Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

Twitching Blackpoll Warbler and Cedar Waxwings in Costa Rica

“One birder’s twitch is another birder’s trash.” At least that’s what some members of the birding realm say. In non birding vernacular, that would mean that the bird species yearned for by some are so common as to be ignored by others. Examples include local birders in Ohio rushing outside and letting that screen door bang shut as they race to see a Ruff. Birders from Kansas driving 6 long desperate hours to meet with a seriously lost Spotted Redshank before it keeps on moving. Birders from Toronto skipping on over to Toronto Island to lay eyes on a Variegated Flycatcher (I was one of those lucky birders). All prioritize and move into birding action because those lost birds were brought into twitching range by the same evolutionary dead end wanderlust that could, just as quickly, urge the birds to destinations unknown.

When chasing birds that are common in other places, one of the rather obvious questions that might be asked is, “why not travel to the places where those birds are common?” These days, the answer to just about any question pertaining to travel is obvious (it starts with a C and ends with 9) but during other, easier times, well, it’s always a heck of a lot easier to see a bird near home or in one’s own country than flying to another part of the world. Yes, there are more new birds waaaay over there but…easier said than done. Not to mention, there’s also that country or county or province list thing going on, the urge to collect stuff for a certain area, to maintain and add to a list for some sense of achievement.

Twitches of course don’t just happen in North America, major twitching goes on in Europe especially in the British Isles as well as most other parts of the globe. From the other side of the Atlantic, a twitch might include calling in sick to pilgrimage your way to a Lesser Yellowlegs, or dropping everything for a once in a lifetime meeting with a Gray Catbird (Eurasian soil at least). In Costa Rica, as with every place, we have our own set of “twitch birds” and although rare and local birds are on that list (note the major RVG Cuckoo twitch), most of the wanted species are migrants. In other parts of their range, most are also a dime a dozen.

But it doesn’t matter how common a bird is elsewhere, it only matters how rare that bird is where one happens to be birding. This is why I recently spent precious time driving up a muddy track and walking through tropical pastures to look for…Cedar Waxwings. It’s why we followed that morning jaunt with a drive to a hotel where a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen.

Yes, Cedar Waxwings. They might have been a common bird of parks in western New York, a regular old lazy whispering bird of the northern summer, but in Costa Rica, the sleek crested berry eater is one of the most wanted species on the block. Think of it as our Pine Grosbeak, as an irruptive winter finch that rarely shows, and hardly ever in big numbers. It’s a bird that doesn’t favor Costa Rica, one that occasionally appears at fruiting figs and maybe it’s just me but just to make them a bit harder to find, it doesn’t seem like they call as much in Costa Rica either. But then again, I’ve only seen them here a few times.

They might be common up north but I completely get why local birders strive and drive to see waxwings. It was a while ago some time in the late 70s but I still remember my excitement at seeing my first Cedar Waxwings, can vaguely picture them in the willows by a creek in Pennsylvania. My aunt Chris recalls it too, last time I saw her, she told me she remembered me saying, “Cedar Waxwings!”, being excited about those waxwings by the creek. I sure was, there were a few hundred, they looked amazing, and they were incredible lifers. A golden day for an 8 year old birder.

With that same sense of excitement, Marylen, Samantha, and I went looking for a group of waxwings just a half hour drive from where we live. They had been seen for a few days before then, had been seen the day before but would they still be there? Since they had been feeding on huge figs full of fruit, I figured we had an excellent chance but as with any twitch, who knows? Waxwings are migrants, they could leave at any moment, get too much of an urge to head north, just vanish and leave a twitcher staring into empty trees.

However, as with any twitch, you never know unless you try and if you stay home and someone else sees that bird, you run a big chance of being hit with a big fat sour lemon pie of regret. Since the regret option sucks (and because our chances seemed good), we went for the waxwings. After going to the wrong spot first, thanks to friend and fellow birder Diego Quesada, we got back on track, made our way to the right spot and walked up a muddy track past the songs of White-eared Ground-Sparrows and Rufous-capped Warblers.

