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big year Birding Costa Rica

Highlights from Birding Costa Rica in 2011

Just two days left until 2011 comes to an end and 2012 is ushered in with fireworks, rivers of spirited drink, and grapes. Well, at least in Latin America there are grapes. You are supposed to eat 12 and then you get good luck for the coming year. I can’t recall if I took part in the grape-eating tradition at the end of 2010 but I must have done something right because I had a good year for birding in Costa Rica. Although spates of rain in January and October caused landslides and hindered birding for a couple of weeks, overall, the weather was pretty nice. Even though we don’t get snow down here in these tropical latitudes, we can definitely get enough rainfall for it to cause some unwelcome issues. Basically, we don’t see as many birds through the sheets of falling water and sometimes can’t even get to them due to landslides and flooding. There was a bit of that in 2011, but it wasn’t as bad as other years so I am of the opinion that we had good luck with the weather.

A landslide encountered while birding with Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds.

Numbers of Quetzals and some other highland frugivores seemed to be down but most birders still connected with them. On another unfortunate note, La Selva has finally put a guardhouse at the entrance road so this might not be birdable unless you stay there or take one of their tours. I asked the guard a month ago but he had no idea- not a good sign. But enough of those low points because they were far outnumbered by positive happenings, sightings, and good birding vibes! In no necessary order, here are my personal top 12 highlights from birding Costa Rica in 2011:

1. Cinchona: The Cafe de Colibri is up and running again. It’s not the two story structure filled with birds like it used to be but the feeders are steadily approaching their former glory. On a recent visit, Prong-billed Barbets and Emerald Toucanets casually fed on papayas and other tropical fruits as we ate breakfast. The hummingbird feeders also produced with Coppery-headed Emerald, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Thorntail, and 5 other species.

Avian scenery from the Cafe de Colibries at Cinchona.

2. Virgen del Socorro and the road to San Rafael de Varablanca: The road is most definitely open and the birding is good! Nightingale Wren and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet were highlights from a recent trip there. The road also now continues on to San Rafael de Varablanca and passes through quite a bit of high quality middle elevation forest. I hope to survey that and will be posting about it.

Virgen del Socorro is a good site for Torrent Tyrannulet.

3. Veragua Christmas Count: I heard a lot about the place and went with high expectations. Oh how they were met! Make efforts to go there because it’s one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica. If you can do the place over a few days with a good birding guide, you might pick up most of the Caribbean lowland and foothill specialties. Accommodation is basic but maybe it can be done as a day trip from more comfortable lodging in southeastern Costa Rica?

It’s a good site for Bare-necked Umbrellabird from December until February and maybe at other times of the year too!

4. Dry days at Tortuguero: Our local birding club timed our visit to coincide with the drier weather seen on the Caribbean slope during October. This was a highlight because the place gets soooo much rain. The raptor migration was also nothing short of spectacular.

Raptor migration in Costa Rica.

5. El Copal: Although we missed Lovely Cotinga, the near non-stop birding almost made up for it. I ran into one of the biggest mixed flocks I have ever seen, saw several White-vented Euphonias, lots of tanagers, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Spectacled Owl, Sunbittern, Snowcaps, and lots more. Off the beaten track but darn good!

El Copal is a very good site for Snowcap.

6. Cerro Lodge: The birding just keeps getting better at this place. Really, if you need a place to stay when birding the Carara area, this is where you should go. Villa Lapas and Punta Leona are nice but you pretty much see the same birds there as you do in the park. In the dry/moist habitats at Cerro, you get a different suite of species, the restaurant overlooks the forest and is thus excellent for getting flybys of parrots, macaws, parakeets, and raptors (I had 8 species of Psitaccids there a few days ag0), and Black and white Owl is just about guaranteed (one even flew through the outdoor restaurant in pursuit of a katydid a few days ago). The feeders are also busy with birds such as Fiery-throated Aracari, White-throated Magpie Jay, and Hoffmann’s Woodpecker. Now that the Porterweed bushes have flourished, they have also become fantastic for hummingbirds. I had 7 species there the other day and there’s a very good chance that these natural feeders will attract rarities.

Fiery-billed Aracaris are beautiful toucans.

Steely-vented Hummingbirds are pretty common at Cerro Lodge for much of the year.

7. Catfish Ponds in Guanacaste: The northwestern part of Costa Rica isn’t just known for harboring bird species that relish dry forest. It also holds some of the best wetlands in the country. While birders will experience some of the best wetland action at Palo Verde National park, they might also see some good stuff at the catfish ponds near Liberia. Found on the road from Liberia to Sardinal and Playa del Coco, these ponds can be accessed by paying a $6 entrance fee at an international school and church on the northern side of the road. Reedy marshes grow in several of the ponds and should be good for rails, Masked Duck, and other wetland species. On a long day trip there to look for migrant ducks in October, we also got Limpkin and a handful of shorebirds.

There were also a few Southern Lapwings in there.

8. I finally saw an Ochre-breasted Antpitta in Costa Rica: “Long overdue” just about sums things up for this cute bird. I glimpsed one near Mindo, Ecuador some years ago but that was nothing compared to the wonderful, prolonged looks I got of my Costa Rican bird in Tapanti National Park. It’s good to see this one in Costa Rica because it might get split some day. Maybe not,  but since there is some evidence that their songs differ from South American birds, don’t be surprised if it turns into “Talamanca Antpitta”.

My Costa Rican Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

9. Laguna del Lagarto: I had heard great things about this place for many years but never made it there until 2011 because it was just off the beaten track. Well, I wish I had gone there sooner because the lodge is one of the best spots for bird photography in Costa Rica. Good birding overall, great service, accommodating prices, and the surrounding area has lots of potential. Most of the lowland rainforest species are still present, it’s a reliable site for Agami Heron, and the extensive forests in the area could even turn up a Harpy Eagle (a friend of mine actually had one there in 1998).

Did I mention that Laguna del Lagarto is good for bird photography?

10. Black-crowned Antpitta at Quebrada Gonzalez: OK, so this is kind of expected but the extreme coolness of this species always makes it a highlight. Antswarms earlier in the year were attended by this and other expected ant-following species.

The Black-crowned “Gnatpitta” occurs in these dense rainforests.

11. Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Agami Heron, Mississippi Kite, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Franklin’s Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Willow Flycatcher, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Blue-headed Vireo, and Bobolink:  As mundane as most of these birds appear to be, they were all additions to my Costa Rica list and pushed it up to 710 species.

