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biodiversity bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Introduction

A Dozen Birds from Poas to Sarapiqui

Always lots of birds to see in Costa Rica. The more you look, the  more you see, especially when you spend time in birdy habitats. This past week, a couple of days guiding along the Poas-Cinchona-Sarapiqui turned up an expected fine variety of avian species. Since the focus was on getting video footage of birds, we had plenty of photo opportunities including the twelve birds seen below.

In the high elevation habitats on Poas, we had a fair selection of temperate zone species including Buffy Tuftedcheek, brief looks at an over shy male Resplendent Quetzal, Black Guan, and several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds among other species including…

A male Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher spent the entire day in a few fruiting bushes.
Hairy Woodpeckers- not so exciting but an interesting endemic subspecies that is fun to watch.

The Volcan Restaurant is a short drive downslope from the temperate zone and an excellent place for watching hummingbirds (we had 7 species). The forest along the riparian zone at that spot can also be good although we saw little when we were there.

Purple-throated Mountain Gems are one of the most common hummingbird species at that site and elevation.
Stunning Violet Sabrewings are also present.

On Wednesday, we started the day out at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona. This site continues to be an excellent place for seeing several hummingbirds (we had 8 species) and is great for taking pictures of other birds as well. The day we were there, the cloudy weather was perfect for bird photography.

Happily, Emerald Toucanets showed up to eat papaya and entertain with stunning colors at close range.
The other stars of the show were a pair of Prong-billed Barbets.

After enjoying the hummingbird extravaganza (8 species) and getting close looks at Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers, we headed down to the Nature Pavilion, one of the best sites for bird photography in Costa Rica. The lighting was excellent, there was a good amount of activity at and near the feeders, a Rufous-winged Woodpecker called and foraged in the trees behind us, and other lowland species called and flew overhead. It was a memorable morning indeed with constant photography opportunities.

Golden-hooded Tanagers are one of the stunning birds that visit the feeders at the Nature Pavilion.
Green Honeycreepers come in now and then. The male showed up too but didn't stay long enough for me to get a photo.
Red-throated Ant Tanagers come to the feeders too for rare photo opps of this understory species!

The owners make sure that the feeders are filled with papaya and bananas.

Dave Lando, one of the owners of the Nature Pavilion, puts out more papaya for the birds.
Grayish Saltators are one of three saltator species that come to the feeders.

After the Nature Pavilion, we made a quick stop near La Selva and got looks at a busy flock of around a dozen species including (Chestnut-colored Woodpecker) but the birds were too quick to photograph (not to mention rain and dense vegetation also posing challenges to photography). So, we headed back upslope and escaped the rain for a bit. At a roadside lagoon near San Miguel, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat came in for good photos.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are pretty common in brushy fields.

Olive-crowned Yellowthroat also responded to its song but wouldn’t come close enough for a photo. However, we did manage to get looks at a much less common species.

The White-throated Flycatcher is a very local species in Costa Rica.

After our stop at the lagoon, we made another quick stop near Cinchona and got looks at Silver-throated Tanagers, Speckled Tanagers, Tropical Parulas, and some other birds before the rains begen to fall in earnest. Always a lot of nice birds to watch in Costa Rica!

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

10 Reasons to Visit Costa Rica for Birding in July and August

One of the great things about living in a place where the latitudes are closer to zero than a hundred is that temperatures are fairly stable. Where I live, I can already tell you what the thermometer is going to read tomorrow, next week, and next year (as long as the global climate doesn’t get too wacky before then). It’s going to range from 68 to about 88 degrees f. with fluctuations within those parameters being a function of time of day. Seasons are measured in rainfall here in Costa Rica so you don’t have to worry about shoveling snow in December. Nor do you need to worry about feeling the oven blast of a heat wave such as the one that is attempting to roast my friends and family up the northeastern USA. That’ s the first great reason for coming to Costa Rica now! Here are some other arguments for heading on down to quetzal-land during July and August:

