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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills Introduction

Rained Out Birding in Costa Rica at Laguna Hule

I have had the chance to visit a lot of places in Costa Rica to look for birds and for that, I am grateful. Birding trips, guiding, and living in the seismic land of the Mangrove Hummingbird has brought me to well known classic birding sites, lesser known spots, and birding locales waaaay off the beaten track. Nevertheless, I still have a bunch of sites I have never been to and there’s always more to learn and experience at places I have birded for years (such is the complex beauty of tropical ecosystems). One of the main places on my list of sites to hit was Laguna de Hule.

Sign to Hule.

This site was way overdue as a place I have never birded because:

  • I see signs for it every time I go past Cinchona.
  • It didn’t seem to be that far from home.
  • On Google Earth, it looks like it supports a fair-sized area of forest.
  • I have heard of a few good birds from there including possible Gray-headed Piprites and Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

I needed and have wanted to go to Laguna de Hule and this past Sunday, I finally got the chance to bird the place with my faithful birding friend, Susan. We drove up to misty Varablanca right at dawn and made our way past the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Cinchona shortly thereafter. Given the better chances at birds in the early morning, we couldn’t help but make a couple of stops, one above the waterfall gardens, and one down past Cinchona. Some birds were calling and it was nice to hear Dark Pewee, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and Prong-billed Barbet among other cloud forest species. It was quieter near Cinchona but we still picked up Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Elegant Euphonia, and a few tanagers.

Those colors are en Elegant Euphonia hiding in a Mistletoe plant.

After following the signs to Laguna Hule, we left the main road and began our rocky drive to the Laguna. It took longer than expected (which wasn’t a surprise since we didn’t know how far or how bad the road would be) but there was some birding on the way. We ignored the pastures but made brief stops in second growth and forested riparian zones to hear and see expected species like Slaty Spinetail, Dusky Antbird, wrens, saltators, and other edge species.

Habitat on the way there.

As we approached the Laguna, we saw a few overlooks for it and that’s when I realized that it was much bigger and much further away than expected. Actually, it wasn’t far but just deeper than expected.

A look at the lagoon.

Following the road past the overlooks brought us to more forested spots, and a muddy hole that we couldn’t pass, even with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

We saw this Crested Guan there.

We left the car and started hiking down the road. It passed through some nice foothill forest, second growth, and overlooks that took in the canopy of forest around the inside of the lagoon. We also saw a lot of clouds and mist but somehow neglected to bring umbrellas, ponchos, or even a plastic bag. That neglect was made even more foolish by both of us having first hand knowledge of the common, heavy rains that happen in Costa Rica along with lots of recent heavy rain on the Caribbean slope (where we were).

There was also a good overlook of forest canopy.
We saw a few birds, including these Short-billed Pigeons.

As we walked down the road, we saw and heard some foothill species here and there but it became increasingly difficult to look at them or take pictures because of the equally increasing mist. Just as we reached a stream, the mist coalesced into light rain that turned into a major downpour a few seconds later. This was the point when I wondered how I had possibly managed to not bring the umbrella I had left in the car, or why I hadn’t brought any ziplock bags in my pack like I usually do to keep the camera and recording equipment dry if it rains.

Misty forest at Laguna de Hule.

Without a word, we started walking back uphill as I frantically looked for some large leaf to use as an umbrella. Nope, there weren’t any of those “poor man’s umbrella” plants around but there were some promising Heliconias leaves. I grabbed one but couldn’t break the stem! By this time, I was pretty soaked and made a note to get a machete that would have sliced through that stem like the proverbial hot butter (or a stick of Numar- might not get that unless you live in Tiquica). As Susan walked ahead, I trudged uphill hoping for a big leaf as water streamed down my face.

Luckily, my birding prayers were answered as I saw a suitable, stemless leaf on the ground shortly thereafter! A ha! It was big enough to cover the top of my daypack and so on I went, clasping that leaf tight over the top of the pack and thinking about the dry interior of the car. Fortunately, the car wasn’t that far away although we were so soaked through that it probably didn’t matter if it was a mile or 100 feet. Even better, my lucky leaf had helped keep my stuff sufficiently dry to save it from total watery destruction.

We left Laguna de Hule with the briefest of birding gen but saw enough to see that the place definitely warrants a longer (hopefully drier) visit. We also stopped at the Cinchona Cafe to enjoy busy feeders and super close Prong-billed Barbets.