12. Getting more than 600 species for the year: I tried for the past two years and came close in 2010 but didn’t quite make it to 600 species for the year until 2011. As with any big year attempt, strategy played a key role in reaching my goal. Even though Costa Rica is small enough to make it very feasible to chase birds all over the country, work and family duties make such spontaneous pursuits an impossible endeavor. Nevertheless, with enough visits to the right spots at the right time of year, I figured I had a chance of getting the big six zero zero. Hitting Tortuguero during migration was imperative to reaching 600 for the year as was looking for shorebirds at Chomes, visiting the catfish ponds for ducks, listening for nocturnal migrants, birding several times in major habitats, and doing the Veragua Christmas count. That last factor in particular was vital because it edged my list past the 600 mark. I had figured that if I didn’t reach my goal there, I would hit it during the Bosque del Rio Tigre count. HOWEVER, car trouble at the last minute prevented me from participating in a count at that most wonderful of birding sites so it was a darn good thing that I went to Veragua! The year isn’t over yet and my list stands at 607 for 2011. I would be very surprised if I picked up anything else for 2011 but since I already made it past 600, I’m not too concerned. As an aside, my year list would probably boast at least ten more bird species if I birded San Isidro del General, the Osa, and sites around San Vito.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012! I hope to share Costa Rican birds with you during the new year via this blog and in person!

big year Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

The Veragua Rainforest Christmas Count (part one)

Not many birders make it down to southeastern Costa Rica. Although the towns of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Cahuita are major stops on the backpacker circuit, you don’t see many people walking around with roof prism, light-gathering optics. Birdwatchers are a rare sight in the southeast because they get their Caribbean lowland fix at La Selva and other sites in the Sarapiqui region. I can’t blame them for rarely straying south of Guapiles. I mean even if La Selva has lost a bunch of understory species, it still is the Caribbean lowland birding site that is closest to San Jose and fits nicely into Costa Rican birding itineraries that also include a visit to Arenal.

Since other birders rave about the Sarapiqui region in their trip reports, why go anywhere else for Caribbean lowland species? Well, not that you shouldn’t visit Sarapiqui, but just because you read about the area in trip reports doesn’t make it the only site in Costa Rica for Caribbean lowland birds. It’s good birding around there for sure but it’s not as wild as the forests near Limon. While the port city itself isn’t exactly a booming birding destination, there are several, little known sites in southeastern Costa Rica that offer up some pretty exciting birding. I have talked about the great birding around Manzanillo in the past and always yearn to get back to that birdy lowland village. This past weekend, I got the chance to check out another exciting southeastern site and similar to my feelings about Manzanillo, I can’t wait to go back!

The place is a fairly new ecotourism and research project called “The Veragua Rainforest” and if you can go birding there, by all means, do it! Since the place opened, local birders have been raving about it. Excellent lowland forest, Sulphur-rumped Tanagers, awesome mixed flocks, and big birding potential. When I got the chance to participate in this year’s Christmas count, I jumped at it like a hungry antpitta hopping after a big, juicy worm. Not only would I get the chance to check out Veragua, but I also had the opportunity to get 600 species for the year.

Plans were made, gear was packed, and on Friday morning, I drove on down with friends who were also participating in the count. Despite taking our time, stopping for coffee, running into road work, and doing a bit of birding on the way, it still took just 3 and a half hours to get there. If you drove straight to the place from San Jose and ran into little traffic, I bet it would be 2 and a half hours. As you leave the main highway to Limon, forested ridges and patchy habitat near the road can turn up a bunch of lowland species. Although the beautiful sunny morning resulted in little bird activity, on the day of the count, birds like Snowy Cotinga, Blue-headed Parrots, and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers were seen so that might give you an idea of the quality birding on the way in to Veragua.

Scene from the road to Veragua.

The road eventually went from asphalt to gravel and stones but it was still navageable by two-wheel drive vehicles. A guard greeted us upon arrival at the gate to Veragua.

After verifying that we were there for the count, we drove on in to one of the better birding sites in Costa Rica. The entrance road passed through lowland forest that had been selectively cut at some time in the past. At a glance, it doesn’t appear to have affected the birding too much and I bet spending a day on this road would turn up a wealth of lowland species.

How would you like to bird along this road?

Marcos, one of Veragua’s excellent guides, showed us around on Friday. While waiting to take the tram down to the Rainforest Giants Trail, we hung around their hummingbird garden and watched several Blue-chested Hummingbirds in action. It was nice to be in a place where this species outnumbered Rufous-taileds.

A Blue-chested Hummingbird posing for a picture.

While waiting for our tram ride down into a beautifully forested canyon, we actually added a new bird to the Veragua list in the form of a flyover Wood Stork. King Vulture also made an appearance but the White and Barred Hawks that are often seen from the tram were no-shows. Down at the bottom, a boardwalk passes beneath massive old growth trees, heliconia patches that sometimes hold White-tipped Sicklebill, and flanks a rushing river.

The excellent Rainforest Giants trail at Veragua.

Although we didn’t find Spot-crowned Antvireo (a localized species in Costa Rica) a canopy flock of medium-sized birds entertained us from above. Montezuma Oropendolas, Scarlet-rumped Caciques, and a couple of Black-striped Woodcreepers foraged high overhead with a Cinnamon Woodpecker, tityras, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, and the star of the show, White-fronted Nunbird. While this orange-billed, clownish creature has disappeared from many areas in Costa Rica, it’s still fairly common at Veragua. A few lucky birders in our group also managed to see an Olive-backed Quail-Dove.

As the afternoon wore on, we took the tram back up to the top of the canyon and put the focus on mixed tanager flocks. A group of birds that frequents the trees around the reception was quickly located and several lucky birders got great looks at Sulphur-rumped Tanager. Incredibly, I missed that would be lifer despite looking in the same tree! I just happened to be scanning through several Plain-colored Tanagers when the Sulphur-rumped was seen and it took off before I could find it. Oh well, at least Rufous-winged Tanager was new for the year.

Other new 2011 species were Chestnut-collared Swift and a very obliging Great Potoo that entertained count participants by calling from a spotlit perch near the parking lot. It’s apparently there most nights and might take advantage of the insects and bats that come to a lit-up moth sheet. After dinner, we received information about our routes, got our boxed lunches, and also got the news about breakfast. It would be ready at 3:30 a.m. and most of us were scheduled to leave by 4. I would be hitting the Brisas de la Jungla site with two other guys. The plan was to drop us off at 4:30 a.m. and pick us up at 4:30 p.m. A long day of birding awaited and it might include grueling marches through the humid lowland heat and clouds of mosquitoes. I had to be prepared by getting a good night’s rest so I hit the sack by 7:45 and tried to sleep.

to be continued…

big year Birding Costa Rica central valley

Hook-billed Kite Makes Bird 533 for 2011!

August is already here and I am pretty sure I heard the call note of a Yellow Warbler this morning. Oh yes, bring on the migrants and have them fly over Santa Barbara, Costa Rica. We have some quality habitat right next door at the Finca Rosa Blanca Boutique Hotel and in remnant moist forest near the Hotel Catalina. After getting in some R and R in those places, they can head on over to Braulio Carrillo National Park and the rainforests of the Talamanca Mountains. I just hope that any rare migrants will let me see or hear them so they can make it onto my illustrious 2011 list. A bunch of migrants and concerted efforts to get “seeable” species missing from this year’s list should help me reach 600 species by December 31st.

