web analytics
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Introduction

Some Updates and Perspectives for Birding in Costa Rica, April 2013

The dry season on the Pacific slope is quickly coming to an end and that’s very welcome news because we could use the rain! This year’s dry season seemed to be especially bereft of agua as the sun hammered the fields into a brown landscape with relentless UV rays. Nevertheless, since the birds that live there are adapted to dealing with a pronounced dry season, I doubt they will be very much affected by it.

birding Costa Rica
I wonder if Thick-knees search for greener pastures during the dry season?

With the end of the dry season comes the start of the low season for tourism. Most birding tours come here between January and April because this is the ideal time to visit if you want to see more migrants and experience less rain on the Pacific slope. However, if you don’t mind missing out on bunches of Chestnut-sided Warblers and seeing Summer Tanagers, the birding still happens to be great from now until the second half of October (from then until December the rain can be a problem). The cloudy weather makes for higher levels of bird activity and cooler weather, so if you headed to Costa Rica for birding in the near future, consider yourself lucky because you could end up seeing more resident species than during the dry season.

In addition to that little tidbit, here are a few other updates and perspectives about birding in Costa Rica in 2013:

    Bamboo on Poas: Last year was a bonanza for bamboo on the flanks of Poas. Trips to that area and Varablanca turned up multiple Peg-billed Finches, Barred Parakeets, and even several Slaty Finches (!). On recent trips to Poas, I noticed that the bamboo is starting to seed again (!), this time in the bamboo just above the area that had seeded last year. Since it seems that most of the forest understory from the entrance gate to the payment booths will be filled with seeding bamboo, this should be a good area to check for Maroon-chested Ground Dove (I will be watching for it!).

    birding Costa Rica
    Seeding bamboo!
    birding Costa Rica
    A bad picture of a Slaty Finch from last year.

        Head to the Nature Pavilion for bird photography: The Nature Pavilion is fast becoming a must stop for anyone interested in taking pictures of birds. Ok, so you don’t absolutely need to go there for birding but if you do, you have a much better chance of getting many pictures of tanagers, honeycreepers, toucans, and a litany of other colorful birds that come to their feeders. The owners are always working to improve the already quality experience and the deck is also good for watching canopy species (and the river a good place to check for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron).

        birding Costa Rica
        View from the canopy deck of the Nature Pavilion.

            Don’t expect to enter Quebrada Gonzalez and pay later: Since the national park officially opens at 8, unfortunately, birders aren’t supposed to enter before then (which happens to be during ideal birding times). Friends of mine were sort of berated recently for doing this by the park guard manager. He mentioned, though, that people can enter early but need to contact him in advance. Unfortunately, there isn’t any easy way of contacting him! However, blame him less than the general bureaucracy that plagues so much of Costa Rica. One of my dreams is to convince or help the people in the Costa Rican national park system to better manage the parks for tourism. Not managed for tourists? What? Yes, that is exactly the case. A couple of parks are better managed for visitors but the majority really aren’t. Solutions could include marketing of the parks for visitors and investing in them for this purpose.  For example, in Braulio Carillo, convert part of the ranger station into a souvenir shop and small cafe with proceeds going towards the budget for the station. Put in a small canopy tower somewhere in the park and charge $5  or $10 extra to use it. Make the loop trail longer. Hold scheduled night walks and other educational walks for the public. Most of all, open the park at 6 and close it at 5 instead of 8 to 4. The same goes for every other national park in the country. More money would be generated for the parks, tourists would have a more satisfying experience, and more people would visit the parks thus generating more funding, etc.

