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A few Highlights from Costa Rica Birding at Ujarras

Ujarras, Costa Rica is a small settlement situated near the Cachi Dam. This structure is in turn located in the Orosi Valley and is meant to hold back the water of the Reventazon River so it can be used to generate electricity. A side effect was the creation of a lake that produced Costa Rica’s first Canvasback in 2011. Sadly (and stupidly) I didn’t manage to make it over to Ujarras to look for that country first. I went there yesterday and the bird has of course not made it back to such a southerly location (yet) but there were a few other ducks around. In fact, there were a good number of ducks and although Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and American Wigeon won’t tickle the fancy of most visiting birders, I and my birding friend Susan were pleased to scope them because they are kind of uncommon in Costa Rica and reminded me of birding in western New York.

The lower temps than normal and windy weather also brought back oddly fond memories of much worse weather conditions while scanning for ducks on Lake Ontario. Fortunately, in Costa Rica, it never gets so cold that you feel as if the wind is going to waltz away with your very being so we had nothing to worry about. That was one of the day’s highlights for us and here were a few others:

1. Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: I think Ujarras and surroundings might actually be the most reliable site for this species. Forget about wandering the gardens of the Bougainvillea, not seeing it and wondering if you might connect on the next trip. Instead, Go to Ujarras and scan the dirt road behind the ruins. If that doesn’t work, walk up to where you can see into the Chayote cultivation (looks a bit like a vineyard) and watch there until one comes into view. We saw 4 to 5 birds without even trying and I came pretty close to getting a photo but they appear to be a camera shy species. We also saw a few more next to the coffee plantations at the Casona del Cafetal.

birding Costa Rica

This is a cool looking bird but is the much more common White-eared Ground-Sparrow. They also occur around Ujarras and the Orosi valley.

birding Costa Rica

The Casona del Cafetal is worth a visit- nice restaurant, good food, and good birding (don’t worry, it isn’t tilted in reality).

2. Hummingbirds: When the Chayote is in bloom, this area offers up some of the best hummingbirding anywhere. I don’t just mean for Costa Rica either, I am talking really anywhere. “Not so!” you say? I beg to differ based on reports of literally several hundred hummingbirds of 17 or so species  seen in one day (including both coquettes!). Mind you, the chayote fields have to be in full bloom and they weren’t on November 25th, so our sightings of these glittering sprites numbered in the dozens instead of hundreds. Nevertheless, we still saw a fair number of Rufous-taileds, Ruby-throateds, Violet Sabrewings, Violet-headeds, and Green-breasted Mangos and would have probably found more if we had just focused on searching for hummingbirds.

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Violet-headed Hummingbirds were feeding on flowering Ingas.

birding Costa Rica

Green-breasted Mangos were buzzing the orange flowers of Poro trees.

3. Wintering warblers: Recent reports of rarities from Ernesto Carman (such as Cape May and Nashville Warblers) had us spishing until our lips ached. Although we didn’t come across any serious rarities, the warbler scene was still pretty good with fair numbers of resident Rufous-cappeds and Tropical Parulas, and 11 migrant species including Golden-winged, Worm-eating, and Bay-breasted Warblers.

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We also had several Mourning Warblers. It was interesting to note that their call sounds somewhat like that of the Plain Wren (or vice versa).

4. Other birds typically seen in the area: The Orosi Valley is always a birdy place so even if you don’t find something rare, you may be entertained by three saltator species, White-crowned Parrots, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Least Grebe, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, White-lined, and Bay-headed Tanagers, Slaty Spinetail, and on and on. Being close to good forest at Tapanti and other nearby sites also ups the birdiness of the Orosi Valley..

Good birding and wish me luck on my next venture to Ujarras and surroundings!

Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

How does Birding in Costa Rica differ from that of the Temperate Zone?

Before my first trip to Costa Rica, I prepared for it like a commando on an all important mission. There was a scheduled departure date printed on my plane ticket (no e-tickets back in 1992) and the destination was San Jose, Costa Rica. This meant that I had a near certain date with a baptism into neotropical birding and I of course wanted to see everything. I realized that I wouldn’t see vagrants or rare species but should see most of the birds on lists for sites to be visited. After all, how hard could it be? Spend enough time in the right habitat and the birds will be there. I was an experienced birder so even though I didn’t know the vocalizations, I should still be able to track singing birds down and tick them off the list with a definite check of the pencil (or pen).

birding Costa Rica

I wasn’t able to put a tick next to the name of  White-whiskered Puffbird after my first trip.

