March has always been the most popular month for birding in Costa Rica. The third month was sort of elected as high time to watch birds in Costa Rica because this is when the dry season coincides with a higher degree of bird song as well as such highlights as raptor migration and lekking umbrellabirds. While the umbrellabird show requires a hike down to the San Gerardo Field Station (until another more accessible lek can be located), it’s pretty easy to watch thousands of raptors stream north when birding the Caribbean lowlands, and yes, more birds do seem to vocalize.
As for myself, I was kept quite busy with guiding this recent March birding season. Trips to classic sites like Carara, and foothill birding around Lands in Love and Quebrada Gonzalez helped push my year list over 500 (without doing any real birding in the Caribbean lowlands!). One of my best year birds and an addition to my country list was the Cedar Waxwing. This uncommon, irruptive species showed up in the Central Valley at the end of February, especially around fruiting figs near the Finca Rosa Blanca. It was kind of surreal to see a bird species that I completely associate with warm spring and lazy summer days in upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
Over at Cinchona, the feeders have been visited by the usual Prong-billed Barbets, Emerald Toucanets, Silver-throated Tanagers, and others. The lost Prothonotary Warbler was still nibbling on bananas during the first days of March. Other nice birds near Cinchona included the usual array of flycatchers, tanagers, occasional Red-headed Barbet, White Hawk, Barred Hawk, and so on.
Lower down on the Caribbean slope, mixed flocks have been good at Quebrada Gonzalez. The mixed flock activity at that site is always sort of hit or miss but usually yields White-throated Shrike Tanager, Russet Antshrike, Western Woodhaunter, and several other tanager species. Sharpbill can and does show up and even Gray-headed Piprites is possible. During visits there in March, I also had Black and Ornate Hawk Eagles, Barred Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and reliable Lattice-tailed Trogon. Streak-chested Antpitta has also been calling and showed well one day on the Ceiba trail.
Over at Lands in Love, antwarms have been alright and yielded views of the 3 obligate antbirds. No ground cuckoo but that mega is certainly a possibility if you hit an antswarm inside the forest (our’s was only at the edge of the woods). Raptor watching from the Loveats Cafe has yet to give me a Solitary Eagle or hawk-eagles but we did have very nice looks at King Vulture and Short-tailed Hawk on the last visit there.
In my own little backyard, in addition to the usual visits by Cinnamon and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, I have also been happy to see a female Canivet’s Emerald.
One memorable day, I was happy to meet up with Dani Lopez Velasco. Dani is a Spanish birding guide who leads tours for Birdquest. We had a fun morning looking for and seeing Prevost’s Ground Sparrow (Cabanis’s) at Ujarras while he entertained with tales of guiding adventurous trips to the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and an incredible trip to the southern, albatross filled oceans. He is guiding a tour in Costa Rica at this moment and has already helped clients see Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.
Others have been seeing bellbirds at Monteverde, umbrellabirds at San Gerardo, and a pair of White-fronted Nunbirds at La Selva. So nice to hear that they are being seen again at the research station as they used to be a common bird there. Others have been telling me about seeing quetzals in the usual high elevation sites, and Jim Zook recently submitted an eBird report with sightings of both White-tailed and Rufous Nightjars from the Durika Road. Sounds like now is the time to get those rare species on your Costa Rica list (I still need them)!
The other big news for birding in Costa Rica has to be a nesting Savannah Hawk– first recorded breeding for the country by Fundacion Rapaces de Costa Rica! While the location of the nest hasn’t been revealed, the species has been regular south and west of Ciudad Neily.
Good luck with spring birding no matter where you may be doing it. I hope to see some migrants over the next few days as they make their way north.
Over the past week, I have been pretty busy with guiding around Carara, Lands in Love, and Braulio Carrillo. Birding overall, has been kind of slow because of the unusually dry weather on the Caribbean slope (yeah, it may be the dry season but that lack of rain is supposed to be reserved for the Pacific side), but the place has still produced some nice birds.
Forest birding has been pretty slow but still turned up a Semiplumbeous Hawk. This lowland species was also been recently reported by other guests of Lands in Love.
Despite the sunny, happy raptor flying conditions, the only other “good” raptor species has been King Vulture seen soaring from the Loveat Cafe. That said, it’s always worth watching for hawk-eagles and who knows what else.