                Visit El Tapir instead: Although you can’t enter Quebrada at the earliest hour, there is an easy solution to this dawn chorus dilemma. It’s called El Tapir and it’s just down the road from Quebrada. El Tapir doesn’t have a sign so watch for the first place with a couple of small buildings on the right after passing Quebrada Gonzalez and continuing on towards Guapiles and Limon (maybe 2 ks past the station). Head in through the barbed wire gate as early as you want and pay the caretaker $5 (2,500 colones) when he shows up. The forest is excellent, has many of the same species as Quebrada, and they usually maintain two trails. This site has tons of potential so be ready for anything when birding back towards the stream (think Slaty-backed Forest Falcon, Ground Cuckoo, Sharpbill, and Gray-headed Pripites as possbilities). The main downside is the high number of ticks that occur on the trails so be prepared! There isn’t any restroom either but consolation is that you have a chance at seeing any number of rare foothill forest species. Of course the flowering Porterweed is also excellent for Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, and many other hummingbirds while hawk-eagles and other raptors can show up in the sky.

                birding Costa Rica
                Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes are fairly common at El Tapir.

                    Want to support bird habitat? Don’t eat Costa Rican pineapple.: It’s as simple as that. Although some pineapple has been certified as sustainable, I really don’t see how that is possible given the high amount of pesticides that are used even on those supposedly green farms. I think the green label was earned because attempts are made to protect some forest corridors (which probably aren’t actually large enough to support species that are susceptible to edge effects). Vast monocultures of pineapple have become the number one problem for biodiversity in Costa Rica because huge areas are drained and cleared, planted with pineapple, and then drowned with chemicals. This is clearly not sustainable but it’s important for the economy in the short term so little has been done to improve the situation. On a personal note, I love pineapple and would be happy to eat it and support farms that grow it but only if it’s grown in a way that doesn’t eliminate biodiversity, pollute water, increase sedimentation of waterways, harm people with chemicals, and decrease the value of land and quality of life in a long term manner. Is that too much to ask?

                    birding Costa Rica
                    The sign in front of the large, sterile pineapple field says, "No hunting, we conserve animals and forests".

                        Want to see more birds? Visit the most intact forests: A lot of birders visiting Costa Rica mention how they saw more in the gardens of their hotels or at the forest edge than in the rainforest itself. Veteran birders, though, make efforts to spend more time inside and near large areas of tropical forest because they know that this is the only way to see most of the uncommon and rare species in the field guide that they missed on previous trips. Those birds were probably missed by merit of their naturally rare status, and because more time was spent watching birds at the forest edge than in the shady depths of primary rainforest. The fact of the matter is that although you can see more individual birds in gardens and the edge of the forest, you will see more species if you combine that with birding inside extensive primary forest to see things like wood-quail, tinamous, antbirds, certain flycatchers and wrens, and dozens of other uncommon species. While birding in old growth forest is far from easy, it represents high quality habitat for the majority of bird species that occur in Costa Rica simply because it’s the type of habitat that they became adapted to using for the past million (or more) years.

                        It’s no surprise that the sites with the largest areas of high quality forest also offer your best chances at seeing          uncommon species like forest raptors, cotingas, antbirds, Song Wren, leaftossers, etc. Some examples of such sites are Bosque del Rio Tigre and Luna Lodge in the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol Biological Station, Hitoy Cerere, El Copal, Rincon de la Vieja, and the Monteverde cloud forests.

                        birding Costa Rica
                        A Song Wren hiding behind a bit of vegetation at Heliconias Lodge.

                        Don’t expect to bird the La Selva entrance road unless you stay there or take a tour: The entrance road has definitely become off limits to anyone not staying at the station or taking a scheduled tour. It’s a shame but the station probably did it to make it more difficult for poachers and potential thieves from entering the La Selva property. Regarding staying at La Selva, pay the high price for mediochre lodging and food if you want to support research of tropical forests. If you would rather stay somewhere that is more comfortable and geared towards tourism, pick one of the many hotels in the area and visit La Selva on the early birding tour. Keep in mind that La Selva is first and foremost a biological station and ecotourism is not their highest priority.  This is why you won’t be allowed to go up the canopy tower (yes, there is one or more but only for researchers), some trails may be off limits, and unless you stay there, access is only provided to people on one of their tours (which are usually interesting and educational). Also, many understory species at La Selva have become rare (probably due to overgrazing by an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) so don’t expect to see various antwrens, antbirds, White-fronted Nunbird, Carmiol’s Tanager, understory flycatchers, and many other formerly common species still on the list. Most of those can still show up and will hopefully some day recover but they are far more rare than they used to be. I don’t mention this to make La Selva look bad, and it’s still a great place for birding and bird photography, I write this so you know what to expect.

