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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Watching Shorebirds in Chomes when Birding Costa Rica

The mountainous country of Costa Rica is better known for its wealth of hummingbirds, highland endemics shared with Panama, and rainforest species rather than shorebirds but waders certainly do find their way to this double-coasted land. In fact, Costa Rica has a very healthy list of plovers and sandpipers, many of which can be seen at the shorebird hotspot known as Chomes.

This mosaic of shrimp ponds on the Gulf of Nicoya is one of Costa Rica’s best known sites for waders and has turned up a bunch of rarities over the years. If it were scrutinized as often as national parks and reserves in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere, I bet it would produce more vagrant shorebirds than we are aware of and maybe even a new bird or two for the country. Although some birders make it to Chomes, given that visits are far and few between and the tendency for shorebirds to leave a site almost as soon as they arrive,  I can’t help but wonder about the birds that hang out in those hot shrimp ponds when no one is there to identify them. It would be a fantastic place to put up a few web cams, hides for bird photography, or train and pay locals to survey the birds. Until then, we will just have to encourage birders to visit the site as much as possible during fall migration.

Regarding surveys, it would be even better to perhaps kayak or sail around other parts of the Gulf of Nicoya to survey the many inaccessible sites with shorebird habitat. If you are boatless, though, Chomes can be visited and it usually produces results. Patchy dry forest on the way in can be good for a bunch of expected species and on Saturday, we found such niceties as Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (just one), Streak-backed Oriole,  Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Crested Bobwhite perched on a post. We also had large numbers of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, a single female Purple Martin, Ferruginous Pygmy-owls, and rice fields that could hide a rail or two. Since this area has also turned up sweet species like Crane Hawk, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and even Aplomado Falcon, it’s worth it to keep your eyes and ears open on the drive in!

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Rice field on the drive in. I bet there could be Spotted Rails in that human-made wetland.

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It had a “Traill’s Flycatcher” that turned into a Willow with a “whit” call.

The shrimp ponds are on private land but so far, the people at the locked gate have been happy to open it for birders. There is also another road that leads to the beach and shrimp ponds but might not be so easy to find. Your best bet is asking locals for directions. Since water levels are regularly changed in the shrimp ponds, you may need to search a bit for the best shorebird habitat and will need a moderately high clearance vehicle to do so. This past Saturday, we were let in straight away and were psyched to connect with shorebird success at the first pond.

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Wood Storks hung out in the back of the pond.

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Roseate Spoonbills and White Ibis brightened up the place with their lovely looks.

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Short-billed Dowitchers and Western Sandpipers were probing the muddy margins like mad as Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers ran around drier parts of the pool. Greater Yellowlegs were around but Lessers were absent.

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Black-necked Stilts are one of the more common waders in Costa Rica.

After thoroughly looking over the birds in that first pool, we ventured further in to the complex to check a pool that held tons of birds the previous year. High water kept it pretty much bereft of birds but we still managed to whistle in a Northern Scrub Flycatcher in the short mangroves.

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These short-billed guys are very much anti-pygmy-owl.

We proceeded in towards the beach and hit the shorebird mother lode in the last of the ponds. As Least, Royal, and Gull-billed Terns floated overhead, we scoped through hundreds of Short-billed Dowitchers, Western Sandpipers, Willets, Whimbrels, and Black-bellied, Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers. We also found two Sanderling and a bunch of Ruddy Turnstones but nothing more in terms of wader diversity. Noting that the next pond over appeared to have some birds, we walked along the berm and set up our scopes behind an abandoned shack. This pond had even more birds including Black Skimmers, one Common Tern, a single Sandwich Tern, at least 120 Marbled Godwits, a bunch of distant Greater Yellowlegs. There could certainly have been other bird species present because even though I scoped through them several times, most were sleeping and thus difficult to identify, not all of the birds were visible, and a bunch were too distant to effectively scrutinize.

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There were a bunch of Wilson’s Plovers.

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The view from the shack.

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Shorebirds in action.

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Sleeping godwits, Whimbrel, Willets, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Black-bellied Plovers.

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Marbled Godwit and Willets.

It’s one of those spots I wish I could check every day but since it’s a two and a half hour drive from my house, I usually get there just once a year. At least that annual visit is a birdy one!