I got one of those seeable, unpredictable species today in the form of a Hook-billed Kite. Bird number 533 happened to be soaring above the road as I was driving home from my daughter’s daycare (she calls it, “escuela de Miranda”). Noticing that the soaring bird wasn’t a vulture or Short-tailed Hawk (the expected soaring raptors around here), I kept an eye on it until it banked and confirmed my suspicions with its longish barred tail, smallish head, and broad, “paddle-shaped” wings. I really don’t know if that’s the best description of their wings but I guess it works. You might also say that their primaries look “rounded” or “hand-like”. Whatever. Suffice to say that the shape is so distinct that it can’t be confused with anything else in range.

As testament to the unpredictable nature and uncommon status of Hook-billed Kites in Costa Rica, this was my first in that area despite having driven along the road between San Joaquin and Santa Barbara dozens of times. However, it doesn’t surprise me that I hadn’t seen it before, nor do I find it all that surprising that one showed up where it did. I admit that sounds like some ditty from Alice in Wonderland but before you accuse me of drinking tea with Mad Hatters, allow me to explain:

  • Tropical habitats are so rife with species occurring at naturally low densities that predicting where and when they will show up becomes a rather unpredictable guessing game. When the habitat looks perfect for so and so species, there’s a good chance it’s somewhere out there but that doesn’t mean you are going to see it within an hour’s time or even that same day. It might be on the other side of its territory or just staying out of sight. Even if you know where and how to look for the bird, you might have to rely on probability eventually playing out in your favor by hanging out in one spot until it shows up. So, I’m not surprised that I hadn’t seen Hook-billed Kite where I did because I only spend a fraction of time there each day as I drive past.
  • The habitat looked good for Hook-billed Kite. I wasn’t overly surprised that one of these snail-eating raptors did show up because of where I saw it. In Costa Rica, Hook-billed Kites seem to be most common in middle elevation moist forests on the Pacific Slope (such as near Santa Elena of Monteverde fame, riparian areas in Guanacaste, and forests in the Central Valley), and bird number 533 for 2011 was soaring near a sizeable patch of such forest that also happens to be connected to a riparian corridor.

I wasn’t so sure about getting that one for the year so I’m pretty happy that it decided to take to the air on morning thermals. I wonder which species will be next?

big year biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Highlights from birding and guiding Costa Rica in 2010

The biggest news in 2010 for birding in Costa Rica was arguably the sightings of Harpy Eagle carrying nesting material in Tortuguero National Park. If those monstrous raptors did succeed in building one of their many-stick homes, either the nest was never found or the information was kept more secret than U.S. government embassy cables. I guided a trip there in April with the remote hope of ticking this mega bird for my Costa Rica list but left the Tortuguero area empty-handed on the Harpy front. This is the usual outcome when birding any lowland rainforests that hold Harpy Eagles because since their territories are so large, away from a nest, you just have to be extremely lucky to see one. We did, however, see another rarity albeit one that is laughably inconsequential compared to Harpy Eagle. Even though Sungrebe, Great Green Macaw, Green Ibis, Great Potoo, and other heavy hitters were seen on that trip, in terms of rarity, they were trumped by nothing less than a second year Herring Gull. I know, that sounds about as ridiculous as a Wallcreeper climbing up the Empire State Building but what can I say, a vagrant is a vagrant even if the bird is common as dirt where it is expected.

Other good birds for 2010 (and seen or heard by me) were:

The five pelagic lifers I got off the coast from Jaco along with a bunch of other open ocean birds that were new for my Costa Rican list such as Sabine’s Gull, Red-necked Phalarope, and Pomarine Jaeger.

Lesser Scaup– A bird found by Paul Murgatroyd who thankfully convinced us to make efforts to see it. I know, some highlight but as with the Herring Gull, this isn’t Kansas that we are talking about.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron– They aren’t rare and if you spend enough time watching stony rivers around Sarapiqui, you usually see one but because I didn’t do that, it was a bonus to get fantastic, prolonged, close looks at one of these sneaky river herons just outside of Arenal Observatory Lodge on December 22nd.

King Vulture– I saw quite a few at several sites but it’s always special to see a white-plumaged vulture so it makes it onto the highlight list.

Hook-billed Kite and Black-collared Hawk- Both are pretty uncommon in Costa Rica so it was nice to get them on the way into Tortuguero (where they are also pretty darn rare).

Tiny Hawk– One at Bosque del Rio Tigre perched and flew right in front of us during the Christmas Count! I also had one along the road to Nepenthes near Arenal Observatory Lodge and another that was hanging out near the entrance to Quebrada Gonzalez was seen by many other birders during February and April.

Bicolored Hawk– Seen the same day as the tiger-heron, this was a major highlight as I have encountered this species on just three occasions ever!

Harris’ Hawk– Another uncommon raptor in Costa Rica, one that showed up on the Carara CBC was a pleasant surprise.

Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Black-breasted Wood-Quail, and Marbled Wood-Quail– Wild and cool chicken-like birds are always tough to see! The wood-partridge was seen on the slopes of Poas above Grecia in second growth and heard up on Irazu and near Orosi, the Black-breasted Wood-Quail heard near Varablanca and seen in the Santa Elena Reserve, and the Marbled Wood-Quail was perfectly seen at Bosque del Rio Tigre.

Southern Lapwing– Birds near Esquinas Lodge were new for my Costa Rican list.

Great Green Macaw at Tortuguero and Sarapiqui– Expected but always a highlight!

White-tipped Sicklebill- Two roosting birds seen after marching up a stream near Bosque del Rio Tigre. I hope to refind this at Quebrada Gonzalez. They used to be regular there at a Heliconia patch just after entering the Las Palmas trail but I haven’t seen them there since those flowers were replaced with a small structure used for educational purposes (yes, thanks for destroying bird habitat to educate people about the rainforest).

birding Costa Rica

Tody Motmot– Wonderful close views of this toy-like creature at Las Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua.

Ocellated Antbird– A few with an antswarm at Las Heliconias make onto the highlights for 2010 because these fancy antbirds always look incredible.

Bare-crowned Antbird– One heard along the road to Arenal Observatory Lodge was a pleasant surprise and my last new bird for 2010.

Rufous-browed Tyrannulet– I had several of this warbler-like flycatcher at El Copal, Tapanti, and forests near San Ramon (where they are especially common).

Tawny-chested Flycatcher- Little known, hard to find, and near-threatened, it was exciting to hear and see several at El Copal.

Gray-headed Piprites– Although I didn’t see it, I was pretty happy to hear one of these rare and little known birds singing at El Copal.

