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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

January, 2014 Costa Rica Birding Round Up

The first month of 2014 has come to an end so I decided to do a “round up” of blog posts and other birding news in Costa Rica.It’s not complete by any means but with hope, it will be entertaining, and give a heads up on what to expect while birding during the next few weeks. So, since the winter has been going crazy up north we might as well start with weather:

Weather in Costa Rica: Almost the same as always. This means that it’s warm and tropical but we could still use more rain. It looks like this dry season is set to be especially dry and that doesn’t bode too well for birds, plants, and other life forms adapted to a much wetter climate. Many seasonal wetlands have already dried out in the Pacific lowlands so it could be hard to find some waterbirds. At the same time, this also means that if you do find a lagoon or two, it could be filled with storks, spoonbills, ibis, and other aquatic species. This may also explain why I saw a Glossy Ibis fly past the Tarcoles bridge on January 14th, as well as sightings of Green Ibis in Cartago and maybe even near La Gamba.

A hot and dry La Gamba road. At least there's a couple of curassows in this scene.

Migrants: It appears to be a good year for migrants from the north. On just a few trips to the Poas area this winter, I have already had sightings of two different Townsend’s Warblers, Daniel Martinez reported on seeing a Cape May Warbler in Cartago in the forums of the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica site, and others have seen Cedar Waxwings! Not to mention, Robert Dean just told me today that he has seen a Golden-cheeked warbler in his neck of the woods (the Monteverde area) and may have glimpsed a female Black-throated Blue! Sure, I understand that these birds might be non-issues for North American birders but they are exciting for birders from other parts of the globe, Costa Rica included. I, for one, could go for adding the waxwing and those warblers to my Costa Rican list.

There are always plenty of Tennessee Warblers to see but I wouldn't mind a Golden-cheeked.

The Black and white Owl at Cerro Lodge: It doesn’t seem as reliable in the past so have a back up plan and check the Orotina plaza. If that doesn’t work, try watching for them at any “street lamps” next to humid forest in the lowlands and foothills of both slopes. This owl species is more common than most people think but might not come out and play until after 8 at night.

Lands in Love is also a good place for the owl.

Birding blogs:

David Segura has been posting some fun birding quizzes. This young Tico birder hasn’t written much else because he has been out birding.

Seagull Steve over at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds has some typically entertaining posts about lots of cool birding stuff and some of his fav. sightings from Costa Rica.

Manuel Antonio guide Roy Orozco wrote an informative post about birding at El Copal– great place although I was sorry to hear that they missed the cotinga (I have missed it on my two trips there as well).

January posts from my blog:

I have been doing more birding than writing so have had let time to translate thoughts into the written form but I did manage four posts for the month

I started off with a post of my 2014 hopes and birding expectations,

posted about some recent perspectives of birding at Carara National Park,

talked about why I like to patronize the Cinchona hummingbird cafe, and

finally posted about an exciting weekend of birding in the La Gamba area.

Costa Rica Birding app

It has more than 570 species and I hope we can have 600 in the next update.

Our trusty developer has also optimized it for iOS7 devices, the iPad, and it’s now also available for Android devices in the Amazon store!

Learn more about this birding app here.

Hope to see you in the field while birding in Costa Rica!

biodiversity Introduction Pacific slope preparing for your trip south pacific slope

La Gamba- My New Favorite Birding Site in Costa Rica

It’s no secret that Costa Rica has a healthy abundance of great birding just about everywhere one goes but but some places stand out for the avian attractions they offer. One such place is the general vicinity of La Gamba, a small village in southwestern Costa Rica. I have had some nice birding there on previous trips but after the most recent journey to La Gamba, I left the area convinced that it’s one of the best birding sites in the country. I don’t really think that there’s one best of the best when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but I would say with conviction that La Gamba ranks up there in the top five sites for Costa Rica. Here are the reasons why:

  • Serious biodiversity: Yeah, lots of places in Costa Rica are packed with a fine array of creatures but La Gamba still stands out. The rainforests in the area support a huge number of tree species and that high biodiversity is also shown by the birds. For example, after doing an eBird tally of species from one long day in the area that didn’t even include any degree of forest interior birding, my eyes briefly bugged out when I noticed a species total of 152! Yes, the biodiversity is serious and that means that you keep seeing new birds the longer you stay.