Identification and knowing where to find them wouldn’t be too much of an issue because as a big part of my training regimen, I studied the field guide. No, it was more like  memorizing sections of the field guide. I ignored the text about nesting but soaked up key information about habitat and behavior. Status indicated how likely it was to see each bird and after collating that with sites to be visited, I figured that I would see 400 plus species.

The only problem was that I had based my assumptions on the only birding I knew (that of the temperate zone) and therein lay my fundamental error. I had no idea how different the birding would be even though I didn’t have any experience with many a tropical avian family. Although I saw over 300 species in 3 weeks using only public transportation, I was intrigued by why I saw so few antbirds, missed so many supposedly common species (according to the book), and why rainforest birding could be so…birdless. If you have already birded the neotropics, then you are probably aware of how it differs from birding in habitats much closer to home. If you have yet to bird Costa Rica or any other tropical habitat, the following are just a few of the ways that birding in Costa Rica differs from watching birds in places like Illinois, New York, France, or California:

  • Rainforests can be birdless: Well, they actually aren’t at all but it can seem that way when you are walking around some place with a list that claims 300 plus species and you have seen just two of them! How can this be? Is it some practical joke? A conspiracy put forth by ornithologists and conservationists hell bent on scamming the public? Although some commentators who thrive on manipulation of negative emotions would have you believe that scientists do this on a regular basis, let’s ignore that nonsense and look at the situation from a more realistic perspective. Basically, rainforests may seem birdless because our avian friends are hiding from predators, occupy large territories, may be moving around to find scarce resources, and are naturally rare. Put those factors together and it can seem like there are no birds..until you suddenly see dozens.

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Love the evergreen vista of moss and plants, now where are the birds!?

  • Mixed flocks: Small birds also flock together in the north but the phenomenon isn’t nearly as complex as mixed flock behavior in tropical regions, Costa Rica included. In most forested sites, a lot of small bird species stick together to increase the chance that one of them will spot any of the myriads of predators that lurk in the shadows. You might not see much for an hour or two until you are suddenly inundated with birds that flit, creep, and rush through the vegetation. Just as you get a few looks at birds in the avian stampede making its way through the trees, they have flown off in the wrong direction and you are left once more with an empty forest and confused feelings of abandonment.

birding Costa Rica

Learn the vocalization of the White-throated Shrike-Tanager to locate this striking species and the fantastic mixed flocks it associates with.

  • Neotropical nomads: While the majority of forest species in Costa Rica seem to stick to set territories, various parrots, manakins, cotingas, and other frugivores migrate up and down the mountains in search of food. Although those movements vary by species and time of year, in general, they tend to move into lower elevation forests at the end of the wet season and much of the dry season. Hummingbirds also make their own mysterious movements in search of flowering plants.

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One day, Brown Violet-ears were common at El Tapir. They were absent a month later.

  • Army ants, fruiting trees, and bamboo: Birds in Costa Rica use a larger variety of habitats and  several specialize on just one or two sources of food. This makes those birds harder to find unless you come across their preferred food source or (in the case of army ants) foraging strategy.

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Peg-billed Finches were common on Poas and Barva in patches of seeding bamboo. Once the bamboo was done, they were nowhere to be found.

  • Many raptor species, few raptors: Don’t expect to see hawks perched on roadside posts or soaring above your hotel. It can happen but since most are naturally rare and adapted to forest, seeing just one or two of several species is the norm even when birding heavily forested sites.

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Like many raptor species in Costa Rica, the White Hawk is uncommon but regular in rainforest.

  • Parakeets and motmots in the backyard: However, not all is fraught with difficulty. Stunning, tropical species like Blue-crowned Motmot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet are common garden birds in the Central Valley and a variety of beautiful tanagers, hummingbirds, toucans and other tropical avian delights also show up in hotel gardens near rainforest sites.

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Blue-crowned Motmots are one of the more stunning garden species in the country.