Turquoise, Yellow-billed, and Snowy Cotingas (but no Lovely)– Cotingas are some of the stars of the bird world so they always rank high on the highlight list. I had Turquoise at Carara (very rare there), Talari Lodge, Bosque del Rio Tigre and Rincon de Osa,

birding Costa Rica

Turquoise Cotinga, a fantastic bird restricted to the south Pacific slope of Costa Rica and westernmost Panama.

Yellow-billed Cotinga on several occasions at Cerro Lodge ( male is sometimes seen displaying waaaaay off in the distance), along the river trail in Carara (one female on two occasions), at Rincon de Osa, and Ventanas de Osa,

birding Costa Rica

Yellow-billed Cotingas are highly endangered because they need the rare combination of mangroves growing adjacent to lowland rainforest.

and Snowy Cotinga in a patch of lowland forest near La Pavona on the way to Tortuguero, and at El Gavilan. The Lovely remained elusive.

Blue-crowned Manakin– A male displaying on a log in the forest at Carara on a recent guiding trip there was a site to behold!

White-eyed Vireo– At least two of this vagrant during Spring migration in Tortuguero.

Blue and Gold Tanager– Another given but a beautiful bird happily seen on several occasions at Quebrada Gonzalez and near San Ramon.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager– It’s an endemic with a salmon colored throat. How could that not be a highlight!

birding Costa Rica

Slate-colored Seedeater– I was surprised to get a few in rice fields near Tortuguero and then on the other side of the mountains in similar habitat near Esquinas Lodge.

Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow– You just don’t see these so often so it was nice to get perfect looks at them on more than one occasion near my house.

No shorebirds are highlights because I hardy saw any. If I had spent more time looking for migrant waders then I probably would have reached 600 species for the year. I came close though and won’t complain with 588 species for 2010. Heck, I wouldn’t even complain if I only saw 300 as long as I was able to bird at least once a week. I doubt I will be able to make the concerted effort required to hit 600 in 2011 but might have a chance if I can pull that time tested trick of doing family vacations in strategic sites. “Yes dear, we need to take Miranda to the Panamanian border near the Caribbean as well as the Pacific- don’t you want her to see a Lance-tailed Mana..ahh I mean experience cultural diversity from a young age?

big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction

536 species so far for 2010 with two months to go

As always, I would love to do an official Big Year in Costa Rica. Slowly track my way up and down the hot, hilly terrain of the Osa while scanning the canopy and listening for distress calls of monkeys that would lead me to a Harpy Eagle. Maybe find a Red-throated Caracara or two (if they still roam the rainforests of Corcovado), or chance upon a Speckled Mourner in some massive mixed flock.

I would have raced over to Monteverde to add Oilbird to my 2010 list, shivered in the dark, high up on Cerro de la Muerte until an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl revealed itself, and birded off the beaten track at Hitoy Cerere to pick up Great Jacamar, Violaceous Quail-Dove, and Sulphur-rumped Tanager.

I would have stationed myself for a time on both coasts during both migrations to comb through waves of passerines and shorebirds in search of the expected as well as the unforeseen. I might even have braved a bout with sea-sickness to pick up the pelagics….on second thought, no I wouldn’t have subjected my wimpy inner ear to such punishment.

BUT, I would have certainly gone up north to pick up Elegant Trogon and Thicket Tinamou at Santa Rosa National Park, and would have scanned the marshes of Palo Verde National Park with the hope of espying a distant Jabiru through the heat waves, as well as getting Glossy Ibis, Snail Kite, and after the sun went down, White-tailed Nightjar.

Cost Rica birding

Wind-swept Guanacaste- Where to see Thicket Tinamous and Elegrant Trogons in Costa Rica

In short, I would love to spend a year exploring every brushy corner, wooded ravine, palm swamp, amazing rainforest, and mystical cloudforest found within the borders of Costa Rica BUT (in addition to such an endeavor being impossible), since that would require abandoning my family and becoming instantly rich (at least moderately),  I have opted for diligently keeping track of every bird species I identify by sight or sound when guiding, birding on my own, listening for nocturnal flight calls with cupped ears in my backyard, or involved in much more mundane activities such as driving my daughter to the babysitter.

Costa Rica birding

Cloud forest canopy at Monteverde, Costa Rica

Given that I do some birding at least once per week and still might get the chance to visit some of the places mentioned above before we switch our calendars over to 2011, my unofficial big year is coming along nicely (and much more comfortably than if  were camping and profusely sweating in the humid lowlands).

My latest species was Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow (also and perhaps more appropriately known as Cabanis Ground-Sparrow). I am pretty sure that I got a glimpse of one sans binoculars back in April but “pretty sure” doesn’t quite do it for the 2010 list.  Fortunately, this past Sunday, I was able to definitely mark it down for the year when an individual was spotlighted by the morning sun at the edge of a coffee plantation near my house. The view, lighting, and composition were so darn perfect that I of course didn’t have my camera with me. This species is apparently a strong proponent and practitioner of Murphy’s Law because although I got a recording of its call (and there are very few recordings of this taxon), I somehow managed to erase it the next day! Of course, it was the only recording that got banished into nothingness and I honestly have no idea how it happened.

I went back to the same site the following morning with camera at the ready but the ground-sparrow had hightailed it along with all of the Swainson’s Thrushes, migrant warblers, and vireos that had been happily chipping (and harshly cackling in the case of the vireos) from the vegetation the day before.

Here’s a a soundscape of birds from this site on the day of the ground-sparrow (October 17th):

santa barbara morning

Another recent addition to the 2010 list was a Streak-breasted Treehunter that popped into view after spishing resulted in an avalanche of curious birds in a forested ravine on the way up to Volcan Barva. I had my camera on that occasion but mist and shade combined forces to ensure that the only pictures coming out of that bastion of dimness  would have been grainier than a World War One documentary filmed at night.

Black-cheeked Warbler seen in the high-elevation forests of Volcan Barva was also a new one for the year and reflects how little birding I have done at high elevations in 2010 because this is a pretty easy bird to get. It’s hyperactive though so pictures are tough.

The ground-sparrow may have been 536 but even better was a Dickcissel that got ticked off for 2010 after one let out its rude-like, dry-rattle flight call as it winged its way over Santa Barbara de Heredia.

I kind of doubt that I will  break 600 for the year but I might come close if I can get in some shorebirding and focus on a hodgepodge of gettable target species, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron to name a few.

big year Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Costa Rica birding: my year list for 2010

It has often been said that time flies when you are having fun (such as when birding Costa Rica).

I, however, have discovered that it zips along like a hungry Merlin chasing a Chimney Swift when you are:

1. Running a business.

2. Have a not quite two year old, active, inquisitive daughter, and

Miranda trying out my glasses
Birding Costa Rica at the Cloudbridge Reserve

3. Are a birder who lives in Costa Rica.

2010 is approaching the half way point (!) but I am coming along well with my annual Costa Rica bird list. Sure, I’m low on shorebirds and will end up with very few (if any) pelagics, but I still have a chance at boosting numbers during fall migration. I’ve got 484 species so far and that’s with very little time spent on the Caribbean Slope.