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Good Birding on the Guacimo Road

Trip reports from other birders and birding tours are a fantastic resource for planning a trip. Read enough detailed trip reports and you can pretty much plan your own tour. Most people will still be better off by hiring a guide and/or an experienced ground agent but trip reports can at least give you a heads up on what’s in store when your plane touches down in Costa Rica. One of the sites that makes a frequent appearance on tour reports is the “mysterious Guacimo Road”. Used as a quick, accessible spot for dry forest species near Carara, it’s gets the mysterious label because it’s exact location is nevertheless omitted from most reports.

Something that adds confusion to the mix is the occurrence of several “Guacimos” and “Guacimas”  in Costa Rica. It’s the name of a tree, a racetrack, small towns on both slopes, and who knows what else. For birders visiting the country, though, there is but one Guacimo and I am going to clearly reveal once and for all where this birding site is located.

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The Guacimo Road.

The Guacimo Road is a road that leaves the San Jose-Caldera highway between Orotina and Caldera. To get there by vehicle from San Jose, follow the highway towards Caldera and once you pass the exit for Orotina, watch for an exit that says, “Ceibo Guacimo”. Take that exit and go to the left or south (even though it looks like a one way bridge), cross the bridge over the highway and start looking for dry forest species on the famed Guacimo Road. If coming from Caldera, take that same exit and go right (south).

Susan Blank and I recently birded this road on our way to Bajamar to look for shorebirds and had a grand old time watching a a bunch of dry forest species. Doves were all over the place, including several Plain-breasted Ground-Doves. We could hear this uncommon species vocalizing along most of the road along with dozens of Common Ground-Doves, and a few Ruddy Ground-Doves.

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Distant male Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. The pale gray head of the male is apparent even at a distance.

Blue Grosbeaks were seen at just about every stop we made, we heard a couple of Crested Bobwhites that refused to show themselves, saw several Blue-black Grassquits, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and got all three dry forest parrots and parakeets. Orange-fronted were the most common, Yellow-naped the least common with just 4 birds encountered. We also saw such dry forest classics as Black-headed Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Olive Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, and lots of Stripe-headed Sparrows.

Here is what it sounded like that morning on the Guacimo Road

Species in order are: Orange-fronted Parakeet, Rose-throated Becard, Black-crowned Tityra, Blue-black Grassquit, Blue Grosbeak, Crested Bobwhite, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Ani, Eastern Meadowlark,

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A young male Blue Grosbeak molting into adult plumage.

In a riparian zone filled with birdy vine tangles, Banded Wrens sang while Streaked Flycatchers caught cicadas. Little Tinamous called from the thick undergrowth, Barred Antshrikes revealed themselves, and we watched both Tropical and White-lored Gnatcatchers do their hyperactive thing.

Eventually, the road led past interesting scrubby mangroves where a couple dozen White Ibis were nesting. Past that point, the condition of the road became much worse before meeting up with the main road heading to Bajamar. We handled the sketchy part alright with four-wheel drive but I would never attempt it with a two-wheel drive, low-clearance vehicle. On a positive note, that part of the road gave us nice looks at a beautiful Lesser Ground-Cuckoo perched in some grass.

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That same Lesser Ground Cuckoo.

Over in Bajamar, we checked the rocky promontary for seabirds and waders and met with success in the form of five Surfbirds! I was hoping to add that pigeon-like shorebird to my Costa Rican list at that site because the wave-washed rocks seem perfect for it. We also saw some beautiful turnstones but dipped on tattlers. Out on the ocean, despite trying to make distant Black Terns into Brown Noddies and Bridled Terns, all of the candidates ended up hailing from North American marshes. I did pick up a Brown Booby though along with the idea of sea watching from that same spot during stormy weather.

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Record shot of one of the five Surfbirds we saw.

Over on the beach, a couple of Sanderlings foraged with Whimbrel, Willet, Black-bellied Plover, Collared Plover, and Wilson’s Plover. Those birds gave us hope that the lagoons at the end of the road would be filled with waders of all sorts. However, when we got there, they held nothing more than a single, teetering Spotted Sandpiper. We wondered if high waves had filled the lagoons with water and erased the mud flats that usually attract a healthy supply of terns and waders. Whatever the reason, we opted for driving over to the other side of the Tarcoles River mouth to see if we could get closer to the birds that adorned a sand bar.

