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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

A Day of Birding at Tapanti National Park is Always a Good One

One of the best and most accessible sites for middle elevation birding in Costa Rica is just 30 minutes from Cartago. It’s the place where most birders in Costa Rica see their first Streaked Xenops, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and other decidedly uncommon, middle elevation species that are much easier to see in the Andes. Although these can still be easily missed at Tapanti, it is the most reliable site in Costa Rica for the birds mentioned above (except the antthrush- easier at the San Gerardo field station). Lots of other quality birds also show up in the quality, mossy forests at Tapanti, including Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Sharpbill, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and so on. So, why is it then, that I rarely bird there? After all, it’s pretty close to the Central Valley.

Some fine forest at Tapanti.

Ironically, the vicinity to the Valley is also what keeps me from going there. You see, it’s near the eastern side of the Valley while I live on the western side. Lack of a good ring road means a trip through the traffic of San Jose and then Cartago to get there, and then again to come back. Hit the rush hour traffic and we are talking two to three hours of slow going vehicles with more than a few people who appear to not know how to operate them. And that’s just one way. So, that’s what keeps me from Tapanti and I wish it didn’t because the birding is always good and the forests are fantastic.

Last weekend, since we hadn’t been there in more than a year, Susan and I decided to visit Tapanti on Saturday. A weekend always means more people in the park but I doubt that it affects birding that much. There was some light rain, but for the most part, we lucked out with cloudy weather and had around 70 species.

One of the first was a Streaked Xenops seen just outside the park!
We also saw a flock of Barred Parakeets in flight.

I was very pleased with the xenops because in Costa Rica, Tapanti seems to be the only accessible, reliable place for it. A year bird and also one that I needed for the Birding Field Guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama. It was hanging out with a small mixed flock that also had Slaty-capped Flycatcher, some tanagers, and a few other species.

Slaty-capped Flycatchers are common in Costa Rica.

After hanging with the xenops, we headed towards the entrance. It was still too early for the eight o’clock opening time but you can still run into quite a few good birds in that stretch of forest before the gate. We checked the streams for lancebills without any luck, but saw another mixed flock with several expected, small bird species. No rarities but still nice to watch Tawny-capped Euphonias, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Spangle-cheeked Tanager,  and so on.

Spangle-cheeked Tanagers are common at Tapanti.

Once the park opened, we went in, paid our entrance fees, and birding along the main road to the Pavas Trail. The cloudy weather resulted in lots of activity including Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds. Still none of my other targets (which are pretty rare anyways), but still fun birding in beautiful surroundings.

We saw a few Ruddy Treerunners.
And more than one Spotted Barbtail.

I figured we would check out the Waterfall/Pavas Trail to look for forest birds. It’s not as steep as the Arboles Caidos, and based on habitat, looks ideal for everything from antpittas to Sharpbill and maybe even Lanceolated Monklet. Although we didn’t find any of those, I bet you could. The thing about tropical birding is that birds can be present but go unseen one day and then be hopping on the trail the next. It also means that it’s worth it to spend several hours of several days in quality forest. You will see new birds every day and probably eventually run into most of the rare species. I bet that would happen on the Waterfall/Pavas Trail, I sure wish I had the time and resources to test that hypothesis with four or five days of surveying that site!

On the Waterfall Trail.

We had more of the same that we had already seen along with heard only Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that showed well but just wouldn’t stop long enough for photos. Even if it had stopped for more than three seconds, the understory was probably too dark anyways. By then, it was around 11, and the rain was starting up so we walked out of the trail and checked along the road a bit higher up. Things were pretty quiet but we had nice looks at a female Black-bellied Hummingbird.

Female Black-bellied Hummingbird.
This Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush was having a picnic.

Birding on the way out was likewise quiet so we decided to check out a soda (small diner) just outside the park entrance. The place is called “Los Maestros” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a shame that I didn’t know about the place before I finished my bird finding/Costa Rica birding companion e-book but at least I can mention this special spot now. Los Maestros is up the first small road outside of the entrance to the park with a sign that says “Tapanti Ecoturs”. Go up that road (and watch birds on the way, this is where we had the xenops), and walk up to the small soda on the left. It seems connected to a house but don’t worry about that. The food was surprisingly good and is inexpensive, the view looks suitable for raptors and seeing other birds in the treetops (we didn’t see much because of the rain), the owner has her heart in the right place (she talked about our need to improve the environment, has worked with local kids along those lines, and has a grandson who is a birder), and Black-billed Hummingbirds fed in the Porterweed. A fruit feeder and food scraps on the ground for other birds could bring in everything from tanagers and barbets to Scaled Antpitta. I hope I can somehow convince her to do that…

The sign for the soda.

