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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Where to See Honeycreepers and Dacnises when Birding Costa Rica

Antbirds rule but a lot of them are just terribly difficult to see. Take Immaculate Antbird for example. Go to Tapanti, Virgen del Socorro, or any other forested, middle-elevation site and you will probably hear them each and every morning. Although it’s always nice to hear those tail-wagging, blue-orbitaled skulkers, it’s also a bittersweet sound because you just know that you probably won’t see them without a lot of effort. In the case of Rufous-breasted Antthrush it’s even worse. I can’t tell you the last time I actually saw one of those shy, cloud forest birds in Costa Rica even though I hear them every time I bird Tapanti.

The weird and wonderful nature of antbirds makes the time and effort needed to see them well worth it (it’s not like you have much of a choice anyways). Nevertheless, thank goodness that there are a bunch of other, colorful, cool birds in Costa Rica that can be seen much, much easier. The thin-billed tanagers known as honeycreepers and dacnises are a group of small, beautiful birds that are fairly common, aren’t shy, and are readily seen at a plethora of sites. I so wish that members of the Formicaridae would take a lesson from these little beauties. You have a very good chance at seeing all of them when birding Costa Rica, but here is some information on where to watch them in any case:

Green Honeycreeper: This gorgeous bird is widespread in the neotropical region and easy to see in most humid forested areas of the lowlands and foothills. Although a canopy bird by nature, Green Honeycreepers accommodate birders by coming lower to visit feeders and fruiting bushes. You should see them at any rainforest site in the country as well as hotel gardens near rainforest. They are often found at fruiting trees and frequent mixed flocks. I won’t even list sites for this species because I see them just about every time I visit the humid lowlands and foothills.

The female Green Honeycreeper is plain old green.

The male Green Honeycreeper is a bit more stunning.

Red-legged Honeycreeper: Another common species in many areas, this beautiful little bird frequents lowland gardens, forest, and second growth on the Pacific Slope and the northern part of the Caribbean Slope. It shows up at fruiting trees but is a true aficionado of flowering trees. They make a whiny, nasal call that sounds a lot like that of a gnatcatcher.

Male Red-legged Honeycreeper.

The female is kind of dull…

Shining Honeycreeper: This beautiful bird is most common at humid lowland sites of both slopes. Although it also occurs in foothill rainforests and shows up in gardens, I see them more frequently in lowland rainforest. They can be overlooked because of their small size and penchant for hanging out in the canopy. However, even when seen 100 feet above the ground, the male’s bright yellow legs and female’s streaked underparts stand out. Although they are possible at any number of sites, they seem more common at places like Veragua, Laguna del Lagarto, and Sarapiqui. They also come to the feeders at Talari Lodge!

Male Shining Honeycreeper from Veragua.

Female Shining Honeycreeper at Talari.

Blue Dacnis: This is another one that tends to get overlooked by merit of its size and canopy hangouts. In actuality, this bird is pretty common in lowland rainforests of both slopes. A true species of the lowlands, I don’t think I have even seen it above 300 meters elevation. Keep an eye out for it in fruiting and flowering trees at any lowland, humid forest site.

Male Blue Dacnis from Veragua.

Female Blue Dacnis from Veragua trying to hide behind a flower.

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis: The turquoise blues and velvet black of this little tanager are a sight to behold! Luckily, they are pretty common in a lot of sites. They will move into the lowlands during the dry season but tend to be most frequent at foothill and middle elevation sites (up to about 1,500 meters) on the Caribbean Slope. On the Pacific Slope, they also occur around Monteverde and on the slopes of the Talamancas (think Wilson Botanical Garden and San Gerardo de Rivas). The Scarlet-thighed Dacnis usually shows up at fruiting trees and bushes at the edge of and inside forest. They can show up at any number of sites. Some of the places where I regularly see this beauty are Cinchona, Virgen del Socorro, Quebrada Gonzales, Arenal, El Copal, and Tapanti.

A male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis from El Copal.

A female from Arenal.

I can’t get enough of these species when birding Costa Rica no matter how many times I see them. Visit Costa Rica for birding and you have a pretty good chance of seeing them too!

Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Forecast for Birding Costa Rica in 2012

The new year is so well underway that it has essentially ceased to be “new”. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to make some sort of birding forecast for Costa Rica in 2012. Don’t worry, there won’t be any predictions about the end of the world based on the Mayan calendar, just some ideas about birds and birding and since even those are subjective and stem from my opinion, it might not be wise to give them too much weight. So, without further ado, here’s my take on the 2012 Costa Rican birding almanac!:

Don’t count on birding the La Selva entrance road (unless you are a guest of the station): The entrance road to La Selva has been one of the most productive birding areas in the Caribbean lowlands. While there are other sites that also combine a healthy mosaic of habitats that can be birded from a road in the Caribbean lowlands, the OTS La Selva entrance road is one of the closest to San Jose. HOWEVER, a guard post has been put into place right at the start of the entrance road and you won’t be allowed to bird the road without permission. Given that one of the guards couldn’t tell me if birders would be allowed to bird there or not and that he would have to ask management about it, don’t count on being able to bird it unless you are staying at La Selva. The guards may very well let you in to bird the road but don’t be surprised if they turn you away. Such control over access to the entrance road has been in the works for some time and you can’t blame them in their attempt to provide more security for the station. Don’t fret about not birding the entrance road though- there are several other options in the Sarapiqui area that can turn up the same suite of species. These include the grounds of various hotels, private reserves, and even some public roads.

This public road near Chilamate has excellent lowland forest birding.

Exciting birding around the northern volcanoes: This has always been the case but I just bring it up because this underbirded area deserves more attention. By northern volcanoes, I mean Rincon de la Vieja, Tenorio, Miravalles, and Cacao. There are many sites up there in the north that offer up fantastic birding and the junction of dry and wet forests makes them biodoversity hotspots. In fact, I am convinced that the Bijagua area is one of the most biodiverse birding sites in Costa Rica and other sites around the northern volcanoes are probably similar. For example, all 6 motmot species, at least 10 owl species, all 5 tinamous, and much, much more have been recorded within a 15 minute drive of Bijagua. With that in mind, maybe I should ask my wife if we can live there? Anyways, go birding up in that area and you won’t regret it!

I think this is Volcan Tenorio beckoning from a distance.

Carara gets a bit drier: I just mention this because that seems to be the case with the lowland areas of the park. Bird species that didn’t occur in the park ten years ago such as Montezuma Oropendola and Keel-billed Toucan are now regularly seen along the River Trail and wet forest species such as Baird’s Trogon, Red-capped Manakin, and Golden-naped Woodpecker don’t seem to be as common as they were during the 90s. All of the wet forest species still occur in Carara but some do seem to be a bit more rare and might be more frequent on the road to Bijagua.

Rufous-crested Coquette and Western White-tailed Trogon are found in the southeast: Ok, so this is a prediction and is dependent upon more birders visiting the area south of Limon but I stand by my claim. If more knowledgeable birders head down that way throughout the year, both of these species should get recorded. Both have been found just 20 or 30 miles away in Panama, the coquette can easily escape detection because it looks and acts like an insect, and I have already heard two believable reports of the trogon (someone saw a “Black-headed Trogon” and the other accurately described the Western White-tailed).

Harpy Eagle will be seen at Tortuguero and around Laguna del Lagarto: Wishful thinking on my part but certainly possible. Harpy was seen at Tortuguero in 2010 and could definitely turn up in the forests around Laguna del Lagarto and Maquenque.

Underbirded lowland forest near Laguna del Lagarto.

Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers continue to be difficult to see during the dry season: Last year was the year without Long-tailed Silkies. At least it seemed that way for many birders visiting the country during February and looking for them at high elevations. They were actually still around but searching for food at lower elevations. It’s looking like this year may be similar since recent visits to Cerro de la Muerte failed to turn up Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers at high elevations although I did hear them around 1,800 meters while driving up the mountain.

A young Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher from Irazu.

Rare hummingbirds show up at Cerro Lodge: The massive Porterweed bushes were teeming with hummingbirds in late December and seem to be destined to turn up a Blue-tailed Hummingbird, White-crested Coquette, or even White-bellied Hummingbird.

One of the massive Porterweed bushes at Cerro Lodge.

Bosque del Rio Tigre continues to be one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica: In fact, you could easily make a good argument for this place being THE BEST birding lodge in the country although Rancho Naturalista comes in at a close second. It’s hard to beat excellent, comfortable lodging, fantastic food, wonderful service, top-notch guiding, and birds like Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas, many raptors, Marbled Wood-Quail, and feeders with Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, Fiery-billed Aracaris, and Spot-crowned Euphonias.

