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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.

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