Migrants were also around and included the likes of Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Olive-sided Flycatchers. An excellent area of green space, of coffee farms with huge figs, it didn’t take long before a flock of waxwings appeared! They flew into view, lisped a couple of times and quickly dropped out of sight. We couldn’t say we didn’t see them but better views would be a lot nicer. Trudging up and down pastured hills couldn’t refind them but fortunately, just as we were about to leave, we ran into Diego and fellow birding guide, Jheudy Carballo. They had the birds and even had them in the scope!

As you can see, they weren’t exactly perched in full easy view.

After getting our fill of scoped waxwings in Costa Rica, we triumphantly returned to the car (because how else do you return to a vehicle after a successful twitch?), made our way to the house and got right back in the vehicle for the drive to bird number dos- le Blackpoll Warbler.

This second twitch of the day was about as easy as you can get (and is just how we like it!). We entered the Buena Vista Hotel, the receptionist welcomed us and upon seeing our binocs, pointed us to the trails where the bird was being seen. Thanks to directions from Diego, we made our way to the spot, and thanks to a local birder who was watching it, saw the bird with seconds.

In typical warbler fashion, the male Blackpoll didn’t exactly sit still. Getting ready to migrate, it didn’t have any time to rest. It might have come from Alaska, might have lived in Quebec. Both places are pretty far, both require a lot of flying fuel. It was getting those resources for its personal, perilous flight from a fruiting fig, eating insects, maybe even even some fruit.

The good thing is that it was fueling up right in front of us, was favoring this one fig tree only a bit above eye level. Even better, it was an adult male in breeding plumage. Since we rarely get Blackpolls in Costa Rica, the views, the experience, was a rare treat. It’s one of those birds that probably winter here and there in Costa Rica, that pass through on occasion but in numbers small enough to seriously limit chances of finding them and so when one is found, you might just want to go see it.

A successful twitch is always a good day, success with a double twitch that includes good looks at the target birds is fantastic. I wonder what the next twitch in Costa Rica will be? A Gray Gull would be pretty nice…

As with every twitch, they wouldn’t happen without birders finding and sharing the gen. Many thanks go to local birder Alex Molinas Arias for the waxwings and Diego and Jheudy of Birding Experiences for helping us see them, and to the author of The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues, for finding that Blackpoll!

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Lifer Benefits of Birding Costa Rica in Cabuya

Bird a place enough and the barrel of lifers gets emptied, bit by bit. Eventually, it only has room for the sneaky tough and unexpected birds; the ones you never imagine seeing, the species relegated to the rarest of blue moon birding moments.

Having birded Costa Rica for some time, that’s how it is for me and that’s Ok! Like others who have been birding for a lifetime, I find myself delving into bird behavior, moving further into the finer details of birding. Oh, I’ll still take those lifers any which way I can but I’m pleased to watch the Cliff Swallows fly high overhead and imagine what they see, the mountains and plains where they eventually go, to places where I once worked in Colorado, the sun blasted former territories of the Comanche people. I’m grateful to listen to the songs of wrens and watch tanagers forage in a fruiting fig. But, give me a chance to see a new bird or two, there’s a good chance I’ll take it.

A few days ago, I got that lifer chance on a pelagic trip out of Malpais. There were some chances for new birds but even then, they weren’t guaranteed. For me, the open seas hold several lifer possibilities but most of those choice birds are much further than the limits of a day trip. A 6 hour trip holds less promise of new birds but a few were still very much possible and the rest, well, since I hadn’t seen them in a while, they were much appreciated pseudo lifers.

I didn’t really have any chances at new birds on land but anyone new to birding in Costa Rica would have a ball around Cabuya. There’s a good amount of habitat and we had some wonderful birding. The following are some reasons for and highlights of birding around Cabuya:

Good Forest on the Road to Malpais

The next time I go to Cabuya (I do plan on going back!), I look forward to some early morning birding on the road to Malpais. It’s not the best of roads and you might have some serious issues during the wet season but even then, I would walk or bike it because the habitat along much of the road is very birdy. Near Cabuya, the road passes through edge and second growth and then eventually passes through some rare and beautiful mature forest.

During a brief bit of dawn chorus, we heard most of the expected species including Gray-headed Dove, Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other species. A few days birding along that road would be some sweet tropical birding.

