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Fun Weekend Birding in Manzanillo

The Manzanillo-Puerto Viejo area doesn’t make it onto the birding radar of most first time birders to Costa Rica. It’s too much of  detour to take, especially when you can see many of the same birds around the Sarapiqui area. Nevertheless, Manzanillo and many parts of southeastern Costa Rica are more forested than most of the more commonly visited sites and guess what? That part of the country has better Caribbean lowland forest birding.

There, I said it and I stand by that statement. Things may even out when you take travel time and accommodations into consideration but there is simply more forested habitat in southeastern Costa Rica. The best forest is probably at Hitoy Cerere and other less accessible sites (and even Hitoy isn’t all that simple to reach) but even the forests from Cahuita south to Manzanillo can offer up excellent lowland birding. Much of the most accessible forests are old cacao plantations that left most of the big canopy trees and this seems to work out just fine for most of the canopy birds. A lot of understory species also seem to do quite well although certain species probably need a more diverse understory to survive (studying the effects of those old cacao plantations on avian ecology and species dynamics would be a great project!).

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A typical Manzanillo birding scene.

Every time I bird that area between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo, I always drive home feeling like I barely scratched the surface. I never feel as if I have spent enough time birding in that seriously underbirded area and this past Sunday was no different. How I wish that I could have stayed for another few days or an entire week or even a month doing surveys to compare old cacao plantations and old growth forest. A weekend wasn’t enough but it sure made for some wonderful birding.

While visiting a few friends and past clients that are having fun with the birds and biodiversity around Manzanillo, we ran into a things like…

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Kettles of Swallow-tailed Kites! None of us had seen 100 plus Swallow-tailed Kites circling in the sky together. I have seen fair sized flocks in Amazonia but none that were like this! They looked like a bunch of a giant, super fancy hirundines. Plumbeous Kites were also winging on past from time to time as were the first kettles of Turkey Vultures.

Great views of perched parrots and parakeets. Birding was excellent right around the small rented house where we were staying and included flyover and perched Mealy, Red-lored, Brown-hooded, White-crowned, and Blue-headed Parrots. We were hearing and seeing Mealys for much of the time and it was a pleasure getting close looks at the Blue-headeds.

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Blue-headed Parrot– local in Costa Rica, very common from Panama on south.

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Sort of a bad image of a feeding Brown-hooded Parrot and

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a bad image of a White-crowned Parrot.

There were  a fair number of hummingbirds around with Blue-chested being one of the most common. They were chip-chipping as they lekked in a bunch of places. Band-tailed Barbthroat was another one that we saw now and then and Liz found a nest!

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Band-tailed Barbthroat.

We had good looks at Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers (including one in town while eating lunch), saw one Rufous-winged, had many a Black-cheeked, and heard several Pale-billeds. Woodcreepers included Black-striped and Cocoa (both fairly common), and Wedge-billed, Northern Barred,  and Streak-headed.

I think we would have seen more raptors with more time but in addition to the kites and two common vultures, we still logged King Vulture, Bat Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Double-toothed Kite, Broad-winged, Common Black, and Roadside Hawks, and heard a Collared Forest Falcon. Our best raptor came in the form of a young Semiplumbeous Hawk.

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This Semiplumbeous Hawk was near the top of a 40 meter tree.

Even though it was calling, it was still really tough to find just because it was perched so high up! It was easy to see how its white underparts act as camouflage when perched up in a tall tree.

Toucans were pretty common and seen quite often, Pied Puffbird was espied, and we had several flycatchers including Yellow-olive and Yellow-margined, one Brown-capped Tyrannulet heard and two other choice feathered morsels from the Caribbean lowlands:

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Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant and

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Black-headed Tody Flycatcher.

The pygmy-tyrant is basically a feathered bug and the tody-flycatcher is actually a miniature yellow, white, and black mechanical cyber toy that lives in the canopy (still countable though). This makes seeing them a challenge but since they are such common species around Manzanillo, we eventually got fantastic looks at both of these little weirdies. It’s a good thing they like to call or they would still be (1) undiscovered or (2) mis-labeled as insects.

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Another look at the smallest Passerine in the world (a title shared with the sister Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant of the Amazon).

