In Costa Rica, the dry season is over and so is the high season. We still see quite a few people visiting Costa Rica for a vacation but not nearly as many as the winter months. The cold, stark reasons for choosing February over May or June for a trip to Costa Rica are as obvious as a Scarlet Macaw but there are still plenty of things to do on a Costa Rican trip during the coming months. Here are some of the birding ideas:
Watch swifts: No, not Taylor, I mean those fast-flying aerialists that challenge our reaction times. Their fast schemes also make them a royal pain for identification, especially when they fly at speck height. During the wet season, they forage at storm fronts and much closer to home. It’s the best time to get good looks at swifts and come to grips with those challenging birds. Just a few days ago, I had Black and Chestnut-collared along with more regular White-collared and Vaux’s zipping over the house.
Test out the umbrella: Yes, it does rain at this time of year but without the water, we wouldn’t have such high levels of biodiversity. In general, it’s also sunny in the morning and raining in the afternoon and that’s not so bad for birding. Actually, cloudier weather results in more bird activity in any case.
Enjoy resident species: Unlike the winter months, you don’t have to worry about glassing yet another Chestnut-sided Warbler when you want to see an antwren. There’s nothing wrong with looking at Chestnut-sidedes but that’s not usually why a birder goes to Costa Rica.
Study bird vocalizations: More species tend to vocalize, at least during May and June. It’s always better to hear more bird song and that makes it easier to find more bird species.Pocosol dawn3
Pay less for accommodation: You probably won’t get a huge discount, but yes, most lodging costs less during the green season.
Enjoy places with fewer tourists: I have never felt like this was an issue but if you want to see less people in national parks, come on down from May to November.
Explore less visited sites: Sure, this can be done any time of the year but it’s always a good excuse to collect eBird data for little known sites. If inclined, try birding around Barbilla National Park, Hitoy Cerere, Yorkin, Las Tablas, Crucitas, Rincon de la Vieja, Barra Colorado, and sea-watching from Cabo Blanco and south of Golfito.
Get lots of lifers: You still have pretty much the same chances at resident species as during the high, dry season, and it might even be easier to see several species.
Participate in the Global Big Day on May 9th: The Cornell Lab- based Sapsucker Team is doing a Big Day in Panama and are encouraging birders of all nations to get out there and do the same, or at least watch birds and submit the results to eBird. I plan on doing a Big Day with some friends on May 9th as well. Most of the winter birds will be gone but we should still see a lot!
Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a weekend guiding at Rincon de Osa. The last time I spent more than a day there was in 1999. Back then, there were fewer houses, and I recorded more birds but it’s still pretty much the same place. Rainforest still grows on the hills that form a backdrop to the road, and mangrove forests flank the gulf. We identified around 150 species and it was a good trip. Some other thoughts:
More places to stay: The last time I stayed in Rincon, I stayed in what appeared to be the only place that offerred accommodation. I can’t recall the name of the place but it was listed in the Lonely Planet and was, basically, someone’s home. Nowadays, there are a few places to choose from, including Cabinas Chontal. This is where we stayed and I highly recommend it. Lodging is in very clean, wooden cabins outfitted with comfortable beds, a fan, and rather spacious bathroom. Meals were included and were very good! Meals were also tasty, imaginative, and more than enough food. I’m not sure how much it costs per night or per person but it was very reasonable. Contact the owners for information.
Boat trips: If you like, Cabinas Chontal offers boat trips across the gulf. As with other boat trips, this turned out to be not as birdy as hoped but we still got some good stuff and it has potential. Not to mention, the boat driver was also helpful and determined to help us see birds, including a male Yellow-billed Cotinga that we saw displaying in the mangroves. We also saw a White Hawk and a few other species but the boat isn’t the best option for scanning the canopy of the rainforest.