After lunch, the rain lessened so we gave the entrance to the park one more check. Once again, we ran into another nice mixed flock with several expected species. Nope, nothing rare but you gotta keep trying!

On a sobering note, large areas of semi-shade coffee have been cut down on the way to the national park. These areas were very birdy, acted as habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and many other species, and will now be rather birdless. Will the Golden-wings that wintered there survive? Who knows but most probably won’t. Some of the shade coffee is still around but who knows for how long? I suspect that the coffee bushes stopped producing due to drier, hotter weather, so the landowners cut everything down and planted tomatoes and other crops instead. It was a sad reminder of the link between a suddenly warmer world, shifting agriculture, and the subsequent, detrimental effects on biodiversity.

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica in the Clouds- Some Tips

Birding trips to Costa Rica can be scheduled during the dry season but, if you want to see a quetzal and hundreds of other species that live in the highlands and haunt the wet, lowland rainforests, expect precipitation. It might come in the form of a light mist, pouring rain, or birding in the middle of a cloud. Just be prepared for it and everything will be alright. Doubt may grow when the sky neglects to turn off the faucet for a few days but what are you gonna do? Get back on the plane? Hell no! This is Costa Rica! You go birding dammit! You might go crazy but hey, you still gave it the good old college try. You can also follow these tips if you find yourself birding in the clouds or dealing with near constant rain:

  • Be Prepared: Don’t let hopes and positive thoughts lull you into complacence about the rain. Dry season or not, when four meters of rain per year is a normal occurrence,  no amount of positive thinking will dissipate those clouds. It’s going to happen at some point so be ready for it with an umbrella for the hot lowlands, and a poncho for birding in the highlands. Get enough dry bags for your equipment, and listen to The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” while packing your stuff.
  • Bring waterproof binoculars: Most quality binos these days are waterproof and fogproof. If your’s aren’t, seriously consider an upgrade before the trip because this is a must when birding in wet Costa Rica.
  • Practice birding with an umbrella: On many occasions, birds are active in light rain and misty weather. Don’t miss birds by venturing back into the hotel during such typical cloud forest weather. Learn how to hold an umbrella and binos at the same time, and see more birds.

    Birding with an umbrella in cloud forest.
  • Bird in the pouring rain:  When birding in the clouds, don’t be surprised if the water all around you coalesces into soaking, pouring rain. If that does happen, wait under an umbrella for ten minutes or so to see if it lightens up. It’s worth the wait because if the rain does stop or turn back into mist, this is often followed by a sudden burst of bird activity. If the pouring rain keeps coming down, head back to shelter, get a wonderful cup of coffee (always fantastic in Costa Rica), listen to bird sounds on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and watch from there. There won’t be so many birds but a few things might come into view.

    You might end up seeing a Juvenile Blue and Gold Tanager.
  • Watch hummingbird feeders: At least the hummingbirds tend to remain active. Enjoy the feeder action from a sheltered spot.

    This Coppery-headed Emerald was enjoying the cloud forest mist.
  • Head to Guanacaste: If you just can’t take the constant mist and rain any longer, you can always go to the dry habitats of Guanacaste!

Expect rain and birding in the clouds no matter when you go to Costa Rica. Be prepared and you can also still expect a lot of cool birds.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Finding Green-fronted Lancebill in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a fantastic place for close looks at hummingbirds. Feeders and gardens planted with the hummingbird delicacy known as Porterweed bring in most species for soul satisfying views, and hundreds of digital captures.

Coppery-headed Emerald is one of several species commonly seen at feeders.

However, although most birders end up with 30 plus species during a two or three week trip to Costa Rica, most also end up with the same set of missing species. Those blanks usually include White-crested Coquette, White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, and a few other species. One of those usually missing birds is the Green-fronted Lancebill, a rather dull hummingbird with a long, needle-like, oh so slightly upturned bill.

