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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding News May and June 2018

The high season for birding in Costa Rica has definitely come to its end. As with every year, it’s as if the birds track the people who come to see them when they fly back north to breed in the same woodlands and wild areas where those same people go birding. Bird a stream in the eastern USA and that Louisiana Waterthrush may have shared waters with an American Dipper during winter in the Dota Valley. Hear the “sweet, sweet, sweet” song of the golden swamp warbler and that Prothonotary may have been watched by birders peering into mangroves on the Tarcoles River.

For the most part, the multitudes of Baltimore Orioles, Golden-winged Warblers (not a glitch, a lot winter in Costa Rica), Black-throated Greens, and other birds that nest far to the north head back to the breeding grounds in April. No doubt, some of those beauties photographed on the Texas coast and then on the southern shores of Lake Erie were wintering it up in Tiquicia. But they have gone back now and so have most birders. It’s because of the rains but to be honest, it’s not that bad and really, if you visit now, it might be easier to see the cool resident species you come here for because they are singing more and more active in the frequently cloudy weather. Since it’s the off season, you also have a good chance of finding good deals on hotels and more. Have some free time? Want to get busy with views of Red-headed Barbets, a couple dozen hummingbirds, macaws, and more? It’s a great time to visit Costa Rica! Email me at i[email protected], I’ll set up the perfect trip.

With that in mind, until more birders can be convinced to come on down for awesome birding in Costa Rica these months, I will have a lot more time to do other things, especially writing. I am thinking of updating my bird finding e-book (if I do and you bought the first version, email me at [email protected], I will sell you the updated version at half price), and will be writing more about birds and travel in Costa Rica and elsewhere.

But now, how about some birding news for May and June:

Tadoussac– It’s a place in Quebec and if you are a birder, you likely already know about this news bite! If not, well, let’s just say that some very lucky birders had what just might be the best birding day that anyone could imagine.

Seriously, this one is going down in birding history.

Unless someone documents the continued existence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Bachman’s Warbler in the same day, seeing more than 700,000 warblers flying overhead, behind, and right past the noses in a single day is a tough one to beat. Yeah, that’s right, that many. Really. A few thousand would still be amazing but 700,000? I’m not sure what to call that except absolute pandemonium cerebral birding overload. I mean holy bird count Batman! That’s waaaay out of control!!! The connection to Costa Rica with this one is that some of those birds probably wintered or at least migrated through these parts. Then, they went north and somehow ended up joining thousands of other warblers for a crazy warbler convoy/fest in Tadoussac. Check out the list, the numbers are real and the comments are inspiration for the best of birding dreams.

Thousands of Cape-mays were seen. We are lucky to get a few in Costa Rica each winter. I was happy to see this one at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

The petrel– Just to add a little more improbability to the mix, around the same date, one of Brian Patteson’s famed pelagic trips out of North Carolina found and photographed what appears to be a Tahiti Petrel. Not only new for that area, how about new for the whole damn Atlantic Ocean!!! I still need this cool wave wanderer. If I took a pelagic far off shore in Costa Rica, I might see one. Friends of mine have and during the month of May too.

But how about some news a bit more local in nature?

Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Oilbird around Monteverde– A male was seen displaying at Curi-Cancha recently. Will it stay? Hopefully, and hopefully with more of its wonderful, endangered kin. As for the Oilbird, it’s early for one to show but that’s alright, we will take it! Hopefully, this is a sign that more Oilbirds will be coming to the montane forests of Costa Rica the next couple of months.

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl tracked, seen, and videoed– Thanks to the good, hard-working folks of Get Your Birds!, not only are they heading up a project to assess the endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow and doing 300 species plus big days. They are also running around with Unspotted Saw-whets at night! These guys are hard core. I mean, it’s cold up there in the middle of the high elevation night, and they have managed to put a locator on one of these much wanted cute montane owls and have been following it. And, for all of our entertainment, a video was also made by birding guide Jose Pablo Castillo of one eating a small rodent. Enjoy!:

More bird counts– It’s really cool to see more local bird counts taking place. Not only are these events a fun way to share birds with other like-minded binocular wielding folks, but they also provide valuable data about local bird populations. This weekend, one will be taking place at Esquinas Lodge. I was going to attend but much to my dismay, had to drop out at the last moment because of sudden changes in my work situation that couldn’t be altered. I felt terrible to email that notification to the organizer and can only hope to make it up to him some day.