The trails have turned up a few mixed understory flocks with Streak-crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner but not too much else. If it would rain, I bet they will be really good and oh how the Caribbean slope needs rain! Since we are talking about forests that evolved with 4,000 meters per year and rain almost every day, dry conditions are not going to do anything good for the habitat.
Back to birds. Although I haven’t seen any Snowcaps at Lands in Love recently, flowering Erythrinas have been attracting Blue-throated Goldentail and should bring in some other nice hummingbirds. The best hummingbird, though, was a White-tipped Sicklebill heard and briefly seen on the beginning on the main trail. There are a lot of Heliconias in that area so keep an eye out for this mega hermit creature.
One day, antswarms were pretty good in the habitat right below the cabins. We saw a few Bicolored, at least three Ocellated, and a couple of Spotted. Other birds may have been with the ants as well but it was too difficult to look into the habitat to see them.
Speaking of that dense habitat, there were also one or two Sepia-capped Flycatchers, Northern Bentbill, Black-faced Anthrush, the usual Black-throated Wrens, White-collared Manakin, Red-throated Ant Tanager, and Black-headed Tody Flycatcher calling from the canopy.
Outside of the forest, we have had good looks at plenty of Black-mandibled and Keel-billed Toucans, occasional Crested Guans, oropendolas, and a good variety of edge species. One of the best were a pair of Great Curassows feeding on guava fruits at the edge of a horse pasture! It was fascinating to watch the male fly into a low guava tree to then knock the fruits to the ground. He then flew down to feed on them along with the female.
It’s the type of place where you always see something good. I can’t wait to go back so I can find Keel-billed Motmot, ground cuckoo, and other rarities.
If this is your first trip to Costa Rica, you may be wondering what some of those birds in the field guide really are. You don’t have any foliage-gleaners or xenops at home. There aren’t any weirdo antpittas hopping around your patch. Hawk-eagles sound super cool but what are they? A hawk? An eagle? A mega Goshawk? We want to know more about those and other unfamiliar birds (like the Sungrebe and Sunbittern) because that knowledge will hopefully increase our chances of seeing them. In fact, the stranger the name, the more we want to see the bird even if it looks like as average as a House Wren so to help you prepare for your trip to Costa Rica and connect with things like pygmy-tyrants, foliage-gleaners, and a Wrenthrush, here are some definitions:
Tinamous: Yes, they truly do look like feathered footballs (the American pigskin kind). This is sort of what they are except that they also have beautiful, whistled vocalizations. Shy, terrestrial footballs.
Currasows: Not to be confused with the Currawongs of Australia, these are basically neotropical turkeys with the caveat that they are much less common and usually tough to see becasue, like turkeys, people like to eat them. On a brighter note, Costa Rica is the easiest place to see the curly crested Great Curassow. It lives in many protected areas and fairly tame birds occur at several sites.
Hawk-eagles: If you were hoping that these would actually be mega-Goshawks, you can rejoice in knowing that yes, that is a fair description for these Accipiter-like, powerful raptors. Powerful? Oh yes, especially the Ornate. That cool looking bird has been seen killing and flying up to a branch with a curassow bigger than itself, and regularlly preys upon Squirrel Monkeys in the Amazon. I bet it also take the Central American Squirrel Monkey in the Osa Peninsula.
Sunbittern and Sungrebe: The only real similarity between these two much wanted species is the word “sun”. They are sometimes seen in similar places but the Sungrebe needs slow moving lowland rivers and wetlands while the Sunbittern can also live along rocky rivers and streams. Forget about the Sunbittern having anything to do with bitterns. It’s more like a small rail-heron thing that creeps along the edges of forested rivers. As for the Sungrebe, yes, it is rather like a grebe but one that had a Frankenstein love affair with an adventurous rail. Boat rides at Cano Negro, Tortuguero, and Sarapiqui are good ways to get the Sungrebe in Costa Rica.
Thick-knee: If you hail from anywhere other than the Americas, this is a neotropical Stone Curlew. For everyone else, it’s a large-headed shorebird thing that loves to hang out in dry fields.
Jacamars: Only two species in Costa Rica and one is super rare but the Rufous-tailed is fairly common. This beautiful creature is like a hummingbird crossed with a kingfisher (although it doesn’t dive into the water). A stunning, award winning bird.
