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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Birding in Costa Rica near Carara is Always Good

“Good birding”. While some would argue that no birding is bad as along as you are watching birds, I sort of beg to differ. For example, if you sling your binos to an area that features 300 resident species yet you only manage to see 5 common, edge species that also hang out in your own backyard, referring to that “good birding” is one heck of a stretch. That would be a strange day indeed but there’s just no way that such a low blow experience could be referred to as “good birding”. Bad birding is more like it and since no one wants to experience days bereft of birds, don’t look for them in pineapple plantations, on tropical cattle farms, and in urban settings.

Those places be no home for even a fraction of the avian diversity that was historically present.

However, this post isn’t about bad birding. It’s all about good birding and in Costa Rica, one of the many places to experience happy birding days is the area in and around Carara National Park. Go there at any time of the year and there will be plenty to look at. The convergence of bioregions and habitats must make Carara a fair candidate for the top birding hotspot in the country and even Central America. I mean, this fun junction of life makes it possible to look at rainforest species like Great Tinamous and Slaty-tailed Trogon in the morning, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Brown Pelicans, and other coastal birds at lunch, and wetland and dry forest species in the afternoon. Any one of those habitats will turn up a treasure of species but put all three together and you might end up seeing 120 species in a day without a huge amount of effort.

Recently, Susan Blank and I birded some sites near Carara and the birding certainly fell into the “good” category. The original plan was to look for foothill species at El Tapir but since the forecast promised nothing but rain on the Caribbean slope, we opted for checking out sites near Carara for things like Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and maybe even Rusty Sparrow. To make a long story short, we didn’t see or hear any of those (which was strange for the cuckoo and flycatcher but expected for the sparrow) but constant bird action from 118 species seen and heard made up for it. This involved fairly casual birding completely outside of the park and even turned up a lifer (!); a hoped for Bridled Tern scoped from Bajamar. The looks weren’t ideal but they were good enough to finally get this summer resident as a lifer. I may need to take the ferry back and forth across the gulf of Nicoya to pick up my other potential lifer summer resident tern, the Brown Noddy.

Microscopic images of Bridled Terns are in this photo.

We started the day out in moist, non-birded forest near Turrubares. The good habitat between that town and the highway was filled with the songs of Long-tailed Manakins, Lesser Greenlet, Olivaceous, Northern barred, and Cocoa Woodcreepers, White-winged Becard, Striped Cuckoo and several other expected species. No dice on Pheasant Cuckoo but that’s a very rare bird in Costa Rica in any case.

Moist forest sample june 2013

Although checking an interesting microhabitat of grassy areas with scattered trees failed to turn up Rusty Sparrow or anything of note, we had nice looks at several gorgeous Blue Grosbeaks and a tree nearly filled with Red-legged Honeycreepers.

It's always a good day when you see a treefull of Red-legged Honeycreepers.

Our next main stop was the Guacimo Road and as is usual for this dry forest hotspot, we had a bunch of nice birds. One of the first birds we saw was a distant flyby male Hook-billed Kite.

A speck view of a male Hook-billed Kite in flight.

We couldn’t resist stopping to get prolonged looks at 6 Double-striped Thick-Knees in a recently plowed field.

Thick-knees are always a pleasure to digiscope because they stand still in excellent light for long periods. In fact, based on that, they just might be my favorite bird. Thanks again Thick-knee!

Good looks were also had at Black-headed Trogon, several Turquoise-browed Motmots, Banded Wren, Streak-backed Oriole, White-lored Gnatcatchers, and other dry forest birds including 7 species of pigeons and doves.

We also saw Yellow-olive Flycatchers, a bird that loves to put a stick between itself and your camera.

Another good one was a quick look at a Pearl Kite as we drove towards the highway from Guacalillo. Lunch at a seaside restaurant treated us to great food, a welcome breeze, Mangrove Swallows, and a few seabirds (including more distant Bridled Terns).

Brown Pelicans at the beach.

After lunch, we decided to check the Tarcoles area for Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher and just to see what might be around. Although the target bird didn’t show, a bunch of other fine species did including American Pygmy Kingfisher, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and Barred Antshrike.

A low, cooperative Rufous-browed Peppershrike was nice.
We also had a tree festooned with Scarlet Macaws, and

Collared Forest-falcon! This reptilian looking bird is fairly common but amazingly adept at staying hidden even when giving its odd, moaning call.