Good forest, but tough to access: Rainforest occurs along the road but there aren’t any trails that access it. Well, there is a very steep trail but climbing uphill in hot, humid weather makes for tough birding indeed. If there was better access to the forest interior, this would be a good area for Marbled Wood-Quail (we heard them), maybe Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager (I had them in the past), and other species of the forest interior. However, the canopy is visible and could turn up raptors, cotingas, toucans, and other species of the tall trees. While scanning the canopy, although we didn’t connect with cotingas, we saw Double-toothed Kite, toucans, aracaris, Blue Dacnis, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and others.
Raptors: The place has good potential for raptors because it combines a good area of primary forest with good views of the canopy, and a ridge where raptors soar. Including the White Hawk seen from the boat, we had at least 9 species of raptors right from the Cabinas Chontal. These were Osprey, King Vulture, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Yellow-headed Caracara, Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Common Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. I also had one distant soaring bird that was a very likely Black and white Hawk-Eagle but it was only for an instant, soared behind a ridge, and didn’t come back! Near Rincon, we also had Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, and Zone-tailed Hawk with a bonus flyby Ornate Hawk-Eagle on the drive back to the Pan-American highway. Oh, not to mention, Abraham from the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge saw a Harpy Eagle at Rincon in 2004!
Cotingas: Well, they are still present but they aren’t as common as they used to be. To give an idea of the difference between then and now, in 1999, I saw Yellow-billed and Turquoise Cotingas literally right after getting off the bus. Granted, there was a fruiting fig they were coming to but I also saw more than one of each while scanning the canopy. On this trip, despite a lot of canopy watching, we saw one male Yellow-billed in the mangroves, one at the edge of the mangroves, and one at the bridge. Oh, and no Turquoise. The lack of cotingas was probably related to lack of fruiting trees but I can’t help but wonder if their populations are being affected by consistent, drier conditions. They likely are and this doesn’t bode well for endangered species, especially in THE stronghold for Yellow-billed Cotinga.
The bridge: This is what most birders know about Rincaon because it’s where they look for Yellow-billed Cotinga. It’s a nice spot to wait because you also see some waterbirds on the river, and a good assortment of rainforest species near the bridge. While birding at the bridge and along the road towards Drake Bay, our highlights were a very cooperative White-necked Puffbird, a pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers, Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon (and the other three species that occur), Plain Xenops, and Black-hooded Antshrike.
Birding along the road at Rincon: Fortunately, there was enough room on the side of the road to avoid occasional traffic and see a good variety of birds. The combination of forest edge, second growth, and a few scrubby, wet areas resulted in great looks at Pale-breasted Spinetail, Riverside Wren, a couple of migrant Eastern Kingbirds, tons of migrant Swainson’s Thrushes, and other species. Overall, it was nice, easy birding.
Hummingbirds: No luck with the coquette although I have seen it there in the past. We still did alright, though, with 11 or 12 species including good looks at Bonzy Hermit, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Long-billed Starthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy, White-necked Jacobin, and lots of Charming Hummingbirds (more common than Rufous-tailed!). We also saw a couple of Mangrove Hummingbirds in the mangroves right behind the cabins. This endangered endemic was a bit hard to find but we eventually got good looks at a male and female.
Good base for exploring the road to Drake Bay: You need four wheel drive, and various parts of the road are deforested or planted with the damn modern day agricultural scourge known as the African Oil Palm but this road has some serious potential. During brief exploration of this road (we might have also gone on some side road, I’m not sure), although we passed through too many areas of pasture, there were many, good views of forested hillsides, and we eventually passed through excellent forest at what seemed to be the top of the road. That area in particular looked good for White-tipped Sicklebill, and seemed like a good area to check for Red-throated Caracara, and other rare raptors. I would love to be there at dawn and spend the whole day in that area, scanning the hillsides for canopy species. This area of the road was about 30 minutes or so by car from Rincon.
Rice fields: If you feel like seeing Red-breasted Blackbird and other, open country species, follow the road towards Drake Bay and take the first left. This crosses a small bridge and eventually loops back around to the highway to Puerto Jimenez (follow the orange arrows painted on trees). You eventually reach a rice field with the blackbirds. Hopefully, this field will continue to be planted with rice and not be drained and monocultured with oil palms as has recently happened to other rice fields in that area.
