It’s November in Costa Rica and that’s typically a slow time for visiting birders but those of us who live here see it as a month to look for rare ducks and other vagrants, and for making Christmas count plans.
Well, I honestly don’t know if other birders in Costa Rica do that but it’s kind of how I spend the month. That and thinking about the Spotted Rail because this might be the best time to see one of those super cool birds in Costa Rica. It’s still super tough but seems to be encountered more often in November than other times of the year. Maybe more habitat in flooded rice fields? Perhaps because you are already out there in the wetlands looking for ducks and shorebirds? Whatever the reason, this is a good time to look; just the other day, one was reported from the Concavas pond and wetlands near Cartago. If I can find out how to to access the spot, I will let you know!
Ok, so as far as the rest of November goes, no super rare ducks yet but that may change as birders check reservoirs and other wetlands this weekend. I won’t be going anywhere this weekend but hopefully I will make it to some body of water mid-week.
So, now for a few primers and random info to get ready for the high season:
The El Tapir site may be under new management starting Decemeber 1st. I hae only heard rumors but either the main El Tapir site or one in that area will be run by a tour company. As long as it’s still easily accessible, this could be a very good thing. I will report on changes as I hear of them.
Not much rain this November but hard to say how that may affect bird populations.
Although the country first Lined Seedeater has yet to make an encore performance, the Playa del Rey wetlands are still excellent for birding and could turn up all sorts of rarities. Two guides from the Quepos area, Roy Orozco and Johan Chaves, visit on a regular basis. I hope they find more good stuff!
On November 17th, Slate-colored Seedeaters were singing and present where rice fields meet rainforest on the road between Palmar Sur and Rio Claro.
Roadwork is still happening on the Varablanca-Cinchona-San Miguel road. This closes it down for several hours a day (and keeps me from chasing a very rare Cape May warbler at Cinchona!) but if they can finish the work soon, we just might have a nice smooth road from Varablanca on down to the Peace Waterfall and beyond.
I have heard rumors that Manuel Antonio and Tortuguero are charging $10 per ENTRANCE and not for a day pass into those national parks. I really hope that’s not the case because it would really be a big middle finger in the face of every tourist visiting those areas. If you do encounter such pricing, please complain because it’s simply wrong and will show that they probably care more about your money than providing any degree of service.
Cerro Lodge is getting greener: Planted trees and vegetation are steadily growing in and should translate to more birds.
That’s about it for primers I can think of at the moment so lets move on to Christmas Counts. As usual, there’s a bunch happening in Costa Rica and most take place in December. As much as I would love to participate,it’s always tough for me to schedule them in but I might get the chance to do 2 or 3 of the following counts.
Sierpe is one of those out of the ways places that few birders visit when doing Costa Rica. It’s off the beaten track, isn’t exactly surrounded by large areas of protected forest, and is easily bypassed for such better known southwestern Costa Rican sites as the Osa Peninsula, Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, and Wilson Botanical Gardens near San Vito. However, if you have time to see Common Potoo, maybe get a roosting owl or two, watch Scarlet Macaws forage right in town, and see a few pelagics including more or less guaranteed Red-footed Booby, then make some time for Sierpe!
I just did four days of birding and guiding around Sierpe and we had all of the above and quite a bit more. Although the village itself isn’t exactly a bastion of high quality habitat, you can see a fair number of quality species in and near town, and it’s an excellent base for taking boat trips through a huge maze of mangroves, to Cano Island for a few pelagics, and to Corcovado National Park. On our recent trip, we did two of the boat tours mentioned above with pretty fine results.
On the afternoon of our arrival to Sierpe, we started with a three hour boat tour through some mangroves and along a channel that passed through oil palm plantations flanked by bamboo. While the oil palms aren’t exactly appealing for birds, we headed up that way because our guide wanted to show us roosting Common Potoo, an owl or two, and American Pygmy Kingfisher. Although the barn Owl under the bridge was a no show, the Crested Owl was on its roost, and we got the other two including our first potoo of the trip. The guides also mentioned that they sometimes see Agami Heron in that area. No luck for us with the sneakiest of Costa Rican herons but it was certainly a worthwhile trip. We also had several parakeets and parrots flying around, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-mandibled Toucan, White-vented Euphonia, and several other bird species.