A typical look at a Green-fronted Lancebill.

This one can be a pain because it happens to be genuinely uncommon, ignores feeders, and doesn’t even visit Porterweed. Look in those places and you will see lots of hummingbird action but won’t see any lancebills. The lancebill prefers more refined food and places, look there and you might find them. Here are a few tips on finding and seeing this choice Costa Rican hummingbird:

  • Cloud forest: Although it can show up in foothill forests, the lancebill is most at home in the cloud forest zone. These are the forests shrouded in mist and draped with moss and epiphytes, and the lancebill lives in them from the Monteverde area south to Panama, and on both slopes between 800 and 2,300 meters.

    Cloud forest.
  • Hanging flowers: This odd hummingbird doesn’t have that long bill for nothing. Its bill seems to be adapted to clumps of tubular, hanging red or pink flowers because this is where it often feeds. Like a miniature Sword-billed Hummingbird (a South American, surreal specialty), lancebills sneak underneath those hanging flowers and feed from each tube with delicate precision. If you see a bunch of these flowers in cloud forest, a lancebill will probably show up sooner or later.
  • Streams and waterfalls: This is the best tip for finding a lancebill because whether you run into those special flowers or not, these birds are almost always found along streams. Like a wannabe dipper or Black Phoebe, they will even perch on a rock in the middle of the rushing waterway. They seem to like small waterfalls even more and will perch near the base or plunge basin to fly and out and catch unseen bugs.

    Lancebill habitat.
  • A few good sites: Any forested stream with small rapids and waterfalls in cloud forest is a good place to watch and wait for Green-fronted Lancebill but some of the more reliable spots are streams in Tapanti National Park (especially the one at the entrance), Monteverde (try the waterfall trail), The San Luis Canopy and nearby, and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (take the forest trail and watch around the base of any small waterfall).

Since this hummingbird probably has linear territories along streams, you usually have to wait for it to show up. Like other birds, it’s easiest in the early morning when it calls, is more active, and sometimes gets in chasing fights with other lancebills. No matter what time of day you look, once you find a suitable spot, be patient and keep scanning the rocks, twigs, and flowers until one shows up. You will probably see a few other good birds in the meantime.

If you see one, don't expect bright colors!

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Birding Costa Rica Around Carara- Always Hot, Always Birdy

Carara National Park and vicinity isn’t that far from the Central Valley, especially with the highway that cuts 30 to 40 minutes from the former route. The cut in driving time has made day trips to Carara from the San Jose area quite feasible, and the high number of bird species makes this Central American hotspot a worthy place to sling the binos on any birding trip to Costa Rica. Every time I go, I am reminded and convinced of Carara’s hotspot status. BUT, I don’t hightail it down to Carara every chance I get because I am also always reminded of the omnipresent heat and humidity.

Some days around Carara are hotter than others but you are always going to sweat. Or, at least I do, I think because I carry a bunch of stuff and wear clothes. When I walk through the forest I can’t help but wonder how indigenous people must have lived around there. Visions of Amazonian people typically come to mind,, people who wear little clothing, go swimming a lot, and take it easy during the heat of the day. I dare say that it must have been the same around Carara although locals also had the big side benefit known as the ocean.

Last weekend, I figured that the time had come to do a non-guiding trip to Carara. You see, I mostly visit the park and surroundings when guiding, and those are always exciting, bird-filled days, but it’s also nice to to go there in search of recordings, some tough target species, and just to see what happens in the forest. So, with a big frozen bottle of water, Gatorade, and a bunch of snacks (including two chocolates truffles that of course melted but didn’t fail to satisfy), birding friend Susan and I did a day trip to Carara on Saturday.

I wanted to check for Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-tailed Flycatcher around the mangroves, and hope for pictures of Marbled Wood-Quail, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet in the forest. I have never had the two targets in the mangroves, nor have heard of anyone else getting them there but based on habitat, they might be very rare residents. Two of the forest birds are uncommon and the other two are always recorded but happen to be an incredible pain to photograph. I knew that I might not find anything I was looking for but I also knew that we would see more than our fair share of birds.