  • It’s not blazing hot: Ok, so I already mentioned that but feel the need to reiterate because so many people conclude that Costa Rica is always hotter than home in the north because it’s so much further south. While the sun’s rays are definitely stronger and should be approached with caution, nope, it’s not hotter here than say New Jersey in the summer. The highest heat index occurs in places with about 90 or 91 with humidity on the central Pacific slope. Now that is surely hot but you won’t see crazy temps of 100 with humidity and you can always escape to the mountains where it’s a fair deal cooler.
Sooty Robins only live in the cool high elevation habitats of Costa Rica and Panama.
    • The Veranillo: “Veranillo” means “little summer” and refers to a week or two in July when it doesn’t rain as much as on the Pacific slope. We did have beautiful sunny days like that just last week but I think that was the extent of it. Nevertheless, it’s a little extra bonus for visiting around this time and this is reflected by the scheduling of several birding tours.
    • Wandering frugivores: It’s important to bird in the right habitat when looking for certain birds but it’s also nice when various seriously cool frugivores disperse in search of fruity food. This means that if you find a fruiting fig or Lauraceous tree, you might also find a wandering bellbird, Turquoise or Lovely Cotinga, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and who knows what else. Although you can’t expect to see those species, all of them seem to kind of wander a bit at this time of the year…
    A Turquoise Cotinga from Rincon de Osa.
      • Oilbirds: Yes, as in the big weirdo nocturnal things that are crazy about oily fruits! One or more were recently seen on a night hike in Monteverde and have been found pretty much on an annual basis there and have shown up at other spots between now and the next few months. Although this could also be placed in the “wandering frugivores” category, it merits its own special mention. Sure, they are easier to see in other places but wouldn’t it be cool to say that you found an Oilbird in Costa Rica?
      • No wintering species to deal with: Ok, so if you are not from North America, that would be something you would happily deal with but for those of us who have already had our fair share of Yellow Warblers, we tend to be more interested in the resident species. Shorebirds are showing up so you might see a few of them but that possibility can be avoided by hanging out in the rainforest and looking for (cursing at) antpittas.
      • Cloudy weather: I have said it before and will keep on preaching that cloudy weather is better for tropical birding! Although a sunny morning gives you better chances at seeing hawk-eagles and some other raptors, the forest is going to be pretty quiet for much of the day. Contrast that with cloudy or misty conditions and the tropical forest seems to be alive with birds! It’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!! My best days in tropical forest at any elevation have always been on cloudy days. For example, a few of my memorable misty mornings have included a light morph Crested Eagle that flew over a Peruvian Amazonian clay lick covered with hundreds of parrots and Chestnut-fronted Macaws. They flew into the air while a pair of Red and green Macaws flew above the eagle and screamed their heads off. Talk about overload. Twas another memorable misty morning on the entrance road to Mindo, Ecuador road when I saw something like 110 species including Andean Cock of the Rock and several White-throated Quail Doves walking right on the road. I have spent more than one fine cloudy day on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve in Costa Rica when birds stayed active kind of all day long. We had to pull ourselves away from the birds to eat lunch. Not all cloudy days in Costa Rica are like that but the sunny ones sure aren’t. Oh, and it’s cloudy here just about every day in July and August.
      The road to Manuel Brenes on a misty day.
        • But what about the rain?: Yes, it does rain more right now but it won’t ruin a trip, there’s a higher degree of bird activity on account of cloudy weather, it’s cooler, and you can also get rained out on the Caribbean slope during the dry season months.
        • Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds: You will see them with the same frequency as other months and they will look just as cool!
        Fiery-throated Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.
        Volcano Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.
          • Scarlet Macaws will also be just as easy to see: These crazy, colorful birds are doing quite well in Costa Rica thanks to measures to protect and reintroduce them.
          Scarlet Macaws!
            • The trogons won’t be going anywhere either: Quetzals are actually here at all times of the year and not just during the dry season. Visit good habitat for these eye-stunning creatures and you have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you can find the fruiting trees they like. The gorgeous Gartered Trogon should be easy enough to see too.
            A beautiful male Gartered Trogon.
            Resplendent Quetzal with a tasty avocado fruit.