It’s hard to beat Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers as a feeder bird…

Lovely Cotinga turns up on the San Rafael-Virgen del Socorro Road: I would need luck but the road goes through perfect habitat at the right elevation so careful searches during the breeding season could connect with this rarity!

I finally see a damn Masked Duck: That is my own personal forecast and I am going to make it happen because seeing the “Zorro” of waterfowl is loooooong overdue!

Hope to show you birds in Costa Rica in 2012!

Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding in Costa Rica at Paraiso de Quetzales

Costa Rica is definitely a hot, tropical country. At 9 degrees latitude, the sun’s rays can burn with the intensity of some vicious alien device. In the humid lowlands, you sweat but just can’t seem to cool off. 80 degrees is the norm, it feels like summer most of the time, and thank goodness for that! However, the uplifted nature of Tico topography also makes a fair portion of the country as cool as an October night. Go high enough in the mountains and that electric October feeling can also morph into a chilly November. I know this from personal experience because I have wandered around the high, temperate zone oak forests on breezy, misty nights in search of Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl,  and Dusky Nightjars.

The latter two birds are regular while the first is pretty darn rare. I still need the saw-whet sans spots but plan on getting it this year. Part of that plan will include several layers of warm clothing, the outer shell of which will be impervious to water. I know this is what is needed to wander around high mountain forest while tooting like a tiny owl because I tried it on Saturday night at Paraiso de Quetzales (in retrospect, I think you also need to be willing to temporarily trade in some of your sanity). Although I didn’t connect with the owl, I know they are up there because others have seen them in the past.  Perhaps we would have gotten it too if we had checked more sites for a longer period of time. Although we could have spent most of the night wandering around the cold, dark forest, we didn’t want to lose a morning of birding so our small group of owl searchers opted for blanket-covered beds and traded a chance at the owl for much needed sleep.

There is some really nice high elevation rain forest at Paraiso de Quetzales.

The next morning, I I forced myself to get up at 5 and listen for birds. They weren’t exactly flying around at that unforgiving hour but were definitely making their presence known with song. On my brief, pre-breakfast stroll down the Zeledonia Trail, I heard a flock of Barred Parakeets,  several Large-footed Finches, Zeledonias, the wing rattle of a Black Guan, Black-thighed Grosbeak calling a lot like its northern Rose-breasted relative, and Collared Redstarts singing their cheerful, hurried songs. The most welcome sound of the morning, though, was the calling of Resplendent Quetzals. At least two of these spectacular birds were singing. Here is what some of the morning medley sounded like: Zeledoniaandquetzal

After some of the best coffee in the world (seriously) and a tasty breakfast, our birding club group were led by the Jorge, owner’s son, in our search for quetzals. This involved walking up to an area with a large number of wild avocados in fruit and waiting for the birds to show.  After about ten minutes, someone in our group spotted a female flying through the canopy and we quickly got onto the bird.

A typically dull female Resplendent Quetzal.

Jorge explained that the male was also probably nearby since the birds had probably finished feeding for the morning and were just sitting around, digesting the avocado fruits they had eaten for breakfast. While watching the female and waiting for the male to fly into view, someone in our group spotted the male sitting in the same tree as the female. It was perched up there in the canopy the entire time but despite its brilliant plumage, was obscured enough by a clump of leaves to keep us from noticing him! After some strategic repositioning of the scopes, we got the male into view and everyone enjoyed prolonged, soul satisfying looks at this amazing, iridescent creature.

A bad picture of the fancier male.

Watching quetzals.

As nice as quetzals are, they aren’t the only birds you see at “Quetzal Paradise”. Black-capped Flycatchers were hawking insects from fencepost perches, Large-footed Finches scratched in the leaf litter, Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the bushes, and mixed flocks of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Collared Redstarts, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, and other highland endemics rushed through the vegetation. Our group also had great looks at Buffy Tuftedcheek that came in to playback and some people also had glimpses of Silver-fronted Tapaculos that skulked in the dense undergrowth. The best sighting was arguably that of a Peg-billed Finch spotted by two fortunate individuals as this uncommon finch has been a tough bird to find in recent years.

Of course the hummingbird action at the feeders was pretty darn good too! The lighting was perfect for admiring the jewel-like plumage of multiple Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds vied with the Fiery-throateds for attention, and an occasional Green Violetear zoomed in to the feeders before being chased away. Volcano Hummingbirds were also common at Paraiso de Quetzales but they didn’t dare come to the feeders. I was surprised to not see White-throated Mountain-Gem in the forest as an orange-flowered sage species was blooming throughout the understory.