In June, a count at an excellent site in Coronado known as “Locos por el Bosque” will be taking place. I plan on attending and sure hope so because it coincides with my birthday. No better way to celebrate it than watching birds, especially with the best of people.

Will we see a quetzal? I hope one like this.

Bogarin Trail is Rocking– This home grown site is always good but lately, it’s been rocking the birding house. One day, someone posted a video of a Uniform Crake right out in the open. You know, just waltzing around like a mini wood-rail. Um, that’s insane. As many who have tried can attest, this is one of those “special” little birds that are easy to hear but mostly invisible. If you get lucky with the crake, you might also get lucky with roosting Black-and-white Owl, and these days, watch an Agami Heron that has been hanging there! Yes, one of the world’s original skulking herons has been joining the bird gang at Bogarin’s. Thank you Geovanni for making this avian oasis happen!!!

Birds at the Fortuna Nature Trail.

Updates to the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app– Back on the home front, new images have been included in a recent update to this digital field guide. One of the apps I work on, this update includes images of tough birds like Blue Seedeater, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, and the elusive Silvery-throated Jay among other additions. There are also additional images from one of the country’s top bird photographers, Randall Ortega Chaves.

That’s it for now, I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Elusive Birds of Costa Rica- The Mountains

Not all birds are common. It’s not long after opening our first field guide that we discover this punch in the gut fact (Ivory-billed Woodpecker! Wow, what a…bird…that I can’t see.) In North America, the elevator/bipolar feelings of up and down can also occur after become aware of the majestic Whooping Crane, or maybe the way too range restricted Kirtland’s Warbler, or that smart beauty of the Texas hill country, the Golden-cheeked Warbler. In Europe, it depends on where you plan on birding but the feelings of discovery and angst tend to happen after reading about the Aquatic Warbler, or maybe gazing at illustrations of the White-backed Woodpecker. Be prepared to scream and/or cry after reading about the Slender-billed Curlew though. Or, just smashing something, you might opt for killing your television.

In Costa Rica, we also have our share of rare birds. I guess that would be a given for any country with a list of over 900 species. Some just gotta be rare, I mean, there’s only so much room for so many birds, right? Yeah, that is part of the equation and with drier conditions resulting in decreased productivity in forest ecosystems where everything seems to compete with everything else for food, sadly, many a bird seems to be even rarer than just ten years ago. Time to smash yet another appliance or instrument or whatever in frustration.

However, some species have always been on the uncommon side of the birding coin even in the best of habitats. Whether because they are too picky, require equally rare ecological circumstances, or are no longer privy to the types of habitat they require, those choice, less adapted species are far and few between. Each bioregion in this small country has its short list of rare birds, it’s no coincidence that they tend to be the ones that get missed during short visits to Costa Rica. Although most highland species are fairly common, there are a handful of cool birds that can be a true, honest pain to see. These come to mind:

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove

Also known as “the ground-dove” because it’s the one that so many world birders always hope to see and never do. Also one of the closest things we have in Costa Rica to a bleeding-heart (if you don’t know, just search for “bleeding heart dove” but be aware that you may need some self restraint so as not to buy plane tickets to the Philippines). It might not actually be as fancy as one of those amazing bleeding heart doves but our’s is special nonetheless. In fact, so special and tough to see that it might be the official antithesis to the Rock Pigeon. The birds are up there, somewhere in the mountains, but they don’t seem to be common and may prefer hiding in dense cover most of the time. The best way to see this widely distributed mega is to watch for it at bamboo seeding events (I got my lifer this way on Chirripo Mountain, and saw a bunch!), or, better yet, learn the vocalization and listen and watch for it at the edges of forest and riparian zones above 2,000 meters on the way up to Irazu Volcano.

Man were we pleased to see this one!

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl

Thanks to the efforts of Ernesto Carman, we know much more about the habits of this elusive bird of the night but seeing it continues to be a perennial challenge. Unlike its northern cousin, this equally adorable owl doesn’t migrate and thus can’t be found with painstaking searches in coconut palms. Pairs occur here and there at high elevations but you have to venture into the cold dark night to maybe, just maybe find one. Like so many other owls, this small species is likewise unreliable. In other words, just because it is calling and easy to see one night doesn’t translate to a repeat performance the following eight o’clock dark. All you can do is try but at least the more time you spend listening and looking, the better your chances. Because of that test of patience and ability to withstand the cold, if you really need to see this one, you might want to dedicate an entire night to looking for it. Bring the flashlights/torches, warm clothing, and spirits to sites above 2,200 meters on Irazu, Turrialba (when it’s not erupting), and the high elevations of the Talamancas. It’s up to you if you want to enjoy your drink before or after seeing this minute mega. Don’t feel bad about opting for before, it might stave off the cold and make up for hours of not hearing a peep.

