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Good Reasons for Birding Cano Negro, Costa Rica

Although it’s a small country, Costa Rica is jam-packed with birding opps. It’s fully stocked with avian delights, and that’s why it’s hard to figure out where to go. If you happen to stay in Costa Rica for a year, there won’t be any problem figuring out where to go because that just might be enough time to visit every place in the country (if you go birding every day and have unlimited funds, time, and energy). But, since most of us have but a few weeks to spare for a birding trip to Costa Rica, we have to settle on the sites that will give us our target species and the best birding bang for our bucks.

One of those places in Cano Negro. Look on a map and it might seem to be way out there but it’s really not. The exact biogeographical definition for the area might also seem elusive (and it is) but that doesn’t matter either. Go and you will see a healthy variety of birds, including a bunch of rare and uncommon ones for Costa Rica. I was up that way last weekend and although the rare crakes did not come out to play, it was still a dang fine trip anyways. These are some of the good reasons for scheduling in a visit to Cano Negro garnered from that most recent trip:

  • Medio Queso: Yes, it literally translates to “half cheese” but when it comes to birds, it’s more like a rare gourmet gorgonzola. Need Pinnated Bittern, rails, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and chances as Jabiru, Black-collared Hawk, and maybe even an Aplomado Falcon? Take the boat trip on the Medio Queso river. The road is just south of the airport in Los Chiles, the boat driver is at the end of the road, and his name is Rafael Palacios. He knows where to find the birds and if you do one boat trip in Costa Rica, do this one! Although high water made us a bit too late for the rails, people were getting close focus views of Spotted Rail, and Yellow-breasted and White-throated Crakes during late March and April when water levels were low. And, no, they didn’t even use playback. We didn’t see the falcon either, nor Jabiru (probably also because of high water) but we did see lots of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, tons of Nicaraguan Grackles (almost no Great-taileds), and most other targets on our list including easy Pinnated Bittern and several Least Bitterns.

    Least Bittern trying to sort of hide.
  • Scaled Pigeon, Yellow-winged Tanager, and other uncommon birds around Los Chiles: We were happy to see Scaled Pigeons calling from trees right in the town of Los Chiles and although we missed the tanager, it can turn up in town, and is most likely at feeders with papaya. Or, if you really want to see that tanager, just go birding in most places north of Costa Rica up to eastern Mexico.

    One of our many Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters at Medio Queso- just outside of Los Chiles.
  • Waterbirds: As in Green Ibis, Sungrebe, kingfishers, Agami Heron, Jabiru, and so on. You might see them all or you might miss some of the rare ones but either way, you will see a lot!

    One of our many Nicaraguan Grackles at Medio Queso. They can also been seen at Cano Negro but aren't as common.
  • Raptors: A trip to Cano Negro typically reveals a nice selection of raptors. Although rainy weather was not ideal for raptors last weekend, we still saw Black-collared Hawk (best site in Costa Rica for this one), Snail Kite, Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Bat Falcon, and three vulture species. Several other raptors species can also show.
  • Woodpeckers: With ten species possible, it looks like Cano Negro is the woodpecker capital of Costa Rica. The only one I missed over the weekend was Pale-billed. I saw or heard: Lineated, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Rufous-winged, Golden-olive, Smoky-brown, and Olivaceous Piculet!

    Rufous-winged Woodpecker
  • Kingfisher Lodge: We stayed at this well-priced place and were treated very well. Rooms are basic but fine and clean, and have fans or air conditioning. The grounds were very birdy and had a great mix of Caribbean slope forest and edge species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, Pied Puffbird, Bare-crowned Antbird (heard only but at least we know it is there), Gray-headed Tanager, Royal Flycatcher, Greenish Elaenia, parrots and parakeets, Green Ibis, woodpeckers, and so on. I would go back in a second. If you want fancier digs, there is also the birdy Hotel del Campo and Cano Negro Natural Lodge.
  • Night birding: This endeavor can be exciting in the Cano Negro area. Although we dipped on Ocellated Poorwill, that’s no big surprise given that others have spent many hours and more than one night looking for it. However, we did see Pacific Screech Owl around the main plaza, heard Mottled Owl, and had Common Potoo right at Kingfisher Lodge during about 30 minutes of night birding. Oddly, we did not see the usually reliable Great Potoo at the San Emiliano bridge.
  • It’s also easy to get to: Well, actually, Los Chiles is easy to get to and is about 4 hours from San Jose. The road to Cano Negro is rocky and slow going but can still be done with a small car.

It might seem out of the way, but Cano Negro is a fun place to bird, and easy to combine with Arenal. March to early May are best but it’s always worth a visit!

