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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Good Birding on the Manuel Brenes Road- It’s All About the Habitat

Birding tours in Costa Rica tend to visit the best sites, especially when the tour is organized local experts. However, no matter how good a site is, it might not make it onto a tour because of factors related to logistics. For example, even if a Great Jacamar was living in those woods, visiting the area may require too much of a detour from the tour route. Or, the site with the hawk-eagles and parrotlets is just too difficult to bird with a group. This is why most tours don’t make it to Rara Avis, El Copal, or sites south of Limon. Some do, but most don’t and it’s also why most birding tours in Costa Rica don’t check out the excellent sites along the San Ramon-La Fortuna road. Although that route is a good and paved road and easy to visit, it’s just hard to fit into most of the classic Costa Rica birding itineraries.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that a birder can’t visit on his or her own and possibly see Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Three-wattled Bellbird. Go to the right places and you might see those megas and much more! I was reminded of the quality birding in this area during a recent morning on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve.

Although I never actually make it to the excellent cloud forests of the university owned reserve, high quality birding on the road there is par for the course and with good reason. As with so many other great birding sites, it’s all about the habitat and since this road passes through an extensive area of mature foothill/middle elevation rainforest, the species count is typically high and punctuated with the uncommon.

Some highlights and tidbits from a recent morning:

Three-wattled Bellbird

Although it is likely seasonal, this mega cotinga is regularly heard and seen in the area of the Manuel Brenes Reserve. The one on Monday was a female that appeared in the mist, a dove-sized bird perched on an exposed branch of a roadside Cecropia. She let us watch her for a good spell before swooping off her perch and into the misty green of the forest.

Mixed mega flock

White-throated Shrike-Tanager

Mixed flocks can be composed of a handful of birds, ten species, or many birds of many species racing through the trees for some frenzied over stimulation of the avian kind. Usually, the better the habitat, the more likely a birder will encounter such a memorable experience. We had one of these the other morning, although I couldn’t get on all of the birds, we had nice looks at White-throated Shrike-Tanager along with various other tanagers, woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, flycatchers and so on.

Umbrellabird or Toucanet?

Just before we saw the mixed flock, I glimpsed what appeared to be a large black bird fly over the card. The view was the briefest of brief but I swear it was black underneath and was fairly large. Unfortunately, although I tried, I just couldn’t find where it had flown, maybe it went too far in to see. Based on what I saw, I suspect that it was either an umbrellabird or a Yellow-eared Toucanet. Both are possible at this site, I wonder which of those choice species it was!

Tawny-chested Flycatcher!

I have had this local near endemic just down the road at Lands in Love but never at the Manuel Brenes road. It was nice to find one, I hope it sticks around!

No monklet, Lattice-tailed Trogon, or quail-doves

I just mention that we did not find these species to emphasize that one doesn’t usually see every possible bird on every visit, no matter how nice the habitat is. Maybe we would have found that Lattice-tailed Trogon in the afternoon? I wasn’t surprised about the monklet but it’s always worth it to listen and look for this miniscule puffbird in the right places. The more you visit a site with high quality habitat, the better because every time you bird that same forest, the laws of probability make it more likely to find that Sharpbill or even an RVG Cuckoo.

State of the road

Four wheel drive can be required in a few spots. You might make it with a small car but if it has been raining for several days before the visit, you might also get stuck!

Most of all, I was reminded that the best places to see more birds in Costa Rica are the places with the best high quality forest. To learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!


Looking for Year Birds in the Pacific Lowlands of Costa Rica

Another year is quickly coming to an end and with it comes the planning, the possible rush to pick up those final year birds. The urge to suddenly race to a distant wetland, strain the ears for late nocturnal migrant, or trudge through mountain nights in a quest for uncooperative owls depends on how serious the year list is. For us, the endeavor has been a bit more easy going. Restrained by time and responsibilities, we haven’t gone to chase that Lovely Cotinga near Turrialba nor even the extremely cooperative Aplomado Falcon that was in San Isidro.

But, our birding year has still been marked by serious attempts to bird in the right places and along those lines, we have had some fine success. Thanks to an invitation from the San Vito Birding Club, we got the chance to see Lance-tailed Manakin and many other year birds. Thanks to guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we heard Ocellated Crakes and other key species in Durika, and also visited several other places in Costa Rica.