                        birding Costa Rica
                        La Selva is still good for Rufous-tailed Jacamar and many other exciting species.

                        Changes at Heliconias Lodge and two other excellent, little known sites up that way:  I have heard rumors that the community that owns (or owned) Heliconias Lodge has franchised it out. I haven’t been up there since then but I have been told that one of the excellent bird guides who used to work there is no longer there and there could be other changes in store. Their website is still the same though so hopefully it won’t be all that different and owls will still be staked out because this is one of the best birding sites in the country. I have also heard about two other small lodges on the Caribbean slope of the northern volcanoes. One is Cataratas Bijagua Lodge, and the other is Albergue Ecologico Las Bromelias. Cataratas Bijagua looks like a cozy, moderately-priced place that probably has some great birding right on the grounds and on the trails. Could also act as a good base for visiting other sites in the areas as well as Cano Negro. Las Bromelias is a bit harder to get to but friends who have been there tell me that it was very much worth the effort. It’s also moderately priced and is very good birding (they told tales of 17 species of hummingbirds, both Keel-billed and Tody Motmots, Bare-crowned Antbird, and an antswarm!).

                        birding Costa Rica
                        These are good sites for the localized Keel-billed Motmot.

                        Hope to see you in some Costa Rican rainforest during the low season!

                          biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

                          Another Big Day in Costa Rica part tres

                          Ok, so we come to the final segment of Pat and Susan’s Big Day, 2013 in Costa Rica. At the end of part dos, we finished up in the Caribbean lowlands and were about to move up in elevation for a different suite of birds.

                          We departed the Caribbean lowlands and headed to the middle elevation forests of Virgen del Socorro, our next major stop. On the way, we picked up singing Black-headed Saltator, Grayish Saltator, hoped for House Sparrow at a gas station (hey, every bird counts), and a drive-by singing Nightingale Wren at the same spot where we got it last year!

                          Virgen del Socorro is one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites. The habitat in some parts of the gorge isnt as good as it was before the 2009 earthquake and the road is kind of bad but the place can still turn up a great variety if birds. Last year, we did very good at Virgen del Socorro, scoring birds like White Hawk, Barred Hawk, Blue and gold Tanager, and a bunch more. Unfortunately, lady luck was somewhere else this year because we picked up rather few birds and got more or less chased away by rain. Of the measly 20 species we picked up, best were probably Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite,  Brown Violetear, Crimson-collared Tanager, and Coppery-headed Emerald. Oddly enough, the emerald was absent at Cinchona so it was a good thing that one or two were singing at Virgen del Socorro!

                          birding Costa Rica
                          Virgen del Socorro is usually reliable for Brown Violetear.
                          birding Costa Rica
                          Amazingly, we missed the usually common Tufted Flycatcher!

                          Since we needed to get at least 50 new species at Virgen and since most that we did pick up could also be recorded near Cinchona (and were), at this point in the day, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to break any records. Nevertheless, we powered on and stayed with the plan to identify as much as we could on the rest of our route.

                          A couple stops near Cinchona gave us our only Emerald Toucanet at a fruiting tree, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and a few other species while the hummingbird feeders treated us well with all of our targets (White-bellied Mountain-Gem and Green Thorntail included). Another quick stop at the La Paz waterfall gave us our target Torrent Tyrannulet but there were few other species added as we headed up to higher elevation forests at Varablanca and Poas.

                          birding Costa Rica
                          You gotta love a male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, even when it tries to hide itself behind a stick.

                          Ten minutes at the Volcan Restaurant gave us ten new species including several hummingbirds, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush.