A Collared Forest-Falcon is a weird, reptilian looking thing.
Yeah, that's right, I have dinosaur in my ancestry!

After soaking up scoped views of the forest-falcon, we drove over to Cerro Lodge to check a small marsh near there. The Masked Duck once again evaded but it was still nice to watch the antics of Purple Gallinules, Northern Jacanas, White Ibis, see an uncommon Black-crowned Night-Heron, and a few other waterbirds.

By then, it was time to drive back up to the Central Valley with the mental satisfaction of another very good day of birding in Costa Rica.

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Changes in Birding Costa Rica: Quebrada Gonzalez 20 Years Ago and Quebrada Gonzalez Today

I did a bird count recently at Quebrada Gonzalez with the help of my steadfast birding friend Susan. While watching tanagers feast on fruits in a nearby tree, we had a stimulating conversation with a conservation biologist and (ecologist) who has been working at La Selva since the 1970s. Although I have heard and read about the differences between the avifauna at La Selva between those days and now on many occasions, he provided us with a rare first-hand account of what birding at the famous OTS station was like then compared to the present.

Back in the 70s, when the forests of the Sarapiqui region were much less fragmented and the effects of global climate change had yet to diminish the rains, understory insectivores like Golden-crowned Spadebill, White-whiskered Puffbird, Northern Bentbill, and various antbirds and antwrens were downright common. It sounded like you couldn’t go birding there without seeing them and the lowland rainforest resounded with the whistled notes of Black-faced Antthrush. However, another aspect of La Selva birding has also greatly changed since those more forested days. Apparently, canopy flocks were also a lot more common and included the likes of White-fronted Nunbird, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and other species. Although most of these species are still present as La Selva, there are few fewer individuals and some may be restricted to the back part of the property.

Whittling La Selva down to a much smaller area of lowland rainforest (due to deforestation outside the reserve) is likely the biggest culprit but other factors such as an overabundance of Collared Peccaries, diminished rains, and ag-chemicals from neighboring cultivations don’t do the forest birds any favors. Although the changes at La Selva are some of the most drastic and best documented, we also talked about the changes that have occurred at Quebrada Gonzalez.

The foothill forests of Quebrada Gonzalez.

I started birding at this foothill forest site in 1992 and have spent countless days in that dense forest since then. Were that eBird was available in those pre-online days! Otherwise, there would be lots of quantitative data to check out. Despite the lack of data, I can at least give my impressions of birding then and now at Quebrada Gonzalez. I realize that the early observations would have missed a fair number of birds but I got a pretty good handle on vocalizations there by 95 and believe that I have experienced the place on enough occasions at various times of the year to come up with some legitimate observations. These include:

Species that seem to have declined. Basically, I record fewer individuals and the following seem to have declined the most:

Great Curassow: I used to see this majestic Cracid once in a while but haven’t in several years. The area seems to be fairly well protected so I’m not sure why they don’t seem to occur or be sighted more often. Perhaps they don’t like the sound of the highway?

Great Curassows are crazy cool looking birds!

Crested Guan: Doesn’t seem to be as regular.

Great Black Hawk: I am convinced that this forest black-hawk has declined in many parts of Costa Rica. I used to see it on just about every visit to Quebrada and other hilly, forested sites. I haven’t seen it at Quebrada since 1996 or 1999 and my only recent sighting was at Pocosol, an area of high quality foothill forest (although I haven’t been birding in the Osa and other places where it still occurs). I wonder if its decline is related to the decrease in amphibians, a possibly important prey item.

Gray-chested Dove: I assume it still occurs but used to see this species on most visits. I don’t recall hearing it there for some time (and when it’s around, you usually at least hear it).

Gray-chested Dove

Great Green Macaw: Used to be a regular visitor during the wet season. Given the overall drop in numbers of this species, it’s no surprise that it shows up with less frequency.

White-tipped Sicklebill: Quebrada Gonzalez was a reliable site for this spectacular hummingbird until the large Heliconia patch it frequented was destroyed to build an outdoor classroom. When lobster claw Heliconias are in bloom, it probably occurs.

Lattice-tailed Trogon: It’s still there but there seem to be fewer in number. For example, while I used to see one or two and hear 3 or 4 on every visit, I might hear one or two nowadays.

Red-headed Barbet: Hard to say as it might be seasonal but I used to see it with higher frequency.