Mirador de Rincon: While walking the road at Rincon, we noticed a sign and side road to this place. Although we didn’t walk all the way to the overlook, we did find some alright birding in old second growth on the side road. I bet it’s pretty birdy in the morning.
If you feel like spending more time in Rincon than a cotinga vigil at the bridge, the area does have potential. The birding is good, Cabinas Chontal is nice and worth it (if rather basic), and that road to Drake Bay beckons.
When we take birding trips, there are two main books that us birders buy. We all know that those two essentials are (1) a field guide, and (2) a bird-finding book. While some of us forego the bird finding books because we are on a tour or want to save on packing space, most of us usually buy one before the trip. A good bird-finding guide helps with planning, lets us know what to expect, where to go, and ups the excitement level for the trip.
Costa Rica has had its fair share of bird finding guides, including a good one that came out less than ten years ago. However, most bird-finding guides are limited to a certain amount of space because it just isn’t cost-effective to publish a bird-finding tome rather than a heavily edited book with fewer pages. This leaves out many a lesser known yet valuable site as well as a cornucopia of other useful information for planning a birding trip. One solution to the extra pages/publishing conundrum is the E-book; the platform I chose for “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.
More a Costa Rican birding companion than a site guide, this book has been many years in the making. I toyed with the idea of writing something that would present information on finding as well as identifying birds in Costa Rica ever since my second trip there in 1994. As I birded my way around several parts of Costa Rica, such questions came to mind as: If antbirds were supposed to be common, where were they? How do you find motmots, puffbirds, tinamous, and other neotropical birds? Where were all of the raptors? And what about identification of woodcreepers?
This book aims to answers these and many other questions about birding in Costa Rica to help birders of all levels prepare for trips to this country as well as other areas in the neotropical region. It’s also a site guide and although I haven’t included every site in the country, this book is, by far, the most comprehensive birding site guide for Costa Rica. I had hoped to make it available by the end of 2014 but, as it turns out, it just took much longer than expected. However, I am happy to say that this first edition is finally done and available for use on PCs, tablets, and smartphones (once an Adobe Reader app. is downloaded onto the device). Buy this e-book for $24.99 if you would like to see and identify more birds in Costa Rica, and if you would like to support this blog.
There are more places to bird in Costa Rica than Carara, Savegre, Monteverde, Rancho Naturalista, and La Selva. All of those sites are classic, great, and worth visiting but there are plenty of other places that await exploration. One of those little visited places is Mirador Prendas. Located at 200 meters elevation on the Caribbean slope near Horquetas, this site is a local tourism destination that features a tower-like structure, restaurant, some sort of accommodation, zip-lining, and other adventurous activities.
I first learned about the place when David Segura of the Tico Birder blog wrote about it. Since he saw White-fronted Nunbird, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and other nice birds, I have wanted to check the place out for some time. This past weekend, while perusing the Sarapiqui area for migrants, Susan Blank and I decided to do a detour to the Mirador Prendas area. We didn’t get there until post-dawn chorus so it wasn’t the most accurate of scouting bird surveys, BUT, we did get a taste of the area. Here is some delicious information along with some known and expected bird highlights:
Access is a bit of a challenge: If you go by vehicle, you will need one with four wheel drive; high clearance would also be good. Most of the road is alright but there are a few places where a small car would be stopped. Hiking or mountain biking would also work. During wet weather, the road past the place is probably inaccessible because of slippery clay that sticks to tires and tries to glide you right off the road.
Habitat: There is birdy second growth on parts of the road along with pastures and two rivers at the start of the road. Those rivers can be good for Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Sunbittern (we saw the heron). Closer to Prendas, there is nice rainforest near the road. The best habitat may be past Prendas, and since it’s connected to the forests of Braulio Carrillo, the area has a lot of potential.
Lowland species, some foothill birds possible: The habitats probably support most lowland species, and there could be foothill birds a bit further up the road. We had a fair variety of species despite spending just one morning in the area and missing the dawn chorus.