              That’s enough for now. It’s time for me to take advantage of this cloudy weather and go birding in Costa Rica.

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              Birding Costa Rica around Ciudad Neily (aka part 2 of the Buenos Aires, Costa Rica birding experience)

              See the first post of this birding adventure here.

              After driving off from Buenos Aires, we took the route to San Vito in case we ended up having time to check a site for Lance-tailed Manakin and other specialties of the area. The route between Buenos Aires is a nice one due to the lack of traffic although once you start heading to San Vito, the road gets pretty curvy. Before the San Vito turn-off, there are several enticing looking savannah areas but with no obvious means of accessing the grasslands, we just drove on past. However, on the road to San Vito, we did make a quick stop for Pearl Kite, one of 18 raptors recorded over the course of this trip.

              Pearl Kite

              This bird was nice enough to stay put and let me snap off a bunch of digiscoped shots.

              Once you get to San Vito, you sort of have to guess where to go but the place is small enough to diminish the chances of getting lost. Signs for Ciudad Neily only show up after you turn right and head uphill but that’s why every visiting birding should rent a GPS navigator when using a vehicle. We made a quick stop at Finca Cantaros to see if the Masked Ducks were around but didn’t stay when the owner told us that the zorro waterfowl had left and were only present during the dry season.

              The entrance to Finca Cantaros.

              Continuing on, we ticked Crested Oropendola from the car as we drove by the entrance to Wilson Botanical Gardens and then took the winding road on down into the lowlands. We made one stop at a small marsh hoping to get Chiriqui (Masked) Yellowthroat but no dice there. On the way down the slopes of the coastal cordillera, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much forest was still there. Lots of great habitat, the area would make a wonderful birding lodge.

              It had started to rain once we reached Ciudad Neily so we lunched at one of two nearly identical Nuevo Mundo chinese restaurants and found a hotel. That choice for lodging was the Hotel Wilson and although our room smelled kind of musty, and the hot shower only sprayed out cold water, it was an Ok, secure place to stay. Cost for the room was $40 for a triple. It was interesting to note that herons and White Ibis used a couple trees behind the hotel as a rookery!

              This rookery had one ibis species and 4 species of herons.

              After checking in to the hotel, we ventured off in search of wetlands along a road about 8 kilometers south and east of Ciudad Neily. This road heads south from the highway and passes through oil palms, some nice, forested riparian areas, and scrubby fields. We didn’t find any wetlands but were nevertheless, pretty happy with flocks of Brown-throated Parakeets! We got great looks at this uncommon species as they perched in nearby trees and screeched overhead. Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots were also around but the Brown-throateds were the most common.

              Brown-throated Parakeets

              Further on, we were told that a bridge was out so we opted for looking in a rice field near Rio Claro where a friend of ours had seen Paint-billed Crake last year. We checked a couple of small rice fields that may have been the site but they seemed kind of dry and didn’t really turn up anything so we headed back to Ciudad Neily to check a large rice field complex just south and east of town.

              A big rice field near Cuidad Neily.

              This turned out to be the hotspot for the area and a site that could certainly turn up rarities like Wattled Jacana and who knows what else. Although we didn’t hear any Paint-billed Crakes that day, we did catch the vocalizations of White-throated and Gray-breasted Crakes. Red-breasted Blackbirds were also present and a vegetated ditch out in the middle of the field to the west (accessible by a gravel road with a barbed wire gate) was filled with seedeaters. We got every possible species including one Slate-colored, Plain-breasted ground Dove, and several other birds.