Our first stop was Bajamar to check the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya. The seas were nice and wavy but the avian result was zilch except for one distant Royal Tern. Although it looks good for seawatching, the marine birds are much better from the ferry and watching from the tip of Puntarenas.

To check the mangroves, from Bajamar, we drove south along the coast right the end of the road and the mouth of the Tarcoles River. There isn’t a whole lot of mangrove access but you get pretty close and there’s a fair number of birds. Although the woodpecker and flycatcher were predictably absent, we weren’t complaining about the fun combination of wading birds, edge species, and others including Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-naped and White-fronted Parrots, and a calling Collared Forest-Falcon.

One of the Plumbeous Kites we saw.

When it was time to catch the 8 a.m (not ideal for birding) opening time for the national park, we left Guacalillo, drove back out to the main road, crossed the crocodile bridge, and went to the HQ. Entrance tickets were quickly purchased, restrooms visited, and into the forest we went. It became quickly apparent that the birds were nice and vocal on Saturday, and they stayed like that for most of our time in the forest.

All of these people are looking at American Crocodiles below the bridge.

Since my targets were far more likely back in the primary forest away from the road, we spent very little time in the old second growth, and bee-lined it back to the trails on the other side of the bridge. There are really too many birds to mention although expected and  interesting ones included Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill (heard only and would not let us see them!), Riverside Wren, Black-hooded Antshrike, lots of Dot-winged Antwrens, Orange-billed Sparrow, calling Great Tinamous, and so on.

On the other side of the bridge, more deep forest species became apparent as we heard Baird’s Trogon (one of five trogon species for the day), Scaly-breasted Wren, Red-capped Manakins, Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Streak-chested Antpitta. As luck would have it, we also got lucky with one of my targets!

Scaly-throated Leaftosser

Leaftossers are always a pain but this one perched more than long enough for me to get shots of it.

Not long after, we had a male Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting away from us. It eventually crossed the trail for excellent views.

Around there, we also had Lesser Greenlets and Red-capped Manakin nagging at something off in the woods but it was just too far to see if it was s snake or owl. One of my other targets also sort of cooperated although it stayed too high and in bad light for the best of shots.

Although we didn’t encounter as many mixed flocks as I had hoped, we did find one with Russet Antshrike, a couple woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, tanagers, antwrens, and a few other birds.

We had excellent looks at Black-striped Woodcreeper.
Dot-winged Antwren was one of the most common species in the forest.

The morning wore on but the birds never really stopped calling. Even though we didn’t come across any other targets (the greenlet was heard several times but never close enough to photograph), we still had a good, birdy time in the forest. That’s typical for Carara. By the time we exited the trees, it was two p.m. and stifling hot. That’s also typical for Carara. Thank goodness for vehicles with air conditioning!

I think this Mealy Parrot was also looking for cooler temperatures.

Even though we were sort of casually birding and stopped at 2, when I counted up all of the species we saw or heard from the time we left San Jose to the time we returned, we ended up being just shy of 160 species.

Yes, that many! That’s what happens, though, when the birds are singing in a major tropical ecotone with quality forest. Just be ready for the heat.

bird photography Birding Costa Rica

Highlights From Three Days of 200 Plus Species

It’s not high season for birding in Costa Rica but that doesn’t stop birders from visiting. These are vacation days for several birders and although you won’t run into any wintering birds, most birders from the USA and Canada don’t worry about seeing migrants anyways. They hope to see Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, tanagers, hummingbirds, and hundreds of other species that never leave the tropics. Between Friday and Monday, I guided some birders who opted for vacation in Costa Rica. All had been here before but they still had plenty left to see. Here are some of the highlights from a rainy day at Cinchona and the Nature Pavilion, a cloudy, misty one at Lands in Love, and a breezy one around Puntarenas:

  • Close looks at birds in the rain: This is alright as long as the birds are active and you can stay dry. We did at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and had close looks at Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Tanager, hummingbirds, and other species. We also scoped a distant Barred Hawk moving through the other side of the canyon and stopped for a surprise, perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle just down the road.
    Soaking wet Emerald Toucanet.
    Juvenile Prong-billed Barbet.

