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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…

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