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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills Introduction

A Weekend of Birding in Costa Rica at the Lands in Love Hotel (and why You Should Include it on Your Next Birding Trip to Costa Rica).

I am pretty sure that the Lands in Love Hotel has the potential for being one of the best places for birding the Caribbean slope foothills (if not the best). You probably haven’t heard of this place as a Costa Rican birding destination because it’s mostly been marketed for the average tourist, and isn’t situated on the main birding tour circuit. Well, as someone who has birded for years in most parts of Costa Rica, I have to say that birding tours and birders visiting Costa Rica might be very pleased indeed to include this place and nearby sites on their itineraries.

I first became aware of the potential at Lands in Love during a brief sort of non-birding visit about 4 years ago when a short walk in the forest produced sightings of a Great Curassow, and large numbers of common yet pleasing edge species (such as Crimson-collared Tanager and Gray-headed Chachalaca) were easily seen from the rooms. I was also impressed by the large amount of primary forest near the hotel and the ability to scan the canopy and skies above said forest. Although I have brought clients to the delicious LoveEats cafe for lunch and tanagers on many occasions, I had yet to go back and actually stay at the hotel until this past weekend. Well, now I can’t wait to go back because the birding was just as good as I had hoped. We would have seen much more if rain hadn’t put a stop to birding one afternoon and most of the following morning but here are some highlights and reasons why I recommend staying there for three to five nights:

Gray-headed Chachalacas move through the vegetation near the rooms.
  • Quality habitat means quality birds: The road down to the lodge passes through young and older second growth, some of it connected to a large area of primary forest. Trails pass through some old second growth but mostly access beautiful foothill primary rainforest. Habitat is also growing up right around the rooms. This translates to excellent birding opportunities almost everywhere you look and a selection of species that includes edge birds like Tropical Pewee, second growth species such as Thicket Antpitta and Black-throated Wren, and old growth bird species such as Streak-crowned Antvireo, etc., etc. and so on. In being located at around 400 meters elevation, the lodge also has a nice mix of lowland and foothill birds.

    Black-throated Wrens are skulkers but common at Lands in Love.
  • Indications of a healthy forest ecosystem: During just a couple of walks on the forest trails, we ran into three or four understory mixed flocks, each with such indicator species of quality forest as White-flanked Antwren and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Both of these birds have become much less common in Costa Rica and seem susceptible to edge effects. We also saw two different canopy flocks of large birds, one of which had 10 or so Black-mandibled Toucans. The presence of canopy flocks of large birds is another indicator of a healthy forest.

    Rainforest with antwrens and all sorts of cool stuff.
  • Views into the canopy: There are several places where you can scope the canopy both near and far. We found White Hawk, parrots, and toucans this way but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to also see rarities like Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and who knows what else. We didn’t do so great on raptors but since the weather wasn’t exactly conducive for soaring birds, that wasn’t too surprising.

    A misty view into rainforest canopy at Lands in Love.
  • Quality service and organization: The hotel was organized at every point of our trip and provided wonderful service.
  • Excellent vegetarian food: I love the food at this place! Although I am not a vegetarian, I could be if I had the chance to eat food like the wonderful dishes they serve. Good variety and the continental breakfast is probably one of the better ones in the country.
  • Access: Lands in Love is also simple to access. Just take the main highway from San Ramon to La Fortuna and watch for signs on the right. It’s only a half hour or so from San Ramon and maybe an hour and a half from San Jose on good, paved roads.
  • Near other good sites: Several other good birding sites are a 30 minute drive from the hotel, including the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, the Cocora hummingbird garden, and Finca Luna Nueva.

Ok, so now the real reason why birders should stay there for several nights. Here are our top ten species from a couple days of birding, and keep in mind that we got rained out for almost half the time:

1. Sunbittern: A pair foraging on the lawn near the reception on one morning! Staff mentioned that they seen Sunbittern most days at the hotel.

A Sunbittern foraging on the lawn at Lands in Love.

2. Black and white Owl: A quick owl search turned up nothing the first night but the second eventually resulted in hearing three Black and white Owls and seeing one right at the rooms.