Since I have also done a fair bit of guiding on my own, my personal year list has more species than that of Team Tyto but even so, our team list is at the cusp of an impressive 600 species. Thanks to a recent trip to the Pacific lowlands and more chances for birding before January first, we should surpass that number by at least a few species. Some of the highlights and musings from that recent trip:

Puntarenas pays off

We would have seen more if we had taken the ferry but with no time for the boat, we had to settle on a quick 45 minute afternoon stop . This still worked out because the bird activity out in the Gulf of Nicoya was good and included several gulls and terns flapping around as well as a squadron of pelicans group diving for fish. I wonder what else was out there that day? We were pleased with our looks at Franklin’s Gulls, Elegant Terns, and our first, long overdue Black Terns of the year. It was the birdy type of day where I wish we could have stayed longer but we had other places to go.

Curlew at Punta Morales!

Long-billed Curlew is a rare but regular migrant to Costa Rica, it seems like we get 3 or so each winter in the Gulf of Nicoya. The salt ponds at Cocorocas near Punta Morales are a good site, this past visit finally paid off with one sleeping curlew way out there with the Whimbrels. Since it was a bit far off and was hiding that extra long beak, the bird didn’t stand out like a curlew should. However, with careful scoping, we could see that the tawny colored bird with the orange belly was too much bigger than the Whimbrels to be a godwit and it also had a large, prominent pale eye ring. A very good year bird and the only one at Morales but it was still fun to also see dozens of Wilson’s Plovers and two Collared Plovers among other species. There were chances at year Mangrove Cuckoo, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, and Mangrove Rail but we just didn’t have the time to find them.

Las Trancas in the morning

After staying overnight in Canas, we left early for the hour drive to one of the most accessible wetland sites near Liberia, the Las Trancas farm fields. A large, flat area used for growing sugarcane and rice, this site is an excellent hotspot that has turned up several rare birds. Winter is the best time to visit, November in particular for one of our main targets, the elusive and local Spotted Rail.

A Spotted Rail from a couple years ago at Las Trancas.

As small numbers of Dickcissels flew overhead, We checked the site, sometimes in conjunction with another local birder, Rodrigo Lopez, and eventually found our year Tricolored Munias. Scanning vegetation and skies failed to turn up hoped for Northern Harrier and White-tailed Hawk nor the Aplomado Falcon that had been recently seen but we did have nice views of Harriss’s Hawk and got a quick look at a hunting Merlin.

Try as we might for the rail, it just would not respond so we reluctantly left for a quick visit to the beach. At Playa Panama, we were entertained by schools of small fish breaching to avoid larger fish that also jumped on occasion. Brown Pelicans would then follow suit, actively flying in to see what they could scoop out of the water. At one point, an adult Brown Booby also appeared to do its diving thing.

On the way back, while driving through Las Trancas, frantic waving from Rodrigo caught our attention. Yes, he had just had the rails along with a Sora! After showing us where they had finally come to the edge of the wet rice, we had glimpses of the Sora and heard at least two Spotted Rails. Although they refused to show themselves, a heard bird is still a year bird! The final interesting sighting at this excellent site was a Great Egret that had caught a small snake.

Rincon de la Vieja

Our next destination was Rinconcito Lodge where I would be guiding a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip. We didn’t have anything on the drive there although I did see some interesting open oak savanna habitat that merits early morning bird surveys.

During our stay at Rinconcito, we birded around the lodge and visited two different areas of the national park. Although we did pick up a few year birds, overall, the birding was very slow. This may have been a result of windy and rainy weather as well as not being able to enter the park before 8 a.m.. That said, highlights included great views of Ruddy Woodcreeper, one hard only Tody Motmot, and excellent looks at Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have the time nor appropriate weather to see more of the uncommon species that live in Rincon de la Vieja.

On the drive back, we seriously tried for American Kestrel sans success. Two Pearl Kites and a male Merlin eating a Barn Swallow were consolation but additional year birds for Team Tyto will have to wait for another day.

big year Birding Costa Rica

Twitching the Ruff

That title would be a good one for new rap song or a dance practiced by the youth but those in the birding know understand what it really means. If you are new to birding or ended up at this site because you thought “Twitching the Ruff” was a a new dance, these definitions should provide illumination:

Twitching– The act of going to see a bird (usually rare and/or unusual) that often involves some sort of extra bit of travel and effort. The “twitch” probably stems from the nervous actions or attitudes expressed and felt by birders suddenly presented with an opportunity to see a very rare bird species near enough to home. For example, a birder in New York can’t travel to Costa Rica to twitch a Large-footed Finch. That would actually be traveling to look for a bird where it normally occurs. But, if a New Yorker heard about a Corn Crake in Queens in the evening and then called in sick the following morning to rush to where it was and anxiously see it, that there would be a classic twitch.