After a round-about thirty minute drive, we reached Playa Azul and got close enough to the sand bar to see that nearly every bird was a Brown Pelican. There were a few Royal Terns too but waders were limited to a few Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willet, Whimbrel, Wilson’s Plovers, and Collared Plovers foraging at the waters edge. It was a good mix of birds overall but oh how I need to head out to Chomes for a bigger dose of shorebirds.

To sum things up, I think you can expect fair dry forest birding on the Guacimo Road but four-wheel drive is needed for the most part. It’s a good dry forest fix if you are staying near Carara but there is better dry forest birding at several sites in Guanacaste.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

The First Birding and Nature Festival in Costa Rica Takes Place in 2 Weeks

From August 31st to September 2nd, the first Costa Rican Birding and Nature Festival will be held at the Las Brisas Reserve in the Caribbean foothills of Volcan Turrialba. Organized by two twenty-something birders and one photographer with a passion for conservation, the festival aims to celebrate Costa Rican biodiversity with guided walks that focus on birds and herpetofauna of the area (one of the best on the country), a few talks given by local experts, and the annual fall, Ceruleam Warbler census.

What? Cerulean Warbler census? Yes, and two of the festival organizers (Juan Diego Vargas and Ernesto Carman) have been gathering data about Cerulean Warblers for a few years now as part of the Costa Rican Cerulean Warbler Project. They started up that project after realizing that they were seeing Ceruleans pass through the country in fair numbers. What habitats do the birds use? When do they migrate through Costa Rica? What can be done to protect them? They hope to answer these and other questions with data gathered by birders who happen to spot them during migration.

It appears that a number of Ceruleans migrate through Costa Rica on their way to the Colombian Andes. In fact, there might be a few flying through the night skies as I write this post. The window for their migration appears to be a brief one and the festival is meant to coincide with its peak. Although they aren’t as common as other migrants in Costa Rica (no surprise given the small size of their population), birders have a very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warblers in the country if they bird the Caribbean foothills during late August and early September. I have seen them on more than one occasion in foothill rainforest at this time of the year and several have also been seen at the Las Brisas Reserve during the same time frame.

The proceeds from the Festival de Aves and Naturaleza Costa Rica go to the Cerulean Warbler Project  (more properly known as Cerulean Warbler Conservation-CR) and it’s bound to be a wonderful time. I sure hope I can check out the festival, at least for a day. Since the festival is in Spanish, there was also talk about hosting an English version the following week but unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time to organize it for this year. Next year is another story though!

Regarding the site for the festival, Las Brisas is a private reserve in the Caribbean foothills near Siquirres and Turrialba. Although I haven’t been there, Juan Diego tells me that he has seen some of the biggest mixed flocks he has ever experienced in Costa Rica at this site and canopy views on the trail system make many of the tanagers, flycatchers, woodcreepers, woodpeckers, and other rainforest species easy to see. I hope my schedule allows me to experience the festival! Even if you can’t make it to this year’s festival, it’s still worth it to check out the incredible photo gallery at the festival website.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

The Status of My 2012 Bird List for Costa Rica

I have kept a list of birds ever since I started watching them. I recall putting little check marks next to each species in one of the small bird books that my father bought for me while I had pneumonia at the age of eight. Thanks Dad, yes, it did make me feel better. I can’t remember what it was called or who published it but it covered birds from coast to coast and was one of those booklets that focused on common species. I put checks next to birds like Song Sparrow, Yellow Warbler, and Red-winged Blackbird and yearned to see the exotic Magnolia Warbler, the amazing Indigo Bunting, and the unattainable Black-chinned Hummingbird. The hummingbird had a purple throat that looked like a smudge of Welch’s grape jelly. It took me more than a decade to be in range of that amethyst highlighted sprite but I eventually saw it in a residential neighborhood in Phoenix, Arizona.