    I had this bathing Giant Cowbird just after leaving the Tropenstation.
  • Good array of habitats: More habitats means more birds and in the La Gamba area we have some fine old rainforest in Piedras Blancas National Park, birdy gardens at Esquinas and the Tropenstation, open fields and seasonal wetlands with their respective bunch of birds, flowering trees and bushes that bring in the hummingbirds, and one heck of a birdy riparian zone.
    The birdy habitat entrance at the Tropenstation.
    Birdy roadside habitat.
    The bridge at the junction to Esquinas and the Tropenstation is especially good. This is where we had the coquette, Red-rumped Woodpecker, and many other nice birds.

    We also had Streaked Saltator there.
  • Endemics: Since La Gamba is located in the southwestern Pacific endemic bird area, it provides a home for species like Charming Hummingbird, Spot-crowned Euphonia, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and the others. All seem to be more common there than at many other sites too. Not to mention, it’s also a good place for Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, one of Costa Rica’s only true endemics. I heard several singing their dawn song on this recent trip and am sure we would have seen them if we had done more forest birding.
    A Charming Hummingbird sings (they sing all day long).
    Male Spot-crowned Euphonia.

    Male Golden-naped Woodpecker.
  • Uncommon, local birds: The habitats at La Gamba are particularly good for a variety of uncommon species. So many “good” birds can be seen there that this could be the deciding factor for it being one of my major faves. For example, here’s a short list of uncommon species that are regular around La Gamba-

Great Curassow: They walk around the gardens of the two main lodges like happy turkeys. Wild, tame, and super easy to watch and that’s how we like them!

A typically close look at a female Great Curassow.

Uniform Crake: Seen regularly on the lagoon trail.

Blue-headed Parrot: We had several good looks at these.

Blue-headed Parrot.

Band-tailed Barbthroat: This uncommon hummingbird was fairly common in the gardens of the Tropenstation and along the road.

Veraguan Mango: Look for this fine target when the Erythrinas are in bloom. I had at least two of this lifer on the recent trip!

Red-rumped Woodpecker: Uncommon but regular and we had it right at the main bridge over the stream!

Olivaceous Piculet: Had nice looks at this one.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher: We had at least 4 of these sveldt birdies.

A classic Fork-tailed Flycatcher.
A short tailed Fork-tailed Fly.

Slate-colored Seedeater: Regular in lodge gardens and along streams.

Red-breasted Blackbird: Not uncommon in rice fields in several parts of Costa Rica but always a favorite.

There are lots of other good birds to see as well!

  • Hummingbirds: When the plants are in bloom, this area can be really good for hummingbirds. Heliconias in the gardens attract 4 species of hermits, Charmning Hummingbird is common, and a nice variety of species come to the flowering Erythinas. We had at least 13 species during our stay, including 2 to 3 White-crested Coquettes!

    White-crested Coquette!
  • Vagrants: This is a good areas for vagrant species from Panama. Although we didn’t see them, other trips in the past have turned up things like Wattled Jacana and other species could also show up (like maybe that first Yellowish Pipit for the country). On our trip, a couple of the participants had a Mangrove Cuckoo and are pretty sure they saw a vagrant Green Ibis!
  • Access: To be honest, the best birding is usually up there in forests that we can’t get to so it’s a major bonus when you can drive to a site with a small car. La Gamba is very easy to get to- just take the turn to Esquinas Lodge and Golfito from the highway and drive on in to the Troppenstation or Esquinas.

