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Birding off the Beaten Track at Saladero Lodge, Costa Rica

When visiting another country, most of us stick to the same itineraries followed by tour companies and birders doing it on their own. Why not? That way, we already know the logistics, and more or less what to expect. It is the easiest route to take so why not stick to the road well traveled?

While there is nothing wrong with birding in the same places as thousands of other folks with binoculars have done, there are a few good reasons to leave the trodden path for birding in Costa Rica. Some excellent sites are actually not visited by tours and not because they don’t come with suitable accommodation. Such sites are usually left off the itinerary because the distances and travel times just don’t work with the rest of the tour, or the agency doesn’t even know about those places where you can watch birds in primary rainforest, enjoy excellent organic meals, and where the non-birding spouse can do some fish watching while snorkeling.

I visited just such a place last weekend when I guided our local birding club at Saladero Lodge. Situated on the forested shores of the Golfo Dulce, Saladero is run by an American-British couple who always make guests feel at home and strive to give them an unforgettable trip. At least that’s how I felt after two nights at Saladero. The food was excellent as was the service, and the scenery wasn’t so bad either…

But what about the birding? Well, that was pretty nice too…

The best species was Yellow-billed Cotinga, a highly endangered bird that requires lowland rainforest near tall mangroves. That uncommon combination combined with a small range of just southern Costa Rica and Panama makes it a rare bird indeed. But, since Saladero meets those requirements, the cotinga can be seen most mornings as it moves through the area. Thanks to local guide Stacey Hollis, we saw four. Check out Stacie’s well written blog!

Other benefits of birding right from the area around the cabinas were sightings of various tanagers, Baird’s Trogon, Golden-naped Woodpecker, woodcreepers, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, White Hawk, and other rainforest species. A tame Great Tinamou was a good sign of a protected forest sans hunting pressure as were the presence of calling Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quail in the nearby forest.

Band-tailed Barbthroat was also common near the lodge.

Speaking of the forest, it looked fantastic; immense, old trees were the norm. I would have liked to have birded more inside that beautiful part of Piedras Blancas National Park but will hopefully do so on my next trip there. The little interior forest birding that was done yielded Golden-crowned Spadebill, Black-faced Anthrush, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, trogons, and some other birds. I’m sure there is also a lot more to be had, especially considering that a Crested Eagle was photographed in this area just two years ago!

Add in the good birding in open and edge habitats en route to Golfito and a trip to Saladero can result in a large number of species including an excellent selection of quality species (including birds like Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, both of which were seen en route).

Last but not least, I should also mention that the night birding is pretty good. Crested Owls were heard each night and appear to be fairly common there, Mottled was also heard and Black and white is sometimes also present. Tropical Screech-Owl can also be found, and we heard the local variety of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. If we would have done some night birding inside the forest, I dare say we would have probably seen that and more.

The South Pacific form of Vermiculated Screech-Owl, a likely split. This one was from Esquinas Lodge.

Other benefits of staying at Saladero include supporting a sustainable venture that is closely involved with local conservation efforts, watching sea turtles and other occasional aquatic wildlife of the gulf, fishing in pristine waters for your own dinner (we dined on a fantastic Snook!), snorkeling in clear tropical waters with lots of fish, and staying at one of the more remote and wild spots in Costa Rica. If that sounds interesting, let me know, we can plan a trip!

Until next time!

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Where to Go Birding in Costa Rica March 2018

Where to go birding? It’s a perennial question for those of us who want to lay eyes on some avian life forms. Do we just keep it simple and stare out the back window? Do we bundle up and head to the nearest reservoir, or a favorite park? Maybe a wildlife refuge or nature preserve? Or, do we make that bleary eyed trip to a place where we stand in various lines and pay for overpriced snacks so we can cover large distances in a matter of hours? All that waiting and annoyance so we can see a big new suite of birds?

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. Resplendent Quetzal. Blue-and-gold Tanager. Just a few birds with justifiable fancy names and unless you live in Ecuador, Colombia, or Central America, plane travel is more or less required to meet them in their feathered persons. In my opinion, oh it is definitely worth the long ride (!) but even after exiting the airport in a brand new birdy country, we still need to know where we need to go to see those and other species.

Even the female R. Quetzal looks snazzy.