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How to See Spot-bellied Bobwhite in Costa Rica

We birders like to describe the way we go about watching birds. If we just look at the birds in the backyard and flip through the field guide once in a while, we might say that we are pretty darn casual about birding. If we go on field trips with a local birding group and try to see and identify certain target birds, we are a bit more serious about it. Those of us who look forward to birding at every opportunity, spend way too many hours studying bird songs on Xeno-Canto, and travel to other countries to see new birds instead of relaxing on the beach are probably a bit more than serious about the passion of birding. So those distinctions are great and known among the birding community but what do they have to do with seeing “wild chickens”?

First of all, no matter how you define yourself as a birder, we have to get something straight- the only real, wild chicken is the Red Junglefowl. It does indeed look like a reddish chicken but huskies also look kind of like wolves, and when it comes down to it, the chicken is a domesticated junglefowl. Well, no matter how you want to define a chicken, keep in mind that we don’t refer to wolves as “dogs” and if Aurochs were still around, we wouldn’t be calling those massive hooved beasts “Bessie”.  So, I wonder why, if we don’t keep grouse, tragopans, or bobwhites as pets, do some birders still write them off as “chickens”? This is really just an excuse to ignore those shy ground birds because they can be a royal pain to actually see. However, they still quality as birds and since every bird counts, here is some info on seeing Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite in Costa Rica:

  • Don’t look in the forest: Forested habitats in Costa Rica are inhabited by chicken-like birds but they aren’t bobwhites. Those are the wood-quails and in keeping with grouse, can be a real pain. If you want to see wood-quails, look for them in places like the cloud forests in the Monteverde areas, forests in the Talamancas (like San Gerardo de Dota), and the Osa Peninsula. The bobwhites live in weedy, brushy fields.
  • Coffee fields in the Central Valley: Go birding at the edge of a coffee cultivation and you might see some bobwhites. Pick an area of coffee with few people and no dogs, scan the edge of the trail or road as far ahead as you can see, and they might appear in your field of view. They probably occur up to around 1,400 meters.

    A road at the edge of a coffee cultivation- there are bobwhites in this picture.
  • Scan the edges of roads in the dry northwest: By “dry northwest”, I mean anywhere on the Pacific slope from just north of Cerro Lodge on up to Nicaragua and up to 1,200 meters or so. Keep checking as far ahead as you can see to surprise the bobwhites before they see you and run for cover.
    Use the car as cover and they might come close.

    Bobwhites creeping forward.
  • Early morning, late afternoon: As with almost every diurnal bird, this is the best time to see bobwhites. It’s when they call more often and scurry around in search of food.
    A female bobwhite walks close by.

    Followed by a male.
  • Calling birds: This works if the bird is calling from an exposed spot but if not, don’t expect it to show. They aren’t very responsive to playback of their whistled “bob-white” call either.
  • A few good sites: Spot-bellied Bobwhite can turn up just about anywhere in the Central Valley and in the Pacific northwest wherever weedy fields are present. That said, some of the better areas might be Ensenada, Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road to Palo Verde, and Santa Rosa National Park. In the Central Valley, check any roads that go through coffee cultivations and open, weedy fields.

    Like other wild chicken-like birds, they are adept at being sneaky. Take a careful look in the coffee fields.

To learn more about finding birds and the birding at these and nearly every site in Costa Rica, get How to See, Identify, and Find Birds in Costa Rica.

Birding Costa Rica

Celebrating the Global Big Day in Costa Rica

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is pretty good about coming up with ideas for research and bird conservation. Well, no, more like fantastic when it comes to many things avian and the latest endeavor was one heck of a successful ride. Known as the Global Big Day, it started out as an idea for a Big Day in Panama done by Team Sapsucker and one of the head guides from the Canopy Tower family, Carlos Bethancourt. But why do just one Big day when other birders can be encouraged to do the same and enter their results into eBird? Maybe enough birders around the world would participate to identify 4,000 species in one calendar day? Maybe the lab could also raise much needed funds for avian research and conservation?

All that birders had to do was go birding on May 9th and submit the results to eBird. They could just count the birds in the backyard, spend a morning at a favorite patch, or go for broke on a 24 hour birding marathon. As befits their modus operandi, Team Sapsucker of course went for the latter option and ended up with a whopping 320 species! Not only was this a new Big Day record for Panama, but it was also one of the highest Big Day totals ever, and the highest species count for the Global Big Day. But, they weren’t the only people out watching birds on May 9th, 2015. According to eBird, more than 13,000 people heeded the call to watch birds and submit their results, and instead of 4,000 species, nearly 6,000 species have been identified!

