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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Upland Sandpiper Makes Species 607 for the Year

Lately, it’s been raining so much that most of my birding has been severely curtailed. I wanted to go to Quebrada Gonzalez the other day but fortunately, I didn’t leave the house or I might have been one of the more than 1,000 people who were trapped between multiple landslides! Thankfully, no one was hurt and the slides were cleared but given the seriously heavy downpours today, it looks like more landslides are part of the forecast. I’m not complaining. That’s just how it is and we really do need the rain! I hope some of that water is reaching Guanacaste because farmers up that way have been suffering through a horrible drought.

One of the last good birds I saw was this Fasciated Tiger-Heron in the rain near Lands in Love.

Although I haven’t gone birding, I’m itching to get out into the green spaces because the migrants are coming through. By all accounts, wood-warblers, vireos, thrushes, and the like have been late in coming to town. While we usually get Yellow Warblers in August, it seems like most of them have just arrived. I hope they are just late because seriously declining bird populations would be the other main explanation.

Despite my lack of bino usage, I still managed to add a couple of species to my year list. I’m not doing a Big Year but I still keep track of the bird species I see or hear and always hope to hit 600. That number is always achievable and makes me feel like I have accomplished something or personal importance. Last night, one of the birds I added to the list was Upland Sandpiper. That funny grasspiper passes through the country every fall but they are hardly ever seen. This probably stems from a couple of factors:

1. Why stop in Costa Rica when you can just keep on flying?– Costa Rica is a pretty small place, especially as the Upland Sandpiper flies. If one passes over at night, there’s a fair chance that it could just keep on going and since Costa Rica was historically covered in dense forest from head to toe, I doubt that Uplands and other grasspipers evolved to make definite stops in this land. That behavior is certainly plastic to a fair degree but I wonder if the birds prefer greener pastures (or shorter ones) in Panama. Or, perhaps they focus their stops in the paramos and llanos of Colombia? Critical stop over sites during migration in Central and South America have yet to be determined but it doesn’t seem like one of those stops is in Costa Rica.

2. The needle in the haystack thing– Finding one of those few Uplands that does happen to swoop down and make a landing in Costa Rica is like winning the lottery. There’s just too much pasture to choose from, especially in Guanacaste, and there are just a handful of birders looking for them. Some of us do check the airport from time to time but typically come up with nothing more than meadowlarks and Barn Swallows zipping over the small turf farm. Overall, there’s just not enough coverage.

Although I have checked the airport a few times, this wasn’t how Upland Sand made it onto my year list. To quell my bird migration anxieties, I have been listening for nocturnal migrants for a few minutes each night. I hadn’t heard anything until last night when I finally got lucky! I wasn’t out the back door for more than a minute when I heard the distinctive flight call of an Upland Sandpiper! I ran inside to get my recording equipment but it was too late. That bird was already on its way to Colombia and the only thing picked up by the microphone was a blend of distant dog barks and rumbling cars. Hopefully, I will get out this weekend and find some vagrant warbler (a Black-throated Blue would be nice) but I would be happy with seeing common warblers as well.

Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills Introduction

Three, Easy, Excellent Birding Sites around Arenal

Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s major tourism hotspots. An active volcano and hot springs are a double set of magnets that bring in locals and just about every visitor to Costa Rica. The area also attracts those of us who put the focus on birds and biodiversity. Easy access to quality habitat, a fine collection of uncommon birds, and near overload of tourism infrastructure make Arenal and surroundings a fantastic destination for birders. Whether you bird the place on a budget, watch birds in luxury, or somewhere in between, you are going to see a lot.

Since there’s really too much to say about Arenal birding in one little post, I decided to just talk about three, easy sites that, together, could turn up well over 200 species. A guide and several days of concentrated birding would be needed to make that happen but heck, if it was done in winter, I don’t even think that 300 species is out of the question. Here is some information about those three places:

The Roca Dura Reserve (aka Geovani’s Reserve or Fortuna Trails): This is where local birders go when they feel like looking for migrants around La Fortuna, getting in some easy-going birding, or ticking Uniform Crake. The reserve is the result of years of work carried out by guide Geovani Bogarin to reforest a spot just outside of the town of La Fortuna. It’s also an example of the bird life and animals that can come back when the grazing is put to a stop in deforested pasturelands. The habitat might not be ideal but you can still see a very good variety of second growth species and quite a few forest birds. Not to mention, there’s also the star of Geovani’s show, the Uniform Crake.