Back in the days of fewer people and more habitat, finding birds was probably as easy as pie. Can you imagine going birding in the hardwood forests of the eastern United States or Canada or Britain oh say 300 years ago? As long as the local people allowed birding on their land, you wouldn’t need any information on where to find birds because they would have been everywhere. An abundance of shorebirds in the wetlands, multitudes of wood-warblers, vireos, and other songbirds doing their vocal thing from the woodland mosaic. Prairies and other naturally open habitats bubbling with longspurs, meadowlarks, and other species of the grass. By historical accounts and the much greater degree of intact habitat, we know there used to be a lot more birds, like millions and millions more.

The situation in Costa Rica would have been just as or even more birdy. A constant flow of avian activity ebbing through mature tropical forests from the hot and humid lowlands up into the cool, high mountains. The logistics would have been tougher than a triathalon but the birds would have been everywhere because there was intact habitat everywhere and therein lies the key to finding birds no matter where you bring the bins. Roads made things easier for birding but they also came with a hefty price.

Nice view but there should be dense cloud forest there.

The big Catch-22 of roads and other infrastructure is the nefarious trade that is typically made. Cut a road through forest and it becomes an avenue of invitation for logging, hunting, and turning bastions of biodiversity into hot cow pasture. Although protecting the lands along roads can prevent such destruction, roadside preserves are much more the objection to the common rule. As with most places on the planet, in Costa Rica, roads followed that typical plan of deforestation leading to pasture or ag. lands long before anyone gave a hoot about cutting down trees. Fortunately, before the entire place was shorn of centenarian trees, protections were put into place to preserve watersheds and biodiversity and this is why, in Costa Rica, we can still drive through cloud forest, take a road to mature lowland rainforest, and drive around and visit several distinct habitats with some fantastic roadside birding.

If you happen to be birding in Costa Rica this March and April, you will surely be benefiting from the protections afforded to roadside forest, and likely birding at several such sites. Regarding these spring months, there actually might not be as many stand out sites to bird as other months of the year but that’s only because the same sites hold pretty similar numbers and varieties of birds all year long. So, finding the best places to bird just depends on what you hope to see and where the highest quality habitats are located.

There’s an easy place for point blank looks at Prong-billed Barbet.

To see where such birding hotspots are located, it shouldn’t take more than a satellite view of Costa Rica to find them; the areas on the map with the largest, darkest green patches. Those bits of jade are where the forest is and that’s also where most of the birds live. Nevertheless, since most folks would prefer some sort of comfort after or during a long day of birding, the next step for finding birds involves locating suitable lodging in the bioregions you want to visit. For additional birding comfort, we can also ask some questions. Is the lodge close enough to those green patches? Maybe located right inside the forest? Do they have in house guides? A bird list? Or, would staying at one take you well away from the route you plan on covering? We also need to see where national parks and private trails are located and the logistics involved with visiting those places (that would mostly be opening and closing times and entrance fees).

Since there are so many good places to go birding, it really is hard to think of the must-visit sites, the places that host the most. However, if I had to settle on three of the best sites for each habitat and biogeographic region, this is what comes to mind:

Cloud forest
Monteverde area
Tapanti National Park
Cataratas del Toro

High elevation forest
Various sites on Cerro de la Muerte

Foothill forest
Arenal area
Tenorio area
Braulio Carrillo area

Caribbean lowland rainforest
Laguna del Lagarto
Various sites near and south of Limon

South Pacific lowland rainforest
La Gamba
Dominical area
Carara National Park- not as good for the south endemics as the other areas mentioned but an overall excellent mix of birds.

Dry forest
Santa Rosa National Park
Palo Verde National Park

Palo Verde National Park
Cano Negro area

These aren’t the only places to go birding but they do tend to hit on the best and most accessible placed with good habitat. It’s no surprise that birding tours tend to focus on these areas along with a few other sites. Whether you have a few days to work with or as much time as you like, a birder can’t go wrong by paying a visit to any of the aforementioned sites. I hope to see you there!

Support this blog and learn more about the birding at these and many other sites in Costa Rica by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. 