              A bad shot of Ruddy-breasted Seedeater.
              A better shot of Pale-breasted Spinetail.
              Bran-colored Flycatcher
              Tricolored Munia was a nice surprise!

              Heading back out to the main road that goes through the middle of the rice fields, we checked roadside ditches sans success but ended up being treated to a beautiful Barn Owl that quartered over the eastern rice field in fantastic light. The prolonged looks and lighting made us feel as if we were living a wildlife documentary experience. We saw the owl drop into the field several times and were more than ready to tick a struggling Paint-billed but we didn’t see it catch anything. Nevertheless, its failed attempts didn’t stop us from dubbing the owl the “Crake Hunter”.

              That evening, we ended up eating a pizza in town before crashing for the night with dreams of Paint-billed Crakes in our heads.

              The following morning started with coffee before quickly heading back to the nearby rice field. We enjoyed more looks at the owl before checking the main vegetated ditch once again. This time, calls on Susan’s device did elicit a response from one Paint-billed Crake! It called a few times and we may have glimpsed it but it didn’t hang around. That morning, there was more of the same along with groups of Blue-headed Parrots and Brown-throated Parakeets. The other main good bird was Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. We saw at least two and got excellent looks as they quartered over the ground and perched. The best views, though, were of a vulture that perched on a post and let us watch it from nearly arm’s length!

              The day is a good one when you can see through the nostrils of a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture.

              It was around 8 in the morning and we were ready to call it quits on the crake so we decided to not drive back through San Vito and instead, take the quicker coastal route. That turned out to be a very fateful decision. While driving towards Rio Claro, we noticed a big rice field on the right and realized that this was probably the site where Paint-billed Crake had been seen! It was larger and wetter than the other rice fields and no sooner had I walked over to the edge of the field and looked down a wet ditch when a dark crake ran into the rice! Situating ourselves, we played the call and got an immediate response from two birds. In they came through the dense rice plants making a grunting sound. Suddenly, one appeared at the edge and gave us a quick look before ducking back into the rice! We finally had our Paint-billed Crake, a lifer for all three of us, including Robert Dean, the artist who illustrated the Costa Rica field guide (and Panama, and other things). We got even better, prolonged views of this gallinulish bird before finally deciding to try for the Slate-colored Seedeater that had been singing from oil palms on the other side of the highway. That bird refused to show but after having seen the crake, we could have cared less!

              Where we saw our Paint billed Crake.

              Moving on, we decided to hit the hotspot birding road at La Gamba before making the long drive back home. This was another fortuitous decision that yielded brief looks at a Fork-tailed Flycatcher (a bird that seemed to be strangely absent from the savannahs), Scrub Greenlet, Gray-lined Hawk, and other species. At the turn off to Esquinas, we caught up with  a few Slate-colored Seedeaters (all young males), and got great looks at definite Rusty-margined Flycatchers. I had seen this species many times in South America but forgot how incredibly close they resemble Social Flycatchers. Even their song sounds kind of similar although their calls are very different.

              The demure Scrub Greenlet loves to put leaves in front of its face.
              The Rusty-margined Flycatcher held its wing open to eliminate any doubts about its identity. The rusty margins are tough to see but there were present in the scope!

              The drive back home took us through Dominical (where we lunched at a beautiful seaside restaurant, ticked American Oystercatcher, and glimpsed some interesting species of Cetacean (too small for a Humpback, too big for a dolphin)), through Perez Zeledon, and up over Cerro de la Muerte where we made a stop for Volcano Junco and briefly tried for Ochraceous Pewee. That potential lifer didn’t show but oh well, you can’t expect everything in one trip! With 4 lifers under my belt, 7 or 8 new country birds, and 610 species for the year, I don’t mind at all saving the pewee for another day.