                          birding Costa Rica
                          The Volcan restaurant was the only place where we saw Magnificent Hummingbird.

                          A quick drive up to high elevation forests at 2,500 meters turned turned up ten more species that happily called or showed themselves in rapid succession. Among those ten were Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush (our fourth nightingale-thrush of the day), Acorn Woodpecker, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Silvery-throated Tapaculo, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

                          birding Costa Rica
                          Luckilly, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes came out to play.

                          After the Chlorophonia called, a glance at the watch showed that it was 12:30 and time for us to roll down to the Pacific coast. We hoped to pick up a bird or two on the way and although the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes in the coffee plantations were strangely silent, we at least managed to hear the distinctive clinky chip note of a Rufous-capped Warbler, and saw Hoffmann’s Woodpecker and  White-winged Doves. Other birds were absent but how could I blame them; sunny late noon weather is about the most inactive birding weather you will ever find.

                          As we headed to our highway entrance, it suddenly dawned upon us that our quick route to the coast might actually by closed! I had somehow overlooked the obvious possibility that the highway would only be opened to go uphill so as to accommodate the hordes of post-Easter traffic that were returning back to the Central Valley after a few days at the beach. We raced to the entrance anyways but yes, our fears were confirmed and we had to race straight on back to the old, slower route down to the coast! This was going to cut at least 30 more minutes off of our schedule but what choice did we have?

                          At least that alternative route passed by a small reservoir and it delivered with 4 new species! After ticking off Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Anhinga, and Vaux’s Swift, we continued onwards down to the hot, dry coastal plain. Odd detours through Orotina also slowed things down but we eventually made it onto the Guacimo Road and picked up White-throated Magpie-Jay shortly thereafter. A quick stop gave us Plain-breasted and Common Ground-Doves as other birds came in to a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl call, including the owl itself. Dry forest targets like Stripe-headed Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and other birds quickly showed themselves.

                          birding Costa Rica
                          Plain-breasted Ground Dove was a good find.

                          At a good riparian spot, we got other targets like Turquoise-browed Motmot, Long-tailed Manakin, and Little Tinamou. Lesser Ground Cuckoo refused to announce itself but time was running out and we had other key sites to hit! One was the lagoon at Bajamar but as it turns out, the normally wide lagoon was almost bone dry! There was a bit of water but most of our hoped for waterbirds were foraging elsewhere because we only picked up a few Black-necked Stilts and Least Sandpiper.

                          Heading over to the coast, more pygmy-owl calling managed to add Streak-backed Oriole, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and Blue Grosbeak to the list while looking out to see turned up Royal Tern and Brown Pelican. Magnificent Frigatebirds also flew overhead but the fishing boats were just too far out to help us add gulls, Brown Booby, and maybe something else to the list.

                          No time to check the Guacalillo lagoons for shorebirds (which sometimes have them and at other times have nothing at all), becauseit was time to head over to Carara. While cruising through more dry forest, we picked up our three target parrots- Orange-fronted Parakeet, Yellow-naped Parrot, and White-fronted Parrot, saw a bunch of Turquoise-browed Motmots, heard our only Rose-throated Becard of the day (which is very odd but I suspect they have declined), and picked up four or five waterbirds as drivebys near and at the Crocodile Bridge!

                          With late afternoon rapidly approaching, we raced over to Bijagual Road, jumped out of the car and picked up most of our remaining species for the day. This is usually a good, birdy area and we got 16 new species in less than an hour, including our only Laughing Falcon of the day, Scarlet Macaw, Barred and Black-hooded Antshrikes, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous and white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Gray-headed Tanager, Northern Bentbill, and Black-hooded Antshrike.

                          birding Costa Rica
                          We only heard Gray-headed Tanager but that was enough to count it.