Look in places like this.

Ochraceous Pewee

This flycatcher is sort of enigmatic because unlike so many other regional endemics, it’s not common and is a real royal pain to lay eyes on. It masquerades as a hefty Tufted Flycatcher and since they can be seen in the same areas, you have to be careful with identification. It really likes the high spots, like 2,500 meters of higher, and can show up in many a high elevation forested site, it’s just rare! It might not vocalize so much either, maybe because it’s always hunched down and feeling cold, who knows. Watch for it at sites like Paraiso de Quetzales and the upper Dota Valley.

Silvery-throated Jay

Ooh, as senor Mars might say, “A straight up masterpiece”…well, of a jay that is. Smallish, dressed in the dark shades of a deep night, and preferring gnarled, mature oak forests that eat the light of the sun, this choice bird is nothing but Gothic. Tropical Gothic I suppose. As in Sisters of Mercy Gothic…maybe. The pale throat and eyebrow are its mother of pearl and silver jewelry, the feathers a dark, deep midnight blue cloak. Watch for it in large tracts of mature high elevation forest in the Talamancas. Like the Roble Trail at Savegre, or the trails at Georgina, or roads that lead to Providencia. But, don’t be surprised if you don’t find them during a day of birding. They seem to be genuinely scarce and may require several days of searching, or maybe reading some Edgar Allen Poe or the Dark Tower series on a misty day while seated under a massive old growth oak. If that strategy doesn’t happen to bring in the jays, the day is always magic when a good read is accompanied by the beautiful natural flutes of Black-faced Solitaires, nightingale-thrushes, and ancient oaks caressed by cold mist. Rare magic, especially when those jays finally do appear.

Tropical Gothic Corvid Magic. 

Slaty Finch

Not all finches are created equal. In the case of the Slaty Finch, it sits down there on the lower end of the dull spectrum. But, instead of looking like a techinicolor Gouldian Finch, it garners appeal by just being plain rare. Or not, I mean let’s face it, the bird sort of looks like an extra dull junco. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t want to be seen? Well, you might be better off not wanting to see it because, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do to find it other than listening for its seriously high-pitched song at bamboo seeding events. Whether around bamboo or not, keep an eye out for any dull plumaged birds foraging on the ground. They might be this one. Hope to get lucky with this finch at any high elevation site. If not, just smile at the beauty of Flame-throated Warblers and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers.

This, believe it or not, is a Slaty Finch.

This, is a Flame-throated Warbler. Take your pick.

Blue Seedeater

Vying with the Slaty for the “dullest rare finch in Costa Rica” prize, the Blue Seedeater is another bird more frequently seen at seeding bamboo and hardly ever encountered otherwise. Usually in pairs, listen for its Passerina bunting-like vocalizations (as in the Indigo variety) in cloud forest, even riparian zones on the upper slopes of the Central Valley. Lately, one reliable spot has been sites with bamboo up above Coronado.

But what about quail-doves, Highland Tinamou, some of the other birds less frequently encountered? Although those choice gems also present frequent challenges to being found in your focused field of view, they still aren’t as tough as the aforementioned species. To learn about the best places to see birds and Costa Rica along with 700 pages of tips for finding and identifying them, support this blog by purchasing my e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Birding Costa Rica

Highlights from Global Big Day, Costa Rica, 2018

The big day has come and gone. The preparations were many, the anticipation higher than the heights of Mount Chirripo, and the camaraderie exemplary. And, best of all, it didn’t pour down rain the entire time. Much better than any wedding, I’m talking about Global Big Day, 2018. Known as “GBD” in these here parts, birders in Costa Rica got seriously on board with this worldwide birding event and ended up rocking the birding house. Through weeks of planning, organization, and focused birding, we collectively identified more than 680 species; a new record for Costa Rica!

Although stories are still coming in, these were some of the other highlights:

Tee-shirts– One or more teams actually had tee-shirts made for their team! I love this because I love birding tee-shirts. Next time, I’m getting a tee-shirt too, maybe one that shows a GBD trifecta of organic chocolate, pizza, and a Yellow-billed Cotinga. Well, on second thought, no, I’m pretty sure any other team mates would not really go for that, I’ll have to discuss the design with whomever does GBD 2019 with me.