Green Violetear.

Fiery-throated Hummingbirds look OK from the side,

but turn into living jewels from the front.

Magnificent Hummingbirds look pretty nice too.

Another big miss was Ochraceous Pewee as the area is usually reliable for this uncommon bird. Oh well, that’s yet another reason to head back to Paraiso de Quezales for exciting highland forest birding in Costa Rica.

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

Is It Going to Snow when Birding Costa Rica?

Costa Rica probably hasn’t experienced a good snowfall since the last ice age and even then it was surely limited to the highest peaks. Treeline habitats probably experience frost once in a while but most of the country is consistently warm. The chance of even the tiniest bit of snow further diminishes when global warming is taken into account. Heck, with the winter of 2012 shaping up to be the year without cold white precipitation in most of the northern tier states and  southern Ontario, you might wonder how or why I would even mention “snow” in reference to Costa Rica. Well, the “snow” that I’m talking about isn’t the associated with the realm of jolly Saint Nick and Ivory Gulls.

It’s snow of the avian kind and anyone headed to Costa Rica for birding hopes to experience a flurry or two because it’s kind of hard to find this feathered weather elsewhere. Not that it can’t be encountered in Honduras, Nicaragua, or western Panama, it’s just that this most wanted avian snow is more accessible in Costa Rica. I had a welcome bit of avian snowfall yesterday while birding around Chilamate, Sarapiqui and hope that it’s a harbinger of more snowy days to come when birding Costa Rica in 2012.

Costa Rica’s snowfall comes in the form of the peaceful looking Snowy Cotinga. Is it a mutant dove? An overexposed, albino tityra? Nope, the Snowy Cotinga is an unmistakably, brilliant, December-white bird that swoops around the canopy of lowland rainforest in its search for delectable fruiting trees. In extensively forested areas you can sometimes encounter 6 or 8 of these magic birds as they forage together although such flurries are the exception. Typically, you have to be content with seeing just one or two but if you bird the right places, you have a good chance of snow.

You usually see Snowy Cotingas like this, sitting high up in some emergent tree.

You get better looks if there is a fruiting tree in the vicinity.

Even if they try to hide, Snowy Cotingas are still unmistakable.

Snowy Cotingas can show up at any forested site in the Caribbean lowlands. Scan the treetops and watch fruiting trees for them in the Sarapiqui area, southeastern Costa Rica, Tortuguero, and the area around Laguna del Lagarto. Wishing you snowy days in Costa Rica in 2012!

Birding Costa Rica

Biggest Misses for Birding Costa Rica in 2011

I surpassed the 600 mark in 2011 but still missed a bunch of birds. That’s pretty much par for the course for any Big Year so I had already accepted a certain number of acceptable losses when I started counting birds on January 1st, 2011.  Since 894 species have been recorded in Costa Rica, my margins for missed species fell within a well-buffered comfort zone. Nevertheless, the fact that I could miss over 150 species and still get 600 for the year didn’t mean that I could simply ignore the laws of probability. Limiting factors such as birding time, weather, migration, and rareness meant that I had to be strategic right from the start. With unlimited time and resources, I probably could have hit 700 for the year but since work and family come first, a trip to the Caribbean coast for migrants was critical, I had to listen for migrants at 4 a.m., visiting most of the major habitats and bioregions was of basic importance, some night birding was in order, and I wouldn’t have broken 600 without trips for shorebirds and migrant ducks.

Since I didn’t spend much quality birding time near the Panamanian border, I won’t even put such species as Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, Crested Oropendola, and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet into the “miss” category. These were part of the accepted losses because I didn’t get the chance to try for them. The same goes for pelagic birds that would have been easily ticked on any boat trip 20 miles off the coast. The real misses were the resident species that I typically see over the course of a year or that I should have seen given the amount of time spent in their habitat. There were also the “twitches” that I had missed- rarities recorded by others that didn’t hang around long enough for me to see them. That said, here are my top ten missed birds or groups of birds for 2011:

10. Azure-hooded Jay- an unlikely miss of a resident species: This uncommon jay is easiest in the Monteverde area and that’s probably why I didn’t hear or see one during 2011. Although I didn’t make any trips to that famous cloud forest reserve during the past year, I still should have picked one up while birding at Tapanti or near Virgen del Socorro.

An old, scanned image from the Santa Elena Reserve. This beautiful jay was foraging with army ants right at the entrance to the reserve in 1996.

