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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Halfway Point During a Year of Birding in Costa Rica- 616 Down, 84 More To Go

June is already here! The older you get, the quicker time flies. Untested and unproven but nevertheless true. Just ask anyone who has surpassed 40 years on this planet. Suddenly, before you know it, the 50 year milestone stops creeping way off in the distance and gets up to begin a steady and unsettling trot, just waiting for that birthday moment when it can leap onto your neck and weigh you down with definite, clinging old age. But, you gotta accept it because the alternative is ceasing to age and since we haven’t figured out how to put a stop to that without also turning off the good old “cuore”, cessation is not the desired outcome (at least it shouldn’t be). In the meantime, give those creeping years the finger by getting out and watching more birds, being active, and keeping the inner flame going to make the world a better place (or at least to do whatever the hell you want as long as doing that doesn’t involve hurting other beings). That’s pretty much what my old neighbor Tony Palumbo from Augustus Place meant when he used to say, between puffs on some smelly cigar, “Pat, get educated and do what you want to do. Then you can tell those bastards to go to hell!” He never elucidated on who was exactly supposed to be sent off to the eternal oven but I am pretty sure it was anyone who would take try and take advantage of me or get me into an unwelcome bind.

So, in keeping with Tony’s advice, I try to see a certain number of bird species each year, always shooting for at least 600 species. In birdy Costa Rica, this is a very doable task. As long as you visit each major habitat in the country at various times of the year, you should find 600 species, and if you really work at it, you can hit 650 without too many problems. Reaching 700 requires a bit more work but the right planning and enough time can surely make that happen. That’s what I am trying for this year, and as the reader may have guessed from the title of this post, I just need 84 more species to reach this year’s birding goal.

I still need this one for the year.

With six months to work with, I can certainly do it but since most of the remaining species are somewhat of a challenge and or rare, I can’t just go out birding and find them. I now need to specifically go to the places where they occur and stick to looking for those special birds. No complaints there because the good thing about doing that is you always see other birds in the process. Even better, when I go looking for them, I will also have a solid chance at reaching 800 species for my country list. I hadn’t realized that I was so close but in looking at my Costa Rica list, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that I only needed nine more birds to hit 800! Based on my duo goals for 2017, these are the places that warrant more of my time from now until the nights grow longer:

The Ocean– If I went out to sea, I could easily pick up six or more year birds and maybe get a few country and life birds out of the salty mix (and even more if I went to Cocos Island). But, since I would also probably have a miserable sea-sick time, a pelagic isn’t one of my priorities. That could change if I could get a hold of the right medicine and boat but at the moment, I’m pleased with sticking to ferry birding (which can actually be an easy way to get several pelagic species without turning an unwelcome shade of green). I’m actually itching to take a ferry ride these days to see if the rain-swollen rivers flowing into the Gulf of Nicoya are bringing in the nutrients that attract storm-petrels, shearwaters, Bridled Tern, Brown Noddy, and maybe some mega or two. Also, based on the species missing from my year list, a few ferry trips will likely be needed to hit the 700 mark.

Birding from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is easy and often exciting.

The Highlands– I suspected that this region would host the majority of my missing birds but although it does harbor the easiest missing birds to get, the numbers of likely birds I could get with some effort are similar to the South Pacific, around 28 species. Several are expected and a few are always tough but since I have yet to visit the high Talamancas or Irazu, I feel good about finding most of my targets, even some of the tough ones. It will also be interesting to see if I can find some of the uncommon and rare cloud forest species on the San Rafael Varablanca road, a site not that far from my home.

The South Pacific-Since I sort of did a trip to that area when I went to San Vito in January, this was a bit of a surprise as well as a reminder of the excellent birding and high diversity way down there in the Osa, Golfo Dulce, and nearby. Preferably, I will do one or more trips to the Esquinas area or the Osa (I would love to get in a bit of expedition birding in the La Tarde area) to get the endemic ant-tanager and have a chance at Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Tiny Hawk, Turquoise Cotinga, and maybe even one of the mega large eagles. I need to go to sites near Ciudad Neily to pick up localized targets like Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Gray-lined Hawk, Savannah Hawk, and a fair chance at Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers along with other good birds, and at least one morning and evening near Buenos Aires for the O. Crake, rare nightjars, and a few other species.

Red-rumped Woodpecker is one of my targets.

The Caribbean and migrants– Thanks to the Global Big Day and other trips, I’m doing pretty good with this bunch of birds. But, since there are so many to choose from, I could still pick up 20 more resident species. Most of those are rare but I do have six months to work with. I also mention migrants for this area because the coast could still give me around a dozen species along with a chance at several rare vagrants.