                          Once the evening cicadas began to call, the birds quieted down and we could only hope that a Collared Forest Falcon might sound off or that the owls would comply once it got dark. No forest falcon was heard but higher up along the road, at least a Mottled Owl made it onto the list. No other owls were calling around Bijagual so we headed over to Playa Azul to give Pacific Screech Owl a shot. Sure enough, that faithful bird showed up in our spotlight and although we still had time to try for Double-striped Thick-Knee, and a few more owls, we decided to call it quits and went home with 246 species for the day. Given challenges like destroyed wetlands, dried out lagoons, closed roads, and rain, we were pretty satisfied with that number!

                          I still think the world Big Day record can be broken in Costa Rica but it’s still going to require a lot more luck with the weather and better sites for shorebirds. I think that we will do better by doing it earlier in the year (since we pick up almost no spring migrants anyways), and will definitely need to do a lot more scouting.

                          biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

                          Another Big Day in Costa Rica Part Dos

                          When the calendar reached Saturday morning, March 30th, it was time to saddle up, think about thousands of bird calls, and head on over the mountains to Tirimbina! That day being the day before Easter and one of Costa Rica’s major holiday weekends, we saw droves of vehicles at the Waterfall Gardens and a major gathering of humans at the Peace Waterfall.

                          As we drove down towards the lowlands, we wondered if this would dampen our chances at Torrent Tyrannulet, and even more importantly, cause time devouring traffic jams on our route! In a last attempt at scouting Varablanca and Cinchona, we road with the windows down and listened for birds. Since it was mid-afternoon and sunny, this was kind of pointless but no one can say that we didn’t give it an all-star, Shaolin try. Despite few birds being heard, we did notice that a few trees were fruiting near Cinchona and that was indeed an important find.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          A good spot near Cinchona.

                          Down at Tirimbina, we checked in and after being told that we had to tell reception when we entered and left the forest, headed out onto our main scouting road. I suspect that the guy at reception thought it strange that we weren’t going into the forest but we had places to scout, a Big Day ahead of us and not time to explain. Since we couldn’t stay at the field station as hoped (only opens for large groups), the big question was where to be at the break of dawn. It was a toss-up between the forest proper and the road back by the field station but despite the road looking promising on Google Earth, we had yet to recon it.

                          We crossed the Pozo Azul bridge and started back on the road behind Tirimbina. It was a bumpy ride and the section up to the field station looked OK but not good enough for a forest dawn chorus. However, there was a fair deal more of forest back by the field station and further on so we continued forward. A brief stop by a lowland pond turned up a valuable species right away- Sungrebe!

                          birding Costa Rica

                          A poor image of a Sungrebe but still identifiable.

                          As we pleaded with the Sungrebe to be there the next day, we scoured the wetland for Agami Heron and other goodies to no avail. Forest looked good there though so we would have to hit it in the morning. Further up the road, a tell-tale bump high on a tree turned out to be another much wanted species for the day- Great Potoo!

                          Costa Rica birding

                          My camera refused to focus on the tell-tale bump but I can at least show what the site looked like.

                          Yippee! Hopefully the Potoo would stay, the Sungrebe would show, and every bird would sing because we decided to be near the Potoo at dawn. Continuing on, we also had good looks over forested hills, saw a perched King Vulture, were entertained by lots of Mealy and Red-lored Parrots flying to roosts, and saw a small marsh. Yep, this was the road to take for the morning.

                          Back on the highway, we enjoyed an early dinner at the Rancho Magallanes restaurant and headed back to Tirimbina to try and sleep by some crazy early hour like 7:30 or 8 PM.

                          When the clock struck midnight, the counting time began! Too bad nothing was calling… and I slept on until wake up call at 3.

                          Unfortunately, there was a light but steady rain and that erased any chances of hearing nocturnal migrants, owls, or nightjars. Nevertheless, we stuck to the plan and drove through the night to a rice field and wetlands located in banana fields well north of La Selva. As we arrived, something about the field looked strange and then it slowly dawned upon us that the rice was no longer there. Not only that, but the wetlands were no longer there either. One of the only large accessible wetland sites in that area and it had been drained. We were so shocked we could hardly talk. Back in December, we had briefly visited the place and found dozens of Purple Gallinules and great habitat for rails and other aquatic species. Although it was hard to determine in the dark of the night, we could see the drainage ditches and saw that palms had been planted- either Oil or Heart of Palm. Goodbye wetland. So long Purple Gallinules, Paint-billed Crakes, and who knows what else. Although much of it was farmland, some wasn’t so I suspect they broke some laws there.