3. White Hawk: Rather expected there but it’s still nice!

4. Crested Guan: Quite a few of these around, even at the rooms.

5. Snowcap: Yes, Snowcap and right at the rooms! We had at least four different birds.


6. Short-tailed Nighthawk: One flying right around the rooms.

7. Antwrens and antvireos: A good place to see these.

8. Sepia-capped Flycatcher: We had at least two of this rare species for Costa Rica. New country bird for me!

9. Scarlet-thighed Dacnis: These are fairly common at many sites but always great to see.

10. Lanceolated Monklet: Yep, that’s right. Saving the best for last, we got this very rare bird! To give an idea of how tough it is to encounter this species, I have looked for and whistled like one at many sites in Costa Rica for more than ten years sans results. After noticing that the hanging bridge at Lands in Love looked perfect for this sneaky little puffbird, I decided that the group should go there shortly after dawn on Sunday morning. Not long after arrival, I heard one vocalize and tried calling it in. It took a while to find the bird but I eventually did and we got so-so looks in dark, misty weather before rains convinced us to head back to the hotel. The old growth forest at that spot also looked good for all sorts of things!

Speaking of other avian things, check out the quality on the bird list compiled for the place by Jim Zook (notice the ground-cuckoo and Keel-billed Motmot). We had four or five species not on the list and I suspect that several other species can show up, including Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird. I hope to talk to them soon to see about details on day trips to the hotel trails and hope to do some surveys.

To listen to a taste of the dawn chorus near the  rooms, check this out:

This one has Thicket Antpitta, Clay-colored Thrush, Bright-rumped Attila, Howler Monkey, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, and a distant Slaty Antshrike: Dawn 1 Lands in Love

The hotel doesn’t have feeders nor people checking for owls, fruiting trees, and antswarms yet but the birding is still great. Rooms are nice too although I think they could use air conditioning rather than fans. Showers just might be the best in the country!

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

Whistling Heron in Panama? Maguari Stork in Costa Rica? What’s Next!

A couple of choice South American waterbirds have shown up in Panama and Costa Rica within the past few months. Both are common species in the llanos of Venezuela and Colombia and that’s about the closest they normally come to Central America. Oh yeah, and both also happen to be new records for each country as well as North America! The heron was found by three guides and a friend who frequently show birds to people in Costa Rica and elsewhere. It sounds like they were the only people who got to see it but they also got photos and picked up a Gray-hooded Gull near Panama City at the start of their trip. Check out Kevin Easley’s report.

That was back in July. Fast forward to September and we have another bird that shares much of its habitat and range with the Whistling Heron, but this time, the North American first showed up in Costa Rica. While visiting the shorebird hotspot of Chomes on September 16th, Victor Leiton, Jim Zook, and other local birders  noted a large, strange stork. It wasn’t a Wood Stork and it wasn’t a Jabiru so they knew it had to be something good. Not long after, they realized that they had found a Maguari Stork! Several other people chased it the next day but came home empty handed (although most picked up Clapper Rail- an excellent species for Costa Rica). I would have gone too but was guiding in the foothill rainforests near Lands in Love (good day with nice mixed flocks and great looks for the client at niceties such as Blue and gold Tanager, White-throated Shrike Tanger, Black and yellow Tanager, lots of Emerald Tanagers, Black-throated Wren, and so on).

I hope the stork sticks around and won’t be too surprised if it is re-found in Palo Verde or other wetland sites in Guanacaste. I plan on looking for it when I get the chance even though that might not be for another two weeks. Although both of these vagrants turned up a few months apart, since they occur in the same habitat and region, I can’t help but wonder if they wandered for similar reasons. Waterbirds are prone to doing some post-breeding wandering so perhaps they have turned up on very rare occasions in the past but no one was there to see them? This is very possible given the much lower coverage of various birding sites compared to Great Britain and many parts of the USA and southern Canada. Or, perhaps poor feeding conditions urged these hungry birds to wander far and wide? Whatever the case, it’s a reminder to know what might be waiting out there in the field and to be ready for rarities. By definition, vagrant bird species aren’t likely to be encountered but knowing what might show up will help you identify those choice birds if you get lucky enough to see or hear them.

Both of these birds were wake up calls because neither of them had made it onto my list of possible vagrants. I suppose I will have to edit the list to include such possibilities as White-faced Whistling Duck and Whispering Ibis. I should also mention that another bird from the llanos, Large-billed Tern, also showed up in Nicaragua in August and thus likely flew over Costa Rica! It’s also ready on the CR list but would still be a fantastic record. That said, these are my top candidates for additions to the Costa Rica bird list in no particular order:

1. Gadwall: Nearly every other duck has shown up and given the large population and a wintering range that reaches southern Mexico, it seems like this one is due.