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Spring Birding in Costa Rica

Spring is happening in Costa Rica. Up north, the first major change in the seasonal tapestry is marked by melting snow, sunny, warmer days, bird song, and fresh, green bits shooting out of the dormant, muddy ground. Rightly named Spring Peepers awake, and flickers call from the old oaks and maples in the parks. The change is so dramatic and anticipated, for milenia, people in the temperate north have celebrated with holidays related to rebirth and renewal. There are dances, religious celebrations, general making merry, feasts that include ham and jelly beans, and perhaps best of all, serious chocolate.

Go outside and the birds are also getting crazy happy. Huge flocks of blackbirds undulate over the muddy ground and share the thaw with a soundscape that includes honking geese, the whirring wings of ducks taking to the air, and the welcome singing of American Robins. Those who live a fair degree north know that much of that winter isn’t truly over until the latter part of April or even the beginning of May but warmer, sunny days are always happier than the cold dead grip of winter.

Although waterfowl don’t seem to mind a Niagara winter.

In Costa Rica, it might not always be sunny, but it’s always warm and although that makes it seem like summer has taken up permanent residence, actually, we do experience spring, just not in the same way as the frozen realms of the north. Ten degrees north of the equator, this ancient episode of natural renaissance shows itself in different, more subtle ways. I was reminded of the quiet change this morning as I walked along a road through farms planted with coffee. Shortly after leaving the house, Piratic Flycatchers pierced the air with near constant vocalizations while the more gentle notes of Yellow-green Vireos filtered out of shade trees. Around here, both of these species are true spring birds. Like flycatchers and vireos that live in the woodlands of upstate New York, these tropical representatives also migrate south. However, instead of departing to escape cold weather, they come here only to take advantage of the insect abundance provided by the rains. Only here for breeding, these and a few other species show up in numbers by February or March and head back to Amazonian haunts by August and September.

The Piratic Flycatcher might look wimpy but it’s actually fairly psycho. This bird waits for other species to build a nest and then steals it.

Resident bird species also tune up the vocal chords at this time of year. Clay-colored Thrushes (aka National Bird) just started with the singing the other day and as anyone who lives in Costa Rica knows,  a heck of a lot of singing it does! As with other years, we can expect to hear the surrounding gardens and farmlands fill with the pleasant songs of this common Turdus thrush starting pre-dawn and pumping up the volume as the morning progresses.

National Bird makes up for its somber plumage with a cheerful song.

Away from the dry, sun-drenched lands of the Central Valley, other harbingers of Spring include the elegance of Swallow-tailed Kites, the squeaking calls of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and rivers of migrating raptors. Most of the Louisiana Waterthrushes and Prothonotary Warblers have already left for the north, and a few of the wintering warblers are getting into breeding plumage. Black-throated Greens and one or two others will probably get in some practice singing in a month or so although they save most of that music for the boardwalks at Magee Marsh, Pelee, and lesser known yet just as happy local spring patches.

Spring being the height of the dry season in the Central Valley, I walked this morning past dry, brown grass and gnarled trees in flower. As the vireos sang and Brown Jays called, I was nevertheless reminded of other places from other times by way of scents that drifted out of the ravine and from the resting vegetation. Much to my surprise, the pleasant perfumed scents clicked memory banks that showed me times spent in the dry habitats of Colorado, places where crickets and Western Meadowlarks punctuated the audible scene. I recalled watching Lark Sparrows feeding in dry grasses of eastern Washington and hearing the calls of Western Wood-Pewees. As I walked on, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers chipped from the bushes and I was back on Goat Island, scanning the riverside willows for warblers while Warbling Vireos duetted with the rushing sounds of rapids. I won’t be in those places this change of seasons, but it’s still pretty nice around here.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

In Search of Avian Emeralds in Costa Rica

Assigning “value” to something is, in part, always subjective. Whether looking at an object or experiencing an event, although measurable factors such as “rarity” come into play, the degree to which value is assessed eventually comes down to how we feel. For example, in terms of gem stones, vibrant colors are an important part of the value equation. In fact, if objects like garnet, sapphire, or aquamarine didn’t display hues that please the eye, such dun-colored, regular stones would be tossed aside and forgotten by all except actual geologists and kids with cool rock collections. Not to disparage semi-precious stones but even the value placed on those beautiful bits of matter is eclipsed by the true precious gems. Even though the fantastic sky blue of turquoise can be a wonder to behold, and many do love it (I love how it reminds me of Arizona skies), the value of that semi-precious gem still doesn’t come close to the cost of that green star of stones, the emerald.