    We also saw our first Crimson-collared Tanager for the day. Another, even closer one was at the nature Pavilion.
  • White-necked Jacobins bathing in the rain and other beautiful birds at the Nature Pavilion: Time spent at this sanctuary of life is always a treat. Red-legged Honeycreepers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, tanagers, and other birds made close visits to the feeders, we saw two King Vultures soar into view, and were treated to close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and other hummingbird species. The guys at the Nature Pavilion also said that, as of late, a Rufous Motmot has been visiting the feeders, and Great Green Macaws have swooped down to check out a Beach Almond tree they had planted a couple of years ago. This last bit of news is especially exciting because once those Beach Amonds start producing seeds, it looks like the Nature Pavilion could become a reliable place to see and photograph Great Green Macaws!
    It's always nice to see Black-cheeked Woodpecker at arms length.
    Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

    This Bay Wren soaked up the sun for a minute.
  • More hummingbirds in the rain:  After enjoying the Nature Pavilion and lunch nearby, we checked out the action and fresh coffee at the Volcan Restaurant en route to Poas. The rain poured down with earnest but we still managed several hummingbirds including a single Stripe-tailed, Green Violetears, Magnificents, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem. That finished off a day with more than 60 species seen and several heard despite nearly constant rain.

    Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.
  • Dry weather!: The lack of rain was a big bonus because the forecast had called for rain and storms. Not a good harbinger for birding but we decided to try our luck anyways. Well, we lucked out big time because we were treated to cloudy, birdy conditions on the San Ramon route to Lands in Love. Easy-going birding along the road produced several targets including prolonged looks at Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black and yellow Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Slaty Spinetail, and Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens.
  • Lands in Love:  Although we started birding at Lands around 9, we still did quite good on uncommon species. Sepia-capped Flycatcher called but failed to show but we got close looks at Keel-billed Motmot, Spotted Antbird, and Bicolored Antbird in quick succession. On another trail, Song Wren appeared along with Golden-crowned Spadebill and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Then, it was off to lunch at the Loveats Cafe where we saw Double-toothed and Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk-eagle too far away to identify.
    Keel-billed Motmot
    Juvenile male Spotted Antbird with adult male on the left.

    How can you not love a place with a giant cookie sign?
  • Cocora Hummingbird Garden: Although the hummingbirds showed, including close looks at White-bellied Mountain-Gem, other birds were pretty much a bust. Just not calling or active. However, after speaking with the receptionist, I feel even better about recommending this little known hotspot. After asking about bellbirds, she replied that she had heard them the other day but they were only calling very far off when we were there. However, umbrellabird was present the other day and is apparently regular at this site (!) from March to June. She actually said, “It’s common but doesn’t always show up”. To me, that says that if you spend most of a day or morning at Cocora from March to June, you have a fair chance of seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird, an endangered species that is becoming even more difficult to find. Lots of other birds are also possible in the cloud forest at Cocora.

    White-bellied Mountain-Gem
  • Long-tailed Manakins, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other dry forest species: The following day, we tried some dry forest birding near Esparza with highlights being a tree full of Long-tailed Manakins near a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the ant-tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and other dry forest birds.
  • Puntarenas: Then, we tried some sea birding from the tip of the Puntarenas peninsula. Brown Boobies and Black Terns fished very close to shore while clouds of Black Terns dotted the horizon. Storm-petrels were seen (too far off to ID, probably Wedge-rumped), one very distant Galapagos Shearwater was spotted, and we managed a Brown Noddy feeding with Black Terns.

    Brown Booby
  • Lesser Ground-Cuckoo: After a delicious lunch in Puntarenas, we checked out Caldera to search for Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and dry forest species. We saw Gray-necked Wood-Rail and Green Kingfisher instead of our targets but did alright with a few dry forest birds. Banded Wren gave good looks, we saw a nice group of magpie-jays, and had looks at a few other dry forest species including an amazing ground-cuckoo fight. What appeared to be two pairs of ground-cuckoos came towards us and right out into the open for a strange, bill-snapping face off. It was pretty much beyond ridiculous.
    Lesser Ground-Cuckoo poses form the camera.

    Lesser Ground Cuckoo creeping away.

What can I say, there’s always more than enough to see in Costa Rica no matter when you go birding.