Super close Prong-billed Barbet.
Barbet at arm's length.

During the brief birding at and near Hule, some of the more interesting species were Crested Guan, Laughing Falcon, Brown-hooded Parrot, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Dusky Antbird, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, White-ruffed Manakin, Bay, Black-throated, White-breasted Wood, and Nightingale Wrens, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Carmiol’s Tanager.

I’m not sure what else is in there but the place definitely deserves more visits!

Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

A Ferry Trip in Search of El Nino Birds in Costa Rica

It’s 2014 and it looks like the El Nino warm water deal is back in town. This is when the normally cold, nutrient rich water in the eastern (South American) Pacific becomes much warmer and less nutrient rich than normal. The small fish aren’t where they are usually found and the birds and larger fish that feed on them suffer. It’s actually a bit worse than suffering because they sadly perish if they lack the strength to find food elsewhere. Die-offs of boobies and other birds in Peru and Chile show that El Nino is having its sinister effect and yes, some birds are making it north of their usual haunts (Gray Gull and Peruvian Booby have shown up in Panama).

There is a fair chance that those two species and other vagrants are looking for food in Costa Rican waters right now (!). All it takes is someone to find those feathered needles in a watery haystack but given the size of the search area and need for a boat, chances of crossing paths with those El Nino birds are about as small as a lost barnacle. We knew that when myself and some friends took the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry the other day, but that didn’t stop us from watching, waiting, and hoping.

To jump to the end of the story, no, we did not find an Inca Tern, Gray Gull, or other rare visitor to our shores, but we did see some nice seabirds, including more Blue-footed Boobies than normal.

One of the Blue-footed Boobies we saw.

Even before we reached the ferry, scoping the morning waters of the gulf revealed distant flocks of Black Terns and a few unidentified storm-petrels!

Watching from shore.

At 9 AM, we left the dock along with a bunch of people headed to the beaches of Tambor, Montezuma, and other places on the Nicoya Peninsula. While they enjoyed the scenery and drank a few beers, we scanned the water, made odd exclamations like, “There’s a booby!”, and hoped for avian weirdness.

The ferry departs, we watch for birds, and some people watch us.

There weren’t huge numbers of birds on the the way to Paquera, but we still managed several Brown Booby, two Common Terns (hey, they aren’t that common in Costa Rica and it was a year bird), a few Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels, and our first Blue-footed Booby (a distant one on the island). Gulls and other terns, except for a few Royals, were notably absent.

Watching for birds from the boat.

After exiting the ferry in hot Paquera, we just got right back on, found a good spot at the front top deck, and started watching.

We saw these cool fish at Paquera.

Further out, we noticed schooling fish and a lot more Sulid activity than the way to Paquera. We saw quite a few Brown Booby and were happy to see almost the same number of Blue-footeds, some right near the boat!

Check out the schooling fish!
Brown Boobies near the boat.
A Blue-footed Booby takes to the air in front of the ferry.
A flight shot.
Showing the distinctive white spot on the back.

Even better, we got fairly close looks at several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, and a few Black Storm-Petrels zipping over the waves.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

Since we didn’t have any large groups of birds, we decided not to have another ferry ride, and made a quick stop at the Caldera mangroves instead for Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and a glimpsed Mangrove Hummingbird.

While the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry isn’t going to chum or stop for any birds, it is a stable, cheap way to get in a bit of pelagic birding in Costa Rica. Save money by parking the car at Franks Cabins (just down the street from the ferry and 800 colones an hour or 4000 colones for more than 5 hours) instead of putting the vehicle on the ferry ($24 or so each way). I hope I get the chance to do some more ferry birding soon because there is probably a few super good birds out there in the Gulf of Nicoya!

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope south pacific slope

Need Turquoise Cotinga near San Jose? Visit Rancho Mastatal!

All of us birders love cotingas. Along with the manakins, those weird, beautiful birds are the neotropical convergence answer to the birds of paradise, and like those Papuan feathered crazies, a lot of cotingas are brightly colored, make weird noises, have weird shapes, and would be proud, card carrying members of the feathered fancy fab club if there was such a thing. The only problem with cotingas is that several are kind of hard to see, especially the shiny blue ones. This is no fault of their own because they evolved to live in large areas of primary rainforest and not patches of forest in a hot, chiggery sea of cattle and grass.

Cattle farming in the humid tropics is a tragic, unsustainable scourge.