That night, a bit of nocturnal birding failed to turn up more owls but we did have Southern Lapwings on the football pitch (aka soccer field), and we found an either Rufous Nightjar or a Chuck wills Widow. The hefty nightjar was perched on a fence post near the tech school and let us watch it for a bit but failed to call. Nor could we see its rictal bristles or undertail pattern to get a solid identification but there was always another night to get a better view.
Our second day in town was our biggest and most memorable. From 8:30 in the morning to around 5 in the evening, we boated through a huge area of mangroves before making our way to Cano Island. This was followed by the boat swinging by islets with a bunch of birds, lunch at a secluded tropical beach at Isla Violenes and another ride back through the mangroves. On the way out, we didn’t see too many birds and surprisingly to me, dipped on Yellow-billed Cotinga (as that area is the stronghold for this endangered species), but managed a small group of Semipalmated Plovers among common heron species and a few others.
After hearing some pretty frightening stories about weaving through the waves at the river mouth, we were rightly concerned. Luckily, the trip out past the mouth wasn’t too bad but we had a choppy ride the rest of the way to the island (maybe 45 minutes?). I successfully countered the effects of those waves on my land lubber physiology with a rock solid stare at the horizon and a constant supply of crackers accompanied by sips of water. Sadly, we only saw two birds on the way to the island- a Brown Booby and a Magnificent Frigatebird along with very close looks at Spotted Dolphins. As usual, the wave action and lack of birds made me question why I was once again on an ocean going boat but those uneasy concerns were assuaged a bit once we reached the island and its beautiful tourmaline waters.
The island looked lush and my original hope was to hang out on the beach and scope the ocean but that plan was derailed by a recent decision to forbid any landings by tourists until a proper sanitation system is put into place. Although that was annoying, they are right to do so because we of course don’t want to ruin the island. The unfortunate part of this situation is that if it’s anything like most situations in Costa Rica, the solution will require so much needless bureaucracy that it may take years to put in even a port a potty.
Well, as it turned out, we saw almost no birds near the island in any case so it was better to leave it, and especially because the ride back was a complete contrast to the trip to the island. Instead of cloudy weather and choppy water, the sun was shining and we rode the swells like swimming on cloud nine. Oh, and we saw some birds too! Pelagic ones! Even a glimpse of a storm petrel from a bouncing boat is worth ten birds on land because you just can’t see them from land! A fine Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel was our first true seabird of the trip and as it bounded away, we got close looks at a duo of Red-necked Phalaropes! Shortly after that, we were treated to a few nighthawkish Black Storm Petrels and then we got our best pelagic of the trip- an immature Red-billed Tropicbird! The tropicbird was right in our path and as it raised up off of the water, it shook its entire body a couple of times before flying off and out of sight. Since all of these birds were seen in a time frame of around 35 minutes and were only seen because they were in the path of our boat, I bet you could see a bunch of nice birds by doing a proper pelagic in that area.
Once we got near shore, the Islitas Violines beckoned. Also known as the “booby rocks”, we indeed saw several Sulids along with some other niceties. Brown Boobies and Red-footed Boobies were equal in abundance and both were nesting! The Red-footed was a much awaited lifer for myself and was also new for several people on the trip. While taking in the form of dark morph Red-footed Boobies, we also picked up two Wandering Tattlers along with Brown Pelicans and frigatebirds. Good stuff!
After that nice bunch of birds, we boated in to the beach at Isla Violines for a good picnic lunch. We also looked a bit for birds there but as it was the quiet time of the day, didn’t see much. It did look like a good area to see cotingas and lots of other birds though because the island is covered in forest. Before you go wandering around, though, keep in mind that the island also has a sort of abundant population of Fer-de Lance! That kept us from walking around much.
The ride back in to the river was easy going and the birding on the way back turned up Scaled Pigeon, flyby parrots, lots of Pale-vented Pigeons going to roost, a Peregrine, and another Common Potoo among some other bird species.
On the next day, half the group drove an hour or so to the la Gamba road in search of seedeaters aand other species of weedy fields and forest edge. Although we didn’t visit Esquinas Lodge, that birding hotspot is also a possibility. They charge some sort of entrance fee to use trails that access great forest that has Black-cheeked Ant Tanager and the general area around the lodge is also very good for many rainforest species. We also birded rice fields near Ciudad Neily a bit but there wasn’t too much around. It probably would have been better later in the afternoon.