We did a bit of night-birding on two occasions and saw nothing. We did, however, hear on the second night, Vermiculated Screech Owl, Crested Owl, Mottled Owl, Common Pauraque (which is kind of like the neotropical trash night bird), and Great Potoo in the span of half an hour! Spectacled Owl and Central American Pygmy-Owl were also heard on other nights. I’m sure Black and white Owl is there too, probably comes to street lights now and then.

Tanagers were pretty nice too with Tawny-crested being fairly common, Red-throated Ant tanagers calling from the forest, and some other common species seen near the house. Oh yeah, and we also saw a few Sulphur-rumped Tanagers near the house too. Ahem, I mean SULPHUR-RUMPED TANAGER (yee haw!). That was a long-awaited lifer for yours-truly and of course the most exciting bird of the trip. Very little is known about this bird other than the fact that it is a gray songbird with a yellow lower back and rump. Well, it also has white tufts on the upper flanks and that was its most obvious feature. I missed a very nice shot by a couple of seconds but the following photo still shows the field marks even though it’s not going to make it into any nature magazines.

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Voila, my lifer Sulphur-rumped Tanager. This is a truly horrendous photo but it might help with identifying one of these uncommon birds if you get a bad look.

I almost forgot about trogons, wrens, and fruitcrows. None of these have anything in common, I just forgot about them. The three expected trogon species were fairly common (Gartered, Black-throated, and Slaty-tailed) and fun to watch, we heard (and mostly saw) 6 species of wrens, and had several Purple-throated Fruitcrows.

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A female fruitcrow trying to pass as a Corvid.

On the non-bird front, the place was also great for frogs (we saw many litter frogs, poison dart frogs, and heard several other species), and we saw many Howler Monkeys and even had a few Spider Monkeys.

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An arboreal Costa Rican Bigfoot? Spider Monkey? Or something else!

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A golden Eyelash Viper– this is why you don’t put your hands on the vegetation (or cement posts).

Overall, the birding was just entertaining with near non-stop action. Like I always say, I wish I could bird there more often, especially during migration when it’s even crazier!

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February Birding Highlights from the Carara Area

Most recent weekends and brought me to the birdy Carara area. Although the heat in that humid/dry lowland transition habitat can be a challenge (at least for me), it’s an incredible area for birding. Despite a temporary closure of most of the main HQ trail to make it more handicap accessible, birding in the national park has been exciting as always. Here are a few highlights from the Laguna Meandrica trail:

Orange-collared Manakin: An expected bird on the “River Trail” (actually called the “Laguna Meandrica” trail) but always nice to see. There are two to three leks along the trail and although they aren’t always active, you should run into some fine, Orange-collared Manakin action.

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Orange-collared Manakins are a fairly common near endemic because they prefer second growth.

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The males are avian eye candy at its best.

Royal Flycatcher: If you like IOC splits, this is the Northern Royal Flycatcher and they have been showing well on the Laguna Meandrica trail. A pair has built a nest once again over the first stream. Hang out there long enough and one or two will probably make an appearance. While you are waiting, other birds will show up too. This month, I have had Rufous Piha, Baird’s Trogon, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Cocoa Woodcreeper, Gray-headed Kite, and others while awaiting the Royal Flycatchers.

Royal Flycatcher building its huge, hanging nest.

Common Potoo (!): What? Yes, Common Potoo has finally shown up in the park! They have surely been there all along but the local guides were saying that this is the first one they have seen in the national park. It’s easy to see and, if the marker is still there, watch for a straight trunk lying across the path of the Laguna Meandrica trail about 400 meters in from the parking lot (rough guess) and look to the left (north).

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Common Potoo- This decidedly uncommon species in Costa Rica is a great bird to get for the year list.

Antswarms: You just have to be lucky to run into one of these but I have seen them on the Laguna Meandrica trail on most recent trips there. They can show up anywhere so the more time you spend on the trail, the more likely you will experience the fun of army ants in action. We didn’t see anything rare but it was still nice to get close looks at the usual suspects: Northern Barred Woodcreeper,  Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Bicolored Antbird, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Gray-headed Tanager, and Riverside Wren.