After a successful “twitch”, a birder might exclaim, “I twitched the Corn Crake!” If the crake was caught and killed by a domestic cat, instead, you might hear, “I tried to twitch the crake but dipped on account of a cat”. In the real world, either situation would likely include language too foul for this site, one in jubilation, the other in rancid fury.

Ruff- A small wading bird that nests in northern Eurasia and mostly migrates to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. It is likely named for the resemblance of the male’s extravagant puffy neck plumage on breeding grounds to the similarly extravagant collar seen as high fashion during the Middle Ages.

A winter plumaged Ruff from Israel.

The most important thing to know about twitching is that just because you try and twitch a bird does NOT mean that you will see it. Since birds are mobile and nature is a savage affair for survival, the sooner you twitch, the more likely you will admire that special bird through binoculars. This is why birders get anxious, why they race to the site, why they keep up on sightings before making the trip. They have seen hawks catch a squirrel or dove or sparrow, have witnessed what quickly happens to the weak and vulnerable, especially migrants far from familiar habitats and haunts.

This is why Mary and I went on a Ruff twitch this past weekend. The bird, yes, a Ruff supposedly straight from northern Asia (!) was found in Costa Rica during the previous week and better yet, it was seen every day for a few days after the initial sighting. The habitat was the same so the chances looked good for it to still be there, other cool birds were also present, and damn was I anxious to go!

Oh and Ruff is also a mega for Costa Rica. There are only a few documented sightings so it was now or never for our country (and lifer for Mary) Ruff! But, to get there, we couldn’t take the direct route. No, we were in for a circuitous twitch but it was the only nice way to make it happen. This first involved driving in the opposite direction of the Ruff to drop Mary’s daughter at her grandmother’s place (something that worked out well in the overall scheme of things). After that, we were off to the north and then west, crossing the continental divide at Volcan Tenorio near Bijagua. Although I had hoped for some side twitching of rare birds on that route, the weather was not in our favor.

We then made our way to the town of Canas in late afternoon rains, spending the night at the Cabinas Arena y Mar (recommended as a cheap, easy place to stay, it is located just around the corner from Cabinas Liwi)). This was so we could get to the Ruff site with more than enough time to connect with our target bird before driving back past Bijagua and on to San Carlos.

Early Sunday morning, we made our way to the site, a series of flooded rice fields along country roads far from everything. Despite being led astray on multiple occasions by Google Maps, we did find the place and started scanning the birds straight away. We were the first birders to arrive but far from the last. Where was it? The lost shorebird wasn’t at the first place we checked so we started watching from another spot when some friends appeared and told us where it had been seen on the previous day. Figuring that people looking in more than one place would find the bird more quickly, they donned rubber boots and ventured into the muddy fields while we picked another spot to watch.

The habitat was great and there were good numbers of Blue-winged Teals and more yellowlegs than I had ever seen in Costa Rica at one time. We had great looks at a sauntering Jabiru, some Stilt Sandpipers sewing machined in the shallow water, flocks of Least Sands flew around, and Wilson’s Phalaropes acted like tiny ducks but where was the Ruff?

A Jabiru in flight.

After thoroughly checking this one spot where a bunch of birds were obscured by tufts of grass, I noticed that many were sort of moving out of that site and slowly spreading to other parts of the muddy flooded fields. Going back to our first spot, I started scanning there once again and within seconds, there it was. A pseudo yellowlegs with more brightly colored legs and pale edging to feathers on the back. That was it! I got Mary on the bird and while she ticked a mega, I called Anthony to tell him the news. He showed up shortly after with the other guys who had been working the muddy fields and we all enjoyed Costa Rica’s most accessible Ruff. Not long after, some other birders arrived, one of whom ticked a Ruff and several other lifers on his birthday no less (which was fantastic because what better way is there to celebrate a birding birthday?).

Two other Ruffs from Israel.