Unfortunately, I have only been to my patch once so far this year (!) which explains the absence of birds such as Checker-throated Antwren, Pale-vented Thrush, and Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

Most of my birding in Costa Rica for 2010 has been on the Pacific Slope around Carara National Park. It’s soooo hot there but routinely getting over 100 species in a day kind of makes up for all of that sweating. This upcoming weekend I will be guiding once again on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica but at a site much further south (but just as hot).

We will be headed to the Esquinas Lodge in Piedras Blancas National Park. I have never been there but it should be exciting as the lodge is surrounded by lots of lowland rainforest and is near edge habitats that have turned up several “Panamanian” species such as Brown-throated Parakeet, Crested Orpendola, Wattled Jacana, and others.

I have a feeling that this upcoming trip will push my 2010 Costa Rica birding list over the 500 species mark and I may even get lucky with a lifer or two (I would have to be pretty darn lucky). No matter what happens, I will be sure to post about the trip.

Although I haven’t seen much in 2010 that I would call super rare, some of my best birds have been:

Herring Gull- yes, one of the thousands that use the river corridor at my hometown of Niagara Falls, NY made its way down to Tortuguero National Park in March of this year. As boring as it is, this is a pretty rare bird in Costa Rica and was new for my Costa Rican list.

Blue-footed Booby- this is a good one to get for the year. Saw at least one in flight way out over the waves off of Tarcoles in February.

Gray-headed Kite- it’s widespread but like many Costa Rican raptors is pretty uncommon. Had my only one of the year so far at Cerro Lodge.

Hook-billed Kite- another uncommon bird in Costa Rica. I had brief but good looks at a juvenile in Tortuguero. This was the first time I have seen this species on the Caribbean slope. You have a better chance at this species in Mexico but if you want to see it in Costa Rica, it seems to be more frequent in remnant forests of the central valley and moist forests of the Pacific slope (such as around Santa Elena or Rincon de la Vieja).

Black-collared Hawk- another one that is easier in Mexico than Costa Rica. The best place for it when birding Costa Rica is in Cano Negro. We saw one near Pavona on the way into Tortuguero.

Collared Forest-falcon- ok, so this species isn’t rare but it is more often heard than seen. I have been pretty lucky with it so far this year along the river trail in Carara and at Rancho Oropendola.

A bad shot of a Collared Forest Falcon from the river trail at Carara.

Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge- these are easy to hear around Orosi and in the upper reaches of the central valley but they are a serious pain to see. I watched a few take flight from the road up to Finca Dos Lados.

Sungrebe- not the easiest bird to see in Costa Rica but when I went to Tortuguero in March, I was in the right place for this secretive, odd waterbird.

Looking through the pigeons and doves, I realized that I am quail-dove less for 2010! Hopefully, I will get over to my patch and bird some nice highland forests to remedy this hole in my 2010 list.

Yellow-billed and Mangrove Cuckoos- always good to get these uncommon birds. I saw one Mangrove in mangroves near Tarcoles and another at Tortuguero. Also got Yellow-billed at Tortuguero.

Resplendent Quetzal- it’s just about guaranteed on any birding trip to Costa Rica but it’s such a spectacular bird that I have to mention it. Have had them in the Dota valley and around Varablanca.

Turquoise, Yellow-billed, and Snowy cotingas- cotingas are always special birds. Had Turquoise at Talari Mountain Lodge and at Carara, Yellow-billed at Carara and Cerro Lodge, and Snowy near Tortuguero.

Cerulean Warbler- saw a few of these at Tortuguero during March migration madness!

Yellow-bellied Siskin and Lesser Goldfinch- widespread but pretty uncommon in the highlands of Costa Rica due to trapping (they sound nice- let’s put them in a cage!-so say the ignorant ones). Had both of these at San Gerardo de Rivas (the take off point for Chirripo).

big year Birding Costa Rica

End of a BIG YEAR and birding highlights for Costa Rica in 2009

2009 is officially coming to a close and so is my BIG YEAR. Since I didn’t do the usual things one does during a BIG YEAR such as travel long distances on short notice, stumble around in the dark of the night while hooting like an owl, or risk my life, I feel a bit apprehensive about using caps for my BIG YEAR. Nevertheless, there aren’t any stipulations or rules for doing a BIG YEAR stating that reckless behavior is required so I won’t feel too bad about keeping the Caps Lock on. I did what I could with the handicaps of new family, young daughter, work, and no private vehicle for most of the time. This means that I couldn’t spend too many nights away from home (nor too many days for that matter), and that my birding time was very limited overall. In fact, a lot of the birds for my BIG YEAR were identified while guiding as opposed to birding on my own. That was perfectly fine with me because no matter what someone else’s birding level might be, I would much rather share birding with others- something that probably has a lot to do with mostly birding alone from the age of 7 to 12 and wondering where the other birders were. In any case, whether out alone, guiding, or birding with friends (especially Janet Peterson), my final total for 2009 for all species seen or heard in Costa Rica is: 510.

There are a fair number of gaps in this list due to not birding Guanacaste, not getting up to Monteverde nor down into La Selva, and doing almost no shorebirding. Therefore, things like Great Currasow, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Elegant Trogon, Streak-backed Oriole, and a whole flock of shorebird species didn’t make it onto my 2009 list. Nor did pelagic species but due to the long standing disagreeent between myself and bouncing up and down on the open ocean, pelagic species hardly exist for me as possibilities in any case. My first species was a TK while my last was Blue-headed Parrot. The TK was heard singing its dawn song from our apartment while the parrot was heard flying overhead as I awoke in a hotel in the border town of Paso Canoas on December 18th. 

Although it is still 2009 as I write this, I won’t be seeing anything in Costa Rica until 2010 because I traded the warm, tropical latitudes on December 22nd for the freezing, boreal, treeless landscape of western New York to spend the holiday with family and friends. There are some birds around here but my BIG YEAR is restricted to Costa Rica so I won’t be adding Ring-billed Gull or Eurasian Starling to the list. Here are some of my birding highlights from 2009 in taxonomic order:

King Vulture or the one and only KV or Big K: Although expected, a mostly white vulture that is not a BV or TV is always a highlight. Saw these on just about every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez and at such sites as Pocosol and a new birding site near San Ramon that I hope to blog about sometime soon.

Plumbeous Kite: Easy elsewhere but uncommon in Costa Rica, I had one gracing the skies above the Arenal hanging bridges in March.

Tiny Hawk: Just a glimpse along the La Selva entrance road but enough to identify this reclusive little raptor.

Crane Hawk: Regular around Carara, I had three birds this year. I put it as a highlight because this species was my neotropical nemesis for several years. I finally caught up with it at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru in 2001. My current neotropical nemesis bird is Masked Duck (which I hope to get in 2010!).

