expectation after belting out the barking call of Mottled Owl and the wail of Black and White Owl.  Nary a response from those nocturnal creatures  but we did pick up the de facto night bird- Common Pauraque. They earned the distinction of being our first species for the day as they called and flew off the road ahead of us.

Common Pauraques live up to their name when birding Costa Rica.

It was still dark when we reached our focal point for the dawn chorus. This auspicious spot was an overlook that took in a vista of forest edge, distant forested hillsides, and farmland; ideal for parrot flybys, raptors, and picking up the sounds of both forested and open habitats. As the sun began to color the sky, the heralds of the dawn chorus made it onto the list by merit of their vocalizations. Two Collared Forest-Falcons called in the distance, a Black and white Owl sounded off to end its “day”, and Woodcreepers sang a few songs. As is typical of tropical latitudes, the sun ran above the horizon and the birds just as quickly jumped out of their roost sites. Gray-capped and Social Flycatchers were more common than Tropical Kingbirds. A few Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers joined in with their dawn songs and a flock of Plain-colored Tanagers and several Blue Dacnis flew into the top of a nearby tree.

The pretty Blue Dacnis is common around Veragua.

Scanning with binoculars turned up a distant flyby flock of Pale-vented Pigeons and Olive-throated Parakeets zoomed on past. As Cattle Egrets started to fly inland from roosting sites near the coast, we were  kept busy counting them while also picking up a sole Black-striped Woodcreeper, two Central American Pygmy-Owls and common birds like Buff-throated Saltator, Blue-gray Tanager, and Passerini’s Tanager. The plaintive calls of Long-tailed Tyrants also made us aware of their presence and two Striped Cuckoos started to sound off but refused to show themselves (cowards!).

Oddly enough, we didn’t see any raptors from the overlook nor did we see as many parrots as expected. Snowy Cotinga was also evasive despite being in a perfect spot to watch for it. Nevertheless, it was a good place to start the count because we racked up around 80 species in two hours (many by sound). Once the dawn chorus calmed down, Duaro, Einor, and I walked uphill through old cocoa plantations and continued to see more birds. We ticked Western Slaty Antshrike, a handsome little Double-toothed Kite, Broad-winged Hawk feeding on a lizard, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and a short fruiting tree filled with birds. There were at least a dozen Gray-capped and Social Flycatchers, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, saltators, tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Montezuma Oropendola, Collared Aracaris, and other species feasting on the fruits.

The view from our first overlook.

Yes, it was as exciting as it sounds but even better was an extremely cooperative Central American Pygmy-Owl that came too close for binoculars after imitating its tooting song. Duaro actually took a National Geographicish video of the thing with his phone! I also got some pictures, including this one taken with the small zoom on my handheld point and shoot:

I swear, I felt like this beautiful little owl was going to use me as a perch!

Up on top of the hill, we reached some proper forest and oh did it look good for birds! Too bad we got there around 8:30 though; the requisite quiet time when birding in rainforest. We made our way to another overlook and, like the birds we were counting, rested for the next two hours. No need to walk around the forest between 9 and 11 unless you want to count insects or identify trees. Since that wasn’t part of our mission, we opted for hanging out on benches and scanning the forest canopy with the scope. Black and Turkey Vultures made their way onto the list but other than one, distant, Common Black Hawk, birds were absent from the scene. I bet that second overlook would be even better for starting the count because it overlooks intact forest. Maybe next year!

We figured our resting time was over when Purple-throated Fruitcrows started to call. They are pretty common in southeastern Costa Rica so I expected to get this one for the year on the day of the count. After a failed attempt to check out a lagoon hidden in the forest (due to it being inaccessible), we started walking downhill along one of the well-maintained trails at Brisas de la Jungla. The trail went through nice forest and old cocoa plantations with immense trees. It was pretty quiet during our time there but I bet it could turn up any number of rainforest species if you birded it during the early morning hours.

One of the trails at Brisas de la Jungla.

However, before venturing onto this trail, douse yourself with insect repellent. In fact, take a shower in the stuff until you reek of vicious chemicals. I didn’t and was literally chased out of the forest by a buzzing horde of mosquitoes. I must have gotten bit close to a hundred times and no matter how many I killed, they wouldn’t let up with their attack. Real blood sucking Ghengis Khaners in that place. I would definitely bird that trail again but not without an unhealthy supply of some seriously potent DEET spray.