In Costa Rica, birders in most parts of the country participated, including a team of guides that identified 308 species on a route that went from Braulio Carrillo and La Selva up and over the mountains to Carara. Although I wish I could say that Susan Blank and I broke 300 species, that goal was made impossible by inclement weather. If it weren’t for a full night and morning of light wind and varying amounts of rain, I daresay that it is very likely that we would have surpassed 300 species by the end of the day because despite the very diminished dawn chorus, we still finished with 230 species.

This Keel-billed Toucan made it onto our list.

Although we briefly pondered the notion of leaving at eleven pm to try for nightbirds en route to Pocosol, it seemed more logical (and comfortable) to head to Pocosol the day before for a bit of scouting and good night’s sleep. After all, we planned on nightbirding at Pocosol anyways and it’s a good spot for Mottled, Crested, Spectacled, and Black and White Owl. During that bit of scouting, we discovered that a tiny wetland in San Ramon was even tinier and almost bereft of birds, found a carcass with a King Vulture right on our route, and saw that yes, indeed, the northern road to Pocosol passed through a promising mix of habitats that included second growth, patches of lower elevation forest, and offered views of forested hillsides. That birdy mix was just what I had hoped for because it would give us a chance at a wide variety of edge species and lowland birds that would be tough to encounter elsewhere on our route. The views of the hillsides also gave us a chance at raptors and other canopy species (as in..ahem..a cotinga or two).

Nice forest on the way in to Pocosol.

At Pocosol itself, the station was typically birdy with two species of oropendolas coming and going, and Thicket Antpittas calling from the understory. Since it was about 5 pm, we put down the binocs, went over the plan for the following day, ate dinner, and went to bed early. This is how May 9th went:

3 am: No worries about missing any birds that might have to called at midnight because nothing with feathers was calling at 3 am. There was a light wind, misty weather, and the owls were in quiet mode. Nevertheless, we got ready and hiked on a trail back to a section of beautiful primary forest. The wet weather made it a great night for frogs but if any cuckoos were migrating overhead, their calls were drowned out by the a windy, dripping canopy.

5 am to 8:30 am: The sky was getting slightly brighter and a few birds started to vocalize. The wind and rain made it tough to hear them but I don’t think a whole lot of birds were vocalizing anyways. We ticked Rufous Motmot, Crested Guan, Golden-crowned Warbler, Mealy Parrot, and a few others but not a single woodcreeper nor many other deep forest species I had hoped to get. I realized that if the weather didn’t improve, we would be better off leaving Pocosol early to try for many of the same birds on the road to Manuel Brenes. We would certainly miss several dawn chorus species but we didn’t have much of a choice. We hiked back to the station, picking up a few more birds en route, including Black-headed Antthrush and Dull-mantled Antbird, and then picked up Great Curassow and a couple other birds on the first part of the Ridge Trail. Then, we ate breakfast as quickly as we could and started driving back out to the main road.

Rainy weather at Pocosol.

8:30 am to 10:00 am: Sometime during breakfast, the light rain had turned into a soaking downpour in misty surroundings. Pretty awful for birding and it stayed that way almost out to the main road. We saw very few birds but did at least pick up Eastern Kingbird where we had hoped and got a White Hawk. The rain dimished as we drove up the road and quick stops picked up Olive-throated Parakeet, as well as a few other species (but minus the Tropical Mockingbird we had seen the day before!).

10:00 am to 11:00 am: I think this is when we birded Lands in Love and since it was right when the rain stopped, we got a bunch of birds. Since we stuck to the loop road, most were second growth species but we did alright given the bad start and weather.

11:00 am to 12:30 pm: We picked up a few targets at a small lake and marsh, but the King Vulture was absent and other targets refused to call. Back on the Manuel Brenes road, though, we did pretty good and a couple of mixed flocks came through with most of our target tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Purple-crowned Fairy, Northern Schiffornis, Nightingale Wren, and even got a surprise Snowcap! This is the first time I have seen this species on that road.

It was nice to have this small marsh on the route.
Our Snowcap.

12:30 pm to 3:30 pm: After the foothill forests of the Manuel Brenes road, we zipped uphill and stopped at the Cocora Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden. I had hoped that this spot would result in several cloud forest birds and it came through with flying colors. Although their primary forest is edged by cultivations on both sides, the back of the forest does connect to the cloud forests of Nectandra and the Monteverde forest complex. I hope to do a morning survey there sometime to better assess the avian potential. On Saturday, a brief 30 minute visit resulted in several targets including Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Spadebill, and several other species. The hummingbird action wasn’t too impressive but we still picked up Violet Sabrewing and a couple other hummingbirds.

Crowned Woodnymph was in the garden.