Yellow-eared Toucanet: Another one that’s hard to assess because it can so easily escape detection. After seeing these regularly up until 2009 or 2010, I have recorded very few.

Woodpeckers: Seems odd and I have no idea why but I definitely record fewer numbers of Black-cheeked, Cinnamon, Rufous-winged, and Pale-billed Woodpeckers. I haven’t had a Pale-billed there for some time, and the first three seem much less common (they used to be givens during the 90s).

White-flanked Antwren: I haven’t recorded this species at Quebrada in many years, it used to be regular in understory antwren flocks. Needless to say, the other species in those flocks seem to still occur with the same abundance (Checker-throated Antwren, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, woodcreepers, and Tawny-faced Gnatwren).

Black-headed Antthrush: Although I only recorded this foothill specialty a few times in the past, I haven’t had it since 1999 and don’t expect to get it again.

Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant: I still get one or two on the ridge of the Palmas trail but used to get several all along this trail in the past.

Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant

Yellow-margined Flycatcher: Doesn’t seem to be recorded as regularly.

Golden-crowned Spadebill: I’m not sure when I last had this understory flycatcher at Quebrada but it used to be quite regular.

Boat-billed Flycatcher: I don’t record this widespread species as often as I used to.

Rufous Piha: I recall this species being regular up until 1996. I’m not sure if I have had it there since.

White-ruffed Manakin: Still regular but numbers seem much lower than in the past when it was one of the more frequently seen birds in the understory.

Female White-ruffed Manakin

Stripe-breasted Wren: Same situation as the manakin. Used to be such a common bird that it was impossible to miss. Not any more although several still live in that forest.

Band-backed Wren: This arboreal wren seems to have declined in many areas. I only get one or none during a day at Quebrada when it used to be a given.

Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager: An uncommon taxon that probably deserves species status, it seems much less common at Quebrada (and was never really common on earlier visits).

Blue and gold Tanager: Same as for the bush tan.

Tanagers: I feel like there are fewer tanagers compared to the past but the difference isn’t very noticeable.

An Emerald Tanager in the Quebrada Gonzalez parking lot.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique: This species still occurs but there seem to be less. For example, the other day, I heard maybe two or three. In the past, the ringing calls of this species (along with Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers) were a typical, frequent part of the soundscape and I would see several caciques during a day of birding.

Not to mention, various edge species that have disappeared as the forest on the other side of the road has grown up.

Birds that occur there now but weren’t recorded in the past. These are probably moving upslope:

Slaty-tailed Trogon: It shows up once in while but I never had it during the 90s. Possibly moving upslope and maybe even replacing Lattice-tailed.

Slaty-tailed Trogons are fairly common in lowland rainforest.

Streak-chested Antpitta: This formerly absent species is now recorded on most visits (had at least three heard on the day of the count).

Black-faced Antthrush: Never had this lowland species in the past, now it is regular on the Ceiba and Botarrama trails.

Birds that should seemingly be there but don’t seem to be present or more common:

Slaty-breasted and Great Tinamou: Not sure why these aren’t more common. They occur but seem to be very few in number. Or, perhaps they don’t call as often?

White-fronted Nunbird and Rufous-tailed Jacamar: These have never been recorded at Quebrada as far as I know. The soil may differ from forests of the same elevation in the Tilaran Mountains where these species occur and this makes me wonder if it plays a role in limiting their burrow nesting behavior. However, other burrow nesters such as White-whiskered Puffbird, and Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots occur so who knows.

A Rufous-tailed Jacamar from La Selva- still fairly common there.

Lanceolated Monklet: There are rumors that this very rare bird was recorded in the past but I have yet to find it at Quebrada (and I can’t help but whistle like one on most visits, a strategy that has worked in Ecuador).

Keel-billed Toucan: Nope, don’t know why I don’t see it more often.

Leaftosser species: While others have possibly recorded Tawny-throated on one occasion, I have heard nary a chip note from any Sclererus at Quebrada.

Red-capped Manakin: I have very rarely had this bird at Quebrada but still get them on most visits just up the road at El Tapir.

Male Red-capped Manakin from Carara.

Thrush-like Schiffornis: Another one at El Tapir and rarely heard on the back part of the Palmas loop.

Song Wren: Same deal as the Schiffornis.