Northern Potoo, Middle American Screech-Owl and More

On the afternoon of our arrival to Cabuya, local birder Wilfredo Villalobos brought us to a side road that can be good for night birds. We stayed until dusk, listening to the calls of the later afternoon and even heard a Middle American Screech-Owl. When it got dark enough for the small owl to feel comfortable about moving around, it indeed popped into brief view. To make the birding even better, at the same time, a Northern Potoo started calling!

Before long, we were looking at that choice nocturnal species before it flew off into the night. Wilfredo told us that he also gets Black-and-white Owl on that road. Other fairly common owl species in that area include Pacific Screech-Owl, Mottled Owl, and Spectacled Owl.

Gray-headed Doves and Other Interesting Species of the Nicoya Peninsula

The avifauna around Cabuya includes a nice assortment of dry and moist forest species. That means lots of Banded Wrens, Ruddy and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Thicket and Little Tinamous, Red-lored Parrot, Gray-headed Dove, perhaps the rare Violaceous Quail-Dove, and much more.

Seawatching

On the way to Cabuya, we made a few stops along the coast to check extensive rocky outcrops and ocean waters. The rocks had Ruddy Turnstones and at lest one Wandering Tattler (a rather rare and local bird in Costa Rica), and the ocean had 300 plus migrating Franklin’s Gulls (!). The gulls were in a massive raft just offshore and eventually took to the sky to continue migrating north. Many had the rosy blush of breeding plumage and with their chattering, they seemed to be excited about flying back up to the northern prairies.

I would love to visit on days with stormy weather or just do some morning seawatching during migration; I bet some really good birds fly by that spot.

Digiscoped Franklin’s Gulls

Pelagic Trips

Thanks to Wilfredo Villalobos of Cabuya Bird Watching, a number of pelagic trips have been done in this area. What’s especially nice about these trips is that since Malpais is fairly close to deep water, the boat reaches the continental shelf in an hour or less. Since the boat captains are professional fishermen, they are in touch with other fishing boats, know how to find the fish, and therefore, the birds.

On our 6 hour trip, shortly after leaving the coast, upon hearing where the feeding Spinner Dolphins were, we made a beeline to that spot. Holy smokes. Try and imagine a few hundred Spinner Dolphins churning the water and jumping and spinning right next to the boat while being surrounded by hundreds of Brown Boobies, Wedge-tailed and Pink-footed Shearwaters along with smaller numbers of Galapagos Shearwaters, some Sooty Terns flying high overhead, and other birds joining the mix. On our wonderful day, those others included a few Arctic Terns, one Bridled Tern, a couple of Sabine’s Gulls, juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger, a few Brown Noddies, a few Pomarine Jaegers, some Least and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, 1 Masked Booby, and 1 Red-footed Booby!

Lest I neglect to mention, oh yes and there was that one fantastic lifer, a White Tern!

This is a screenshot of picture taken by Diego Quesada, an excellent local guide and co-owner of Birding Experiences.

Also known as the Fairy Tern, this Snowy Cotinga looking seabird did us a favor by staying with the boat for a couple hours! I mean, we sort of almost got tired of looking at it. Not really, but we had to look away to keep checking for the other rare birds. Although we didn’t see them on that day, they were probably out there somewhere, we just had too many birds to check over too large of an area!

On the way back, we had more looks at storm-petrels and one sweet Red-necked Phalarope. You won’t see the same birds on every trip, as with all pelagics, they vary by season and other factors, BUT, you will certainly see something cool. To learn more about those trips, contact Wilfredo via his Cabuya Bird Watching page.

If you do manage to visit Cabuya for birding, make sure to contact Wilfredo Villalobos. He may be available to show you around, he and his wife have rooms for rent, and they also serve some tasty pizza!

Categories
biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

4 Months Birding in Costa Rica, 540 Species

In the times of our pandemic, official and personal restrictions have placed a certain degree of boundaries on birding. The view through the window has become a prime channel for bird observation. Backyard birds have been watched far more than at other times, not necessarily because we don’t want to watch the neighborhood woodpeckers, finches or caroling thrushes but because they end up being the only birds we have access to.

It’s nice to have access to this bird.

At least that’s how it’s been for myself and I suspect much the same for many other birders.