Antbirds and antwrens: No, although it’s easy to quickly conclude that these birds must eat ants, they are just as into catching and feasting on larger arthropods as wrens, warblers, and the like. A small part of this big bird family do fallow ants and thus ruined the reputation of the rest. Antbirds and antwrens are basically dull plumaged insectivores that tend to be tough to see because they love to lurk in dense vegetation. They behaviors vary but won’t be like anything from home (unless you come from eastern Asia and have seen babblers).
Antpittas and Antthrushes: More ant-things! These strange birds are especially loved by neotropical birders because they are so different. They tend to be really tough to see because they are experts at staying hidden on or near the dim forest floor. Antpittas are basically feathered balls with two long hopping legs and antthrushes are songbirds pretending to be crakes that live in the rainforest.
Woodcreepers: Think giant treecreepers.
Foliage-gleaners, xenops, and leaftossers: These are some names for a weird bunch iof borwn and rufous birds that are part of a huge neotropical familymknown as Furnarids or Ovenbirds. Foliage-gleaners do more bromeliad searching than foliage gleaning, the xenops is like a chickadee or titmouse, and leaftossers do indeed toss leaves around (and are a pain to see well).
Tyrannulets and pygmy-tyrants: Basically, tiny flycatchers that are a pain to identify. All can be identified with a good look, just focus on the bill and take notes. The pygmy-tyrants and tody-flycatchers are as small as hummingbirds. Don’t be surprised if you see a bug that becomes one of these tiny things when you put the binos on it.
Sharpbill: So, it does sort of have a sharp bill but it got that name because it’s in a class of its own. Watch for it in mixed flocks at foothill rainforest sites on the Caribbean slope.
Gnatwrens: These are brown, neotropical gnatcatchers that happen to be just as hyperactive as their gray and white kin. Anyone who manages a good photo of a gnatwren should win a prize.
Silky-flycatchers: These are in the same family as the Phainopepla. If you don’t know that oddly named bird, the two species in Costa Rica act sort of like waxwings.
Euphonias: Small, neotropical siskin like birds that love mistletoe berries.
The Wrenthrush: Not a wren, not a thrush. A warbler for now although it looks more like a Tesia. What the heck is a Tesia? That’s an Asian bird that looks like a Wrenthrush of course! Ok, so they all look like small, hyper short-tailed things with fairly uniform plumage with color on the crown.
I hope these definitions will help you see more birds in Costa Rica. A lot of these can also be applied to birding in Panama, Peru, and other Neotropical places although in bird crazy South America, the names are even more provocative and strange (recurvebills, coronets, canasteros, and even a firewood gatherer to name a few).
A couple of weeks ago, Susan Blank, Robert Dean, and I ventured out into the Costa Rican wilds to identify as many birds as we could. Although the birding Big Day to end all Big days didn’t officially start until we put on our birding ninja head bands (I wish I had one but they were only figurative), the Big Day really began in January, 2014. That was when we began to think about and discuss our strategy. With the help of personal experience and eBird, we defined and refined the route. Times were taken between key sites to see if we could manage that extra two or five minutes. The road status site for Costa Rica was checked and rechecked. Targets were planned, energy bars were purchased, we had enough yuca chips to keep us going for days, and we were ready to break all records!
Here are some of the factors we took into account to increase our chances of hearing and seeing more species in less time (because that is the basic goal of a Big Day of course):
Dawn starting Point: Since dawn chorus is key to picking up dozens of forest species, the point for starting the day is of essential importance. Instead of starting out on the Caribbean slope as we had done on past Big Days, we opted for getting into the dawn chorus on the Pacific slope at the Bijagual Road. We opted for that birdy spot because this eliminated the chance of getting rained out in the morning on the Caribbean slope, and the Bijagual Road would give us a chance at hearing many rainforest species in Carara National Park, catch birds as they flew to and from morning roosts, and pick out birds perched in the canopy of the forest.
Enough time to check out the Tarcoles estuary: On past attempts, time ran out before we could look for waterbirds at the Tarcoles estuary. This year, we would have time to get our only shorebirds at this one key coastal spot. We would have also liked to include Mata de Limon and Guacalillo but there just wouldn’t be enough time to include those important sites.