Like I said, I wish I had quantitative data because I record fewer numbers of several species, there seems to be less fruit in the understory, and the forest looks drier than it used to. Thinking about this makes me want to go back, do a bunch of surveys and try to figure out what’s going on in one of my favorite birding locations anywhere.

Birding Costa Rica

A Birding Commute in Costa Rica

Most days, my commute to work is more like an anti-commute. Instead of leaving the house to go elsewhere to factor my energy into time, I actually have to come back to the house to get things done. I know that sounds like a riddle but it basically means that I do most of my work at home. I still need to leave the house in the morning to drop my daughter off at her pre-school but come straight back to the starting point to hit the computer. It’s mostly writing that I do as a trade and so my commute typically goes from the house, out to the pre-school with the grazing horse in the shaded lot on the other side of the road (we usually greet it with a “horsey! horsey” but it rarely blinks at us), and then back the same way to home, commute over, work starting.

However, I also guide once in a while and those commutes vary from being birdy rides serenaded by breaking dawn songsters to avoiding trucks and horrible drivers as I head down to the hot lowlands (usually to Cerro Lodge). Occasionally, I see a Keel-billed Toucan or perched Bat Falcon on the drive to the coast but mostly, it’s bird free until I start the last part of the drive in to Cerro Lodge. At that point, a step outside the car usually results in the sounds of Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-tipped and White-winged Doves, Striped-headed and Olive Sparrows, Rufous-naped Wren, Black-headed Trogon, and other dry forest denizens.

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White-winged Doves are one of the easiest birds to see in dry and moist forested areas in Costa Rica.
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Black-headed Trogon

But I digress. The typical pre-school commute has its birds too. Not many, but it has some. These are the birds of a Central Valley town and they include the likes of Blue and white Swallows, Blue-gray Tanagers, Great-tailed Grackles, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Inca Doves, White-winged Doves, TKs, Great Kiskadees, and other common birds. I suppose my best birds on this commute have been Hook-billed Kite on a few occasions and a migrant Western Wood Pewee calling from a riparian zone.

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Blue-gray Tanagers are one of the prettiest of common bird species.
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It's hard to miss seeing Great Kiskadees whether driving or walking.

If I have to go to Quebrada Gonzalez, the commute starts out with a drive that does its best to exit the urbanized Central Valley as soon as is safely possible. Few birds during the pre-dawn hours so I listen to the radio. I have listened with the window down on several occasions but either get nothing or a few Clay-colored Thrushes. No owls, no nothing of note. When I start driving up and over the mountain pass, this is when the commute becomes a lot more interesting. As long as the motor cannon air breaks of trucks aren’t blasting the much finer and quieter sounds that are made by living things, I hear quite a bit from the open window. I should because the drive passes through a wet green speciose party of life known as Braulio Carrillo National Park. It’s hard to miss the loud, happy warbling of Gray-breasted Wood Wrens, and the sputtering chips of true to their name Common Bush Tanagers. I also usually hear Slate-throated Redstarts, Mountain Thrushes, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, get an occasional Black Guan flying past, and catch the notes of various tanagers once we descend into the foothills. At the streams, I sometimes hear Buff-rumped Warblers and even Dull-mantled Antbird. Lots more possible too but the cacophony from too many trucks doesn’t make this a Sunday drive.

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Buff-rumped Warblers are common stream-side birds in Costa Rica.

My best commute for birds is the trip from my place to the Poas area. Light traffic and little urbanization turns into a windows down drive with the sounds of birds coming out of the coffee plantations, more naturally vegetated riparian zones, brushy second growth, and remnants of cloud forest once I get up there above the valley. I usually see a Blue-crowned Motmot or two perched on roadside wires at dawn, hear and see Brown Jays, and hear lots of the common bird species of the Central Valley. Rufous-capped Warblers, Plain Wrens, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes also sing from the coffee bushes.

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You might not see too many of these Carolina Wrenish birds but you might hear like a 100. They rule the coffee plantations and second growth in many areas.
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I sometimes get the striking Flame-colored Tanager from the house.

Once the air cools off with rise in elevation, Common Bush Tanagers call, I hear more Flame-colored Tanagers, and the bromeliad studded trees can yield calling Emerald Toucanet, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Mountain Thrush, and even Dark Pewee at one spot. I have even had Resplendent Quetzal a couple of times (a driveby quetzal is a shimmering, velvet green and red thing that can seems to flow through the air).