The Northern volcanoes– That would be Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, Orosi, and Tenorio volcanoes. The high quality forests on those low mountains is excellent for a variety of high quality birds and would give me a good chance at Tody and Keel-billed Motmots, Bare-crowned Antbird, Lovely Cotinga, along with umbrellabird, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Black-eared Wood-Quail, and the list goes on. Recent mega sightings of Solitary Eagle and Harpy Eagle are additional reminders of why this is always a good area to bird! I also want to finally add the trio of uncommon Guanacaste resident sparrows to my country list- Grasshopper, Botteri’s, and Rusty. I have seen them elsewhere but never in Costa Rica and they are seriously overdue.

A glimpse at the uncommon Keel-billed Motmot.

I hope this basic outline of a birding plan might also give the reader some tips on seeing more of the species they want to find in Costa Rica. For lots more information, and to support this blog, purchase my 700 plus page e-book for finding birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in the field while working on this year’s goal!

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Northern Scrub Flycatcher- the Mini-Myiarchus

Tyrant-flycatchers are a seriously successful family. In terms of life on Earth, that means there are a lot of species in a lot of place and for this family, “a lot” means hundreds of Tyrannidae evolved to occupy habitats from the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia on through the steamy lowland rainforests in the heart of South America north through familiar places in Virginia, and the way up north in the conifers of Alaska. Anyone who has been birding for any amount of time also knows that this family has been good at generating species that are a pain to identify. For whatever reason, apparently, that pattern of dull olive and grayish plumage, two wings bars, and not much else is perfect for survival because we can’t seem to get away from it. Lots of birds from different families wear that uniform but in the western hemisphere, flycatchers just might love it the most.

We are taking over AND MANY OF US wear the same uniform!- anonymous Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Costa Rica.

Numbers of Tyrannid species go up the closer you get to the equator and since Costa Rica is just 9 degrees north of that invisible line, yeah, we have a lot! But, before any possible seeds of anxiety are planted at the thought of identifying dozens of extremely similar flycatchers, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. Identifying them in the field is pretty straightforward and easier than sorting through Empids back home, the confusion might be more of a product of trying to remember all of those names; flatbill, spadebill, flycatcher, tody-flycatcher, pygmy-tyrant, and so on! If you can learn them by genus, I actually find that to be an easier way to mentally categorize and remember them (if you feel like memorizing bird names instead of using Sudoku to devour time).  That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some challenges thrown your way (especially when trying to separate Brown-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers), but, as long as you get a good look at the head and bill, it will be easier than many flycatchers back home (or “warblers” if you hail from the Palearctic).

One of those flycatchers that looks as if it might be a problem but really isn’t that difficult is the Northern Scrub Flycatcher. While this little guy does share that wonderfully adapted pattern of grayish head, pale yellow belly, pale wing bars , and some pattern on the head, take a closer look and you will be forced to admit that you have seen a Northern Scrub Flycatcher. You may wonder why on Earth it has to have such a darn long name, especially when you are seeing it in mangroves instead of scrub but just be thankful it doesn’t have as cumbersome a name as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Oleaginous Hemispingus, or White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant.

Like most tyrant-flycatchers in Costa Rica (and the majority of bird species), for the Northern Scrub, you need to focus in on the head, especially the bill. This bird has such a tiny bill, it may also occur to you that the species is hiding out in the mangroves because it feels woefully inadequate, even incomplete, when sharing a branch with the Great Kiskadee or pretty much any other tyrant-flycatcher in the country.

Yep, that’s it’s claim to fame, a small, dark bill.

Take a look at the wings and you might also notice that this flycatcher sort of has three wing bars. Maybe not all of the time but don’t be surprised if it looks that way.

Once you see the extra wing bar and the tiny bill, you can then relax and check out some other subtle features and impressions. You might notice that the gray head has a short crest and a bit of a dark line through some sort of broken eye rings, and that the gray also comes down onto the breast. You might also feel like the bird looks kind of like a mini Myiarchus (at least it does to me, sort of), or maybe a cross between a tyrannulet and an elaenia (if that helps). As for vocalizations, although the brief whistled note is diagnostic, it’s all too easy to over look. Or, you might just decide to look at something more colorful or eye-catching that happens to be coming in to the pygmy-owl call, and no one would blame you if you did so.

The smart looking Mangrove Yellow Warbler will probably be there.

Or, there might be a Turquoise-browed Motmot begging for attention.

In Costa Rica, look for the Northern Scrub Flycatcher in mangroves in the Gulf of Nicoya and the Gulfo Dulce. If you see one elsewhere, take a closer look at the bill, it’s probably a Greenish Elaenia or some other bird wearing that flycatcher uniform.

Like a lot of flycatchers, the Greenish Elaenia is…greenish.