That night, we tried for the nightjar again after looking for owls. No show on the owls but lots of pauraques, we heard a Barn Owl, had Southern Lapwings, and at 8:30, the nightjar made its appearance on the same fence post. Fortunately, I got a good look at the undertail as it flew. Buff on almost the entire length of the undertail feathers showed its identity to be a Chuck wills Widow and not a hoped for Rufous Nightjar but a Chuck is still a great bird to get in Costa Rica!
Our final morning was nothing more than a walk just outside of town but it still turned up several species, the best of which were Striped Cuckoo, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and Mourning Warbler among Red-crowned Woodpecker, Red-lored Parrots, Orange-chinned Parakeets, and lots of common flycatchers, seedeaters, etc.
Upon doing the bird list, we found that we had identified around 150 species and that was without doing any serious rainforest birding! Add a morning trip to Esquinas and one might even get 200 species during 4 or 5 days in the area. Along with the birds, I also have to mention that the best part of the trip was staying at the Hotel Oleaje Sereno.
Forget about those old bad reviews on Trip Advisor because they pertain to another owner and different management. The new owner and management is nothing short of exemplary. Having visited many hotels in Costa Rica, they gave us some of the best service I have experienced anywhere. They were prompt, friendly, always available, and always went out of their way to help us. They also set up our tours and did an excellent job. Incredibly, the prices we paid for our stay at the Oleaje Sereno Hotel (basic but air conditioned and clean rooms), and Perla del Sur Tours were very low and might be the best value I have ever paid for accommodation and tours in Costa Rica. If you go to Sierpe and are on a budget, this place and their tours are a fantastic bargain. They also had nice birding from their dock (scope the trees on the other side of the river) and Scarlet Macaws foraging in short Beach Almonds next to the hotel.
On my next visit to the area, I would stay at the same hotel and do the same boat trips but I would do more owling on the road between Sierpe and the highway, and do a day trip to Esquinas. With enough time, I would also check sites closer to the border to see if I could add Yellowish Pipit to the Costa Rican list!
As it turned out, hitting sites from the Central Valley and the Poas area was a much better idea than birding on Irazu. Sure, we sacrificed sightings of the junco and wren and missed a few other species that we would have probably gotten at Irazu but also saw probably 50 more species than we would have ticked at the larger volcano. The day began once again at the Bougainvillea and after a quick breakfast stop at the 24 hour McDonald’s in Heredia, we drove on through the empty streets to an area near San Joaquin that has coffee bushes, brushy fields, and a good number of birds.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by flyby flocks of Red-billed Pigeons (in the Central Valley, more common than the good old feral Rock Pigeon), flocks of White-winged Doves, a flock or two of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and a nice bunch of other birds. The best was actual looks at two toughies- Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite, and after a fair bit of waiting and watching, a Prevost’s Ground Sparrow! As with any quail like bird, the bobwhite is typically tough to see while the ground sparrow is just all too uncommon and skulky. Those were our “best” birds but we also saw Rufous-capped Warbler, Grayish Saltator, White-tailed Kite, Boat-billed Flycatcher, and two surprise Orange-fronted Parakeets among other more common species.
The dawn drive through small town streets was pretty birdy and we eventually got hoped for looks at Blue-crowned Motmot perched on a roadside wire, a Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, and a surprise Black-headed Saltator (seems this Caribbean slope species has become established in various parts of the Central Valley). Those fine sightings were followed by the drive up the curvy road to Varablanca with a few stops en route to try for various highland species including the likes of Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush, Yellowish Flycatcher, and other species of the upper Central Valley zone. During one stop, spishing produced a bonanza of migrant warblers including a year bird- Townsend’s Warbler! The hoped for toucanet failed to show but we still had plenty of time to connect with that little green toucan. Happily, we hit a jackpot of birds at our next stop, a riparian zone that featured a fine mixed flock of highland birds. In a matter of minutes, we got both redstarts, Ruddy Treerunner, Red-faced Spinetail, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Yellow-thighed Finch, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, Mountain Thrush, Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds, and others. It’s so nice when the birds show!