    The sign for the Tropenstation.
  • Lodging: Speaking of those two places, Esquinas Lodge is pricey but has great service, excellent food, and nice lodging. The Tropenstation research station is cheaper ($66 per person, includes 3 meals) and rooms have two bunk beds each but it’s clean, comfortable, and has good food. I would also go back for the feeder action! Esquinas is closer to better forest but trails into the rainforests of the national park can also be easily accessed from the Tropenstation.
    A typical feeder scene at the Tropenstation.
    The Troppenstation feeder is just outside the dining area.
    It also had Golden-hooded Tanagers,
    Golden-naped Woodpecker,
    Green Honeycreepers,
    including the technicolor male Green Honeycreeper,
    Red-crowned Woodpecker,
    Red-legged Honeycreeper,

    and Scarlet-rumped Cacique.
  • Proximity to other good birding sites: Didn’t see Yellow-billed or Turquoise Cotingas at La Gamba? No problem, there’s a good chance for both at Rincon de Osa or even along the road to Golfito. You could also drive an hour or so to the rice fields near Ciudad Neily to try for Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, crakes, and other good birds. Or, if you feel like going further afield, the middle elevation habitats around San Vito are also within striking distance.

So, to sum things up, La Gamba is easy to get to, it’s extremely birdy, easy to bird, and offers a chance at tons of good species! I can’t wait to get back to that area.

bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills Hummingbirds Introduction

Why I Like to Patronize the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe

I like birding in Costa Rica just about every place I visit but I prefer to patronize some places over others. I like it when a place of business protects habitat, makes attempts to work in a manner that is sustainable with their surroundings, and of course offers the opportunity to see a variety of birds. It’s even better when you can get close looks and photos of uncommon species without having to pay a high admission fee. To me, such places are birder friendly because they make it easy for everyone to experience birds and not just the people who pay to take a tour or an entrance fee. One such place is the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.

The Cafe Colibri is a fantastic, reliable place for getting good shots of Silver-throated Tanager.
A Green Hermit visiting one of the feeders.
This male Green Thorntail perched just off the balcony.

This gem of a site has been a classic hotspot for years and continues to act as a place where visiting birders can have a coffee and sample delicious country Tico fare while being entertained by the antics of Coppery-headed Emeralds, Violet Sabrewings, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and other choice species.

Emerald Toucanet striking a photogenic pose.
Common Bush Tanager and Prong-billed Barbets are regular visitors.
A Buff-throated Saltator at the feeder.Another look at the saltator.

What makes this place even more special is that the original cafe was destroyed in the 2009 Cinchona earthquake.

They have photos posted from Cinchona before and after the quake.

The family rebuilt on the same spot as the two story structure that used to play host to Crimson-collared Tanagers and Red-headed Barbets. Although the habitat isn’t as good as it used to be, the forest that was knocked down by the quake is growing back, is bringing in more birds, and should continue to improve with time. One of the owners told me that he has been seeing Red-headed Barbet more often and on recent visits, the feeders were buzzing with activity.

One of the feeders as seen from the balcony at the cafe.
One of the owners stocking the feeders. This guy loves to watch the birds that come in.
The main hummingbird feeders.

The cafe doesn’t charge for watching birds but do accept contributions. If you visit, please leave a hefty donation for the feeders and this bird loving family. It makes for a perfect lunch stop when driving the newly paved Varablanca- San Miguel road and plenty of other non-feeder birds can also show up. On recent visits, in addition to fine looking feeder birds, I also had Sooty-faced Finch, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, Keel-billed Toucan, White-crowned Parrot and other species.

A White-crowned Parrot eating a guava in the rain.

Other spots just down the road can turn up some nice mixed flocks, raptors, and who knows what else. The next time I visit, I hope I can bring them some material to help promote birding at the cafe. If anyone in the family has a mobile device, I will also give them a copy of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

I saw this Bicolored Hawk down the road from Cinchona.
Poro trees have been in bloom near Cinchona and have been attracting lots of birds!

To visit the Cafe Colibri, watch for it on the east side of the main road between Varablanca and San Miguel (the road that goes by the La Paz Waterfall gardens). It is situated between the waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Pacific slope

Perspectives and Updates on Birding at and Around Carara National Park, January 2014

Carara is usually on the list of birders visiting Costa Rica so in thinking of a topic for this week’s blog post, I decided to write a bit about the area, especially because I did some guiding there over the past three weeks. Since all of my birding/guiding around Carara has taken place on the Laguna Meandrica trail (the river trail), around Tarcoles, and on the Guacimo Road, I will focus about those places.