Uniform Crake

In fact, I dare say that this little reserve is a good candidate for being the easiest, most reliable place to see Uniform Crake anywhere in the world. According to Geovani, during certain times of the year, more than one can be seen hanging out right on the edge of the path. During two, mid-morning hours on the trail, we heard at least 4 crakes and saw one very well with the help of Geovani (he snuck through the low vegetation to “push” it towards us). In addition to the U Crake, we aso got wonderful looks at White-throated Crake and :

Golden-olive Woodpecker,

Laughing Falcon,

Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

Olive-throated Parakeets, and Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-throated Wren, and a bunch of other second growth species. A Tropical Mockingbird at the entrance to the reserve was another bonus.

To visit this special place, head out of La Fortuna on the main road to Arenal and take a right just after the Backpackers Hostel. Geovani might be in the little shack at the entrance. If not, call him at 8626 9348 or email him at [email protected]. He can take you into the reserve. Please be generous with the donations, this reserve doesn’t receive any other sort of funding.

The la Fortuna Waterfall: This community owned site is a major, local attraction. It sees a stream of tourists on a daily basis but guess what? The birding is still excellent! As sandal-clad people march up and down the stairs of the well-maintained trail, you might see big mixed flocks led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager, antbirds, and even Lanceolated Monklet! It costs $10 to access the trail but if you just felt like birding the road, that works out too. Bird around the parking lot and on the road to and just above the waterfall and you might see everything from Crested Guan and Mealy Parrots to Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga. The latter two targets are rare indeed but they do show from time. We didn’t get them on a recent trip but did see Cinnamon, Pale-billed, Rufous-winged, and 3 other species of woodpeckers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, three toucan species, and other birds right from the parking lot.

Pale-billed Woodpecker

The Peninsula Road: This is the stretch of gravel road between the main road to Arenal Observatory Lodge and the dam. To give an idea of potential, this site has turned up 140 plus species during a full day of birding. The high diversity stems from a combination of Guava orchards, varying stages of second growth, and foothill rainforest. It’s always a birdy area and is regular for such uncommon, quality species as Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Plumbeous Kite, Semiplumbeous Hawk, parrots and parakeets, occasional Great Potoo, Black-crested Coquette, trogons, Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmots, White-fronted Nunbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Olivaceous Piculet, Great Antshrike, Bare-crowned Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, northern Bentbill, Bay and Black-throated Wrens, and Rufous-winged and other tanagers.

A poor image of Sepia-capped Flycatcher- just not enough light for the camera!
Keel-billed Motmot

These are three of the easiest places to see lots of birds around Arenal. To add more forest species to the list, visit the trails at the Observatory Lodge, the Hanging Bridges, and Skytrek, and hike up to Cerro Chato. I can’t wait to get back to the Arenal area, especially for this year’s Christmas Count.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Bird Photos from a Quick Trip to the Barva Highlands

Barva Volcano is the top of Braulio Carrillo National Park and the nearest, quality highland habitat to my place of residence. I can see the ruffled jade top of the mountain from the window and the lighter green pastures that creep up the slopes. There is a narrow road that reaches 2,200 meters before turning into a horribly rough and rocky track. That roughness goes 3 kilometers more to the gate of the national park but I rarely use it because I don’t bird from the back of a four wheeler. Nor do I have a birding mule. Cardio workout aside, I feel don’t feel like hiking uphill from that point either. Instead, I stick to birding along the side of the road, especially in riparian zones near the highland settlements of Sacramento and Porrosati.

Scenery on the road to Barva. No migrants there.
Rufous-capped Warbler- not a migrant but always nice to see. A common species in coffee and habitats on much of the road.

The other day, I ended up doing a bit of birding along that road to Barva Volcano. I hoped to find migrants and maybe take a few pictures of whatever birds I found. While I did come across a few warblers and one Red-eyed Vireo, there were very few migrants around. Either they haven’t come through in numbers, or their numbers are lower than they should be. Given the long northern breeding season, I suspect it’s a case of late migration. At least that’s my hope. Of the migrants I saw, Black and White Warblers were the most common.