              Bird around Buenos Aires, Costa Rica and you might get into a staring contest with a spinetail.
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              Birding Costa Rica around Buenos Aires

              Buenos Aires and Costa Rica in the same sentence? What is this, some kind of weird geographical joke? Nope, Buenos Aires, Costa Rica is as real as pouring rain in the Osa Peninsula. However, other than the name and the lingua franca, Buenos Aires, CR shares nothing with Buenos Aires, Argentina. I don’t even think it shares the same birds other than maybe Blue and white Swallow. Buenos, Aires in Costa Rica is barely visited by any birders but those in search of exploration, rural birding, and uncommon species might want to schedule a trip. There are several sites for a rich variety of species, including several that can be tough to see elsewhere in the country, and based on the amount of habitat in the area (grasslands and forest), I suspect that it had much more to offer than expected.

              After hoping for years to get over there to look for some key lifers and additions to my Costa Rican list, I can finally say that this happened! The past weekend was a whirlwind of birding shared with a couple of friends who also enjoy looking for birds from pretty much dawn to dusk. That sort of sums up the trip (although we got in some night birding too). Yes, it was hardcore and yes it was satisfying as sitting back and eating a bunch of brownies after living on cheese , crackers, and water for 30 odd days (not that I have tried such a stunt).

              We didn’t do any birding until we reached Buenos Aires. We drove on past wonderful sites like Carara and the Dominical area to not waste any time en route and reached the Terraba Valley in about 4 to 5 hours. As it was lightly raining, we just settled in to our accommodation for the next two nights and watched for birds right outside the lodge.

              The view outside of our bungalow.

              The place where we stayed is in the village of Salitre and is known as Bribripa Kaneblo. It’s an ecotourism initiative run by 14 Bribri families who live in and around Salitre and is connected to the Bribripa Cultural Center. Signs were posted in both Spanish and Bribri and we were told that some of the older people who lived way up the road in the mountains spoke very little Spanish. Guillermo was our host, was very accommodating, and enjoyed telling us about the project and the Bribri culture. Despite not being a birder, he walked a short trail with us to check for owls and told us that they see Black and White and maybe Mottled and Spectacled Owls there on a regular basis. No such luck for us but good to know in any case. He and other people we spoke with seemed to be very conscious of the environment, its importance, and their connection to it- just my type of people!

              That first evening, we spent a bit of time looking and listening for White-tailed Nightjar but ended up dipping on that target. Since even the pauraques were silent, we suspected that it was the wrong time of the year to look for this savannah species. High above our lodging, I was surprised to hear the familiar call of a Common Nighthawk. I had forgotten that they breed in the savannahs of the Terraba Valley. Other night birds included a calling Mottled Owl and the whistles of a Uniform Crake pretty close to the bungalow. Speaking of the lodging, it was fine but you won’t like it unless you don’t mind staying somewhere quite basic. No mosquitoes but a number of other more interesting bugs showed up inside. Cost was $65 a night split between the three of us. Beds were clean and comfortable with mosquito netting. No hot showers but it wasn’t too bad.

              The bungalow.

              The following morning, we were greeted by wonderful, clear weather! This was a happy sight because rain does not combine very well with some of the roads in the area. In fact, it turns some of them into slippery stretches of wet, red clay, a substance that can slide a four wheel drive vehicle straight into a ravine. Luckily, the fine weather quickly dried out the roads while we listened and looked for birds in the second growth and riparian growth around our lodging.

              Gray-headed Chachalacas, Streaked Saltators, and Cherrie’s Tanagers were pretty common and we saw several other edge species. We also saw our first of many Yellow-bellied Seedeaters and Lesser Goldfinches. Although you can see these two small finches in other parts of Costa Rica, they were pretty common in the savannahs near Buenos Aires.

              Yellow-bellied Seedeater was the de-facto seedeater in the area.