Outside the national park, the birding has also been great. I had my biggest surprise two weeks ago when we ran into a Tiny Hawk on the Cerro Lodge road! When we saw the bird, even though I had a good look at the tail, my mind kind of refused to believe that it was a Tiny Hawk and so I was calling it a Barred Forest Falcon (the head looked rounded and the mind plays tricks when it doesn’t want to accept something that “shouldn’t” be there). It was most definitely a Tiny hawk though and the first I have seen in the Carara area. I told Randall Chaves Ortega about it and this veteran, excellent birding guide said that he has seen them on three occasions during 12 or so years of guiding and birding at Carara, including one that showed up on the lower part of the Cerro Lodge road. Although the habitat is a bit dry, it does have the type of semi-open character that they like. Whether a rare resident or a species that wanders through that area from time to time, look for it on the lower part of the Cerro Lodge road! It’s also a reminder to think outside the box when birding at Carara since other mega species that aren’t “supposed” to be there have also shown up in the park (Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo) and  Agami Heron (Tarcoles mangroves).

Other nice birds have been:

Yellow-naped Parrot: Pretty much expected but shows that the Cerro Lodge area and Tarcoles are good sites for this uncommon species.

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These two birds were calling and hanging out just outside of Tarcoles.

Mangrove birds like Mangrove Vireo, Panama Flycatcher, and Northern Scrub Flycatcher are showing well in mangroves around Tarcoles.

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The Panama Flycatcher is much more common in Panama but shows up in mangroves in Costa Rica.

The Guacimo Road has been pretty good for dry forest species including White-throated Magpie Jay, Banded Wren, Orange-fronted Parakeet, and White-fronted Parrot among other birds. Lesser Ground Cuckoo has been especially responsive and showing well at several areas along the road and a recently burned field with new grass shoots has been hosting at least 4 pairs of Double-striped Thick Knees.

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Double-striped Thick Knee.

Down in the riparian zone, there are plenty of birds including Olive Sparrow, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and others. It was strange to not find Plain-breasted Ground Dove there two weeks ago and then see several a week later.

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Plain-breasted Ground Dove.

Long, productive days of guiding around Carara have turned up day totals of 140 species seen and 160 plus birds heard on more than one of these recent occasions. Those memorable birding days have pushed my year list up to 450 species. Given that I have done very little highland birding and have yet to bird the Caribbean lowlands, I should edge past 500 in no time, especially since I plan on birding down at Manzanillo very soon.

Good birding and hope to see you somewhere in Costa Rica!

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Cool Falcons in Costa Rica

Falcons rank pretty high up there on the “cool bird” scale. They get automatic “cool” points (aka “epic”, “sweet”, “boss”, or even “swell” depending on your formative years) for being raptors, fly super fast, and many sport an avian moustache. I mean, can you get any cooler than that? Well, as with many things avian, you sure can! Take the Peregrine Falcon for instance. Some populations of this record holding famous falcon species casually fly south from their rookeries on Baffin Island to…coastal Chile. The falcon is so fantastically endowed with amazing flight capabilities that it flies over open water on purpose (!) to pick off and feed upon migrants (sorry lost warblers, shorebirds, and other unlucky birds- falcons gotta eat to).

Peregrines are a regular sight as they fly through and winter in Costa Rica. During migration, it’s especially easy to see many a Peregrine on the Caribbean coast but they can show up just about anywhere. A couple weeks ago, while being entertained by a soaring Black Hawk Eagle at El Tapir, a Peregrine appeared out of the blue and drove it away! The eagle barely had a chance to call before it left the scene. I guess that particular Peregrine likes hanging out in a hilly rainforest.

Merlins and American Kestrels also show up in Costa Rica but they are outnumbered by that masked connoisseur of serpents, the Laughing Falcon.

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The Laughing Falcon is crazy about snakes and eats nothing else.

So, if the Laughing Falcon is so sweet on serpents, why not call it the “Snake Falcon” or “Serpent Falcon”? Those names were rejected because this bird also loves to laugh. It’ local name in Costa Rica and many other places is “Guaco” and this is a fair description of the sound it makes when calling (or laughing). Pairs often call together and the result is a hysterical sounding bunch of mid-toned guffaws that echoes through the tropical forests they inhabit. Thankfully, this entertaining bird is pretty common in Costa Rica (and many places in the neotropics). For example, I saw and heard 4 or five this past weekend while guiding in and around Carara National Park.