Trails: I’m not entirely sure but I think that Prendas has trails into the forest. I hope so because they could be good for antbirds, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, and who knows what else.
Green Ibis: We heard one near the rivers.
Crested Guan: Always a good sign.
King Vulture: Another good sign.
Hawk-eagles: We didn’t have any but I would expect all three in the area.
Tiny Hawk: We didn’t have this one either but it looks like a good area for this little raptor.
Night birds: Nope, we weren’t there at night but others have had Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Spectacled owl, Black and white Owl, and Great Potoo. All of the other lowland night birds should also be present.
Black-throated Trogon: Not an uncommon bird but always nice to see this one. We also had Gartered, and Slaty-tailed should be there too.
Bat Falcon: Saw a pair of those.
Brown-hooded Parrot: Nice looks at this one. We also had good looks at Mealy Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, and White-crowned Parrot.
Antbirds: Despite a sunny, late morning, we heard Chestnut-backed and Spotted Antbirds, and saw Checker-throated Antwren, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Other ant-following birds should also be around.
Black-striped Woodcreeper: A nice lowland bird to see. We also had Northern Barred, Wedge-billed, Cocoa, and Streak-headed.
White-ringed Flycatcher: It was nice to see some of these lowland canopy specialists.
Red-capped Manakin: A sign of good forest.
Shining Honeycreeper and Blue Dacnis: Expected but always nice to see. Although we didn’t connect with any mixed flocks, I bet some good ones occur around there.
Cowbirds: Not really exciting but interesting to find several Bronze, three Giants, and ten or so Shiny Cowbirds at a cattle trough. How are they affecting resident species? Especially the invasive Shiny? Actually, Bronzed should also be looked at as an invasive since it wouldn’t have occured when there was heavy forest and no cows.
To sum things up, the rough roads make birding a bit adventurous but time and effort should yield several quality species, especially further up the road.
Some birds are common, some are tough to see, and others are downright rare as mangos in the arctic. As if a tropical fruit next to a Gyrfalcon wasn’t improbable enough for you, we also have these bird species that are enigmas. These are situations like the 21st century Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Pink-headed Duck sightings, and in Costa Rica, the Alfaro’s Hummingbird. If you want to look for Alfaro’s Hummingbird, scour the high elevations of Miravalles Volcano but don’t get your hopes up. Only one specimen was ever collected, and subsequent searches came up zilch.
I don’t want to discourage searches for the Alfaro’s by any means because after all, who knows? Not to mention, you will probably see some cool birds anyways and have close encounters with other tropical biodiversity. However, if you really want to solve a bird enigma in Costa Rica, give a shot at finding the Wing-banded Antbird.
We know that this bird does indeed exist and it’s not even endangered. BUT, what we don’t know is if or where it occurs in Costa Rica. In Stiles and Skutch, the Wing-banded was mentioned as a possibility based on one possible sighting in the forests of the Fila Carbon in southeastern Costa Rica. No sightings have been substantiated since then BUT…it…just…might..occur (if William Shatner was a birder, that’s how he would say it…).
Seriously though, I believe that this funny cross between an antthrush and an antwren probably does occur in Costa Rica. Or, at least it did, if it hasn’t recently been extirpated from the country. It couldn’t have been widespread because if that were the case, the antbird would have turned up in a mist net somewhere. So, it sure ain’t or never was common but why insist that it’s a possibility anyways?
I wish I could say that I have seen or heard one but nope, that wouldn’t be honest. However, I did speak with someone who insists that he did see one and not just once but twice. He was a guide who worked at Rara Avis for many years and therefore knew the birds in that area quite well. I found his story to be very credible because after all, he wasn’t exactly bragging about it. Basically, he said that when he saw the bird, he didn’t know what it was it because it didn’t look like any of the birds in the book nor like any he had seen around Rara Avis during literally years of birding. He said that the only bird it matched was the picture of the Wing-banded in Stiles and Skutch. Not only that, but his description of its behavior also matched that for our enigmatic target species. He also showed me exactly where he had seen it. Despite always looking for it, though, he never saw it again after a brief second sighting.