In other times, we would have spent more time further afield, travelled to more places, perhaps birded much more with other people. Such a higher frequency of birding options generally results in a higher year list and indeed, in a non-pandemic 2021, I would have probably identified more bird species by this point. However, thanks to occasional guiding in strategic sites, and going birding in Costa Rica when I can, so far, I find my year list surprisingly higher than I had imagined.

After a couple of recent trips to Tortuguero, I am at the edge of 550 species for 2021, here are a few observations about my ongoing year list:

Some Rare and Challenging Species

A fair number of rare and tough species for Costa Rica have found their way onto the list including ducks like Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, Sungrebe, Reddish Egret, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-chinned Swift, Ochraceous Pewee, Tody Motmot, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. The rarest birds have probably been Ruff and Violet-green Swallow, favorite sightings are many and include from shore Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers and such migrants as Cooper’s Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Scarlet Tanager.

Still Missing Quite a Few Common Species

It’s interesting to note that I have yet to hear or see Long-tailed Tyrant, Rufous Motmot, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Royal Flycatcher, and various other bird species hard to miss during visits to Carara National Park and the Caribbean lowlands. With that in mind, I guess the absence of those species from my year list makes sense as I have yet to visit Carara in 2021 and haven’t done much birding in places where these birds are common.

Costa Rica is a True Hotspot for Birding and Biodiversity

A bird list of nearly 550 species from a very limited number of trips (and missing several common species) is a reminder of the incredible birding possible in this small country. In Costa Rica, you don’t need to go far to see a lot and many sites with quality habitat are easily accessible. Know where to go in birding in Costa Rica, stay focused, and you can see literally hundreds of species.

A Fair Chance at Breaking 700

Given the species on my year list and it not even being the end of April, if I can still go birding at the same rate, I should break 700 by the end of the year. Not if strict restrictions suddenly take place and keep me at home for 90% of the time but if I can at least manage key trips to the right places, 700 is in reach. If I can keep up the rate of new birds, I might not even need to visit Durika for Ocellated Crake.

No matter where I end up going birding, or what sort of restrictions take place, I will still be doing a lot more from home. That’s alright, there are birds to see out back but to be honest, after today, I do wonder how many will still be seen. This morning, on the other side of the wall, a crew of guys with saws were diligently cutting back vegetation from the wall. We suppose that’s what the purpose was, to cut back from the wall, perhaps to fulfill some regulation. The terrible part of it was cutting a couple of fairly large trees along with smaller trees that would have played important, precious roles in reforesting an area in desperate need of green space.

Those same trees would have also played some role in carbon sequestration at a time when we damn well need as many trees as possible, need to let trees grow big and old and magnificent. The larger trees were used by many migrant and resident species, the flowering vines on them were constantly visited by butterflies, Blue-vented Hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, orioles, even wintering Painted Buntings. I even saw Cerulean Warblers on a few occasions, I saw Golden-winged Warblers there as well. It was where the Merlin perched on a few special mornings, it was where an Olive-sided Flycatcher sallied for insects just last week.

It wasn’t a huge amount of habitat but given the number of birds I saw there (every single morning) and the scant bit of reforestation taking place, I dare say that even that bit of habitat was important. I apologize for going somewhat off topic at the end of this post but when they cut those trees down, knowing what used them, what lived there, it was like losing a vital patch of locally woven life that interconnects the Amazon, Andes, and places to the north. It was seeing important and rare potential, decades, maybe a couple centuries of carbon sequestration being needlessly eliminated. And for what? Too close to the wall. Those trees, you know, they might cause trouble.

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica lowlands

2021 Birding in Tortuguero National Park- 6 Updates

Tortuguero National Park protects a fairly large area of mature lowland rainforest mostly accessed by canals. This winning combination of water and forest opens the door for a nice suite of tropical birds adapted to tropical forested rivers and lagoons (think Sungrebe, Agami Heron, and small kingfishers). Add a good variety of lowland rainforest species that can be watched from the easy-going comfort of a boat and outside chances at large raptors and rare migrants, and Tortuguero becomes a quality Costa Rican birding destination.