Black-eared Wood-Quail: Very good to see this tough species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Olive-backed Quail-dove: A pretty uncommon bird anywhere, I was excited to see one at Quebrada Gonzalez where they are rare residents.

Great Green Macaw: A few heard at Termales del Bosque near La Selva, and near Braulio Carrillo. Always a highlight and especially so because there are fewer around with every passing year. Although the trees this species needs for food have protected status and are planted in northern Costa Rica, it will be a long time before we see any population increase due to their low reproductive rate and the lack of cavities for possible nest sites.

Yellow-naped Parrot: Another parrot that had declined but is still seen in small numbers in the northwest and around Carara. Had great views of a few at Cerro Lodge.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo: It was nice to pick up this species by call in the western Central Valley because I didn’t get a chance to make it to Guanacaste where it is pretty common.

Costa Rican Pygy-Owl: A lone bird being harrassed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird in the wonderful forests of La Georgina was one of my favorite highlights of 2009.

Short-tailed Nighthawk: One of the last birds on our Big Day, Johan, Ineke, Dieter, and I had fun watching one hawk bugs at the La Selva entrance road.

Chuck-will’s Widow: One seen perched over the trail at Quebrada Gonzalez was only my second ever.

Spot-fronted Swift: A few seen well enough to note the white spots on the face were flying around the La Selva entrance road. I think this was my only lifer for the year!

Snowcap: A male buzzing around the canopy at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of my first birds of the year.

Green and Rufous Kingfisher: A brief look at a female in Manzanillo was my first for Costa Rica. Robert Dean very accurately illustrates the distinctive bill shape of this species.

American Pygmy Kingfisher: After always being on the lookout for this species in the right places sans success, I finally caught up with it in Manzanillo.

Yellow-eared Toucanet: Several nice looks at this fancy bird at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Black-headed Antthrush: Much easier in Ecuador, I heard one at Pocosol.

Black-crowned Antpitta: A few heard and seen at one of the only accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica-Quebrada Gonzalez.

Lesser Elaenia: A local species in Costa Rica, I was happy to get brief looks as one at Kiri Lodge. 

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: I couldn’t believe that they didn’t come in to my imitation but I did hear them at Manzanillo. This is a species that has become quite uncommon with deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: Nice looks at birds at the Aerial Tram and at Rara Avis. Never guaranteed and always a highlight!

Sharpbill: Close looks at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Cerulean Warbler: My first for Costa Rica in the forests of Rara Avis!

Wrenthrush: Expected but the ridiculously close looks I got at La Georgina deserve mention.

Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager: A few seen at Quebrada Gonzalez and possibly elsewhere. Always uncommon and good to see.

Blue and Gold Tanager: Uncommon, local, but expected at Quebrada Gonzalez, Rara Avis, and Pocosol. Like a Euphonia on steroids, these are great birds.

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager: Uncommon in Costa Rica. The U of Paz is a good place for them.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch: Seen at the La Tigra wetlands near La Selva, this massive-billed little bird always deserves a mention.

Shiny Cowbird: One at Manzanillo was a new Costa Rican bird for me. 

And now for the low points, misses, and musings:

Slaty-breasted Tinamou: Didn’t spend enough time near La Selva to get this one. A bird that appears to have declined with deforestation in Costa Rica.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron: Just didn’t get around to hanging out at the stake outs for this tough species.

Black-crowned Night-Heron: Saw a few Yellow-crowns but none of this uncommon species.

Green Ibis: Not enough evenings spent in the Sarapiqui region.

Great Black Hawk: I haven’t seen this species for some time in Costa Rica whereas I used to see it regularly in Braulio Carrillo (during the 90s).

Sunbittern: Just didn’t spend enough time at stakeouts.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: This diminutive parrot eludes me for yet another year! I probably caught a glimpse of a pair at Arenal in 2008, and almost certainly had a brief flyby of a small flock near Quebrada Gonzalez (seen for a second while washing my hands and not relocated), but still need lifer views!

No Potoos!- Always tough, didn’t find any, nor spent enough time at night in their haunts.

Brown Violetear- Thought I’d get it at Tapanti but no such luck. More difficult in Costa Rica after Cinchona was destroyed by the earthquake.

Lanceolated Monklet: Still no monklet in Costa Rica despite my many attempts at whistling them in.

Ocellated Antbird: I was suprised to not get this one although probably because I ran into very few antswarms in 2009.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher: No sign of this rare bird at El Gavilan. Rancho Naturalista has become one of the only sites for this species.

Ovenbird: I was pretty surprised to not get one of these.

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Still need this local, little known species for a lifer!!

Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: Didn’t spend enough time birding coffee plantations in the Central Valley- would be good to study this species as it has lost (and continues to lose) a lot of habitat.

Giant Cowbird: No Giant Cowbird this year. A pretty uncommon bird in Costa Rica.

Good birding in 2010 and hope to see you in Costa Rica!


big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction

A Big Day in Costa Rica

This past Saturday, I attempted my first Big Day in Costa Rica. “Big Days” should always be capitalized by the way. I mean we aren’t talking about some casual walk in the park while you smell the roses and waltz through the tulips. No, a Big Day is more like a frantic race through time and space with your head out the window to pick up the call note of a Bobolink or Squirrel Cuckoo or whatever. It is a 24 hour marathon of concentrated birding; an attempt at identifying as many species as possible within whatever size area you can manage by foot, car, boat, biplane or rickshaw. This usually means Nascar street driving your Toyota from woodlot to National Park to seashore to mountaintop to maximize birding time and increase your chances of getting more bird species.

Costa Rica is an exciting place to do a Big Day; the country is jam packed with bird species (over 800 recorded), has many accessible protected areas, is small enough to feasibly visit several distinct bioregions in one day and has twisting, narrow streets that are very conducive to Nascar street driving. The fact that so many bird species are possible, though, ends up being a bit frustrating because there is no way to get all of them. For example with the route we did, over the course of the day, we probably came within one kilometer of around 500-600 bird species total. No kidding and no exaggeration. We might have been within flying distance of all those birds but recorded far less, even missing several “common” species while seeing some rarities. For example, we missed Blue-black Grasquit and Squirrel Cuckoo but had close looks at three Yellow-eared Toucanets and Blue and Gold Tanager. The Grasquit we missed because we just didn’t spend enough time in pasture while the Cuckoo was just bad luck. If you are thinking of blitzing through Costa Rica for a few days and seeing everything, reconsider and spend more days in fewer areas. You will probably see more and it will be a lot more relaxed.

In any case, I think our total of 233 species was alright for a first attempt; especially without the benefits of scouting. Below is a summary of the day.

2:40 A.M.