No picture, so no inclusion in the guide but if one considers that his sighting came from a nearly inaccessible area of dense foothill forest around 600 meters elevation, that could partly explain why it hasn’t been found again or at other sites. Interestingly enough, that elevation is somewhat similar to the elevation where Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann found Wing-banded Antbird at Cerro Musun, Nicaragua. What? It lives in Nicaragua and Panama but not Costa Rica? Yes, but as strange as that may seem at first glance, “leap-frog” distribution patterns occur for a number of taxa in tropical forests (probably explained by evolutionary history and tropical forest ecosystems being more heterogenous than we think). BUT, maybe it does (or did) live in Costa Rica albeit in the following situations:
Low density populations: This is the case for most tropical forest species and maybe even more so for the Wing-banded Antbird. After all, it doesn’t appear to be common in most parts of its range.
Large areas of lowland and foothill rainforest: No, it was never recorded at La Selva but maybe it never lived there either. Maybe it lived in the hilly rainforests of the San Carlos lowlands, now mostly deforested and never adequately surveyed before the trees were cut down. But what about foothill sites like the Arenal area and Braulio Carrillo? Maybe it never occured there either or perhaps it just lived in spots with the right microhabitat.
Microhabitat: Speaking of microhabitats, Josh and Kathi noted something else about their sighting- the bird was found in an area of old growth forest with an open understory. I have heard others say the same thing about sightings of this species in Panama and the Guianas so maybe that is the key to finding them. If you don’t find this particular microhabitat within a large area of primary forest, then maybe you are looking in the wrong place.
But back to why it might live in Costa Rica. The possible sightings from Rara Avis/El Plastico aside, there are definite records for this species from Refugio Bartola, Niacaragua. This amazing gem of a site is literally across the river from Costa Rica. Sure, rivers can act as barriers for species like the Wing-banded Antbird BUT when one takes into account that very few surveys have taken place in Costa Rica just across the San Juan river, and that this area (Crucitas) and nearby is rarely if ever visited by birders, it sounds like a worthwhile place to search.
So, based on the information here is where to look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica:
Hilly forests in the Las Crucitas area: This includes the forests just east of Las Crucitas and indeed, I think that area is the place where the bird occurs because based on Google Earth, there seem to be intact rainforests at elevations up to 200 and 300 meters in elevation. I’m not sure if hilly areas play a factor but they might if such topography results in well-drained forest.
Forests in the Maquenque and Laguna del Lagarto area: If the hilly forest west of Maquenque can be accessed, this seems like a good place to look. The same goes for rainforests near Laguna del Lagarto. It wouldn’t hurt to look near those lodges as well but since they have been well birded, the presence of the species at those sites doesn’t seem likely.
El Plastico and Ecolodge Yatama: El Plastico is on the way to Rara Avis and one of the spots where a possible sighting occured. Ecolodge Yatama is near there and situated in a large area of good forest. Elevations are around 400 to 600 meters.
Fila Carbon and the base of the Talamancas: Since a possible sighting occured there, why not check again? Also, given the amount of habitat and few surveys carried out in forests along the base of the Talamancas, it’s worth checking there as well. Sites to check would be Yorkin, Hitoy Cerere, and Barbilla National Park. Since there are no sightings from adjacent Panama, this might not be the best region to look but since we are talking about a very secretive, very difficult species no matter where it lives, you never know!
Well drained, primary forest with a fairly open understory:Since this situation matches places where it is seen most often, this could be the microhabitat that this species needs.
Why look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica when you can see it in Panama and northern South America? Well, not only would you possibly document this species for the country, you would also certainly see a lot of other rare species in the process. Bird those remote rainforests near Maquenque and Crucitas and I think you have a chance at both huge eagles, Red-throated Caracara, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and everything else. The main challenge is accessing the sites mentioned and carrying out intensive surveys for at least a week. If you can manage that in the forests east of Crucitas, I bet you will find it.