              After a quick breakfast, it was off to the grasslands up on the ridge above Salitre. On the way, we made a stop just outside of the village and quickly saw dozens of seedeaters (mostly Yellow-bellied), a perched Double-toothed Kite, and our first of many Plain-breasted Ground Doves and Pale-breasted Spinetails. No Ocellated Crakes or Wedge-tailed Grass Finches though. These were our main targets and they required a bit more searching in a distinct type of habitat.

              A Pale-breasted Spinetail giving me the evil eye!
              Pale-breasted Spinetail singing its Willow Flycatcher like song.

              Thanks to eBird reports, we knew that habitat was found on the road to Durika and after a fairly rough ride uphill for about 5 kilometers, we reached it.

              Savannahs of the Terraba valley.

              The savannah was very distinctive and had few bird species but the ones that occurred were a welcome sight since they can be tough in other parts of the country. Lots of Yellow-bellied Seedeaters, a good number of Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, a Lesser Elaenia here and there, several Plain-breasted Ground Doves, Scaled Pigeons, Bat Falcon, Laughing Falcon (the general area was really good for this species), Roadside Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and others.

              Find the Lesser Elaenia!
              I think every pigeon we saw was a Scaled!

              Oh, and yes, there were Ocellated Crakes too! We heard one at one of our first stops just two minutes after exiting the car and heard at least a dozen more that day and the following morning. The only problem was seeing them. Apparently, the Ocellated Crake is one of those rails that pretends to be a mouse. In Costa Rica, I can attest that it lives in dense grassy areas where it probably uses tunnels that network through the undergrowth. That’s just a guess but based on our experience, it sure seems to be the case. For example, even when we pushed some grass aside to make a spot where we could see the ground, the crakes absolutely refused to walk across even the smallest of semi-open areas (and I mean less than a foot in area). They would come right to the edge of our miniscule clearings and call within a meter or two of us before moving on. We did manage to see two birds but those looks were a millisecond glimpse at a tiny rail head that popped up into the grass and a bird that scurried across the tiniest of open areas. Mind you, this thing didn’t creep on by for nice looks of a second or two. No, it ran as fast as a mouse and pretty much looked like a rodent except for the white spots on its back. I caught that field mark and although the view wasn’t exactly soul satisfying in nature, I sure as heck claimed it as a lifer. Touchee rodent rail, touchee…

              Ocellated Crake habitat with a Vortex scope.

              Further on up the road, the grass gets taller and more patches of low forest appear until you reach slightly taller forest at the turn off to Durika. This spot is signed and is known for being a good site for Rosy Thrush Tanager and one of the only regular sites in the country for one of our other major targets, the dreaded Pheasant Cuckoo.

              Hoping for Pheasant Cuckoo

              This was a pretty good spot in general and had a nice mixed flock of tanagers, Russet Antshrike, wrens, woodcreepers, Slaty Antwren, and other species. We got very brief looks at Rosy Thrush Tanager ( a new country bird for me!), but no amount of whistling could turn up a Pheasant Cuckoo. Other good birds were Black-faced Antthrush, and very brief looks at my long awaited lifer Costa Rican Brush Finch!

              Back down the road we went for lunch in hot Buenos Aires, looking for grass finches on the way and guessing that they might not be around since Robert saw them with ease in the same area some years ago. For lunch, we ate at the Soda Cuchara. It’s on the east side of the main road much closer to Salitre than the highway and is well worth a visit. No birds but the food was pretty good and cheap, and the service was nice. We also ate dinner there but not before checking out a small marsh in town (nothing special) and heading back up the road to the savannahs. We saw another thrush tanager, more of the same, and Robert got onto a Mouse-colored Tyrannulet! Our plan was to wait until nightfall to try for the nightjar. Although it didn’t show, we were treated to beautiful scenery, nighthawks in flight, and the calls of distant Marbled Wood Quails as dusk took over. On the drive back down, we spotlighted an owl (maybe a Tropical Screech) but it didn’t let us get close enough to identify it. Attempts at the nightjar at a field in Buenos Aires was a bust so it was off to dinner followed by an exhausted collapse in a bed after a long, great day of birding.