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The high-pitched song of the Chestnut-capped Brush Finch is a common feature of the Costa Rican highlands.
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Emerald Toucanets are around in the highlands but easy to miss.

Of course the best part of the commute is when I can stop the car and put all of my attention on birds instead of noticing birds while driving.

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A Bird Count on Poas

Poas is the name of the volcano that I can see off to the northwest of my home. It’s an obvious stand-alone mountain that is usually topped by clouds. On sunny days, though, close scrutiny of its upper reaches reveals a distinct, flat appearance. That flat part is the edge of the crater and marks the place where most people go when they visit the volcano. As for myself, I rarely go up that high but instead focus on the road up to around the gate of the national park because high elevation birds are more exciting to watch than the crater (since I am a birder and not a crater watcher or vulcanologist- a much more dangerous pastime). Since I can get up to Poas and vicinity quicker than other areas with good habitat, I bird and guide around there with some regularity. I also do an annual breeding bird count and this is nice because it forces me to head up there by 5 in the morning.

Although the afternoon birding on Poas tends to be great, that early hour does give a good idea of what’s flying around those high elevation habitats. In this case, that would be pastures with scattered, epiphyte drenched oaks, temperate zone forest, moist subtropical forest fragments mixed with non-native Guatemalan Cypress, and nice remnant cloud forest in riparian zones that are connected to larger blocks of forest. I start the count at the Volcan Restaurant, end it up near the main gates to the park and hear lots of birds in between. I also see some here and there but as with the majority of bird counts, almost everything is found by sound.

One of the most common birds is the Mountain Elaenia. I think I got more of these birds than any other species at every point.

An inquisitive Mountain Elaenia.

As you can see, this is a typically nondescript flycatcher. It will remind you of an Empid but looks even less distinctive than the resident Black-capped Flycatcher. I suppose White-throated Flycatcher could also show up around Poas but I haven’t seen it there yet.

The first few stops yielded several yodeling Prong-billed Barbets and hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders at the Volcan Restaurant. While guiding there yesterday, just after saying that I had never seen a Scintillant Hummingbird at the restaurant but that they could occur, up pops a rufous-flanked, excellent candidate. After closely inspecting the bird, I called it as a young male Scintillant on account of the mostly rufous tail with narrow subterminal band, rufous flanks sans green, lack of a thin rufous line that goes from the eye to the bill, and a couple of coppery orange feathers on the gorget (which is why I called it a young male although who knows, maybe it’s a female).

Scintillant Hummingbird in Costa Rica at the Volcan Restaurant.

One hummingbird species missed during the count but seen while guiding was a Stripe-tailed. Since this is the least common of the 7 regularly occurring species at their feeders, I was quite pleased to see it.

Female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

Other uncommon species that were recorded during the count were:

  • Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl- Pretty rare in the area but occurs.
  • Resplendent Quetzal- Had one female. They are around but tough to find unless you can locate some fruiting, wild avocados.
  • Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- There were a few calling from the more intact forest on the higher part of the road.
  • Elegant Euphonia- Nice surprise as it seems to be pretty rare around there.
  • Yellow-bellied Siskin- As mundane as a goldfinch might seem to be, this was the rarest bird species from the count. Trapping this bird for cages has eliminated it from many parts of the mountains above the Central Valley.

Species found at nearly every stop included Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher (Poas is a great area for this sleek bird), Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Common Bush Tanager, Band-tailed Pigeon (because they seem to always be flying overhead), and Slate-throated Redstart. Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush is also very common in the Poas area. I saw lots as they came out to feed on the road at dawn.

Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Here is one pretending to be some kind of Old World bush-robin.

Mountain Thrushes were also coming out onto the road and flying all over the place. No pics of them because they suffer from FNS (flighty nervous syndrome). Sooty Robins don’t though, and once I got up into the temperate zone, they were taking center stage all along the road.

They were perched on fence posts.
Showing off their staring white eyes.
And trying to stare me down!

After losing the staring contest with this Blackbirdish (the Palearctic one) looking thrush, I saw a bunch of other high elevation birds. Bright orange mistletoe was being visited by Green Violetears, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems.

This beautiful mistletoe species is a common sight in high elevation forests of Costa Rica.
I also saw a few Flame-throated Warblers.
And found a Fiery-throated Hummingbird nest.

No bamboo birds this year and not as many quetzals are around but the birding is still always nice and easy around Poas.