They are indeed rare but if it weren’t for the mesmerizing, deep green hues, people wouldn’t pay large sums of money, work in dangerous conditions, and risk life-threatening ambushes just to buy or sell a beryl mineral with traces of chromium or vanadium. A similar thing happens with birds. Sure, we say that every bird is the same and not to discriminate but how many place a quetzal in the same category as a Plain-colored Tanager? That’s not to say that one bird is better or more worthy of life than the other, all are of equal merit and play their respective ecological roles but you won’t find many tours that vote for the tanager as bird of the trip over a quetzal, even when the small gray bird is a lifer.

Not a quetzal.

Whether because the emerald wavelength is of uncommon occurrence among birds or because we just love how it looks, our appreciation of shining green colors extends to birding. At least it does to me, equally as it did when I was into rocks, gems, and minerals. That interest happened right before my birding days at the ripe old age of 5, maybe 6. Around that time, I used to ask my parents to bring me into jewelry stores so I could look at the faceted rocks. I was fascinated by them, I can’t remember exactly why or what was going on in my young developing brain but suspect it had something to do with their colors and shapes. Along those lines, when we got the Sunday paper, I used to take out the inserts for Sears and other stores that sold jewelry so I could marvel over the beautiful royal blue of sapphires, the deep luscious reds of rubies, and the huge price difference between a necklace with amazing emeralds and rings merely set with onyx or topaz. At some point, not long after, in the same library where I perused books about gems, I had my eureka moment with birds and the living, colorful, feathered things took precedence. However, I never lost my interest in stones, minerals, and geology, perhaps that’s why I can’t get enough of birds that shine like emeralds.

The Green-crowned Brilliant has some emerald colors going on.

Although many people are more accustomed to the dull browns and grays of sparrows and pigeons, there indeed are birds that are on par with the most stunning of emerald treasures.

Think not? Just look up images of Cloven-feathered Dove, the Emerald Cuckoos, and Green Broadbill. However, before going that route, just be warned that you could be in for a visual knock-out. That and the strong desire to book a flight to New Caledonia, Borneo, or South Africa. Those places are wonderful for birds but before buying that ticket, you might want to also consider Costa Rica. We have some emerald birds here too and oh yes, everybody wants them!

Emerald Tanager

This sparrow-sized gem combines the colors of wet rainforest green with dappled yellow. Jet highlights on the face, back, and wings round out the striking beauty of a little bird that ranges from Costa Rica to western Ecuador.

Watch for it in mossy foothill and middle elevations rainforests. In Costa Rica, Arenal Observatory Lodge is especially good for seeing this beauty although it can also be espied at several other locales. For extra close looks, make a stop at the San Luis Canopy.


Golden-browed Chlorophonia

A bird with a name as fancy as that has to look good. It does indeed. While the female is dressed in gentle greens, the brilliant emerald and yellow plumage of the male always keep it dressed for cloud forest festivities. Despite its fantastic appearance, happily, the endemic chlorophonia is common in forests from middle elevations way up into the mossy oaks of the cold, high mountains. Like other euphonias, this beauty is usually seen at fruiting trees and mistletoes.


Green Honeycreeper


Although this beautiful bird seems to act more as an avian aquamarine or regular old beryl than an actual honest to goodness eye-blazing emerald, its appearance can still generate a mind-blowing, retina searing effect. As with the chlorophonia, the male is the one who sports the colors in this house. Watch for this common species at any site with humid forest from the lowlands up to cloud forest.


Resplendent Quetzal

Saving the most important avian gem for last, this bird has so much going for it, it almost ceases to be one. Mayan peoples sort of felt that way, preferring to view the quetzal as a divine messenger. Truly one of the top birds of the world, the R. Quetzal really does border on the verge of ridiculous. See one for the first time and you might be tempted to pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t having some fantastic siesta because its bizarre and spectacular appearance make it look more like a dream bird than an actual, live, large trogon. As one might expect from a divine messenger, photos hint at but can’t truly convey the shimmering emerald green, gold, and blues nor the full crazy combination of plush ruby red underparts, white undertail, extra long tail coverts, and a funky crest.

Male quetzal feeling funky on Pas Volcano.

Come to Costa Rica to watch these living emeralds and other precious birds in action. I hope to see you there!