Further on, the other riparian zones were quiet but we were in for a bunch more birds for the day, the next ones being Yellow-winged Vireo, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Gray-breasted Wood Wren behind the parking lot of a small shop in Varablanca. It’s always worth it to keep an eye open for birds at the Varablanca crossroads because I have seen everything from Prong-billed Barbet to Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Emerald Toucanet, and even Yellow-bellied Siskin in that area.
Although I knew that road work was being done on the road that leads to the La Paz waterfall, I still hoped we could hit a few spots on the way down. That didn’t work out due to heavy vehicles parking in the spots where I usually stop so I decided that we should bird a bit along the turn off to San Rafael. This turned out to be a good choice because it yielded our two target regional flycatchers- Golden-bellied and Dark Pewee, finally glimpsed Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, saw Brown-capped Vireo, and saw at least two Emerald Toucanets! We heard but did not see Tufted Flycatcher and got a few other highland species.
After that stop, we drove back uphill and went to the Volcan Restaurant to check the quality riparian habitat and hummingbird feeders before lunch. As usual, the guy who watches the cars there told me about seeing quetzal that morning. Since he is there most of every day, he sees one or two as they move through the riparian corridor and sometimes sees Black Guan as well. It was way more quiet than normal while we were there but the feeders complied with Violet Sabrewing, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, and five other species of hummingbirds.
Lunch was delicious as always and eating early gave us more time to look for birds in the higher elevations (and hopefully see them before the afternoon rains). Although it turned out to be the busiest day for traffic I have ever seen on Poas, we still saw most of our targets. The big ones like the guan and quetzal evaded us but I’m not sure if there were that many around because I didn’t see any of the fruits that they usually feed on. However, we did get fine looks at Black-cheeked Warbler, more Collared Redstarts, Yellow-thighed Finches, and Slaty Flowerpiercers, Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, Flame-colored Tanager, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Flame-throated Warbler. We also picked up a new hummingbird for the day in the form of several Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, glimpsed a Wrenthrush, saw our third nightingale thrush for the day (Black-billed), and finally got our Large-footed Finch.
By the time we saw the finch, it started to rain too much to keep watching birds so we began to drive downhill with the hope that we could evade the falling water. As luck would have it, as we drove away from Poas and towards Barva, the rains came to a brief stop and we picked up a few more choice bird species. Scanning the canopy of distant trees from an overlook turned up scoped views of Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher but our best and most unexpected species was a Bicolored Hawk! Although it stayed long enough to scope it, it didn’t stick around long enough to digiscope it, otherwise I would show you its contrasting dark cap and Cooper’s Hawkish shape.
After the hawk, the rains picked up again so we didn’t get in any more birding for the day but by that point, it was 4:30 and we had seen 88 species (4 heard onlys) for a long, satisfying day of birding the Central Valley and Poas area
This past weekend I had the privilege of guiding a client to foothill sites on Saturday and the Poas area the next. I hope to give you an idea of what that’s like in the following report:
After a last minute check to make sure I am properly equipped with birding and guiding gear, I hit the road and happily drive through dark, empty streets. The lack of traffic is relaxing and an absolute contrast to most times of the day. I see a shape fly by somewhere between Heredia and Santo Domingo and figure that it was probably a Tropical Screech Owl. I get to the Hotel Bougainvillea just before 5, meet up with my client and off we go.
After slowly descending through the wonderful forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park, we pull in to El Tapir. As expected, a male Snowcap shows shortly thereafter. We see several of these dream-like bird along with such other hummingbird species as Violet-headed Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobin, and Crowned Woodnymph.
The nearby rainforest is pretty quiet but we still see a few Black-faced Grosbeaks, Emerald Tanager, flyby Mealy Parrots, scope a few Brown-hooded Parrots, see Cinnamon Becard, and a few other birds. It’s so quiet, though, that when the clock says “7”, I decide that we might as well check a few sites down the road. We drive 5 minutes to a small, birder-friendly diner (known as Chicharroneria Patona) and have a drink while scanning the forest canopy on both sides of the road. That turns up a juvenile Gray Hawk, Black-mandibled Toucan, Collared Aracari, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, and a few other birds including an unexpected flyby Peregrine Falcon. I also notice a flowering Inga and as hoped, a few hummingbirds are coming and going from this tree. Although coquette fails to show, we do see both male and female Green Thorntails. Since it’s quiet there too and knowing that this is my client’s only chance at Caribbean slope birds, I decide to drive down the hill and into the lowlands.