Since they can’t live in pastures, some of these amazing birds have also declined and have even become endangered. In Costa Rica, the Yellow-billed is critically endangered, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is endangered (and maybe on its way to being cricitally so), and the Turquoise is Vulnerable. Since there are few reliable sites for the Turquoise Cotinga, especially possible as an easy day trip from San Jose, it was a happy surprise to see this beauty at and near Rancho Mastatal the past weekend. I wondered if the species might be present but didn’t have high hopes because it’s usually rare and hard to find just about everywhere in the country (the exception being Luna Lodge and other sites in the Osa Peninsula).

On our first morning of birding, my scope scanning of a forested ridge hit paydirt when the bright blue image of a male cotinga appeared, as per usual, right at the tip top of a tall tree. Luckily, it stayed long enough for everyone in our group to parse the distant blue bird out of the green background. We were pretty happy to see this tough species once so it was a surprise to get another one on the walk back to Rancho Mastatal! This other bird seemed far enough from the first to be a different individual and was seen perched high in the bare branches of a dead tree. We would have easily missed it if it hadn’t fluttered and revealed itself with one of the only sounds it makes, that of twittering, twinkling sounds made with the wings. After hearing that sound and catching some movement in the tree, it dawned on me that we had another cotinga! Even then, it wasn’t easy to find because most of the bird was obscured by a branch. Eventually, we positioned ourselves for more scoped views before it flew off into the forest.

A Turquoise Cotinga that was close enough to photograph at Rincon de Osa.

There were no more cotingas that day but on the following morning, while watching the canopy near the goats at Rancho Mastatal (yes, goats, it’s a working organic farm), a bird flies into the top of a Ceiba and becomes another male cotinga in the binocs! More scope views, this time closer, to appreciate the gem-like colors before it flew away. This could have been the same male as the one in the dead tree on the previous day but when it comes down to it, we had three sightings of Turquoise Cotinga with rather little effort. I don’t know how big or small the population is at that site but even if you don’t find a fruiting tree, Rancho Mastatal lends itself to seeing this and other canopy birds because there is more than one excellent spot to view the canopy of the forest and tall trees ( including figs that could be amazing when fruiting), both on the grounds of Rancho Mastatal and along roads next to Cangreja National Park.

We saw a cotinga at this site on a distant, forested ridge.
Another cotinga viewing spot.

Other benefits of birding this area are:

  • Not too far from the San Jose area: While it’s not a mere 40 minute drive, it probably takes around two hours or so along a curvy road that leaves from Ciudad Colon.
  • Birding en route is alright: The first part of the road is awfully deforested but eventually passes through patches of nice habitat along with one area that might be the best site in the country for Costa Rican Brush Finch (we had 4 or more in an hour on the side of the road). This is the patch of habitat just after Salitrales.
    Costa Rica Brush Finch habitat.

    We also saw Bay-headed Tanagers.
  • Birding at all hours: The national park sticks to the same 8 AM opening office hours as other parks but you can see most of the same species along a couple of quiet roads that pass by the edge of the park. We had the cotinga on one of those roads (main one between Mastatal and Salitrales).
    Good forest and birding on the road to Zapaton.

    We had good looks at Tawny-winged Woodcreeper in this area.
  • Several other humid forest birds: This area is more humid than accessible forests in Carara. Therefore, birds like Golden-naped Woodpecker, Baird’s Trogon, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, and Ruddy Quail Dove are fairly commn. As for Blue-crowned Manakin, that pretty bird is one of the most common species in the area!
    Golden-naped Woodpecker
    Black-bellied Wren
    Male Blue-crowned Manakin

    Blue-crowned Manakin at another angle.
  • Lots of herps: Frogs seem to be more common here than other sites. The park should really be checked for possible populations of Harlequin Toads and other rare species.

    A cool anole.
  • Rancho Mastatal: This very special place mostly focuses on giving hand-on courses to learn how to live more sustainably with our surroundings, especially in the tropics. They are actively doing this, work with the local community, and grow a huge variety of organic crops. I would describe the food as being “organic gourmet” and if you like all natural foods with creative recipes, you will love this place! Lodging is also offered and they have some nice trails.

If you need the cotinga and brush finch, and would like to bird an under-birded place with a lot of potential, take a trip to Rancho Mastatal and nearby. Even if you don’t stay at the Rancho, there is plenty of excellent birding at the edge of the national park, and can ask about using the Rancho Mastatal trails.