I get out of bed, shave and am ready to roll out into the urban wonderland of Tibas to listen for Tropical Screech Owl. I hear a horn outside and am out the door to join my team members; Dieter, Johan and Ineke. Dieter is the tall guy in shorts. Hailing from Namibia, Dieter met his wife while guiding in South Africa. Now they live in Costa Rica and watch Motmots instead of elephants. Johan (Nascar street driver) and Ineke are from Holland originally. They have also lived in Africa; Mozambique and Zimbabwe before Mugabe went haywire. Now they too live in Costa Rica watching Motmots instead of elephants. I am originally from Niagara Falls, NY. I met my wife some years ago, we got married and now we live in Costa Rica with our 7 month old future kung-fu birder (fingers crossed) daughter and watch TV (for the most part) instead of Motmots.

After explaining the Big Day rules, we drove a few blocks to my old apartment to try for the Tropical Screech Owl that calls at night and is never seen. Almost as soon as we stepped out of the car, both Ineke and I heard it! It sounded distant but there it was- how fortunate we were! And then Johan pointed out that the sound appeared to be coming from the car. A few more owl calls and yes he was right, it was coming from the car alright; actually from inside my bag to be precise. Not only that but it sounded more like Spectacled Owl which of course it was; my cd player had somehow turned on by itself. If there was a Tropical Screech nearby, it made nary a peep and who can blame it after that display of silliness.

3:05-4:45 A.M.

We left that embarrassing moment behind and zoomed through the mountain night along beautifully silent roads, taking a left at La Garita to twist and turn our way out of the central valley. Our next destination was San Mateo. A small town located in the hot Pacific foothills, we tried for Mottled and Spectacled Owl at the entrance to Rancho Oropendola. Over the chorus of barking dogs and an occasional rooster, we got our first species as soon as we exited the car; a distant Ferruginous Pygmy Owl! Luckily, in addition to our two target owl species, we also tried for Pacific Screech Owl. While the two targets refused to answer my imitations, the Screech Owl called a few times and even gave us brief looks. At 4:45, we left the barking dogs behind and raced off towards Carara National Park.

Due to confusing road work combined with a general paucity of street lamps, we missed our turn-off (apparently a hidden gap among street cones) and raced towards Puntarenas (the absolutely wrong direction). Fortunately, one of those temporary lights that sprout at one way traffic in road work areas halted our race to Big Day disaster and after receiving directions from two middle-aged road workers who were manning the light and listening to reggaeton, we were back on course. On a Big Day one hopes that a wrong turn turns out to be serendipitous with a flyby Barn Owl or other random surprise bird and everyone says things like , “Ha ha! Good thing we made a wong turn!”, “How fortunate!” or “The birding Gods are doing a Manakin dance!” but no, nothing like that happened to us; we only saw a bunch of darkness where the wind played in the warm lowland night.

5:00 A.M.

The Tarcol bridge is a busy place during the day; people are constantly marching out along a skinny sidewalk to see the crocodiles on the river below while the cars and buses zoom by. At night, although there aren’t any pedestrians, it’s still a pretty busy road. During traffic lulls we tried for White-tailed Nightjar and got Double-striped Thick-Knees instead as they called from the grassland. Unexpected good bird! With hints of dawn in the distance we drove to the nearby Laguna Meandrica trail. This is always an excellent birding site. Its mix of dry and moist forest species along with waterbirds always makes for a huge list. Our plan was to walk a few kilometers back to an area of primary forest for the dawn chorus, picking up nightbirds along the way. Although we didn’t get any owls, we got loads of Common Pauraques, many on the track itself. We started picking up the pre-dawners too such as Blue-crowned Motmot (only ones for the day), and Cocoa and Nothern Barred Woodcreepers. You just don’t realize how common some woodcreepers are until you hear a dawn chorus. We had at least a dozen of each of those species with lesser numbers of Wedge-billed and Streaked-headed.

The Tarcol bridge during the day.

What everyone is looking at.


As daylight quickly vanquished the night, the birds came fast and steady at this exciting site. Although we missed many of the primary forest targets I had hoped for (appear to be more likely along the HQ trail), we still got 121 species over the next two hours (yes, Carara is one of the best birding sites in Central America).We picked up most of the herons including Boat-billed, got Purple Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, had a Roseate Spoonbill drop out of the sky to feed in front of us, saw several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and much more.

Best birds were a distant calling Striped Cuckoo, Golden-naped Woodpecker, 3 Toucan species, Three-wattled Bellbird and American Redstart. We also got many targets such as Stub-tailed Spadebill, 4 Trogon species, Orange-collared Manakin, a Crane Hawk spotted by Dieter, 4 Wrens, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Royal Flycatcher, White-whiskered Puffbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Long-billed Gnatwren, Plain Xenops, Dusky Antbird and more.

The lagoon. This is another spot where I need to sit and watch all day sometime.

The lagoon is an excellent spot for Boat-billed Heron.

We found a perched Lesser Nighthawk picked out while checking out some Anis in a tree.

This Bicolored Antbird was at an antswarm along with Gray-headed Tanagers, Chestnut-backed Antbirds and Northern Barred and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers.

And of course we got great looks at one of the stars of Carara, Scarlet Macaws. This pair was inspecting a tree hole and preening right over the trail.


It can get hot pretty early along the Pacific coast and Saturday was no exception. You really have to be out and about by dawn or you are going to miss a lot of birds. On Saturday, bird activity dropped off by 8:30 A.M.; right around the time we we birded the pastures and forest edge near Tarcoles. This probably explained why we missed Striped-headed Sparrows and Blue-black Grasquits. We barely picked up Ruddy Ground Dove with just a few flybys and somehow missed Crested Caracara! We still picked up other things though like Common Black Hawk soaring way up in the blue with the Vultures, Philly Vireos, Orange-fronted Parakeets and Ruby-throated and Steely-vented Hummingbirds all feeding on orange-colored flowers, and Orchard Oriole.

At the mangroves near Tarcol lodge, we got great looks at a few Mangrove Vireos, saw a close female Blue Ground Dove, heard Red-winged Blackbirds and picked up Ruddy Turnstones and Whimbrel that were perched on snags in the estuary.

At the nearby beach, we did alright picking up expected species such as Osprey, Neo. Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Mag. Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and Royal Tern but aside from a distant Brown Booby, missed a chunk of shorebird and Tern species more likely during low tide.


Leaving Tarcoles by mid-morning we rushed to the bridge hoping for open country species and maybe a White Ibis or shorebird but were vanquished by the sun. I was starting to feel vanquished by the sun too. Unfortunately, I have been getting pretty bad headaches and feeling pretty drained when I walk around on hot days; to the point of feeling too tired to talk. Not sure why this happens but it’s a royal pain! I try to drink a lot of water so I don’t know what the deal is; maybe I’m turning into a mountain person? Maybe it was because I missed my morning coffee? In any case a couple of tylenol helped out and at least the birding was slow during my brief time of head pain.

It was during this hot time that we tried for dry forest species around Guacimo. For our 15 minutes of effort we picked up a Nutting’s Flycatcher panting in the heat and nothing else.