The need to get as many species as possible during the night: Those dark hours can be vital not just for owls, but also for rails, herons, and whatever else might call before dawn than during the light of the day.
Being acutely aware of the time: We knew that we couldn’t allow ourselves to allocate more time to areas that wouldn’t yield as many species. This was why we only gave ten or so minutes for dry forest species.
These were some of the main factors we took into account, now this is how we spent February 22, 2014:
12:00 am: The day starts but we watch birds in our dreams because we didn’t see how two extra hours would give us any extra birds. I know, what were we thinking (!) but honestly, we would have just roamed the back roads of the windy Central Valley like bino-toting zombies.
2:00 am-3:30 am: Now, we could officially start! I drove over to Susan’s, read the ABA Big Day rules, loaded the car with various food and drink, and off we went! There was a big moon in a beautiful night sky as we drove over to the nearby golf course but nary a Tropical Screech or other owl species called. That’s alright, because we had a back up plan! This involved driving over to the nearby Zamora Estate where we hoped to get owls, a heron or two, and who knows what other night birds. That worked out with a Mottled Owl upon arrival, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and both Boat-billed and Black-crowned Night Herons calling from the ponds. The uncommon Black-crowned was a bonus. We also tried for Barn and Striped Owl sans success. After thanking one of the owners for letting us enter the place in the middle of the night and bidding adieu, it was back off to the highway for a quick night drive to the Cerro Lodge road.
4:15 am-4:45 am: We opted for skipping Orotina for the Black and white Owl because we had just as good a chance for it at Cerro Lodge. This eventually proved to be true as we heard that species, Pacific Screech Owl, another Mottled Owl, and Ferruginous Pygmy owl, along with Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, and Southern Lapwing. No Barn or Striped Owls nor the hoped for thick knee but with ten species under the belt, we were off to a good start!
5:00 am: A quick stop at the croc bridge for the thick knee was aborted after a minute because the traffic was too noisy and no thick knees called anyways.
5:15 am-8:30 am: This was it! We were on the Bijagual Road and as hoped, a Spectacled Owl made it onto the list near Villa Lapas. I’m not sure if we got anything else between then and the “death cicadas” but fortunately, those incredibly loud arthropods stopped their unhealthy din after about 20 minutes. As we could barely hear anything else, we probably missed birds but we did alright (ohh, how I hope those cicadas became meals for other animals in the forest). I’m not sure how many species we got but highlights were much needed target forest birds like Crested Guan, Great Curassow, Ruddy Quail Dove, Gray-chested Dove, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Chesnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, both tinamous, Scarlet Macaw and 5 species of parrots and parakeets, Blue-crowned Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed, Golden-naped, and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, two trogons, Black-mandibled Toucan, Fiery-billed Aracari, Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, 3 manakins, Orange-billed Sparrow, 6 wrens, Painted Bunting, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Gray-headed Tanager, and so on.
We also saw the most Western Tanagers and Philadelphia Vireos we had ever seen in one place in Costa Rica, ever. Those two species must have been migrating because the Western was one of the most common species there (this does not happen in Costa Rica), and Phillies were all over the place. Among those Phillies was also at least one Warbling Vireo, a nice, rare surprise! Despite getting well over 100 species, we were actually missing several key birds. We got Gray and White Hawks but other raptors failed to show or be seen in the canopy (that idea was a bust), very few woodcreepers called (might have been drowned out by the death cicadas), and we saw few birds flying to and from roosts. However, one other bonus on the road was scoping a very distant mud flat that gave us several herons, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill.
8:30 am-11:00 am: This time was dedicated to edge and dry forest species, and coastal birds around Tarcoles and near Cerro Lodge. This worked out for the most part with many targets being found including Yellow-naped Parrot, both caracaras, Osprey, Common Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Kingfisher, bonus Olivaceous Piculet, some mangrove species, and so on. The estuary also turned up some key birds but not a single gull or tern! Just a couple days before then, I had several terns and gulls there but they flew the coupe on the 22nd. We also picked up a few dry forest species on the Cerro Lodge road but not much in the sunny, hot weather.
11:00 am-12:30 pm: It’s a bit hazy now but I think this was when we drove back up the highway (seeing nothing new) to visit the Turrucares reservoir. It took a bit more time than hoped but resulted well with hoped for Least Grebe, 2 ducks, and bonus Keel-billed Toucan. We also got a high flying Short-tailed Hawk while stopping at an intersection.
