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Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Recent Birding News from Carara National Park, Costa Rica

I had a long, bird-filled day while guiding in and around Carara National Park yesterday and thought that I might share some news, tips, sightings, what have you. In no particular order:

1. Stay on the trails: While looking for birds along the Laguna Meandrica trail (the “river trail” of Carara birding fame), our group saw signs that read, “do not enter” at just about every opening that looked like a secondary trail. Apparently, the policy of only walking on established trails is being enforced as another guide warned me to keep everyone on the trail or we could get kicked out of the park (and we were just ten feet off the trail at a spot that looked like part of the trail and lacked a do not enter sign). So, when birding Carara National Park, stay on the trail or you may be evicted from the park. Not that anyone needs to leave the trails anyways.

2. Do not leave your car in the parking lot after 4 pm.: A couple of guys got their car locked into the park because they left it there after four PM. Why did they do that? Probably because there was no signs indicating that the park closed at that time! At least they didn’t notice any sign, nor did they see anyone at the building in the parking lot, so they walked into the park unawares and were confronted with a locked gate when they came out of the forest. Part of the problem is related to the next point…

3. The HQ is up the dirt road that goes uphill from the parking lot: For whatever reason, park tickets are no longer sold at the main building in the parking lot. It is pretty much abandoned and you have to go up the dirt road near the entrance to the trail to buy tickets. Once again, I don’t think there are any signs indicating this. I’m not sure why the main building appears to be abandoned- perhaps it’s waiting for repairs?

4. Blooming heliconias on the River Trail: Patches of heliconias are in bloom on the river trail and could turn up any number of hummingbird species. I had 2 Violet Sabrewings there on Monday (site bird for me) as well as Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, Long-billed Hermit, and Stripe-throated Hermit. It might be a nice place to just hang out and see what shows up. Watch those heliconias near the start of the HQ trail too- I have often heard Band-tailed Barbthroat in that area.

5. Yellow-billed Cotinga on the river trail: We didn’t see it but another guide told me he had one just the day before.

6. Antswarm on the river trail: Ok, so this can happen anywhere in the park but I have had antswarms on several occasions on the river trail. Spend a full morning on that trail and you might run into one.

Bicolored Antbirds show up at antswarms in Carara.

7. Rather quiet on the river trail on Monday: We saw several species of birds, including Royal Flycatcher, Bicolored Antbird, Stub-tailed Spadebill, and Long-tailed Woodcreeper, but the trail was probably the deadest I have ever seen it. As with most tropical forests, you never know what you are going to encounter when birding Carara though so it’s always worth a visit!

8. Scaly-breasted Hummingbird on the mangrove birding boat tour: On an afternoon boat tour, we were shown a “Mangrove” Hummingbird that turned out to be a Scaly-breasted Hummingbird. Just keep in mind if the boat driver takes pains to show you a hummingbird, it might not be a Mangrove.

9. Orange-collared Manakins lekking on the river trail: They have been lekking there for as long as I can remember so that isn’t exactly novel information. It is, however, always noteworthy so watch for those little orange-collared sprites when birding the river trail!

One of them there orange-collared sprites.

10. Plumbeous Kite on the river trail: I guess it’s pretty obvious where we went birding. One Plumbeous Kite was seen flying high above the river trail. We had another during the mangrove birding boat tour.

I hope that information will be helpful to anyone visiting Carara National Park in the near future. Good birding!

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Black-crested Coquette at El Tapir

El Tapir is a defunct butterfly garden (how many sites have that claim to fame?) a couple kilometers past Quebrada Gonzalez on the right side of the highway as you head towards Limon. During the latter 90s it received a fair number of visitors and cabins were being built to provide accommodation for excited, happy birders. I don’t know if that was actually the goal for the cabins but excited, happy birders would have certainly been the outcome. The place is easily accessible, has the full complement of foothill specialties, good populations of other birds that require primary forest, acts as a good lookout for raptors, and has a bunch of Porterweed bushes that are one of the few reliable sites in the country Snowcap.