2. Double-crested Cormorant: Waterbirds wander and it seems like this one should show up sometime on the Caribbean coast.

3. Lesser Black-backed Gull and Black-tailed Gull: Just two of a few gulls that could certainly turn up in Costa Rica.

4. Black-chinned Hummingbird: I bet that this species has overshot and wandered down to Costa Rica and even if one or two did so every year, what’s the chance that someone would happen to find that one bird and realize that it wasn’t the very similar and common Ruby-throated Hummingbird? Other hummingbirds that could also turn up are Calliope and Lucifer Hummingbirds.

5. Hammond’s Flycatcher: This little flycatcher is pretty much at the top of my list. Like such warblers as Towsend’s and Hermit, it normally winters to northern Nicaragua. Unlike them, it would be very easy to overlook unless you knew what to look for and could just as easily pass the winter months in patches of non-native evergreens that receive very little coverage.

6. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher: Seems like this common bird could overshoot and fly further south than Honduras, the typical limit of its wintering range.

7. Cassin’s Vireo: Although this vireo normally only winters to Oaxaca, Mexico, it seems like it could head further south. In fact, the one possible Blue-headed Vireo that I saw in Costa Rica could have very well been a Cassin’s. I got pretty good looks at it and unfortunately, it was one of those individuals that could have been a Blue-headed or a Cassin’s due to little contrast between the gray on its head and white on its throat. In fact, the lack of contrast, drab colors, and experience with both species made me actually lean towards Cassin’s then and I still do but without very good photos, I can’t say for sure what it was!

Those are just some of the birds that could make it onto the list. There are others and it will be interesting to see what turns up next.

bird photography Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

More Great Birding in Costa Rica on the Poas-Varablanca-Cinchona Route

I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:

After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.

We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.

The Ochraceous Wren- common but sort of skulks in the canopy of mossy high elevation forest.

Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.

The warblerish Yellow-winged Vireo.
The Warblering Vireoish Brown-capped Vireo.

A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

A cute White-bellied Mountain Gem.

About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.

Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.

Watching hummingbirds in the rain at the Volcan Restaurant.

Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).

A male Green-crowned Brilliant at the Volcan Restaurant.

Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!

The Collared Redstart is one of the more beautiful of the highland endemics in Costa Rica and western Panama.
A Costa Rican Pygmy Owl on Poas.

We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.

It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.

The weird and wonderful Zeledonia, a strange wood warbler that likes to masquerade as an Asian Tesia species.

Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).

Male Resplendent Quetzal.

The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.

Here is the list for the day:

Seenheard only
Black VultureWhite-throated Crake
Turkey VultureBare-shanked Screech Owl
White HawkImmaculate Antbird
Black GuanSilvery-fronted Tapaculo
Rock PigeonPaltry Tyrannulet
White-winged DoveCommon Tody-Flycatcher
Crimson-fronted ParakeetSocial Flycatcher
White-crowned ParrotBarred Becard
Costa Rican Pygmy OwlPlain Wren
Green HermitSlaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Stripe-throated HermitRufous-capped Warbler
Scaly-breasted HummingbirdYellow-faced Grassquit
Violet SabrewingSooty-faced Finch
Brown VioletearBlack-cowled Oriole
Green VioletearYellow-bellied Siskin
Green-crowned Brilliant
Magnificent Hummingbird
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
White-bellied Mountain Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Volcano Hummingbird
Resplendent Quetzal
Red-headed Barbet
Prong-billed Barbet
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Spotted Barbtail
Ruddy Treerunner (bad look)
Buffy Tuftedcheek
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Mountain Elaenia
Torrent Tyrannulet
Tufted Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Golden-bellied Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Yellow-winged Vireo
Brown-capped Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Brown Jay
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Mountain Robin
Clay-colored Robin
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
Flame-throated Warbler
Tropical Parula
Blackburnian Warbler
Wilsons Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Black-cheeked Warbler
Common Bush-Tanager
Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Passerini´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Shining Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Slaty Flowerpiercer
Yellow-thighed Finch
Large-footed Finch
White-naped Brush-Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Grayish Saltator
Buff-throated Saltator
Eastern Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
bird photography Birding Costa Rica Introduction

An Update on Birding Costa Rica, August 2013

August has been pretty good for birding in Costa Rica. The rains haven’t been to bad and there have been quite a few highlights. As for myself, I even managed to pick up a  lifer and a few more year birds.