The River Trail: So, it’s actually the Laguna Meandrica Trail but everyone calls it the “River Trail” in English. However, it’s good to know the real name for the trail because there’s a new and improved sign at the entrance. Look for the sign and entrance 2 or 3 kilometers north on the highway from the main Carara HQ. The entrance is tough to see because it’s a short, steep drive down to the parking area. Someone is usually there to watch the vehicles, make sure to pay him at least 2,000 colones because he doesn’t receive any salary (don’t leave the car unless someone is there to watch it!).

Although this trail is famous for its good birding, to be honest, it hasn’t been as outstanding as during the days of yore. It’s still good but as with some others parts of the country, there seem to be fewer overall birds. That subtle change seems to have coincided with drier weather. So, this means that it might just take longer to find the birds while birding the River Trail. However, species missed there can also be found on the HQ trails, so combining the two should work out. That said, we still had some good birds like King Vulture, an antswarm with Bicolored Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrush, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Gray-headed Tanagers. I heard a few Royal Flycatchers on two visits, Rufous-tailed Jacamars were showing well, and more than one fig was fruiting. Keep an eye on those figs for cotingas and who knows what else! Although we didn’t see any cotingas at the fruiting trees, on one day, we did glimpse two stunning male Yellow-billed Cotingas around 9 AM!

A King Vulture over Carara.

As far as the oxbow lake goes, the water is much lower and there were few birds present but Boat-billed Herons were still there, and who knows, maybe the more extensive marsh vegetation will result in some unexpected species.

Two Boat-billed Herons at the small oxbow lake.

Carara HQ: I haven’t been on the HQ loop trails yet this year but they should be good for Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, and the usual set of rainforest species. As for the HQ itself, there are new bathrooms (small but they function), and the booth for buying tickets is obvious. The park is open from 7 to 4 for the high season. Guides can also be hired there but not all of them are great for birds.

Blue-throated Goldentail is often seen in and around Carara.

The Bijagual Road: This is the dirt road that goes by Villa Lapas and accesses forested hills at the edge of the national park. Road work is still going on and results in some waits but it doesn’t seem to affect the birding that much. This road always holds promise for birding although it can be pretty quiet during the hot and sunny hours. The up side of birding the road then, though, is having a good chance at King Vulture and raptors like White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Rarer species can also show up and flowering trees might turn up White-crested Coquette (I had one there in late December).

Cerro Lodge: This birding hotspot has been pretty good although I haven’t seen as many parrots or parakeets doing morning flybys (although plenty of macaws). A male Yellow-billed Cotinga is still showing in the morning in distant mangroves (use a scope and look for a bright white dot), Black and white Owls show up but haven’t been as regular, and Crane Hawk is still showing up once in a while. Lots of vegetation is growing up, and there is plenty of Porterweed attracting hummingbirds. Also, the rooms now have air conditioning!

There are quite a few Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around Cerro now.
The view from the Cerro Lodge restaurant.

The road to and from Cerro Lodge is still good for birding and continues to be reliable for a wide variety of species including Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-naped Parrot.

Nutting's Flycatcher.
Expect to see handsome Hoffmann's Woodpeckers in dry forest sites.

The Guacimo Road: Although I haven’t spent much time there yet this year, the dry forest birding seems to be similar to past visits with lots of birds in the riparian zone (including Long-tailed Manakin, Olive Sparrow, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and others), and White-throated Magpie Jays, Double-striped Thick Knee, and others species on other parts of the road.

We had good looks at this Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

I haven’t been on the mangrove boat tour yet so can’t say much about that but people who have taken it recently have seen thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, and American Pygmy Kingfisher among other bird species.

That’s about it for recent birding around Carara, the only thing else I can say is bird around there for a few days and you will see a lot!

