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bird finding in Costa Rica

Medio Queso, Costa Rica: Tough Birds Made Easy

What is it about a place that makes it a birding hotspot? Flocks of parakeets and constant birding action? Mixed flock action that leaves you with a bewildered, automatic multi-lifer smile? A place that doesn’t have many species but is reliable for choice, rare birds? Or just a place that has consistently good birding, a place where one can visit and just lose his or herself with birds in a beautiful natural setting?

Or, as with the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Initiative, a multitude of sites that collectively provide access to most bird species on the Costa Rica list?
No matter how one defines it, a birding hotspot is always worth a visit because a birder will always see something, and sometimes, many species that are tough to encounter elsewhere.

Bay-headed Tanager- in Costa Rica, easy but always nice to see.

That’s how it is at Medio Queso, Costa Rica. When I think of a birding hotspot, man does this site fit the bill. This northern wetland made it onto the national birding RADAR nearly ten years ago when local birder and biologist Daniel Martinez found Pinnated Bitterns and an uber rare for Costa Rica, American Bittern during bird surveys at the site.

Since then, subsequent visits have resulted in sightings of one challenging species after another. Some years ago, during my first visit to Medio Queso, while watching a Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Pinnated Bittern, Robert Dean and I wondered how good the birding might be on that river that passes through the middle of the marsh.

Robert eventually arranged a boat trip at Medio Queso and I will never forget his reaction. In brief, it went something like, “Was it good? It was bloody fantastic! Least Bittern, Sungrebe, Jabiru, Pinnated Bitterns, and then we had an Aplomado Falcon fly overhead.”

He actually saw more than that, and there have been several excellent boat trips since then that have produced views of Spotted Rail, Yellow-breasted Crake, and other crakes all on the same trip. Although the boat ride is best, quite a lot can also be seen from the dike. Not having enough time for a boat trip, that’s what Marilen and I did a few days ago and as hoped, Medio Queso showed why this wetland is such a reliable birding hotspot.

After spending Friday night in Los Chiles, we opted for a pre-dawn visit to Medio Queso to see if we could get lucky with Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and who knows, maybe Ocellated Poorwill? We could have left in the middle of the night to invest in more nocturnal birding time but since that eliminates sleep from the equation and most nocturnal birds are active during the hour before dawn, we didn’t leave Cabinas Felicia until 4 a.m.

Medio Queso being a short drive from Los Chiles, mere minutes later, we were looking for eye shine and listening for night birds. As is typical with night birding in Costa Rica and many parts of the Neotropical region, Common Pauraques flushed from the gravel road. Striped Owl ended up giving us the slip but we should catch up with that at some point, hopefully at or near the homestead. No luck with the poorwill (that bird might not even be present at that site), but we did connect with our year Common Potoo! We got our Costa Rica potoo sweep in the form of at least two calling birds, one from a dense tree plantation next to the road. As a bonus, we also heard Pacific Screech-Owl and a Collared Forest-Falcon.

As dawn broke at the marsh, Green Ibises gave their guttural, rollicking calls. Two eventually flew nearby, as usual, looking a lot like long-billed Black Vultures in the process. We also saw a couple of Pinnated Bitterns, Tricolored Heron, and a few other expected species. The bitterns were easy to find in areas of the marsh with short grass; odd pale spots that morphed into straw-colored, stripey herons when viewed with binoculars.

We also had Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Purple Gallinules, Green-breasted Mangos, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and other nice species. It was fun seeing them but these weren’t our main targets, we had already enjoyed them on our January visit to Medio Queso. We were at this hotspot in May because a very rare for Costa Rica Striated Heron had been repeatedly seen there for at least a month. Would it be there for us? Would we also see Black-collared Hawk? The only way to find out is by going birding, thankfully, we had our chance and whether we found those birds or not, a morning of birds in a beautiful natural setting is never a waste of time.

By the river, we found our hawk! Looking a bit like a Brahminy Kite, the Black-collared Hawk is like a sluggish tropical Osprey. Unlike the Osprey, it almost only occurs in areas with extensive freshwater wetlands and slow-going, lowland rivers and lakes. In Costa Rica, it is very local, one of the better places for seeing it being the Cano Negro and Los Chiles area. Our year bird was a beautiful chestnut and black adult with a white head hanging out on the river near the dock.

We searched for the heron by scanning the river and marsh over and over but kept coming up with Green Herons and other regular species. Nevertheless, persistence paid off, we did eventually find the bird! It wasn’t until our way out just after 7 but there it was, perched above the marsh. The small pale gray heron with a black cap stood out from the fresh green marsh grass and reminded me of a miniature Great Blue or Gray Heron. While glassing this choice species, before we knew it, a Green Heron chased it from its perch and it flew further away. Even at a distance, the pale coloration still made it easy to see out there in the green of the marsh.

On the drive back to Los Chiles, hoping to spot a potoo, I scanned the trees for any suspicious chunks of wood and wished for a Mangrove or Yellow-billed Cuckoo to appear. We left without views of those species but we weren’t complaining. We had added several year birds to the 2019 Team Tyto list during a fine morning of birding, looking forward to more!

Hope to see this one at some point in 2019!

Although we didn’t have time to visit Cano Negro, most visiting birders include this with Medio Queso and with good reason. The birding only gets better and a lot can be seen right on the grounds of the best place to stay in Cano Negro, Hotel de Campo. This hotel has also helped with reforestation and conservation in Cano Negro and is developing packages for birders. Contact me to learn more.

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