I didn’t keep any year, state, or county lists at that time. My sole list was a life list and adding to it was a quest of utmost importance.  It continues to be a pursuit of pinnacle importance but has been tempered by family responsibilities and so I now do a year and country list. I also keep a yard list where most of the birds are flyovers. Because the dimensions of my “yard” are stretched by sound waves, interesting species like Wilson’s Snipe, Upland Sandpiper, and Gray-cheeked Thrush have made it onto the list. Just last month, I added a ridiculous Red-fronted Parrotlet that perched on a nearby telephone wire and have also had Striped Owl. I’m not sure where the Ringed Kingfisher is coming from but one flies by now and then to some hidden waterway.

Last year, I reached my goal of 600 species for the year. That total is once again in reach and I should hit it as long as I catch a fair portion of fall migration. Six hundred in a year in Costa Rica offers a bit of a challenge but is actually quite attainable if you can go birding once a week in a strategic set of locales. It’s not that tough of a number to get because the country list at the moment stands right at 900 (maybe even 901) and should still increase by the occurrence and subsequent finding of vagrants from both the north and the south. I’m sure that some other birders who spend much more time in the field in various parts of the country surpass 700 on a regular basis. Now that would be tough but is still possible if you bird pretty much all the time, do at least one pelagic, chase rarities, and listen for migrants at both times of the year. I think 800 would be very tough to do in a year but who knows, Costa Rica is such a small place that if one had enough time and resources to do a crazy Big Year in the same format as the guys from the movie of the same name, it could probably be accomplished.

Ok, so back to my more humble, easy-going annual birding stats. Here at the start of August, my total stands at a respectable 568, the latest addition being a  Ruddy Quail-Dove from Carara National Park. I also picked up Pearl Kite for the year in the form of a bird that was perched on a wire right next to the crocodile bridge. Oh, how nice it would be if it were there all the time!

Pearl Kites are like falconets or neotropical shrikes.

Some other auspicious identifications include:

Jabiru and Plain Chachalaca from the Playa Hermosa area.

Several uncommon wintering duck species that I was very pleased to get at the start of the year.

Bicolored Hawk seen near Virgen del Socorro- it’s widespread but it’s not exactly common.

All parrots except for Brown-throated Parakeet.

Mangrove Hummingbird– Happy to see a male on a recent Mangrove Birding Boat Tour. This species can be a tough one to find. If you put in the effort, you can see them at several sites but might have to work for it.

All trogons and motmots (not too tough if you go to the right places).

One of the quetzals on Poas this year.

One of the motmots was this lifer Keel-billed.

Gray-headed Leaftosser at Las Heliconias- most reliable in the Monteverde area but I don’t get up there much.

Yellow-bellied and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets– kind of tough and local in Costa Rica so it was good to get them.

Rough-legged Tyrannulet and Ochraceous Pewee– these two have the distinction of being birds I have heard but have never seen. I had the rough-legged one just the other day near Cinchona, still couldn’t see it!

Willow Flycatcher- oh, they pass through here in numbers but this one was nice enough to vocalize and change from a non-countable “Traill’s” to a definite “Willow”.

Lovely Cotinga– A male seen near Cinchona is probably my bird of the year. This is a rare one in the country and very infrequently seen. I personally suspect that it should be considered endangered for Costa Rica but for some reason, it doesn’t make it onto the eBird alert for the country while something like an out of season Yellow Warbler or much more frequent Surfbird will.

Chestnut-sided Warbler– NOT! Just seeing if you were paying attention…

Silvery-throated Jay– A pair of this uncommon species on the Providencia Road was much appreciated.

Cerulean Warbler– These so excellent of warblers are regular during migration. Should be some coming through in a couple of weeks.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch– One during the Big Day is my only massively pink-billed finch so far this year.

Peg-billed Finch– Tough to find away from a bamboo seeding event. This was a banner year for them on Poas.

See the peg-like bills?

Slaty Finch– Much more rare than the peg-billed and possibly even more tied to bamboo seeding events. I made sure to get lots of looks and recordings of these junco-like birds because it might be years before I see them again.

His exhalted Senor slaty-ness.

So, those are the highlights so far and since I’m missing plenty of expected species, it will be interesting to see how many I end up with come the end of December. If I can get out once a week and hit a few migration hotspots, I might even hit 630 species.