Yellow-billed Cotinga, the ones we saw were white specks in the distance that eventually took flight.

The Whatsapp group The communication among birders via telephone messaging was vital for the organization and promotion of this wonderful day of birding. Honestly, without it, I don’t think we would have done nearly as well. Nor could people have shared images of their teams, birds, or sightings in real time. The only downside was having to turn down the notification thing on my phone so I could get in a few hours of necessary sleep before commencing GBD 2018.

Lots of rare birds– So many people in the field, all out there looking for certain birds, paid off with the likes of elusive species like Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Lanceolated Monklet, Sharpbill, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, our Yellow-billed Cotinga, crakes, rails, Long-tailed Woodcreeper, and more! It shows what you can find when you have so many people out there looking for birds, all on the same day. Hopefully, next year, we can get even more people watching and improve the organization to see if we can even locate the likes of mega tough ones like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Speckled Mourner, and Tawny-faced Quail.

Carara and Cerro Lodge– After many calculations concerning logistics and birding possibilities, it seemed like starting in this area would result in the greatest number of species. I have come to that conclusion before and have started Big Days there in the past but I was never able to maximize the number of species by 11 or noon and thus never came out of there with as many birds as I had expected. This time, though, instead of beginning the birding at the edge of Carara, I opted to greet dawn on the Cerro Lodge road, continue around Tarcoles, enter the forests of the national park at 8, and follow that up with birding near the Pura Vida Gardens. This route gives access to a wicked birdy combination of habitats including dry forest, high quality lowland forest, a riparian zone, wetlands, coastal habitats, mangroves, and open areas. Most of all, it allows for quick coverage of dry forest species at an optimal time without sacrificing rainforest species. The strategy worked out because without actually going crazy in looking for every bird, and sans scouting, we still managed 187 species before noon. With scouting, better strategies, and better timing, we might have hit 200. That would probably be a given when winter birds are present.

Carara- the bird zone.

Constant bird song– This was of great help throughout the day. Perhaps also because of cloudy weather, birds were singing all day long and this of course greatly facilitated the count, especially inside the forests of Carara as species like Eye-ringed Flatbill, Rufous Piha, Streak-chested Antpitta, and other birds of the shaded woods vocalized one after another to make it onto our GBD list.

A tame Great Tinamou– It’s always nice to run into one of those ultra tame tinamous at Carara. This happened a couple of times during GBD, one of them almost refusing to walk off the trail!

It was hard to resist the urge to try and pet this one on its funny head.

Beautiful Baird’s Trogon– After doing most of the back trail, I wondered if we would miss this key species. Shortly after that thought, one began to call, and not longer after, we were admiring a pair at close range!


That Lesser Nighthawk that flew around in the morning– I like this memory because since we arrived after dawn, I thought we had missed this nightjar. Fortunately, while scanning for shorebirds at the beach, my team mate noticed a Lesser Nighthawk zipping around the dunes, and there it was, in perfect light, fluttering around in plain sight as waves crashed behind it, and much better looks than of the ones that fly into the dusky reaches of the evening sky.

It was GBD. It was good. It was an incredible bird-filled day because despite starting later than expected, and leaving out the bird-rich middle and foothill elevations of Socorro (after cold rains on Poas Volcano convinced us to end it earlier than expected), we still managed to identify 225 species. That’s without going crazy and more or less sleeping in until 3:30 a.m.! How was your GBD? Did you start at midnight? How much coffee did you drink? What was your favorite bird? Tell us in the comments.

Birding Costa Rica

Final Preparations for Global Big Day in Costa Rica

Just a few days left until a fair percentage of the birding public participates in Global Big Day. It’s easy enough to do, you just need to watch birds on May 5th for any amount of time, count those birds, and submit the information to eBird. In these days of instant social media, you can also post your successes, failures, or pictures of your favorite birding snacks in real time. Did you admire a Scarlet Tanager or two in breeding plumage? Hear the winnowing of a snipe in the cold of the dawn? Compare the virtues of high-quality organic chocolate to crumbly, sugar infused doughnuts? And, most of all, have any run-ins with interesting non-birders? Post it on Facebook to make the day that much more memorable!

A tree decorated with Scarlet Macaws would be memorable.

Here in C0sta Rica, we seriously got our birding game on. At least it seems that way at our Whatsapp group for GBD (that’s what we call it around here). Lots of people have signed on and we will have birders in most corners of the country, many of which will be focusing on key species. For example, a few Tico birders will be looking for the elusive Red-throated Carara in the Osa, others will be slinging the bins at El Copal and Tapanti in search of specialties of that birdy zone, and some of us will be hoping to add tough species like Blue Seedeater, and Unspotted Saw-whet Owl to the results. There’s lots of good vibes going on, it’s going to be interesting to see what we all find.