The Bat Falcon is of course another amazingly cool bird. Here we have a Falco falcon species falcon is all of its hooded splendor, long pointed wings, and fast flight. It’s kind of colorful, and yes, it catches bats! If you want to see one of these speedy little raptors catch a bat for dinner, go on a boat tour at Laguna del Lagarto and ask to see a Bat Falcon catch a bat. Just do it and see what happens.

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The Bat Falcon also catches small birds like parakeets, tanagers, and whatever else makes the mistake of flying across a river or pasture that it’s keeping an eye on. Overall, it uses pretty similar hunting techniques as the Merlin although it’s not as feisty.

In the neotropics, some falcons gave up their fast-flying ways to adapt to niches filled by Black Kites over on the other side of the Atlantic. The caracaras flap along on floppy wings and scream as they search for carrion and small creatures that look catchable. Both Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras patrol highways in lowland Costa Rica to look for roadkill much in the same way as Northern Ravens do in (where else but) the north. In fact, they also have vaguely similar dimensions.

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Deforestation has made the Northern Crested Caracara a common sight when birding Costa Rica.

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Ditto for the slightly smaller Yellow-headed Caracara.

And then there are the forest-falcons. Now these reclusive birds might even be cooler than the Falco species BUT they hate the limelight. These jungle dwellers rarely come out into the open, are most active in the half light of dawn and dusk, don’t soar, and love to sneak around dense tangles and the understory. Come to think of it, with those traits, they kind of seem like avian vampires. Like other dimensional wraiths, they are also tough to see but at least they frequently vocalize with haunting barks and laughing sounds (also like other-dimensional wraiths). Watch an antswarm long enough and one might show up (to mesmerize you with its captivating,stare of course…).

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Collared Forest Falcon– the avian Nosferatu of the neotropics.

Costa Rica also has its set of rare falcons and I of course lack photos for them. Aplomado Falcon seems to show up once or twice a year; probably wandering migrant birds. The wacky Red-throated Caracara used to be common before too much forest got turned into pasture. Nowadays, it’s only regular in the heart of Corcovado National Park. Orange-breasted Falcon may have been a former rare resident in the country but it could still show up as a vagrant. This would most likely be near the Panamanian border in the southeast (where hardly anyone birds) because it occurs only 250 kilometers away in the Panamanian province of Veraguas.

Costa Rica also has an honorary falcon. However, given its small size, the Pearl Kite could also be an honorary swallow, shrike, or kingbird. It kind of looks like an amalgamation of all three when seen in flight.


The cool and cute Pearl Kite.

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A Weekend of Birding Costa Rica at Dominical

Dominical is this tiny beach village in southwestern Costa Rica that appears to be mostly populated by surfers, people with stylistic tattoos of the moon, and fishermen. Although Hacienda Baru welcomes a fair number of birders, Dominical rarely features in birding tours to Costa Rica. Local birding tours might do more birding in the area but in general, most birders visiting Costa Rica just drive on past Dominical.

It’s hard to pick sites to focus on when planning a two week birding trip to Costa Rica but don’t feel as if you have to leave Dominical out of the picture. The entire area has more much more birding potential than people realize and after having spent a weekend of guiding down that way, I really wish that I could have had more time to explore the general area. The hills above and near Dominical are mostly forested (and accessible by more than one public road), scrubby fields host interesting species, Hacienda Baru, Rancho Merced, and other nearby sites have trails that access fair habitat, there are beautiful beaches in with offshore rocks that host seabirds, and mangroves near Dominical have Mangrove Hummingbird.

That adds up to a lot of possible birds and our local birding club ended up identifying 150 or so of them in just 2 and a half days of rather casual birding. We stayed at the Villas Rio Mar and this hotel turned out to be a fantastic choice for lodging. There are a few different types of comfortable rooms (most of which have air conditioning), a truly excellent restaurant, great service, a tour desk, and gardens that host a fair variety of bird species including Fiery-billed Aracari, Blue Dacnis, and Thick-billed Euphonia.

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The gardens can be good for bird photography. Thick-billed Euphonias such as this female, Bananaquits, Tennessee Warblers, Gray-capped Flycatchers, and other species were visiting the palms for flowers, fruit, and bugs.