After much admiration of the Ruff, teasing out a few decidedly uncommon year Long-billed Dowitchers in the back, and looking for other birds, Mary and I had to leave for the drive back over to the other side of the mountains. We didn’t see too much of note along the way but we couldn’t complain, the twitch was a successful one that resulted in a major country and year tick. What’s next? The Aplomado Falcon that has been hanging out in Guanacaste? I could go for that…

Many thanks to local birder Juan Astorga for being adventurous enough to wander the back roads of Taboga, find this mega and share the sighting with everyone. Gracias!

bird photography Birding Costa Rica

How to Find the Best Bird Photography Tour in Costa Rica

It’s November and in Costa Rica, that translates to a transition between the wet and dry seasons. There is some wind and rain and fewer birding tours but visit the country now and you can still have fantastic birding. That’s just pretty much how it goes when birding Costa Rica because whether visiting in November, during the high season, or any other time of the year, with easy access to so many excellent sites, you just can’t help but see a lot.

Including serious beauties like the Red-headed Barbet.

The same goes for bird photography, visit the right sites and the birds will be there. Use the right guide and he or she will help you find and photograph those birds, even the tough ones. Speaking of birding and photography tours, November is also when the pre-tour season kicks into gear. For local birding guides, this means scouting sites both old and new, booking the last available rooms during the high season, and thinking of better ways to help birders and photographers surpass their expectations. This is at least what I do and if I were looking for a bird photography tour, these are the factors I would focus on:

A tour led by professionals with experience in guiding photographers

Not every guide has experience with photographers and even fewer guides have worked with bird photography. Look into reviews and information about past trips. Has the guide and/or company led bird photo tours in Costa Rica? How about other places and how many? If the company has done such tours for at least two or three years and keeps leading more, they are doing something right because they are working in a highly competitive field.

Green Honeycreeper- just one of many stunning birds waiting to be photographed in Costa Rica.

A birding photography tour that visits the right spots and stays at good hotels

Where will the tour go? Is there an accurate and honest description? Check out the hotels in the itinerary, if they resonate with other bird photographers, you will be headed to the right sites. If the birds mentioned don’t jive with what occurs in that area, think twice before booking the tour. If the people associated with and giving the tour stand out as experts in their field, the tour will be the right choice.

Although one could stay at the most luxurious hotels in Costa Rica, these aren’t the best places for bird photography. For the best tour, you want to stay at comfortable, quality hotels for sure but they should also provide excellent photo opportunities right there on the premises.

A Keel-billed Toucan from Laguna del Lagarto- one of the top bird photography sites not just in Costa Rica but in all of Central America.

A tour that spends enough time at the best spots

Quick tours are alright especially if you only have a few days to work with but the most productive photography tours strive spend at least a couple of nights at each spot. This is because since many tropical bird species are naturally rare, numbers and occurrence of various species can vary from one day to the next. Factor in variations in lighting and other aspects of bird photography and at least two days at each site greatly improves the chances of getting excellent shots of more birds.

A tour offered for a good price

Finally, you don’t want to pay too much for a tour (who does?). Fortunately, the best prices for photo tours tend to be offered by local companies because they have less overhead cost. Since very experienced local guides also know where to find key birds and can thus provide a better bird photography experience, going with a quality local company is the way to go.

The best bird photography tour in Costa Rica I know of will be happening this January. Running from January 15th to January 27th, this LiferTours itinerary has been carefully designed by a very experienced top local guide to access top bird photography sites for chances at a wide variety of hummingbirds including

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Violet Sabrewing

and Volcano Hummingbird among other species.

Tanagers like

Bay-headed Tanager,

Crimson-collared Tanager among various others,

and such avian stars as Resplendent Quetzal

Black Guan

Brown-hooded Parrot

King Vulture and many other birds in beautiful natural surroundings. This tour visits such fantastic places as Chachagua Rainforest and the Arenal area, Bosque de Paz, Quetzal Paradise and Savegre, Laguna del Lagarto, and the beautiful Rio Perlas Hotel and will be guided by an excellent, very experienced bilingual local guide. To learn more about the best two weeks of bird photography to be had in Costa Rica during 2020, contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to give yourself a fantastic start to 2020!

Note- I took these images with a bridge camera at sites visited on this tour, just imagine what kind of shots you can get with better equipment!