  • Over at Rancho Naturalista, much to the happiness of lucky visiting birders,  a few White-crested Coquettes were present! Although this species is much more regular in the humid south Pacific region, it also shows up in the Central Valley as a rare but regular seasonal migrant (at least that’s what we assume is going on).
  • Shorebirds have been showing up, including such uncommon species for the country as Dunlin and Long-billed Curlew. I still need the curlew for my country list so I’m itching to head down to Chomes and see some shorebirds! Finding a Curlew Sandpiper or some other rarity would also be nice…
  • Two more birds for the Costa Rica list: Eastern Phoebe and White-cheeked Pintail! Both of these accidental vagrants were found in a series of photos taken at Isla del Coco. Now, all we need is a vagrant Say’s to get the Sayornis trifecta for the country. As for the pintail, it came from the Galapagos (Cocos is half way to that famed archipelago) and I bet it has shown up on Cocos before but no one was there to see it.
  • This past August, I also posted about a few things:

A Few More Differences Between Tropical Birding in Costa Rica and Temperate Zone Birding Back Home

Some Highlights from Good Rainy Birding on the Manuel Brenes Reserve Road

a copy of the Press release for the Second Version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app

Nice August Birding and Butterflies on the Bijagual Road

Where can I see a Snowcap when Birding in Costa Rica

New and Improved Birding App for Costa Rica Now Available,

How Many Hummingbirds Can You See in Costa Rica in Just One Day- a Plan of Attack.

    • As for the lifer, that was an Oilbird (!), a major birding coup for a Costa Rica list. Although Oilbirds have been found at Monteverde in the past, they never seemed to stay very long. This year, several stayed long enough for me to find a couple of days to head up that way and see it (actually 3!) in the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.
    • The Nature Pavilion recently made it onto the list of sustainable tours at the Rainforest Alliance. This is well deserved because these guys aren’t only about fantastic bird photography. They also do tree planting tours, a much needed activity for many parts of the country. If we could just establish more biological corridors and do a bit more reforestation, maybe we could change the Bare-necked Umbrellabird’s ICUN endangered status (and yes, it is most certainly endangered due to deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica).

      This Grayish Saltator was at the Nature Pavilion.
    Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

    Finding Oil while Birding in Costa Rica

    Birding is often unpredictable especially when looking for all things avian in complex tropical habitats. That seems to be the rule whenever I go birding in the rich foothill rainforests of Braulio Carillo National Park. For example, if someone were to ask me about the chances of seeing Black-headed Nightingale Thrush at Quebrada Gonzalez, I would say that yes, although they are fairly shy, expect to hear them and careful searching should turn up sightings of a bird or two. That answer is based on years of experience at the site but during a mid-morning visit last week, guess which bird failed to make a peep? I still got in some nice birding with a couple of healthy mixed flocks and close looks at Dull-mantled Antbird but the unpredictable nature of birding in the tropics was the rule of the day.

    Possibly the worst, scariest, identifiable image of a Dull-mantled Antbird.
    I saw a couple Streak-crowned Antvireos too.

    While that “birding law” makes every visit to rainforest an exciting one, having a bird just show up when and where you hope it will is a very welcome occurrence. It’s even better when the bird sticks around after driving through pouring tropical rain for a couple of hours, but the icing on the brownie is when the bird also happens to be a rare lifer. The lifer in this case was the Oilbird and seeing one in Costa Rica was one of the more satisfying personal birding coupes de grace I have experienced.

    Here are a few reasons why seeing an Oilbird on Saturday night was such a satisfying accomplishment:

    • The Oilbird is a one of a kind avian weirdo: Nope, I can’t mince words when it comes to the Oilbird. This nightjarish thing is the only member of its avian family and with good reason. Like some feathered troll, it lives in caves or very dark ravines, makes weird clicking and grunting noises, and only comes out at night. Fortunately, although it sounds like a vampire, this wonderful wacky creature only feasts on fruit. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like some sort of big, feathered fruit bat.
    • The Oilbird is indeed oily: Side effects from gorging themselves on fatty fruits (think mini avocados) are an equally fatty physiology. It’s more pronounced in the youngsters and because of this, Oilbirds were formerly harvested and rendered into fat.
    • Lifer!: Although I have heard Oilbirds once or twice during the night near Jatun Sacha, Ecuador, I had yet to actually see one. I figured that might eventually happen at a cave in maybe Ecuador or Trinidad but no point in betting on unlikely travel when you can see them right here in Costa Rica! Are they vagrants? Do they migrate to Costa Rica on a regular basis? Although I suspect that the latter is the case, no one really knows what’s going on with Oilbirds in Costa Rica except that they have showed up around Monteverde in August for the past few years. This year, several birds have been seen just about every night, so, when a small window of opportunity presented itself, I took the chance and the chase was a success!
    • Not quite a chase but an adventure none the less with a long drive to get there: Actually, to be honest, this was about as far from a chase for a bird as one could get (and I was very fine with that). On Saturday, after realizing that driving up to and spending the night around Monteverde was a possibility, I called Robert Dean to see if the birds were still around. He then made a call to someone in the know and got back to me with the answer I was looking for. An hour later, I was out the door and driving down to the coast. Near Puntarenas, pouring rain slowed me down but I was still on time (had to make it to Robert’s by 6 PM). After watching a few drivers take unnecessary risks at passing slow vehicles in places where they couldn’t really see who might be coming in the other direction (including speeding buses and massive Mack trucks), I was very pleased to leave the madness of the Pan American highway and start driving uphill. Although that pleasant drive lost its happiness when the pavement was replaced by pot holes and stones, luckily, I still had plenty of time to make it to Robert’s because my speed was reduced to an average of 15 or 20 kilometers an hour (which also of course makes that portion of the trip seem to last an eon or two).
      The road to destiny..er Monteverde in the rain

      I shouldn’t complain, though, because the road up to Monteverde used to be much worse. Made it up to Robert’s by 5:30, he showed me some of the paintings for the second version of the Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (which look fantastic by the way), and we left for the Oilbird show by 6:15.

    • Didn’t have to look for the bird: Some birders will say that they like to find their own birds or whatever. Well, that pride of finding their own birds will probably get tossed into an ethereal trash basket when asked if they would (1) like to spend hours, days, or years to look for a needle in a tropical forest haytstack, or if (2) they wouldn’t mind being shown the bird by someone else after a ten minute walk. Yeah, if you don’t mind, I’ll take option number two please at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.
      The reception at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.

      Thanks to Robert being an insider around there, the reception got in touch with one of the main guides, he came and met us a few minutes later, and then we walked off with him into the dark on an easy, well maintained trail. A short ten minutes later, we come to a group looking at something up in the trees. Robert say, “There it is!” and yes, there it was!

      The first Oilbird was kind of high up and seen from below.

      The third gave a better view. Note the big, hooked bill!

    Just like that, I got my lifer Oilbird. Too easy you say? Ha! Getting a lifer is NEVER too easy in the unpredictable tropics. It’s never too easy when the bird in question is a rare, even more unpredictable, nocturnal oddity. Give me easy lifers any day of the week because I don’t have too many more to get in Costa Rica. After watching the first bird for a while, we walked on and got great looks at two more Oilbirds. All of them were quiet, perched birds that slowly moved back and forth with these odd hypnotic movements (hmmm, maybe they are vampires after all..). We also got to see one of them cough up a seed, saw roosting toucans, and two beautiful green Side-striped Pit Vipers (lifer snake, hell yeah!) all in about 40 minutes. I have to mention that Oilbirds aside, the night walk at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge might be the best I have ever seen and other experienced travelers have said the same. The guides are great, keep track of what is seen, and are in constant communication by walkie-talkie so if one group sees something, the others can as well. It also looks like an excellent place to go birding during the day- hope to do that some time!

    I probably should have birded the refuge the next morning but the afterglow of getting my lifer Oilbird left me with such a subdued, easy-going demeanor that I felt fine with merely watching the darn House Wrens singing in the backyard. Well, at least I remembered to take a few pictures of some other birds too.

    This Rufous-capped Warbler was friendly.
    Male Canivet's Emerald- very pleased to get this photo!
    Another look at this glittering gem.

    Oh, and no trip to the Monteverde area is complete without a stop at one of the best bakeries in the country, Stella’s Bakery! I already regret not having bought a dozen of those fantastic brownies.

    Stella's Bakery- center of baked yummy goodness in the Monteverde area. It's also good for birds- we heard some bellbirds calling near there.