                          With heavy hearts, we decided to try for Barn Owl and Striped Owl anyways but no luck there, just the forlorn calls of a few Common Pauraques to echo our sentiments and mark their eminent place as the first bird of the day.

                          With the rain coming down, we drove back to our scouting road and picked up our next two species at the bridge over the Sarapiqui- Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Boat-billed Heron doing some night fishing in the river! Good ones to get and somewhere around then, we heard givens like Clay-colored Thrush and Tropical Kingbird.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          Boat-billed Heron- the neotropical gargoyle.

                          Checking the small marsh turned up White-throated Crake but no other rails so we continued on to the Great Potoo stakeout. Dawn was arriving and yes (!), the potoo was on its spot. We quickly picked up a bunch of species as they sounded off from nearby patches of forest and fields. These were birds like Cocoa, Black-striped, Northern Barred, and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, White-whiskered Puffbird, Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, Bright-rumped Attila, Rufous Mourner, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Buff-rumped Warbler, and much more. Luckily, the rain had given us a break at that time or we would have been sunk into the depths of a very low list for the day.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          Susan scoping out our Potoo.

                          We slowly moved up the road, picking up several targets on the way, many of which were fairly common species like Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Shining Honeycreeper, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and various parrots and parakeets (but no Great Green Macaws!). At the Sungrebe spot, despite some very careful checking below overhanging vegetation, the weird little rail duck didn’t show. As consolation, we saw 4 Green Ibis though.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          It was interesting to be reminded of how common Dusky-capped Flycatchers are. We heard them at just about every humid forest spot throughout the day.

                          The rain picked up again and as the road turned very slick in a bad way, we crawled along and dearly hoped to make it to the field station. Despite some very tense minutes, we made it to the rocky road at the station and got out of the car to stretch and hopefully pick up some deep forest birds. However, by this time, our luck was kind of running out as the rain picked up and drowned out most bird activity. We still managed Violet-headed Hummingbird, Great Tinamou, Wood Thrush, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and a few other species but results were dampened by the rain and much lower than hoped.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          Yeah for the Violet-headed Hummingbird!

                          As time ran out and the light but steady rain continued, we moved on towards the highway, picking up Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Yellow Tyrannulet, and some other goodies. It was 8:30 and the time had come to head up to Virgen del Socorro despite still missing 20-30 hoped for species out of around 120 species so far. How would those higher elevations and the Pacific slope treat us? Stay tuned for part tres!

                          Birding Costa Rica Introduction

                          Another Big Day in Costa Rica Part Uno

                          Who says you can’t go extreme when it comes to birding? Those of us familiar with the ins and outs of our avian-focused hobby (or lifestyle) know that birdwatching is nothing like the old-fashioned stereotype of some clumsy,  eye-glass wearing person stumbling around the woods with binos around the neck, wide-brimmed hat on the head, butterfly net in one hand, and an invisible sign in the other that clearly reads, “Make Way for Monsenor Non-Cool”!

                          Personally, I would love to meet someone like that while out in the woods but have yet to see anyone like that anywhere. Instead, we watch birds while sporting clothes that are engineered for the field. We use high quality optics with finesse, know how to survive in the desert (well, some of us do), trudge up mountains to look for rosy-finches and ptarmigans, and help monitor and protect the avian realm. Sometimes, we also do Big Days and it doesn’t get much more extreme than that.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          When modern birders can’t find the place where they want to go birding, they just stop off at a bar to check the map. Note that although there is a wide-brimmed hat in this image, it says, “Titleist” and not “Tilly”.