Black and white Warbler using whatever habitat it finds.

On an interesting note, I heard more than one Black and white give sort of weak versions of their squeeky wheel song. It makes me wonder. Do some of these birds sing to delineate territories on their wintering grounds?

At one birdy riparian zone, I had great looks at Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. It was nice to watch a pair of this common cloud forest singer forage in the open because they can be tough to see.

Face to face with a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.

Spotted Barbtail also gave its sharp call note ( a bit like that of a leaftosser) but didn’t really cooperate for the camera.

This was the best I could do for the Spotted Barbtail.

A few Flame-throated Warblers were also in the house. Always nice to watch this smart-looking regional endemic.

Flame-throated Warbler.

As per usual, there were a few Mountain Elaenias around. Get to know this bird if you are coming to Costa Rica for birding because it’s really common in semi-open, highland habitats.

Mountain Elaenia- yep, one of those not so obvious flycatchers.

A pair of Brown-capped Vireos were also present. They sound a lot like a Warbling Vireo but look better.

Brown-capped Vireo

Of course, Common Bush Tanagers were also around. Oh, excuse me, “Common Chlorospinguses”.

Common Bush Tanager

Nary a Blue Seedeater replied to playback (I have had them there a couple of times in the past) but it was still nice to see some common highland species just 20 minutes by car from the house. This weekend, I hope to be in for some exciting birding in the Arenal area. To add to the excitement, the other day, a mega Crested Eagle was seen and photographed by the main birding guide at SkyTrek. I will be there for a day so hopefully, we will get lucky! If not, we will still have a chance at lots of other uncommon birds.

Birding Costa Rica Introduction

What Does the Fall Bring for Birding in Costa Rica?

Like pretty much everyone who has lived in western New York, autumn is a special time of the year. The muggy days of summer are replaced by perfect weather, changing foliage, good fishing, and bird migration. Go out to the front porch at night and put your ear to the sky, and you catch the faint tinks of migrating Bobolinks, occasional calls of a yellowlegs flying overhead, and warbler chip notes. Whether you want to go birding, watch football, or both, it’s an exciting time!

Fall migration is great at Niagara.

Living in Costa Rica, I certainly miss the fall weather of the north and the birds that come with it. Hailing from Niagara Falls, I also miss the Peach Festival, crisp apples, and seeing salmon jump in the river but you can always find a festival in Costa Rica, there are Spotted Eagle Rays that jump in the ocean (I was sort of mind-blasted by such an occurrence just offshore at Chomes), and there are birds. Sure, there are lots of super cool resident species but like any birder during migration days, I am psyched to get out into the field and see what might be passing through the rainforest. Heck, I’m just as psyched about seeing the birds in shade coffee near the house because during migration, anything is possible.

Black-mandibled Toucan is one of those super cool residents.

Is there a Connecticut Warbler hanging out in some shady gulley? A Black-billed Cuckoo haunting some shade trees? There probably is, there’s just not enough people constantly out looking for them. If a Connecticut shows up for a day and no one is there to see it, then that’s that. Heck, even if a Connecticut is nearby for a day, you probably still won’t see it even if you are looking. In addition to hoping for a Connecticut, I also hope for such species as Yellow-breasted Chat, Hermit Warbler, and the Caribbean wintering warblers that are vagrants to Costa Rica (Yellow-throated, Palm, Prairie, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May). I haven’t seen any of those yet but they show up every year.

I have a better chance at Yellow-billed Cuckoo- still need that one for the year.

I also hope to find Black-throated Gray, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Thick-billed Kingbird. Long shots for those would be firsts for the country but I think they are possible, just need to get out there and keep looking.

As far as more common birds go, there’s a lot of migration going on. Watch the skies and you might see thousands of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows flying south. We don’t hear Bobolinks but listen at night and you might hear a few Dickcissels, lots of Swainson’s Thrushes, and maybe even an Upland Sandpiper (I have heard a couple during the pre-dawn hours). The river of raptors is flowing through the Caribbean lowlands, thousands of shorebirds are stopping off in the Gulf of Nicoya (and some are staying), flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and Scarlet Tanagers pass through, and we still get a fair number of warblers, including good chances at that migrant jewel, the Cerulean warbler.

Some of the raptor river in the spring.

Birds should be passing through now, I need to get outside.