Birding Costa Rica

Exciting News for Birding in Costa Rica June 2017

Lately, in Costa Rica, there have been a few noteworthy happenings. Although the birding is always exciting, the following news items stand out and make an upcoming July trip even more enticing:

Harpy Eagle– Yep, that’s right, the major rare giant king of Neotropical raptors was most definitely, recently seen in Costa Rica. According to the eBird list graciously reported by John Garrett in late May, an adult or near adult was seen and photographed at a site in the Orosi-Rincon de la Vieja corridor. This was such a shock to the local birding community, despite the presence of definitive photos and an excellent description given by an experienced birder/biologist, amazingly, several people still expressed doubts. Since the proof provided seems far more likely to be a representation of the truth than an elaborate hoax, I am not one of those doubters. Some people mentioned that they just couldn’t believe the sighting because the bird wasn’t inside primary forest. Nevertheless, the special site where that big mega eagle recently perched in full view is within a matrix of fair-sized patches of lowland and foothill rainforest loosely connected to larger, primary forest blocks. Fortunately, the bird was last seen flying towards those forests, hopefully, it will thrive and be seen again! It seems likely that it wandered in from known populations in the Indio-Maiz forests of southeastern Nicaragua (or maybe even adjacent Costa Rica) in search of a place to rule and eat almost whatever forest inhabitants it wants. Thank goodness, a few people were there to document its presence in an area rarely visited by birders. If you want to maybe see it, about all you can do is spend time birding in remote areas of the Orosi Volcano in Guanacaste National Park, or maybe in Rincon de la Vieja, and wish upon a star.

Forests at Rincon de la Vieja.

The Birding is Always Good at Tenorio– The fact that a lot of great birds are usually seen in the excellent forests near Bijagua is reason enough to make the trip. A few more reasons from recent birding in the area include a probable Solitary Eagle reported on eBird, and excellent looks at the rare Black-eared Wood-Quail by several people at the Celeste Mountain Lodge and on the trails at Heliconias.

Uncommon Hummingbirds at El Tapir– On a recent trip to El Tapir, the hummingbirds were especially good. Yes, a few Snowcaps were present and we saw Green Thorntail and one Black-crested Coquette perched in the distance, but we also had close looks at a young White-crested Coquette, female Coppery-headed Emerald, and female Magenta-throated Woodstar. Suffice to say, I have never seen the latter three species at this site. The coquette from the Pacific slope has been spotted there on a couple of occasions and I bet the other two have also occurred but don’t expect any of them on a regular basis! Since hummingbirds and the flowers they feed on seem to be scarce in many areas of the country, I can’t help but wonder if the out of range birds showed up while searching for food. El Tapir and other sites with feeders and porterweed like Rancho Naturalista, Bosque Tolomuco, and El Copal should be carefully checked for unusual hummingbirds, especially ones with a bit of rufous on the face.

This is the one I’m talking about- it showed up last year after a century plus hiatus, maybe there’s a few in Costa Rica right now.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird at Curi-Cancha– It’s been there before but with this rare, endangered, spectacular species, it’s always worth mentioning where it has been seen. Although the bird with the Elvis feather cut is not common or expected anywhere, Curi-Cancha is as good as place as any to look for it (and see a bunch of other birds while doing so).

Unspotted Saw-whets on Irazu– They are always up there but recently, Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours actually saw one on a day perch! Although they probably won’t reveal exactly where (to prevent photographers from disturbing it), they might be able to show you one or two of this fantastic, much wanted owlet at night.

More help for Golden-winged Warblers– We all know that Golden-winged Warblers are a species of conservation concern. If you have been to Costa Rica during the winter months, you may also know that they are easier to see in this country than many other areas. Costa Rica Bird Observatories is helping out Golden-winged Warblers through local education about the bird, payments to preserve habitat, and reforestation. Learn more about this awesome initiative at their site!

One of Costa Rica’s many wintering Golden-winged Warblers.

Heavy Rains– There has been a lot of precipitation lately and it’s a welcome sight. Yes, we are in the rainy season but for the past four or five years, thanks to human caused global warming, there just hasn’t been enough, especially on the Caribbean slope and in the highlands. Very likely because of that, a high percentage of bird species in the country seem to be in decline (I know that I detect noticeably fewer at most sites, especially in humid forests, and it has gotten worse year by year). As far as the birds go, we can only hope that the rain will be enough to boost productivity and result in a successful nesting season for many species.

A few of the things I would love to do– These days, I would love to get up to Tenorio (as always), hang out in the Rincon de la Vieja and Orosi area, do more surveys in the foothill zone so we can have more data on bird populations that appear to be in decline, get the final images needed for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and look for pelagic birds from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Hope I can do some of that, if so, I’ll be writing about it!