              A tasty dish at La Cuchara.

              The following morning (Saturday), we made our own coffee and headed back up to the savannahs a but earlier. We had more of the same and tried again for the crake without seeing one but finally got onto several grass finches! Oddly enough, we saw around 6 in the same areas we had checked the day before. It was a big relief to get this lifer because I had just about accepted that I wasn’t going to see it.

              Wedge-tailed Grass Finch- oh yeah!

              Then, it was back down to the lodge to pack up, say our goodbyes, and head on to our next destination, San Vito and Ciudad Neily.

              To be continued…

              Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

              How to Find Sites for Rare Birds in Costa Rica in the Caribbean Lowlands (use Google Earth)

              In the birding world, a bird denoted as being “rare” can earn that categorization in a number of ways. For example, a Common Cuckoo is a pretty darn good rarity when seen in North America because it normally lives on the other side of two oceans. Go to its typical home range at the right time of the year and you probably have a fair chance of hearing its distinctive call and seeing one or two (needless to say, I would love to see one because any time I have been in their breeding range, they were already on their way to Africa).

              Squirrel Cuckoo- a common, widespread neotropical species.

              If I had seen a cuckoo during November in Denmark, I would have seen another type of rarity, one that is simply out of season. In Costa Rica, such a species might be a Yellow Warbler in late June. At other times of the year, that super common bird would be a given in Costa Rica, but not when it is sweet singing from second growth and willow-edged rivers in upstate New York. Like the cuckoo situation in North America, common birds up north like Ring-billed Gulls would be a category 3 or 4 rarity here and the Hooded Merganser that appeared in 2012 would have been a straight up 5.

              Nevertheless, those aren’t the birds that people come to Costa Rica to watch. Among the glittering bunch of hummingbirds, tanagers, and other avian delights, people on birding trips to Costa Rica hope to see such rarities as Slaty-backed Forest-falcon, Black and white Hawk Eagle, or Black-crowned Antpitta. They also wish they could glimpse even rarer species like Tawny-faced Quail, Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, and Harpy Eagle. While the first three species are tough enough to see, the latter trio of birds are probably ten times as difficult. In the case of the owl, it’s more a matter of looking for it at night in the cold, wet, high-elevation places where it occurs and then having one respond to a call. For the quail, you have to get lucky in areas of lowland forest in the northern part of the country that are big enough to host a population. Then there is the case of the Harpy Eagle. Like the quail, this monster raptor (and it really does look like a monster when seen at close range) needs areas of intact lowland forest with enough prey items to keep them healthy, happy, and raising successful baby Harpies. The only problem is that there might not be enough intact forest to support a healthy population.

              Fragmented forest- an all too common sight in Costa Rica (and many other countries).

              The Harpy Eagle used to thrive in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific slopes but even then was surely tough to see because it doesn’t soar, occurs in in low density populations, and sneaks through the canopy like a massive, winged feline. If you take a satellite view of Costa Rica with Google Earth, zoom on down to the Caribbean lowlands. Sadly, what you see is a huge amount of deforestation and fragmentation. Such destruction was all too easy to accomplish because Costa Rica is a pretty small place. We aren’t talking about some massive area but a country the size of West Virginia with maybe half or more of it being mountainous. It was a story that has been retold many times over in many parts of the globe and it’s a simple one. As the population grew, people needed places to live, so they cut down forests because they didn’t know how to use the rainforest to survive. Nor did the government realize the importance of keeping such forests intact but they did know that if they were cut down, people could maybe raise cattle or grow something to make some kind of living. So went a lot of the forests and that’s mostly why the Harpy Eagle is almost gone in Costa Rica. It’s also why it is tough to find sites where various antbirds and other lowland species are fairly common. A lot of the rainforest birds in Costa Rica (and other places) just don’t do well with edge effects. they evolved to live in complex, shaded, magnificent rainforests where edge was limited to rivers and treefall gaps, not forlorn chunks of forest flanked or surrounded by pasture. Many of the forest species generally die out or become very rare because they aren’t living in the conditions in which their lineages had been evolving for a few several million years or more.