  • Some cool wintering species: The north also has lots of cool wintering species (and especially this year!) but Costa Rica has a nice mix that includes Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Painted Bunting, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Summer Tanager, and much more.

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Wintering Broad-winged Hawks are the most commonly seen raptor species in Costa Rica.

To sum things up, don’t expect birding to be anything like that of the temperate zone and don’t expect to see all of your target species on a short trip. However, spend enough time in the field and you can expect to see a good variety of birds as well as some rarities. As with just about anywhere, expect to see the most if you hire an experienced guide, especially if that person is good with vocalizations.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

VaraBlanca- Overlooked Costa Rican Birding Hotspot

Birding hotspots don’t just earn that claim to fame for the bird species that show up. While rarities and high quality species are certainly part of the hotspot equation, other factors also determine a site’s eligibility on the hotspot scale. For example, in Costa Rica, we can surmise that birding in the middle of large national parks like Braulio Carillo, Corcovado, and Tortuguero would probably be one of your more exciting days of Costa Rica birding. However, the inaccessible nature of the core areas of those parks makes them ineligible for the hotspot list.

A hotspot should be relatively easy to get to, host more bird species than other sites or certain rarities tough to find elsewhere, and be consistent with the quality experience it delivers. It’s a bit like a five-star hotel or restaurant- you go there because you expect a certain level of service or experience based on consistently good times had by others, especially when those “others” are experts replete with seasoned knowledge. Carara National Park fits this definition of a hotspot in every sense of the word. Most birders who go there see lots of great birds on every visit, in being located along a main highway, it couldn’t be easier to get to, and you consistently come away from the trails with a fine list of quality species.

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Carara is one of the easiest sites for Great Tinamou.

Quebrada Gonzalez also earns hotspot status, albeit a lesser known one on account of the typically challenging birding, especially for tour groups. Many tours pay a brief visit to the place in the hopes of seeing some foothill specialty or catching up with an amazing mixed flock but none stay for the entire day. That’s reasonable given the slow periods and tough forest birding, but walk the same trail twice during a day of birding and you will be surprised at what you find. When I do that, I usually find foothill specialties missed during the morning, run into more mixed flocks, and just see more rare birds in general. It takes time but the birds eventually come out of the woodwork.


The Lattice-tailed Trogon is one of the regular species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

A third type of hotspot is the one that is overlooked. It usually gets passed by because the regular tours either aren’t aware of the birding opportunities or don’t think it’s worth their while. These are the hotspots that are found by local birders because they have the time to check them out on a regular basis and they can be surprisingly close to the San Jose area.  One such hotspot is Varablanca and surroundings. Situated on the saddle between the Barva and Poas volcanoes, it’s strategic location on the continental divide and makes for an excellent base to use on a birding trip. The birding potential of the Varablanca area is made apparent when you consider that I routinely get over 100 species on day tours there. The following are some of the other reasons why Varablanca is probably one of the best overlooked hotspots in Costa Rica:

1. Access: Varablanca is on one of the main routes between the Central Valley and the Caribbean lowlands (route 5) and because of this, can be reached by good roads from the San Jose area in an hour or so. Several public buses also use this route. Get there by heading up through Barva and Santa Barbara or follow the signs to Poas Volcano from Alajuela and then follow signs towards Poas Volcano Lodge. When you come to a small gas station with a turn off to Sarapiqui and the Waterfall Gardens, you have reached Varablanca central.

2. Infrastructure: Lodging ranges from several mid-priced cabinas like the cozy and friendly Poas Lodge to more expensive, just as friendly accommodation at the beautiful Poas Volcano Lodge. There are small stores in the area and restaurants include everything from small family diners to Colbert, one of the better French restaurants in the country (yes, it is damn good and very well priced).

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The quaint Cabanas Varablanca have good rooms for a great price.

3. Good habitat right around Varablanca: While the immediate habitat around Varablanca might look patchy, don’t be fooled into thinking that the area around your lodging isn’t worth birding. For example, when our local birding club stayed at the Cabinas Varablanca, we were pleasantly surprised by Prong-billed Parbet, Emerald Toucanet, both silky-flycatchers, Spangle-cheeked tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Yellow-thighed Finches, and several other cloud forest species in the second growth right behind the cabins. That second growth is connected to better forest in a hidden ravine that is in turn connected to forest on Volcan Barva and I bet it holds a lot more surprises (like the singing Yellow-bellied Siskin I had around there in March).