During these final last hours of preparation, although I’m not sure what others are doing, this is what I will be up to:

Checking eBird: One last check to see if and where certain target species have been seen. I also checked the bar charts today to see which migrants can be expected. Most warblers and viroes are gone, but flycatchers are still in the house as well as shorebirds.

Making the coffee: I really should mention that no one has to do GBD like a birding machine whereby you start at midnight and focus on birds for the next 24 hours. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But, you might want to start earlier than usual, or at least be out right before dawn. Whether you go that midnight route or start the madness after the rise of the sun, just make sure to brew more than enough coffee the night before because the last thing you want is to be lacking on the caffeine when the birding gets fierce. Just in case I need an extra influx of natural stimulants, I’ll be rolling and ready with my coffee and chocolate covered coffee beans.

Making a pizza: Yeah, you read that right. I often make a pizza before a bird count because what can I say, I love good pizza and I love birding; it makes for a perfect combination! So, I plan on making one or two, I’m not quite sure about the toppings but it’s still gonna be good! Cold slices of course but when the pizza is fresh, the flavors are always fantastic. Hopefully, I will be enjoying a slice as I see a Solitary Eagle! Well, actually, no because then I would end up wasting the pizza slice after spitting it out in shock, or choking on it, or accidentally throwing the pizza on the windshield of the car in my race for the camera, or sauce up the camera lens or something. It would be tough for it not to be a bit of momentary birding pandemonium. Hopefully, the eagle will show at a more opportune time…

Not a Solitary Eagle but Hook-billed Kite would still be a great find for the day! Not enough to drop the pizza but still good.

Studying obscure bird sounds: To maximize results, we gotta be ready for the calls of flyover Upland Sandpipers, a super rare singing Black-whiskered Vireo, vocalizations of rare Black and white Becards, and whatever else might fly our way on GBD. The vireo probably won’t show but it’s all about being ready for anything, so now is the time for a last minute check of possibilities and making sure you know their respective calls.

Getting stuff ready on May 4th: Do this to avoid any nasty last minute surprises like no gas in the car, a lack of gourmet snacks, forgetting the sunblock (although to avoid wasting time, I suggest putting it on before you leave the house), charging whatever batteries are needed, or putting on the wrong shoes. Trust me, these and other SNAFUs can happen in the dark of the blurry-eyed night, especially when you got the focus on birds and are straining the ears for the faint bubbling call of an Upland Sandpiper.

Checking yourself before you wreck yourself: Um, what I mean by this in my personal birding terms is to curb the enthusiasm, and be honest with yourself. For example, don’t mark down an Upland Sandpiper if you may have actually heard some odd sounding, distant motorcyle (likely in Costa Rica). Are you sure that distant hawk-eagle was an Ornate and not a Black? Sorry, but if the doubt is there, just leave it off the list. I know, it hurts but we gotta keep things real on GBD! If Ice Cube were a birder (I would love if he were), I think he would be checking himself.

Black Hawk-Eagle silhouette.

Don’t forget the Jedi Zen state of being!: In other words, focus on seeing and hearing birds in the present, challenge yourself but do enjoy the experience (because, like, if you don’t enjoy something, why do it?). Stay focused and the birds will show! Don’t worry about the ones that refuse to play, try and refrain from referring to them as “asshats”, they got their own agendas and plenty other birds will be seen. Who knows,  maybe they’ll make an appearance later on, and you would have to take back that you called the previously absent Barred Hawk “eco figlio della puttana”, “sargeant major f$%kf#ce” or (gasp!) a glorified Black Vulture. Keep the peace with the birds and lots will show!  If it makes you feel better, keep in mind that thousands of other birders are also watching birds pretty much around the world as part of Global Big Day.

Ok, I think I’m ready, I’ll be rocking the birds in Costa Rica as part of Team Tyto! Based on our name, our main goal is putting Barn Owl on the list but we also hope to add a few others here and there as we bird through lowlands, highlands, and coastal habitats. Not sure if I can update from the field but if it doesn’t get in the way of my attempts to maintain a Zen-Jedi birding thing, you might see a post or two on Facebook, most definitely if we see a Solitary Eagle. Hope to see you out there with the birds! If I have any cold, left over pizza, I just might share a slice.