Back at the safety of our dawn overlook, we continued counting from benches at that spot and this time, the cotingas were in the house! Granted, they were pretty far away, but visible enough to count them. A scan with the scope revealed at least 5 Snowy Cotingas perched in the canopy of forest on distant hillsides. This was around 3 p.m. and I bet you would have a very good chance of seeing them from the same spot at the same time of day. Look for a white speck against the green. Put the scope on it and it will either be a tityra or a Snowy Cotinga. You can also see these peace-doveish birds around Sarapiqui but they seem to be more numerous in southeastern Costa Rica (which makes sense since there is more intact forest).

That white thing is a Snowy Cotinga.

By this time of day, we didn’t get too much else of note other than one flyby Giant Cowbird. The decision was made to bird the road back down to the highway and maybe even check the river. Although we didn’t pick up anything new for the day, the walk back down was busy with common, rainforest edge species. Down by the river, we picked up Northern Waterthrush and got a surprise bird for the day: American Dipper! I didn’t expect this one because in Costa Rica, they typically occur at middle elevations and not at the 150 meters above sea level spot where we saw it.

Down by the river, we also got our last bird for the day, Blue-headed Parrot! I was especially excited about this bird because it also happened to be my 600th species for the year! I guess I was too excited and relieved to take a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Although they are still outnumbered by White-crowned Parrots in southeastern Costa Rica, a few Blue-headeds usually turn up during a day of birding in this area.

Finishing up the count.

Our Brisas de la Jungla count ended when the minivan picked us up at 5 p.m. The other participants told us tales of ticking kingfishers, egrets, Green-breasted Mangos, and other birds along the coast. We also shared and compared stories of our battles with biting bugs and agreed that this was one of the more mosquito-ridden areas of Costa Rica. The total number of species for our count territory was 122 and the number for the entire count was 408! This could make it the highest Costa Rican count for this year if not the highest species total for all 2011 Christmas counts!

The Veragua count  got so many species because the count circle includes habitats such as coastal areas, quality lowland rainforest, edge habitats, and middle elevation forests at 1,200 meters elevation. A few of the highlights from this year’s count include:

Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon: As an indication of the quality lowland forest around Veragua, 6 of this rare species were recorded!

Violaceous Quail-Dove: Although just one was found, the forested habitats in southeastern Costa Rica may be the most reliable area for this bird in the country. It’s still rare but I have also had luck with this bird in the past at the nearby Hitoy Cerere Reserve.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: Ten were recorded as they flew over a route these birds take most days of the year when commuting between highland forests and some unknown lowland site.

Owls: 7 species were recorded including a few Vermiculated Screech Owls, 5 Crested Owls, and 33 Central American Pygmy-Owls! Veragua and surroundings has got to be the easiest place to see this bird in Costa Rica.

Great Potoo: 9 recorded. Yep, this is a good area for this bird.

White-fronted Nunbird: 15 found in the count circle. This species is still regularly encountered in the area.

Spot-crowned Antvireo: 6 of this localized species were found.

Speckled Mourner: 2 found for the count. A rare bird!

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: 2 found, probably more in the area.

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: 83 counted. Like I mentioned, they are fairly common in the area!

Black-chested Jay: Only 3 this year. Last year, 43 were found, mostly at Brisas de la Jungla (we saw none!).

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Several of these. Veragua is the most reliable site for this species in Costa Rica.

It was quite the count. The area around Veragua is so good for birding simply because it still boasts sizeable areas of lowland forest. Many of the species that have disappeared or become rare around Sarapiqui are still fairly common around Veragua for this reason. It’s a bit off the regular birding circuit but it’s pretty easy to get to (3 and a half hours from San Jose on two-wheel drive roads). Brisas de la Jungla can be visited for birding although they charge $15 to do so and might even charge another $15 to walk their trail. Veragua is still being developed for birding and only offers very basic accommodation but they have fantastic trails, the birds, and excellent bilingual guides who know where to find them. You can only visit by reserving in advance. Their number in San Jose is 2296-5056. You can also write them at  [email protected]

I can’t wait to go back and bird in the area again albeit more prepared with insect repellent!

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