                          As March rolled to an end, time was running out for another Big Day in Costa Rica. Ever since my last attempt in March 2012, I had thought about the best plans for breaking both the country record and the world record. My best idea was to start on the Pacific slope in the afternoon and finish up on the Caribbean slope the next morning. It was going to be ideal for counting the feathered wealth of Carara, and ticking off Caribbean slope species from the steamy lowlands on up to the Oak forests at 2,300 meters on Poas, all while getting a fair night’s sleep. However, like many things that seem too good to be true, my plan did not fit into the ABA Big Day rules because it would have spanned two calendar days instead of one.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          Flame-throated Warbler was one of our high-elevation targets. I think we missed it during our stop at Poas last year.

                          Back to the drawing board I went and choosing the route and schedule was engineered around probabilities. While you can count on most breeding birds to be in their territory in temperate zone habitats, rainforests are another story. Scout as much as you like but that Masked Tityra might be in one area on Sunday and nowhere to be seen on Monday. There are tons of birds to see in rainforest but all of that diversity comes with a hitch; most species have large territories and are more or less naturally rare. Many birds also seem to wander around in search of fruiting or flowering trees and they don’t always sing either. These and other factors add so much unpredictability to the mix that spending a certain amount of time in the right habitat becomes more important than trying to make stops for each species.

                          For example, while you could spend a few minutes looking and listening for a Chestnut-backed Antbird in a patch of forest where you have heard them in the past, you are better off skipping that patch for a larger area of forest that you haven’t checked because the bigger area of forest will probably hold Chestnut-backed Antbirds while giving a better chance at a greater number of species.

                          birding Costa Rica

                          Spending more time in a larger area of rainforest than a forested ravine might give us some uncommon species like a Purple-throated Fruitcrow.

                          Since so many of these tropical birds also happen to be binocular shy, catching the dawn chorus for maximum effect is also imperative for a high count. Time spent in each habitat also needs to be more or less correlated with the number of species in each habitat, wetlands must be visited, and every possible angle visited. One such angle involves migrants. Hearing nocturnal migrants and seeing them during the day could add 20 birds to the list. Although that depends on whether or not a wave of migrants happens to be passing through, it’ s still an important factor to take into consideration. On the non-bird front, driving times are a critical factor as are such factors beyond our control as rain and wind.

                          With all of those factors in mind, I opted for the following route:

                          1. Stay overnight at Tirimbina and be there for the dawn chorus at the edge of a good block of lowland forest and open habitats for a double whammy of forest and edge species.

                          2. Before the dawn chorus, check a wetland near El Gavilan.

                          3. Mid-morning stop at Virgen del Socorro and Cinchona for middle elevation species.

                          4. Hopefully get some birds from the car while heading up to Varablanca.

                          5. A stop in high elevation habitats on Poas around noon.

                          6. Drive down to the coast, maybe picking up a few species on the way, but this is mostly driving time of around 2 hours.

                          7. Afternoon in dry forest habitats on the Guacimo Road.

                          8. Swing by a coastal lagoon at Bajamar for waterbirds.

                          9. Drive to the Bijagual Road for humid forest species in late afternoon and dusk.

                          10. Keep looking for nightbirds until we decide to give up (assuming that we weren’t going to keep going until midnight).

                          So, that was the route and I think it’s a good one. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to check every part of the route in the days before the count and that turned out to be a critical error but I just didn’t have time to do it. Starting at Tirimbina was good because it’s that much closer to Virgen del Socorro. We didn’t start at La Selva for that reason, it would have been too expensive to do that, and birds would be similar in any case (and maybe even better at Tirimbina).

                          Of course, the other important part of the picture is the team. I had hoped to have the same team as last year but March is the busiest time of the year for guiding so we would be bereft of Juan Diego’s impressive birding eyes and ears. I had hoped that Robert Dean could join us but he couldn’t make it either so this year’s team turned out to include the lightning eyes and driving reflexes of Susan Blank and the determination and birding experience of your’s truly.

                          I will save readers the suspense by saying that we did not break any records but I hope you tune in to parts dos and tres in any case!