However, to visiting birders great misfortune, the cabins were never finished and El Tapir was let to its own devices. The buildings are falling down, you would never know that a beautiful little, enclosed butterfly garden used to grace the entrance to the place, and there aren’t any more souvenirs for sale. Nevertheless, despite it’s defunct appearance, El Tapir can still be visited, there are a few trails through the forest, and hummingbirds still show up at the Porterweed bushes. Many of those magic flowering hedges have been cleared from the garden for unknown reasons and this has diminished the numbers of hummingbirds that show up but the place still sees visits by most of the expected species.

This past Sunday, while guiding at El Tapir, we were entertained by one of the more uncommon hummingbird species to visit the garden, an exquisite male Black-crested Coquette. It came to one of the flowering Porterweed bushes near the caretaker’s house and he let us know every time it made an appearance. It buzzed in low like a bumblebee for fantastic, close looks…

Black-crested Coquette is so small that it can just about hide behind a Porterweed stem!

It slowly moved into view and showed off its fine-plumed crest.

Neither common, nor rare, like so many other tropical bird species with low density populations, the Black-crested Coquette is perhaps best described as “uncommon”. This means that they are probably in the neighborhood when visiting their habitat but could easily escape detection if you don’t find the right type of flowering trees. Other factors that make it that much more difficult to locate this species are their tendency to move up and down slope in search of food and their naturally inconspicuous behavior that aids them in poaching nectar from flowers in the territories of other, larger, nastier hummingbirds.

I don’t see this species that often at El Tapir so don’t be surprised if you go birding there and miss it. However, even if you miss the coquette, consolation prizes often come in the form of Snowcap, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Thorntail, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Violet-crowned Woodnymph. You might also run into some good mixed flocks, pick up foothill birds in the forest, see King Vulture, and even run into a tapir! On Sunday, we had all of the hummingbirds listed above along with White-necked Jacobin and Purple-crowned Fairy. A sunny day made for pretty quiet birding inside the forest but we still managed to see Spotted Antbird (also heard Bicolored and Ocellated), Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Speckled Tanager, and King Vulture.

If you do visit El Tapir, just ask the caretaker if you can enter and pay him $5 per person. On a side note, the forest looked much drier than normal this past week and that could be why we picked up a few ticks so put on the sulfur powder and wear rubber boots!

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A Few Gems from Birding in Costa Rica at Heliconias Lodge

This past weekend, I co-guided the Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to a site that never fails in dealing out a wild card of high quality species. Birding at Heliconias Lodge is akin to shopping at an international antique bazaar where treasure awaits for those who know how to find it. Walk carefully and patiently watch on those trails through beautiful primary forest and ye shall find any number of avian rarities! Heliconias and other sites on the flanks of Tenorio Volcano are so darn good for birds mostly because there is a lot of high quality habitat. Bird large areas of extensive, protected forest and you are going to find species that have disappeared from other, more fragmented sites. It can’t just be large areas of old second growth either. Species like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Song Wren, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo appear to require (or are at least more common in) the type of old, intact primary forest that occurs at Heliconias.

People in our group had all of the above species except for the ground-cuckoo. Since we didn’t come across any army ants, that was no big surprise as at Heliconias, they are usually seen at anstwarms. Nevertheless, we saw a bunch of other excellent species, including a lifer for your’s truly. I knew this bird had been sighted at Heliconias in the past so I admit that it was my main personal goal for visiting the place. The ground-cuckoo would have also been nice but I knew that the other target bird would be much more reliable, especially since a friend of mine told me where he had found a pair the previous year.

My bird of the weekend and latest lifer was…

Keel-billed Motmot!

We got a pair right at the largest of the canopy bridges and they allowed us to study them at our leisure. Talk about soul satisfying looks, these birds perched at eye level directly in front of us like they were in some kind of zoo. There was always the possibility that they might be immature Broad-billed Motmots, but since they looked like images of other Keel-billeds and acted like a pair of adult birds, I’m counting this as my latest lifer. It was long overdue, so now I can move on and search for the nefarious Masked Duck, the elusive Ochraceous Pewee, and several skulking marsh birds.

Other quality species that gave us killer looks were:

Crested Owl and

Black-crested Coquette.