Although we can’t really access any good forest, we can and do scan rainforest canopy a few hundred yards away and bird the open areas. We pick up open country flycatchers like Gray-capped, Social, and Great Kiskadee, see a pair of flyby White-crowned parrots, hear but don’t see Orange-chinned Parakeets, and see some other edge species like Common Tody Flycatcher and Clay-colored Thrush. Just as we are beginning to drive off, serendipity strikes as I spot a trio of large birds flying towards us. A moment later, I realize my hunch was correct and we watch a pair of Great Green Macaws and their offspring fly overhead! They made nary a sound and seemed out of place as they flew over a busy bus station and roadside restaurants (or perhaps those, and not the macaws, were our of place).
We then head back up hill to the Patona Diner to check the flowering Inga once again along with the forest canopy. No such luck with Crimson-collared Tanager or other targets so we head on up to Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station now that it’s officially open. After paying the entrance fee, we see a student group head start walking the loop trail so we cross the highway and start walking the Ceiba trail instead. Overall, things are pretty quiet (not too much of a surprise since the most active time in the forest is from 6 to 8 in the morning) but we do see Dull-mantled Antbird, Broad-billed Motmot, and run into a bit of a mixed flock that mostly stays in the canopy. It has Black and Yellow Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and a few other good birds.
Checking the streams doesn’t turn up anything more than Buff-rumped Warbler but as we move on, we get good looks at Streak-crowned Antvireo and Checker-throated Antwren.
The overlook appears to be promising as always and we actually spot a couple non vulture raptors far off above a ridge but they just don’t come close enough for identification. One of them was either a Short-tailed Hawk or a rare Black and White Hawk Eagle but it never came close enough to say for sure!
Continuing on, we head down the trail all the way to a stream crossing on the lower part. The trail is kind of rocky on the way down but if you hit a mixed flock here, you might get excellent looks at some canopy birds. We didn’t but did see Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, brief looks at Tawny-crested Tanager and a few other species. On the way out, we got looks at one of the many Pale-vented Thrushes in the forest but not much else. We then checked the sky for King Vulture sans success and saw a hawk-eagle species in the process but as soon as I glimpsed the hawk eagle, it went into a long stoop and out of sight! I’m pretty sure it was an Ornate Hawk Eagle but only saw it at a distance for a half of a second (yeah, frustrating).
It was then off to lunch at the Patona. The only downside to that small diner is the near constant sound of blasting air breaks on trucks that rumble on by. The birding can be good though, and they like watching birds so I like to support them. Lunch was good and filling and we may have seen a few other species there at that time but I don’t recall too much from the Patona at mid day. However, as usual, one of the owners told me about the birds he had seen that day. He is a birder sans binos and I need to get him some optics because he sees everything from umbrellabird to White Hawk, Sunbittern, and who knows what else.
After lunch, we headed back to Quebrada Gonzalez to do the loop trail around 1:30 in the afternoon. Yep, that’s a quiet time but we still got great looks at Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, White-bellied Wood Wren, and a few other birds including Tawny-faced Gnatwren. Mostly, we were hoping for mixed flocks and a ground bird or two but we got rained out before we could do much else. Just before the rain, hopes were raised when I heard Bicolored Antbird but it was too far off the trail to see and we didn’t see any ants. The army ants were probably far into the forest (and who knows what else was with them!). Just luck of the draw when it comes to army ants.
Fortunately, the rain didn’t last too long and we were awarded with another male Snowcap at flowering bushes and Speckled Tanager while waiting for it to stop. We ventured back into the forest a bit after three and bird activity was picking up (and got close looks at Carmiol’s Tanager and White-throated Shrike Tanager) but the calling Striped Woodhaunters just wouldn’t come close enough to see them before we had to leave to be out of the forest before closing time at 4! Yep, closed during prime birding hours thanks to bureaucracy typically trumping common sense and good service.
After checking the stream near the highway once more and seeing nothing, I decided that it would be worthwhile to check the Patona diner again. This turned out to be a good choice because we were awarded with nice looks at Scarlet-rumped Cacique, oropendolas, Green Honeycreeper, Crimson-collared Tanager, and a few other birds. The drive back was uneventful, had little traffic, and we got back to the Bougainvillea around 5. Although we had originally planned on going to Irazu the following day, after talking about it, we figured that Poas would be more productive, so that’s where we went.