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Chlorophonias are fairly common in the area.

4. A variety of other habitats and birding sites: Don’t just bird around Varablanca. The main reason this area is a hotspot is because it can be used to easily access various quality habitats that host hundreds of bird species.

High elevation forest on Poas is good for Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-winged Vireo, and most highland specialties including R. Quetzal, Sooty Robin, and may even offer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

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Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are especially common at high elevations on Poas.

Cloud forest is accessible at  sites on the way to Poas. One of the best is at the Volcan Restaurant. Check out the hummingbirds coming to their feeders and watch for a wide assortment of cloud forest species in the middle elevation forest around the restaurant. The place can sees daily visits by Resplendent Quetzal in March and April when the many wild avocados are in fruit.

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A Magnificent Hummingbird at the Volcan Restaurant feeders.

Cloud forest can also be birded on the way to Cinchona and has Barred Becard, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, and hundreds of other possibilities. The area around the Peace Lodge can be especially good and if you want to pay the $30 entrance fee, you will see some of the best hummingbird action in the country as well as near guaranteed Sooty-faced Finch.

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At Cinchona, stop at the Hummingbird cafe for close looks at middle elevation species like Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Head a bit further down and roadside birding above the Virgen del Socorro canyon can yield fantastic mixed flocks of tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, and even rarities like Lovely Cotinga (saw a male there earlier this year, and I routinely get Black-crested Coquette, Red-headed Barbet, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and other foothill birds).

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What the habitat looks like above Virgen del Socorro.

Head into the Virgen del Socorro canyon and you can run into more mixed flocks, might pick up Immaculate Antbird, and have a chance at dozens of quality species including Blue and Gold and Black and Yellow Tanagers.

Keep following the road up out of the canyon, head to the right to pass by the Albergue del Socorro (or stay there) and you can bird in excellent middle elevation forest all the way back up to the village of San Rafael and meet back up with Route 5 maybe 5 or 6 ks before Varablanca. This little-birded road goes through habitat connected to Braulio Carrillo National Park and can probably turn up just about every middle elevation species possible. Some of the extra good birds I have had there during a few visits are Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Brown-billed Scythebill, Lattice-tailed Trogon, and White-crowned Manakin.

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Awesome middle elevation forest indeed.

Even the Sarapiqui lowlands aren’t that far away from Varablanca. If you drive straight there, it might take 40 minutes to an hour. The Eco-observatory and Tirimbina are two of the best Sarapiqui birding sites that are fairly close to Varablanca.

Looking for Snowy Cotinga from the Eco-Observatory deck (we saw one).

5. Rarities and quality species: Given that quality high elevation, middle elevation, and lowland forest are all within striking range from Varablanca, there are really too many quality birds to mention. Literally hundreds of species are possible including Great Green Macaw (in Sarapiqui for much of the year and around Virgen del Socorro from at least September to November), Sunbittern, R. Quetzal, Black Guan, various raptors, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and loads of hummingbirds and tanagers. Seeding bamboo in 2012 also turned up Barred Parakeet, Slaty Finch, and lots of Peg-billed Finch.

This Black Guan was right on the main road between Varablanca and Cinchona.

Had the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal on most trips to Poas this year.

If you are looking for a great base for birding most elevations on the Caribbean slope, in my opinion, Varablanca is one of the best options. Not to mention, the scenery is pretty nice too.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

Hints for Birding in Costa Rica- Was that a Tyrannulet or a Warbler?

Just as birders in temperate North America have to deal with the kinglet-warbler identification conundrum (with the Hutton’s Vireo thrown in for good measure in some places), we birders in Costa Rica are confronted with the tyrannulet-warbler scam. It goes like this:

At some subtropical site in Costa Rica, a tiny bird flits into a nearby bush. Its hyperactive attitude is both intriguing and almost as annoying as the itsy bitsy black flies that menace your bare arms. As you spray another nasty dose of plastic-disintegrating DEET onto your vulnerable appendages, the little bird suddenly pops into view. Having become aware that a lot of these tropical birds allow for just one look before vanishing into the dense foliage, you let the DEET drop while simultaneously reaching for your trusty binos and get onto the bird.

