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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills Introduction

A Few Hour’s Birding at Quebrada Gonzalez, Costa Rica

We all have our favorite places to bird and one of mine is Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica. No, it’s not an easy place to bird and even more difficult for bird photography but since it was my introduction to birding in rainforest habitats, the place has become firmly established in my subconscious core. I don’t get back to that site often enough and it was better when mixed flocks and coquettes visited fruiting and flowering trees at the edge of the forest, but the rangers did need a place to stay.

On Tuesday, despite knowing that we would miss the dawn chorus, a friend and I spent a fine morning at the site. We started at the non-birdy hour of 9 a.m. and worked the main loop trail until noon. After that, we did a quick walk on the Ceiba trail before rain chased us away around 1 p.m.

One of the things I like about Quebrada is that you never really know what the heck is going to show up. It’s always a surprise and if you hit an antswarm or find a good fruting tree, you have a chance at jackpot birds like the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo, Ocellated Antbird, Black-crowned Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and Yellow-eared Toucanet. Chances are slim on a brief, mid-morning visit (and we didn’t connect with the winning numbers) but you bird there for three or four days in a row and it might happen. On a day visit, you could have an experience like we did in the summary below or something totally different. Either way, you will probably see something good and of course there’s always that re-energizing, oxygen-ruich atmosphere to boost the soul.

A summary of Quebrada birding at that typically non-birdy part of the day:

After seeing nothing around the parking area, we walked into the forest and carefully walked along the trail. As quiet as the forest may be, based on past experience, I know that a wood-quail, quail-dove, or some other shy forest floor species can appear (and disappear) in a moment. You have to be ready at all times, especially if you want photos! I did want photos but also knew that my chances were as slim as the legs of a stilt.

I have seen Black-eared Wood-Quail next to these steps more than once. Not on Tuesday though!

After the stairs, we heard a few birds here and there. These were species usually recorded at the site like White-breasted Wood-Wren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. We didn’t see anything at a new overlook (thanks to recent super-heavy rains) but both thought that it would make an interesting place to just sit and wait for a few hours.

View from the overlook.

Further on, a male White-necked Jacobin checked us out, and we ran into a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. We hung out with the flycatcher for several minutes to see if I could get a recording of its call (I eventually did). Shortly after that, the calls of Carmiol’s Tanagers and Black-faced Grosbeaks pulled us up the trail. Those species usually mean “mixed flock” and yes there was one around but unfortunately, the birds were too far off in the forest to see. We also heard our first Buff-throated Goliage-gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager at that time.

What a Black-faced Grosbeak in a mixed flock looks like.

At the back part of the loop, we lucked out with another mixed flock and this one was at least partially visible. It was also a big one! Oddly enough, since I was more focused on getting pictures and recording sounds (and because I had lent my binos to my friend as he had forgotten his), I just listened and watched bird movement with the naked eye. I may have missed out on espying Sharpbill for the year but that’s Ok, it was interesting to try and ID the birds without bins. Most of the flock was composed of Black-faced Grosbeaks but there were also Spotted and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Lesser Greenlet, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Russet Antshrike, White-throated Shrike, Hepatic, Black and Yellow, Emerald, Tawny-crested, White-shouldered, and Carmiol’s Tanagers, one Collared Trogon, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and other birds.

This female shrike-tanager posed for a shot.
This is what a male White-shouldered Tanager usually looks like. Note the Black-faced Grosbeak blur.

We were able to stay with the flock for a while but I couldn’t get a break with a good picture of a Carmiol’s Tanager.

Is the Carmiol's Tanager photo-shy because of its moss-green plumage? It does have a complaining sounding call...

When we departed ways with the flock, it was about 11:30 a.m. and the forest quieted back down. For the rest of the trail, we heard a few Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, I had a flyby of a Ruddy Quail-Dove (a first for me on that trail!), and we had a group of Swainson’s Thrushes and other small migrants.

BYO lunches in the parking lot were accompanied by a couple of high flying Black Vultures which were eventually joined by a lone King Vulture, but no other raptors for the day.

Violet-headed Hummingbird visited the Porterweed bushes at the station but nothing visited the Cecropias or other trees at the edge of the parking lot so we crossed the highway and birded the Ceiba Trail at 1 p.m. Although this heavy, humid hour was not the most ideal time to look for birds, the cloudy weather boosted the activity and we quickly had shy Pale-vented Thrushes, and a small mixed flock of understory insectivores. Streak-crowned Antvireo showed, a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner called, and Checker-throated Antwren flitted nearby. Tawny-faced Gnatwren was also present but as much as I tried, nope, that hyperactive little bugger would not stop for a photo (since the bird is obviously functioning on another, more quickly paced wavelength, I guess I can’t blame it).

Spotted Woodcreepers cooperated.

The rest of the trail was quiet and as the air grew heavier, it started to rain. We took that as a sign to head back up the highway and go on home. We had at least 57 species including nice looks at the shrike-tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager, Spotted Woodcreeper, and other rainforest birds; not a bad way to spend a Tuesday morning.

Even if you don't see many birds, you do see cool butterflies like this one.

Edit- It turns out that the “cool butterfly” is actually a moth that mimics clearwing butterflies, probably because they taste bad. Thanks to Ernesto Carman for pointing that out.

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