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Reminders and Reasons to Visit Cinchona When Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so many fantastic sites for birding, it can be a challenge to know where to go. How to pick the sites for your best birding experience? The answer depends on how you want to connect with birds, what you want to see, and budgets for time and money.

I’ll leave a more thorough treatise of such questions and answers for future posts. In the meantime, I would like to focus on a site that would be tough to leave off of any birding itinerary for Costa Rica. This special spot is one of the classic birding sites in Costa Rica, a location that has made a positive impact on thousands of birders (as well as non-birders), the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

Also known as the Cafe Colibri and the Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando, I have often written about the benefits and beauty of this site. Even so, no birding spot is static, especially ones like Cinchona where tropical forest is growing back with a vengeance. Check out these reminders and reasons to include a visit to Cinchona during a birding trip to Costa Rica:

Regenerating Forest Can Grow Fast

Before the 2009 earthquake, the Cafe Colibri was a two story structure situated next to mature, fairly intact forest. At least that’s sort of how I recall it. I do know that more birds were present and even umbrellabird was seen every now and then (!). Tragically, more than 30 people died in the the 6.6 earthquake, it destroyed the two story structure that was the original Cafe Colibri, an adjacent, similar establishment, and much of the adjacent forest.

Although the disaster was a terrible blow to Cinchona in every possible way, since 2009, regarding the Cafe Colibri, it has been rebuilt on the original foundations, and the forest has been steadily growing back. It will take decades before trees reach their previous heights but as the vegetation has grown, more birds have returned, including species that are more dependent on forest.

With that in mind, when visiting the Cafe Colibri, keep an eye out for such birds as Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Sooty-faced Finch, and other species. These species have been occurring with more frequency and it wouldn’t be all that surprising for shy birds like Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, and foliage-gleaners to eventually make appearances. Let’s hope so!

Ornate Hawk-Eagle!

While visiting Cinchona yesterday, the owner and matriarch of the Colibri Cafe mentioned that an interesting bird had been seen. I wondered what it might be, maybe some different tanager at the feeder? Much to my surprise, she showed me a picture of a subadult Ornate Hawk-eagle!

A pair of this fancy, powerful raptor live rather close to Cinchona but they seem to mostly stick to forests away from the main road. It’s not that often that one is seen in the canyon and usually not perched in one of the remnant, bromeliad covered trees visible from the Cafe Colibri. As the habitat improves, we can only hope that this becomes a more regular occurrence.

Still Great for Hummingbirds, Maybe Even Better

Cinchona has always been a hummingbird hotspot. Time of year and weather conditions can have an effect on the number of birds and species but a visit is always warranted, especially when 7 or 8 species of hummingbirds can be accompanied by fresh, delicious Costa Rican coffee. Even better, this past year, yesterday included, the uncommon and local Black-bellied Hummingbird has become regular at Cinchona. There might be a delay for the bird to appear but it’s hard to find fault with a wait highlighted by close views of Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violetear, Lesser Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem!

The barbets are nice too…

More Parking Spaces…and Donkeys

The Cafe Colibri now has paved and delineated parking spots on both sides of the road that make it that much easer to enjoy this special place. For whatever reason, the other side of the road also has a corral with a couple of donkeys (if you feel like ticking off the “hand feeding of mules” box on your list of things to do during a birding trip to Costa Rica).

Every Visit Helps a Local Business that Loves Birds, Birders, and Conservation

Supporting the people who support birders, birds, and bird awareness is just as important as being treated to exquisite views of Green Thorntails. Please support the Cafe Colibri by enjoying a meal and leaving a generous donation.

If traveling to or from Sarapiqui on Route 126, make sure to visit one of Costa Rica’s first classic birding sites, the Cafe Colibri. If planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, see which places to visit and prepare for your trip with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.

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Benefits of Slow Birding in Costa Rica

Birding is “just” watching birds, plain and simple. As long as you are paying attention to birds, watching or listening to birds to enjoy, appreciate, identify, or study them, that’s birding. Slow birding is, as one might imagine, taking your time with birds, doing the birding thing more like a patient puffbird or heron than a fast and furious Big Day Merlin.

The Merlin might be the antithesis of slow birding.

These are some of the benefits of slow birding in Costa Rica, of practicing stillness, patience, and the general way of the Sloth as you watch the birds:

Careful Patience Pays Off in the Rainforest

Take a brisk hike through rainforest and you will see a lot of plants. Some other things, leafcutters, but mostly plants. Slow it down, even stand in place for a while and birds are eventually revealed. The same goes for other animals, insects, and countless other denizens of the tropical forest.

Be patient like a waiting heron and you will see more because everything is in hiding, including the birds. A bird can’t take any chances when they live in a place where highly camouflaged predators lurk in the leaves, where so many other animals are always looking for an easy meal. They hear you coming down the trail and may retreat or keep still until you walk on by. Wait around, though, and they might get used to you, realize that you aren’t really a threat. That’s when the birds start to become active again, begin to call and forage because although staying hidden keeps a bird alive, so does eating. Be patient and wait for birds to forage, for a tinamou to step onto the trail for tanagers to move through your field of view.

The slow birding day only gets better when a Speckled Tanager pops into mind blowing view.

Slow and Attentive Birding is Highly Productive Birding

Birding on the slow and easy doesn’t mean mindlessly standing around and looking at your phone or casually strolling down a trail as you check your photos. Productive slow birding is moving slow so you can be attentive to your surroundings. Standing still and moving slow gives you the time needed to scan every bush, check every branch, and listen for every peep.

This is especially useful in tropical forest because so many birds hide in plain sight. A suspicious rock might actually be a tinamou. There could be trogons and other frugivores lurking near fruits in the canopy. Puffbirds and other sit and wait predators might be watching you from a forest perch. Have a birding passenger pay attention while driving on the road to Poas and they might even see a quetzal silhouetted in the mist (as happened a few weeks ago!).

Slow Birding is also Easy-Going Birding

Be attentive and you will see more but if you would rather hang out back at the lodge and have a coffee or cold beer while watching chachalacas and aracaris, that’s slow birding too. If that means relaxing while casually watching the birds that fly into view, there’s nothing wrong with that. This type of birding can come with the benefits of savoring local cuisine, quality coffee, and views of toucans and trogons.

Slow Birding in Costa Rica Works With the Tropical Birding Dynamic

The dynamic nature of birding in Costa Rica always makes for exciting birding. Watch the edge of the forest over the course of a morning and new birds keep popping into view. Go back the next day and more birds show up. Walk a trail and it can go from being frustratingly still to a forest suddenly moving with tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species.

These are just a few examples of the tropical forest dynamic; a situation where most birds occur in low density populations, where many birds move in mixed flocks, and where various species concentrate at fruiting trees. When you go slow with the birding from one spot, species after species may appear as they move through your field of view. Move slow and attentive and you might have a better chance of finding that mega mixed flock or an antswarm. Take it slow and easy and you also see more than birds because of course, there’s always more than birds to birding.

To learn more about some of the tricks to seeing more birds in Costa Rica, check out How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Prepare for your birding trip to Costa Rica by making target lists and listening to sounds of more than 800 species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Some day, I hope to see you here!