After Cocora, we picked up some common roadside birds like Eastern Meadowlark and Rufous-collared Sparrow, and made a quick stop in moist forest to get Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wren, and a couple others. While driving through San Ramon, we got our hoped for flyby Crimson-fronted Parakeets, then headed downhill towards Puntarenas and Chomes. Road construction stopped us for about 15 minutes and despite taking advantage of the stop and trying for Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin, and a few others, the unexpected break was birdless. By 3:30,  we made it to open and dry forest habitats on the road to Chomes.

3:30 pm to 4:30 pm: The road to Chomes was much drier than normal and there weren’t as many birds but we still managed several targets. A couple of stops in riparian zones were far too quiet and didn’t turn up the Black-headed Trogons, Olive Sparrow, and a few other species that we usually get, but we did pick up Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Streak-backed Oriole, and several other species. A stop in the open fields also worked out for the thick-knee, a distant Harris’s Hawk, our only Cliff Swallow for the day, our only Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and some other species.

4:30 pm to 6:00 pm: At Chomes, you never know what is going to show but there’s always something good. Shorebird numbers were  fairly impressive but diversity was fairly low compared to other days. Nevertheless, the 12 species of shorebirds were a welcome addition along with White Ibis, Wood Stork, herons, and a few other aquatic species, a highlight being a group of Black Terns that flew in from the ocean. Just before dusk, we also got lucky with a few mangrove species, and a group of Spot-bellied Bobwhites. In fact, we continued to pick up one new species after another right until dark while watching 200 plus White-fronted Parrots flying over the mangroves. It was a memorable way to end a memorable day and although we made a brief attempt for Pacific Screech-Owl and a few other night birds, nothing called back and we called it a day by 7 pm.

Although it was downright infuriating to be rained out for the dawn chorus and the most productive part of the day, the fact that we still identified 230 species with almost no night birding and very little scouting showed that this route could definitely break the world record when wintering species are around, with more scouting, and with an obligatory lack of rain at dawn. Looking forward to the next Global Big Day! In the meantime, it’s about time that we did a Costa Rican Bird Race…

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Getting Ready for Another Big Day of Birding in Costa Rica

Each year, I look forward to an autonomously motivated event where myself and trusted birding companions try to see as many bird species as possible in one, 24 hour date. That is, we do a Big Day, and it is preceded by far too many hours of planning and sorting out probabilities, Such scheming is necessary because it all comes down to probability, each factor playing a distinct role in determing the final count. Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of our attempt this past March.

I think it was a good plan, that beginning in Cano Negro, a jaunt through the humid forests in the Arenal area, and a hot, dry finish at Chomes, but morning rain prevented us from giving that route the full, power birding test. Getting rained out was disappointing to say the least. Instead of testing the Big Day route, it ended up being a Zen-test of my ability to accept changes that ruined my super important plans for that one day out of the year when we could maybe break the Big Day world record..(in the famous “words” of Charlie Brown, “Arggh!”). Well, since hoping for clear weather in rainforest on just one day is always a silly gamble, I couldn’t really be that surprised or upset.

BUT, much to my surprise, thanks to Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker and their Global Big Day idea, here I am, once again, about to do another Big Day! The Global Big Day is the perfect excuse to give this thing another shot. With most of the small migrants serenading birders in Ohio, I did not foresee May as being an ideal time of the year for this endeavor, and it really isn’t but, according to eBird, there are more migrants in Costa Rica right now than I expected. No, not a lot, and we would see more in February or March, but there are more chances at various bird species than I had hoped.

We will probably miss Summer Tanager- a given during the winter but will hopefully get some other migrants.

On a plus note, we have a better chance at shorebirds, and more birds will be singing. This will also be a slightly more comfortable Big Day because, no, we will not be listening for birds in dark places at the stroke of midnight. Nope, no exploration of Medio Queso in the middle of the night. Instead, we will start the night-birding at 3 am and be in one of the best forested sites in the country in the pre-dawn hours. My hope is that the dawn chorus will give us several rare forest birds that we would not have gotten otherwise. Since we will be staying at a biological station, we will also have the luxury of a Big Day, sit down breakfast! Well, in all honesty, we will probably be standing up and scanning the canopy while wolfing down the morning vittles but they will be fresh and hot!

We will have a fair chance of hearing Rufous-winged Woodpecker.

Then, it’s off and up the road to San Ramon with brief stops to scan the sky and canopy for raptors, swifts, swallows, and treetop birds, check a small marsh and other small wetlands, and make another stop in cloud forest. We hope that the birds in moist forest near San Ramon will jump up and sing, that the highway down to Chomes is open (along with a flyby Fiery-billed Aracari and singing Scaly-breasted Wren porfavor), and then it’s off to Chomes for a whole new set of birds. Will we break 300 species? Will we find a Great Jacamar? Will it be another test of Zen? Find out next week!