The owl is widespread in Costa Rica but can be a real pain to see even when they are calling. One of the guys at Heliconias often knows where a pair are perched and is happy to show them to visiting birders. The coquette is also commonly seen throughout the year right near the entrance to the lodge. We had at least two, and the local birding guide, Jorge, says that he sometimes sees four in the area.

For whatever reason, Heliconias is also one of the most reliable sites in the country for Song Wren.

Here’s one doing its usual skulking thing in the understory vegetation.

Although the weather can be trying, head to Heliconias and bird the road to the Rio Celeste and you are going to see a bunch of high quality birds. I hope I can get back up that way sometime soon!

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Some Recent Birding Magic from Carara National Park, Costa Rica

When planning a birding trip to Costa Rica or other biodiverse tropical locales, there are a few basic steps that most birders take. Above all, a field guide must be acquired to hint at the birds that creep, fly, and call from those distant, beckoning rainforests. This is of basic important because you need  a more than adequate resource to identify birds over the course of your trip. However, in addition to its utility in a field setting, those illustrated pages are just as important back at home. Long before you head to the airport to stand in line and fill out sudoku puzzles during the plane ride, in providing a taste for what’s in store, the book sparks that longing for lifers experienced by most birdwatchers.

It’s like being  a kid (or someone who has no control over sweet-tooth impulses) in a candy store. Just as my three year old daughter exclaims with the firm held belief and desire that, “THIS IS FOR MIRANDA!” upon seeing any number of  objects carefully designed to appeal to young girls as we happen to trudge through the aisles of a toy store, birders visiting Costa Rica for the first, second, or third time think, “I NEED TO SEE THAT BIRD!”  when they peruse the pages of the field guide. The two situations are similar in that both parties feel a yearning need to experience the object in question, but whereas Miranda has to have a My Little Pony, a Barbie Princess, or any other number of things that have been painstakingly designed to appeal to a immature humans, birders “need” to see  and hear birds that have evolved charismatic adaptations and characteristics that are simply magical to behold.

What better way to describe seeing a Three-wattled Bellbird in action as it lets out a sonorous “BONK!” from a bill flanked by worm-like appendages? The plumes of a Resplendent Quetzal being touched by the clouds as they fog their way through epiphyte-laden forest is so darn enchanting that you begin to wonder if dryads are going to pop out of the nearest old growth Podocarpus tree. During recent guiding at Carara National Park, I was reminded that watching other, lesser known birds can be just as TinkerBell of an experience. For example, espying the blue eye ring of a Chestnut-backed Antbird as it forages in the permanently dim understory or getting killer looks at a normally skulking Riverside Wren can take your breath away.

Chestnut-backed Antbirds are common rainforest species seen when birding in Costa Rica.

Finding a Streak-chested Antpitta perched on a low branch as it sings its forlorn whistled song. A guy I was guiding actually spotted this bird before I did.

Watching a purple and red Baird’s Trogon pump its white tail to the beat of its staccato vocalization as a multitude of cicadas fill the humid forest air with arthopodic buzz.

Baird’s Trogon is a rather uncommon but regular regional endemic in the rainforests from Carara south to extreme western Panama.

Scarlet Macaws contemplating you from their nest.

Royal Flycatchers!– pairs are building nests on the River Trail.

A Pale-billed Woodpecker letting us watch it for several minutes as it scaled the bark off a small snag.

Black-faced Antthrushes pretending to be rails as they creep across the leafy ground. It seems that 3-4 PM in the park may be the best time to connect with these guys.

The past several days also turned up many a Northern Bentbill, Orange-collared Manakins on a lek, American Pygmy Kingfisher in the mangroves, Long-tailed Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, a Double-toothed Kite foraging with capuchins, King Vulture, nesting Gray-headed Tanager and Black-hooded Antshrikes, Great Tinamou, and a pair of Painted Buntings near Villa Lapas. You truly never know what you are going to see at Carara so it pays to bird the same trail more than once. Bird at Carara and just about anywhere in Costa Rica, though, and get ready to be spell-bound (don’t click on that unless you like Siouxsie and the Banshees!).