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There’s tyrannulets out there somewhere…

A smidgeon of a bird comes into focus but the brakes of sudden confusion prevent you from reaching a positive identification. It looks and acts like a warbler but something’s just not right. As you mentally hesitate at a cerebral fork in the road that leads to its ID, you study the bird in question and realize that the bill isn’t as thin and narrow as that of a warbler. Something about the wings differs from those classic confusing Fall warblers. Ah Ha! They are edged with yellow and then you realize what was lurking in the back of your birding brain from the start- it’s not a warbler at all but a tyrannulet!

Before the short-billed warbler-like thing flits off to another tree, it says, “Peep” (which means I am a Paltry Tyrannulet in flycatcherish) and you almost jump for joy because you avoided the most common tyrannulet-warbler scam in Costa Rica. Off you go looking for more birds and the ability to recognize the Paltry Tyrannulet is strengthened after you identify one Chestnut-sided Warbler after another.

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Chestnut-sided Warblers pose as tyrannulets and vice-versa.

Basically, a tyrannulet is a flycatcher that masquerades as a warbler. While the situation gets truly out of control in tyrannulet infested places like the subtropical Andes and southeastern Brazil, there are enough of those miniature flycatchers around here to throw you for a loop on more than one occasion when birding in Costa Rica. In a very general sense, the problem arises for the same reasons that we so love to bird in the neotropics. Birders get a huge kick out of the high diversity but included in that happy bunch of birds are flycatchers that evolved to act like warblers and a falcon that looks kind of like a guan, sounds a bit like a macaw, and acts like a wasp eating jay (yes, the Red-throated Caracara should be featured in a Dr. Seuss story).

In Costa Rica, there are eight species of birds that have tyrannulet in their names but the most important ones to know are the species we see the most. The key to avoid being tricked into thinking that you saw a funny-looking warbler is focusing in the bill and wings (and reminding yourself that Costa Rica has fewer funny warblers than your home patch). Four of the most commonly encountered species are:

  • The Paltry Tyrannulet: Laugh at its name now but just wait until you run into one in the field and wonder what the heck you actually saw. Check out the stubby black bill and the yellow edging to the wings. You can run into this species from the humid lowlands all the way up to the high elevation oak forests on Cerro de la Muerte.

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Paltry Tyrannulets are common in Costa Rica.

  • The Yellow Tyrannulet: Despite yellow being a common shade of the light spectrum in the bird world, this species is aptly named. If you see a warblerish, mostly yellow bird with an eyestripe and distinctive eyebrow flitting around edge habitats in humid areas, it’s probably going to be a Yellow Tyrannulet.

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Yellow Tyrannulets are pretty common in most brushy or open habitats in Costa Rica.

  • The Southern Beardless Tyrannulet: What an odd name. I mean really, beardless? What bird has a beard? It sounds like some cleanly shaven, miniature king of Alabama. No matter. In the field, you don’t even bother looking for the absence or presence of a beard. Just focus on the shortish bill with a pale base, hint of a crest, and two wing bars and you will hopefully identify this species from Carara on south to Panama and beyond. This is a common bird in most parts of its range but doesn’t seem to occur with its northern cousin (which has much paler and less contrasting plumage).

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A molting Southern Beardless Tyrannulet.

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Check out the contrast.

  • The Northern Beardless Tyrannulet: Here we go again with the beardless thing and once again we can ignore that and focus on the qualities that mean the most. This time, that means pretty much the same things as the Southern B. Tyrannulet but with paler, less contrasting plumage.

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Ignore the supposed absence of a tail on this Northern Beardless Tyrannulet- it’s just growing a new one.

As for the more uncommon tyrannulets in Costa Rica, I wish I had photos but because most are canopy dwellers and have an aversion to staying still, they present rather ridiculous challenges for a digiscoper with my rough hewn set-up. I do have a photo of the one that does manage to stop long enough to take its picture though:

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Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet

Like the other tyrannulets, the Rough-legged, Brown-capped, Yellow-bellied, and Rufous-browed ones are probably easier to identify than the four common species because they have field marks that are easier to see (although it is hard to see much on the Rufous-browed- watch for a skinny thing that looks like a cross between a warbler and gnatcatcher).