9. Ochraceous Pewee- the rare, resident flycatcher eludes me once again: This uncommon regional endemic continues as a glaring blank spot on both my life and Costa Rican list. Granted I didn’t bird all that much in its bastions on Cerro de la Muerte, it’s really about time for me to connect with this one! I’m not worried though because I will be guiding a two day trip at Paraiso de Quetzales (a regular site for this species) in two weeks.

8. Band-tailed Barbthroat- the hummingbird that refused to show itself: This one is a big miss because it’s not even that rare. I figured I would have run into it at some time or another but that occasion just never presented itself despite watching for it at every lowland Heliconia patch.

7. Short-tailed Nighthawk- don’t know how I missed this one…: Sure it’s nocturnal but I did check at night for this bird in places where it is easily and regularly seen and still somehow missed it. None of these bat-like birds called, none showed themselves. Oh well, I still got 600 species!

6. Olive-backed Quail Dove- missed by 2 seconds!: These are always hard to see but this little rainforest dove gets 6th place on the list because I was soooo close to seeing one. The miss happened on a trail at Veragua where a few people in front of me actually saw one walking right on the boardwalk! It trotted away into the undergrowth before I could see it…

5. Barred Hawk- common middle elevation raptor is a no show!: It’s still hard for me to believe that I didn’t get this one because birding in several of the exact same foothill and middle elevation sites in 2010 resulted in multiple birds for that year.

4. Yellow-eared Toucanet- where are the toucanets?: Although I probably heard one give the briefest of calls once at Quebrada Gonzalez, I didn’t count it for the year. I usually see several of this uncommon species at Quebrada Gonzalez or along the road to Manuel Brenes. For some reason, this year, I just didn’t connect with them. Like other frugivores, they move around in search of fruiting trees. I probably just didn’t find the right tree at the right time.

A toucanet at Quebrada Gonzalez from another year.

3. Buff-breasted Sandpiper- always, always, always check your email before going to bed: These long distance migrants are rarely seen in Costa Rica so it was a BIG DEAL when several (!) showed up at turf farms near the airport. As I am a short drive from the airport, this should have been an  excellent, easy tick. HOWEVER, I missed them by one day because I failed to check my email the day they were found. Although they were seen on subsequent days, they weren’t there when I looked!

2. Sulphur-rumped Tanager- I saw it but don’t want to count this would-be lifer: What can I say? I was at the best site for them in Costa Rica (Veragua Rainforest Center), other people saw them in the same tree I was looking at, and I am 90% sure that I glimpsed two of them (one was very far away, the other a shape seen sans optics). Amazingly, I still missed this much wanted lifer! I will get them the next time I go there though so I’m not too worried.

1. Three-wattled Bellbird- the biggest miss: Hundreds or even thousands of birders surely saw this fancy species while visiting Monteverde in 2011. As with the Azure-hooded Jay, I didn’t visit that area at the right time of the year so I missed my best chance at seeing them. I usually get them at Carara but they haven’t spent as much time in the national park as past years (possibly due to changes in fruiting cycles?). I also expected to pick one up on the road to Manuel Brenes but no such luck in 2011. I would love to get a picture and recording of this iconic species though so I will probably go look for them soon.

These other species get honorable mentions:

Redhead: A first for Costa Rica, I went looking for it a week or two after it was found and came up empty-handed. I hope they can be refound so I can get it for my country list.

American Avocet: This rare migrant was found and seen by many at Punta Morales. Like the Redhead, I hope I can bird up that way sometime soon and get them for my country list.

Streaked Xenops: It’s uncommon in Costa Rica but I birded Tapanti enough to have connected with this one!

Tawny-throated Leaftosser: Hard to see but easy to hear in cloud forests throughout the country, I called out to it on several occasions but didn’t receive any replies in 2011.

Banded Wren: Although I spent very little time in Guanacaste, I still should have at least heard one of these guys.

Sedge Wren: Same situation as the Banded Wren but different location.

Blue-winged Warbler: I usually get this each year so I thought it was odd not to see even one.

Worm-eating Warbler: Same situation as the Blue-winged. Always see a few but not this past year.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch: This one is uncommon but it gets honorable mention because I knew of spots to check for it yet never got the time to go there and look.

I won’t be making any Big Year attempts in 2012 but I just might do a Big Day! Happy birding in 2012, hope to see you in Costa Rica!