              Bare-necked Umbrellabird- a forest dependent bird that has become downright endangered due to deforestation of lowland rainforests.
              The umbrellabird and many other species need large areas of forests that look like this.

              Ok, so now for the brighter note!

              Not all of the Caribbean lowland forests in Costa Rica have been cut down, there are still sites where you might see most species that historically occurred, and those areas can also be found by using Google Earth. Basically, if you want to find the best sites for seeing rare birds and lots of birds overall, you have to find the places most similar to what the landscape looked like before 1950. That would be areas with as much forest cover as possible and Google Earth is a phenomenal help in this regard. For example, take a look at Tortuguero National Park on Google Earth and you can see that it’s a pretty good sized area of forest that is also connected (if rather narrowly) to large areas of forest to the north (especially the Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, one of the most important lowland forest areas in Central America). It’s no surprise that the most recent records of Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica have come from Tortuguero, it also happens to be the most regular site for Crested Eagle in the country, and harbors good populations of a variety of forest dependent species.

              Rainforest at Tortuguero.
              I remember hearing many a Red-capped Manakin calling from these forests. Not a rarity but not as likely to see it in forest fragments.

              Use Google Earth to scan to the north and you can see a fair amount of forest near the Nicaraguan birder that is much less fragmented than other lowland sites. Since this area is also connected to those mother lode rainforests in Nicaragua, it’s another good place to try for lowland forest rarities and Harpy probably turns up (and goes unseen) once in a while. Two lodges up that way are Laguna del Lagarto and Maquenque Ecolodge.

              Nice forest at Laguna del Lagarto.
              Spider Monkeys occur at Laguna and are an indicator of quality forest.

              If we scroll back down to the south, you will see three or four other main areas of lowland forest. The first is La Selva but sadly, various edge effects and lack of connection to other lowland forests have resulted in serious declines of many forest species. While most of the birds are still present, they are much rarer than they were 20 and 30 years ago, and the deep forest birds seem to be more regular in the back part of the reserve. Further south, the next biggest lowland block is Barbilla National Park. This would be a great area to explore and I know that nunbirds have been seen there (a sign of good lowland habitat), but due to a near absence of infrastructure, the park is really tough to access. Keep on heading south and east and you will notice that there appear to be lowland forests at the base of the mountains near Limon and then further south near Cahuita on down to the border. Since the forests at the base of the mountains aren’t as fragmented and have a fair amount of connection along a southeast to northwest trajectory, it’s no surprise that they harbor some of the best Caribbean lowland birding in the country. Places like Veragua, Hitoy Cerere, and the Gandoca reserve aren’t visited so often by birders but if you want to have a fair chance at rare Caribbean lowland birds, this is where the most extensive habitat is found. I haven’t been to Hitoy in a while but I have yet to experience Caribbean lowland rainforest birding of the same high quality caliber anywhere in the country (nunbirds and fruitcrows are common and move around in canopy flocks with other larger birds, Black-eared Wood Quail are fairly common, Great Jacamar is there, antwren flocks, Snowy Cotinga, and so on and so on).

              It would be a dream to see nunbirds at La Selva as often as they used to be encountered there.

              On an even brighter note (and one that proudly hefts hope up on its shoulders), in addition to finding sites that might turn up the rarest of rainforest birds, Google Earth also helps us see where we can hopefully reforest to provide better corridors between existing forested sites. Who knows, maybe we can even restore La Selva back to its former full birding glory (if you thought it was good now, try imagining it being 5 times as good)!

              Bare-necked Umbrellabird- a naturally rare species that has become downright endangered due to deforestation in the lowlands.