12:30 pm-2:00 pm: On we went up slope to the Poas area with a quick stop en route for a friendly Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush in an otherwise silent, warblerless forest. Sunny weather was not a good sign and this marked the point where the Big Day began to seriously slow down. We got the hoped for hummingbirds at the Volcan Restaurant but had to work too much for other birds there and further up slope. Several species did show up including Sooty and Mountain Thrush, both silky flycatchers, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, and some other birds but it was pretty quiet and we just didn’t have to time to wait for the birds to show. Our best bird was a surprise Merlin.
2:00 pm-3:00 pm: Part of this time was still spent somewhere around Poas looking for cloud forest species (we got our Prong-billed Barbet) but the luck ran out with road work just before Cinchona. Ouch, there went 20 precious minutes and try as we could to find birds while we waited, only a couple of species showed and called in the sunny weather.
3:30 pm-4:30 pm: A quick stop at Cinchona got us our Green Thorntail and White-bellied Mountain Gem but the fruit feeders were quiet as was the surrounding area. We also picked up Yellow-bellied Elaenia and maybe another bird or two across the street. By 4:30, we finally made it to the Nature Pavilion. This photography hotspot scored us a chachalaca and a few other birds but the area was strangely quiet. We quickly decided to rush over to more forested sites across the river in the hopes of picking up species during the final avian rush of the day.
4:30 pm-5:30 pm: This was the most unexpected hour of the day and the surprise was unwelcome. Basically, the quiet surroundings continued as we saw and heard very few birds for the rest of the day. Most of the hoped for, common species that one usually hears or sees failed to materialize in any way. No Bay Wren, no Black-throated Wren, and so on for many other species. It was very odd and because of this great missing of species, we decided to not bother looking for the handful of night birds we might have still picked up. Instead, we drove home, our final bird being a lone, flyby Green Ibis.
The final tally was 250 species, a total far short of any record but yes, it was another fun, memorable day, as well as being a learning experience. I had to admit that breaking any Big Day record in Costa Rica is unlikely because there are just too many variables. Although you do drive through areas with more than enough species to break every record, the chances of getting enough of those species are diminished by fewer individuals (many species are just not as common as in the past), bird activity slows to a near stop in sunny weather as well as rainy weather so you need something in between, you can miss 40 or more species if you don’t cross paths with mixed flocks, and the birds that frequent the estuary vary quite a bit.
In conclusion, this might be my last Big Day in Costa Rica but it sure would be fun to organize a Costa Rican Birding Rally!
The first birding app for Panama is a digital field guide with photos, sounds, text, and range maps for more than 500 bird species.
San Jose, Costa Rica – The Panama Birds-Field Guide app became available in the iTunes and Amazon stores in February, 2014. This is the first app and digital field guide for the birds of Panama.
Panama might be better known as a focal point for global banking, business, and retirement, but its impressive biodiversity has also placed the country on the bucket lists of thousands of birders and ecotourists. Birdwatchers make their way to Panama to see hundreds of colorful bird species including such exotic favorites as toucans, macaws, tanagers, dozens of hummingbirds, glittering tanagers, and the stunning Resplendent Quetzal.
The Panama Birds-Field Guide app includes images, information, range maps, and sounds for more than 500 of the commonly encountered bird species that occur in the tropical forests of Panama. The app is designed for ease of use and is suited for both veteran birders and folks just curious about the birds they see on vacation or in their garden. In addition to easy to use search parameters and a full checklist of the birds of Panama, the app also includes a “Which Bird is it?” function that allows app users to email photos and sounds of Panamanian birds for identification,
Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, believes that this app will add a much needed dimension to birding and wildlife observation in Panama.
He said, “Despite the fact that Panama is a global birding hotspot, there weren’t any apps to help residents and tourists identify the many birds that they see in their gardens and natural areas. Our app was designed with this need in mind and we will continue to update it with more images, information, and vocalizations in the coming months.”
The app is currently available for version 4.3 or higher iPod Touch and iPhone devices, and 2.3.3 or higher Android devices.
About Birding Field Guides
Birding Field Guides was started in 2012 and develops birding and nature-related apps and products for digital devices. For more information, please visit http://birdingfieldguides.com.