Sungrebe

Despite the easy-going, enjoyable birding, Tortuguero National Park doesn’t find itself on the regular birding circuit. Yes, birders do visit and custom birding tours include Tortuguero but since the park requires a fair detour from other sites, it tends to be left as a trip for birders to do on their own. Luckily, thanks to cooperation and organized efforts by folks from Tortuguero, this site is very much sited as a trip that can be easily organized and done all on your own even during a pandemic. See these 6 updates to see what’s in store for a Tortuguero trip in 2021:

A Good Road to La Pavona

La Pavona is where most of the boats depart for Tortuguero. This waypoint basically consists of a good-sized open-air restaurant, lots of secure parking, and a point on the river where the boats leave from. In the past, at least half of the road there was a rocky, slow ride. Not any more! A couple years ago, the road was paved all the way to La Pavona to make for a quick and easy drive.

A Very Productive Forest Patch on the Way to La Pavona

With the drive to La Pavona being quicker than in the past, it can be tempting to head straight to the parking area. However, a few kilometers before Pavona, there is a patch of mature forest that merits a stop. On a recent trip, a quick stop produced an excellent variety of lowland species. Shortly after exiting the car, I had Chestnut-colored and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, White-necked and Pied Puffbirds, toucans, Laughing Falcon, White-winged Flycatcher, Plain-colored Tanager, and more.

A fruiting tree was also bringing in a lot including various migrants. There was probably 20 Red-eyed Vireos (or more), several Scarlet Tanagers, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, an Eastern Kingbird or two, and other birds. This forest is easy to recognize because (sadly) it’s the only mature forest right next to the road.

Organized Parking and Boat Service from La Pavona

Once you get to Pavona, the parking area is well organized (at least it was the other day). A parking lot attendant sold me the parking ticket before I got out of the car, and I was able to buy my boat tickets from the driver of our private, pre-arranged boat (your hotel can probably do this). Boat tickets can also be purchased in the restaurant along with small meals and drinks. The boat ride itself was an hour and a half ride that featured a couple of crocodiles and some birds. Speaking of birds, keep the binos ready because the boat travels through good wild forest, rare birds are certainly possible!

Quality Boat Trips Inside the National Park

Although there is good migrant birding around the village and forest birds outside of the village, for the best birding, boat trips in the national park are needed. Most hotels can arrange trips and most are quite experienced but if you want a good birding trip, make sure to ask for a good birding guide. Our birding club trips always do well with the boat trips by staying at Casa Marbella Bed and Breakfast and doing trips with them. The owner, Daryl Loth, has lived and guided in Tortuguero for many years and knows where the birds are.

Although you never know what will show up, as with any boat trip, they are pretty good for Sungrebe, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, parrots perched and in flight, kingfishers, raptors, and much more.

Online Reservations are Required!

These days, and perhaps for good, you simply cannot enter the national park by just showing up to pay for tickets. I know, like..what? Yes, that’s right, there is no way to buy tickets upon entrance. This was done to further limit contact between the park guards and people and perhaps better control the number of people entering the park during the pandemic. That said, buying tickets online is easy enough.

You have to go to this site, make an account, choose the national park (for Tortuguero boat trips from the village, this will be Tortuguero National Park- Cuatro Esquinas), and then follow the process. This includes choosing the time, date, and number of people. You will also have to put in your name and passport number (or cedula if a resident of Costa Rica), pay with credit card (no American Express) and make sure to get that done in less than 10 minutes. If not, you will have to start the process over. Make sure to get your conformation, this will be shown to the park guard, probably by your boat driver or guide (he or she will take a picture of that confirmation).

Macaws in the Village, Always Lots of Other Birds

Great Green Macaws still visit the village and are often seen on boat trips. With this species having been recently declared “Critically Endangered), Costa Rica has become an especially important place to see it, probably the easiest place to see this spectacular bird anywhere in its range.

If looking for interesting migrants, check the village! White-crowned Pigeon has been showing in December and could perhaps occur at other times and who know what else might fly in? It doesn’t hurt to scan from the beach either, interesting waterbirds can fly past. For resident species, try the trail into the national park and watch from the boats. A healthy number of typical lowland species are possible, there will be a lot to see!

Although I prefer to go birding in Tortuguero during migration, the quality habitats will be good for resident birds any time of the year. You will probably run into some rain (March, April, and September tend to be drier) but when the rain stops, the birding can be fantastic. I hope to travel back there soon and find that elusive Crested Eagle.