Hope to see you in Costa Rica in 2014! Get ready for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app available in the iTunes store and the Amazon app store for Android phones.

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“2014” Expectations and Hopes for Birding in Costa Rica

We are now officially in what a fair portion of humans on the planet refer to as “2014”. Yep, 14 years after the milenium and if you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet for birding, what are you waiting for? The birding is great, the weather is great, and there’s a quetzal with your name on it!

Does this quetzal have your name on it?

So, whether you are on your way to Costa Rica or are itching to plan a trip, here are ten things to expect in 2014:

1. A smooth ride between Varablanca and Cinchona: Finally, the road is paved! Ever since 2009, this fine birding route was wacked up pretty bad by the Cinchona earthquake. It has been slowly paved ever since and the last stretch was finally completed a month ago. I’m looking forward to checking it out because I have had a lot of fine birding on this road and am sure that it holds a few hidden surprises here and there. It’s also kind of close to home and is on our Big Day route so that helps too.

The view from the Cinchona- Varablanca area.

2. Great bird photography at the Nature Pavilion along with a big sit done at that site: This rather new birding site in Sarapiqui continues to be one of the best places for bird photography in the country and keeps getting better as the owners plant more trees on their property. I plan on doing a big sit on their deck to see how many species show up. Not sure when I will do it but I can’t wait!

This Collared Aracari was at the Nature Pavilion.

3. An Ochraceous Pewee: It’s about time for me to actually see this uncommon, high-elevation endemic. I have heard them a couple of times but have yet to see one! I keep putting it off because a day trip up to Cerro de la Muerte is kind of a long one for me. The bird is way overdue though so I need to start planning a trip now.

4. A major Big Day: For those whom I have guided, it’s no surprise that I plan on breaking the Big Day world record. A lot of factors need to fall into place but it can be done in Costa Rica and I hope this year is the one. Like Eric B and Rakim, I’m thinking of a master plan and with better preparations and scouting, it just might happen.

A scene from last year's Big Day.

5. Lots of hummingbirds: You have to bird with your eyes closed to not see lots of hummingbirds when birding Costa Rica. Those little glittering sprites are pretty easy to see in many parts of the country, and especially so at a variety of sites with feeders and flowering bushes that are planted to attract them.

The local variety of the Magnificent Hummingbird is pretty common at high elevations.

6. Want antbirds? Go to the right sites!: If you want to see more antbirds, bird more often in quality forest. The Pacific slope species are regular in places like Carara National Park and the Osa Peninsula, but the best sites for Caribbean slope species seem to be the Arenal- Monteverde forest complex (especially at sites around Arenal, at and near Pocosol Research Station, and Lands in Love), and the northern forests (Laguna del Lagarto and nearby).

7. More raptors: Who doesn’t want to see more raptors? I hear about the apparent scarcity of raptors from birders than any other bird related commentary and they are right, raptors are rather scarce in Costa Rica. It has to do with them being at the top of the food chain, competing with other raptor species, many needing large areas of quality forest, and way too much edge habitat. This is why one sees more Gray and Roadside Hawks, and caracaras than other species. However, look long enough and in the right places and things like hawk-eagles, Gray-headed Kite, and other rainforest raptors eventually show.

8. Lots of antswarms!: Ok, so this is every neotropical birder’s wish but that’s what I’m hoping for. Best chances are places with high quality forest (hmm, seems to be a theme there…). For those who are unaware, the beauty of a bunch of hungry Eciton burchellii ants is that they attract all sorts of birds. In addition to those cool little antbirds, you can also get woodcreepers, tinamous, forest-falcons, foliage-gleaners, antpittas, ground cuckoos, and who knows what else coming in to the swarm.

9. Using the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app: The newest version has more than 575 species and is now available for Android in addition to being available in the iTunes store. We should be able to push the number of species above 600 in 2014.

Costa Rican Brush-Finch-one of the species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. This image was taken by Linda Scott.

10. A book on birding in Costa Rica: I’m working on it…

Hope to see you in Costa Rica!