On our first afternoon, we birded the road in front of the hotel. It parallels the river and goes past fields, riparian growth, and may eventually access better forest habitat. It also offers an excellent view of a nearby forested ridge where scoping may turn up a Turquoise Cotinga and raptors. Although we didn’t connect with the cotinga, we picked up King Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Gray-lined Hawk in that area. We studied Gray-breasted Martins, Southern Rough-winged Swallows, and Blue and white Swallows that were perched on the wires, and saw a fair variety of common edge species.

That evening, a pair of Spectacled Owls and a juvenile called from forest next to the hotel. Although they didn’t show up after dinner, we did manage to see one of the Barn Owls that is presently nesting under the bridge just before the police checkpoint.

On Saturday, our group visited Rancho la Merced for a couple hours of birding on their trails. The birding was fairly slow and the trail my group took went through old second growth but I think they also have at least one trail that accesses primary forest. Best birds were White-necked Puffbird, Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kites, Rufous Piha, Blue-crowned Manakin, and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. We also had other common species like Riverside Wren and Black-hooded Antshrike but overall, the birding was much slower compared to the high quality forests at Carara. Nevertheless, I suspect that their trails and the road through the reserve have a fair amount of potential.

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Juvenile Double-toothed Kite at Rancho la Merced.

After a wonderful buffet breakfast at the hotel, some of the group opted for cooling off in their huge swimming pool or visiting the village while the rest of us went birding at the mouth of the river. While watching from a shady spot, we saw a small sampling of common shorebirds, herons, and egrets, White Ibis, both Amazon and Green Kingfishers, Plain Wren, and a few other species. Best bird was a Pearl Kite!

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We also had that miniature, tropical Tree Swallowish species known as the Mangrove Swallow.

That afternoon, some birded the road again while the rest of us checked out the short trail at the hotel. It doesn’t access very good habitat but the riparian growth and second growth can turn up a fair number of species and the stream hosts small birds that come to bathe in it in the late afternoon. We heard Great Antshrike and Little Tinamou, and saw Eye-ringed Flatbill and one of the best birds of the trip- Black-tailed Flycatcher! This flycatcher is pretty rare in Costa Rica and the one we saw was a long-awaited lifer for yours truly (yee haw!)! It’s remarkably similar to Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher but has paler, olive upperparts and paler underparts. Although the bird we saw did have a bit of color on the breast, it was much more subdued than the contrasting colors of the Sulphur-rumped.

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Female Cherrie’s Tanagers have beautiful plumage- they showed their stuff while bathing in the stream.

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Female Blue-crowned Manakins also visited the stream along with Riverside Wren, and a few migrant warblers.

The next morning saw us making a trip to the Guapil road and mangroves. This is the next road on the left after Hacienda Baru. I believe it’s signed and I’m glad that we checked it out. The scrubby fields at the beginning of the road had a small flock of Yellow-breasted Seedeaters, at least one Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Smooth-billed Ani, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and other open country species. Although we didn’t get niceties like Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Scrub Greenlet, or Red-rumped Woodpecker, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in that area.

Further on, the road goes next to a small creek and eventually goes along the beach. It ends at the mouth of a river and a nice area of mangrove forest. Upon arrival, we checked the estuary first and got nice looks at several common shorebirds, egrets, Pale-vented Pigeons, and Bare-throated Tiger Heron.

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Black-bellied Plover minus the black belly.

When we went to check the mangroves, a short fruiting fig was busy with common bird species, Blue Dacnis, and Thick-billed Euphonia. While watching that tree, Panama Flycatcher also made an appearance and two Mangrove Hummingbirds suddenly showed up and let us watch them for several minutes! They may use dead twigs there for a regular perch because we didn’t see them feeding on any flowers. This elusive, endangered endemic was arguably the bird of the trip. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay long enough for me to get a photo…

On the way back to the hotel, we picked up our 16th diurnal raptor species for the trip in the form of a Laughing Falcon and watched a distant shrimp trawler covered in Brown Pelicans, Brown Boobies, and Mag. Frigatebirds. I probably won’t get the chance to bird Dominical again any time soon but the next time I do, I plan on exploring the forest along roads that go up into the foothills!

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This gorgeous butterfly was right at the entrance to the hotel. Please let me know what this is if you happen to know!