We swung by Orotina for the Black and White Owls and it was surreal as always; some non-birder guy on a bench asks me if I want to see the owls in the fairly busy plaza, I say yes please, he points to a large tree in the middle of the plaza and there they are. Just incredible. I say “gracias” and we walk back to the car noting a Turquoise Browed Motmot (which we already had but always deserve to be watched) and picked up Yellow-green Vireo via its incessant singing. Also got another urban bird here; Grey-breasted Martin. Like Purple Martins, these guys have also become completely adapted to and maybe even dependent upon the structures built by people.

From Orotina, it was back uphill towards the Central Valley. Along the way we stopped for a drink at the Café Mirador near Atenas. This is a great place to stop for a drink or breakfast. Nice ambience and beautiful view all the way to the sea, it can also be good for dry forest birds. Can be means not at 11 A.M. though because we only saw the wind make the trees dance. We did pick up two birds though; a Yellow-bellied Elaenia was friendly enough to call once and the local Blue and White Swallows were present. It was good to stop for a drink and brief rest but this may not be the best place to stop on a Big Day; the service was just too relaxed. This is nice any other time but on a Big Day even a a few squandered minutes can mean lost birds. This may sound crazy but not if you think in terms of priorities; number of bird species being the top priority on a Big Day.

Just past Atenas we had another brief yet fruitful stop to check out the Rio Grande reservoir. This stop was perfect; we got out of the car and picked up our targets; Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal and Black Phoebe and got one non-target; Short-tailed Hawk!

If the A-team had converted to birding instead of firing guns and smoking cigars, they would have said, “I love it when a plan comes together”. Well, actually, their leader would have said that while Mr. T would have said, “I pity the bird who don’t show itself”. Face would have said something stupid like “I love Cowbirds” and the crazy one have mewed like a Clay-colored Robin.

View from the Mirador café

11:30 A.M. – 2 P.M.

This is when we saw very few birds because Johan was getting us through the traffic obstacle and maze of roads in San Jose. Traffic wasn’t too bad except along one stretch near our turnoff to the Caribbean. It might have been worth it if we had picked up a House Sparrow but nope, we saw nothing.

2-3 P.M.

Ahhh, relief to have escaped the car conglomeration and back out on the road heading up to Zurqui. I told the team to get on any bird that fluttered a wing or peeped as everything would probably be new up there at 1600 meters. We pulled over at some roadside café near patchy cloud forest habitat and tried to hear and see some birds through mountain pass mist accompanied by the din of passing 18-wheelers. Well, it wasn’t exactly the most active time of day for birds but we managed to get a few things such as Plain Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Mountain Robin, Wilsons Warbler and our only Rufous-collared Sparrows of the day.

Further on, we stopped at our only good cloud forest site; the Zurqui police station in Braulio Carrillo National Park. There used to be an excellent trail here with cloud forest birding as good as or even better than Monteverde. The trail is too overgrown to bother with though so we were limited to the noisy roadside during rainy weather. We picked up a handfull; Golden-bellied Flycatcher foraging around the police station, Yellowish Flycatcher, a gorgeous male Flame-colored Tanager, and our best; Emerald Toucanets flying across the road!

Unfortunately we were slim on time, the birds were quiet at this time of day and you really can’t see too much from the side of the road so we left for lower elevations of the Caribbean slope. This was pretty frustrating since there was probably 70 new species somewhere nearby in those excellent cloud forests. Next year, we will have to figure out how to maximize our cloud forest species number. On our original route, we would have done quite well but that road no longer exists; the way through Varablanca and Cinchona which was destroyed by the January 8th, 2009 earthquake.

Taking in the mist and not seeing much at Zurqui.

3:30-4:30 P.M.

Heading downhill, lucky for us, the weather cleared up by the time we reached my patch; Quebrada Gonzalez. We had some good birding for that hour. We picked up Collared Aracari and Bay Wren upon arrival, White-breasted Wood Wren and Pale-vented Thrush as soon as we entered the forest, Tawny-capped Euphonia and a good variety of other Tanagers such as Dusky-faced, Olive, Tawny-crested, Emerald, Bay-headed, Black and Yellow, and best of all, Blue and Gold! We also got Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, Green Shrike Vireo, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter and best of all, Yellow-eared Toucanet to clean up on Costa Rican Toucan species! As on other occasions when I have seen this species here, we saw three close and tame (but quiet) birds in the upper understory. I took the photo below zooming in about 3X.

Here is a digiscoped female from another a day there in January.

It was tough to leave with such nice bird activity but we still had to hit the Sarapiqui area so off we went; driving through the pouring rain for Carribean lowland targets. We got lucky again with the weather when it cleared up before reaching the La Selva entrance road. Along the way we got Pale-vented Pigeon perched on a roadside wire and upon arrival picked up a Swainsons Hawk amidst the 1000s of Turkey Vultures migrating en masse. It was incredible; this river of birds stretched from horizon to horizon! It was tough to pull ourselves away from this spectacle but we had targets to look for. The La Selva entrance road is always productive and we picked up several birds; the churring of White-throated Crake, Gray-rumped Swifts overhead, a Purple Martin (good bird!), a group of Olive-throated Parakeets screeching past, Golden-hooded Tanager, our only Masked Tityra and Lineated Woodpecker of the day, Fasciated Antshrike (!), Passerini’s Tanager, a distant Black-cowled Oriole scoped on a tree-top, a White-collared Manakin calling and then as dusk approached and most birds became silent we picked up our Little Tinamou and watched Crested Guans flap up above the tall trees to gracefully glide down into the shadows. As it got dark, we got one of our best birds for the day; Short-tailed Nighthawk! It gave us great looks right at the start of the entrance road, flying out on long wings a bit like a large bat. Our last bird though came at 6:15 P.M. when night had once again taken hold. It was another owl species; a distantly calling Spectacled. This was the end of our Big Day for 2009. So what if we didn’t get 300 species; its not every day that you get to identify 233 bird species while visiting lowland rain forest, montane cloud forest, mangroves, an oxbow lake and an ocean beach over the course of a single day.

A bad pic of the 1000s of TVs going by.

Violaceous Trogons are pretty common along the La Selva entrance road.

Our last stop; the La Selva entrance road.

big year Birding Costa Rica

A Big Year in Costa Rica

In the birding world, many of us are a list obsessed bunch. The lists other people use are temporal and pretty much inconsequential; a nearly forgotten, crumpled note that mentions milk, bread, butter, flour, cereal, mahi mahi (for those of us lucky enough to reside where this fish is standard) and other essentials like snickers bars and salt.
For birders, though, lists often play a principle role in one’s life. Lists of birds that is. Aside from the all important life list,  there is also the yard list, the wish list (similar to but not quite the target list), the day list, the state list, the country list and so on. There is also a year list. This latter list is not to be confused with a BIG YEAR though; the endeavor or madness that I am doing/carrying out/attempting in 2009. Oh yes, I need to clarify that I am doing a BIG YEAR  for Costa Rica. That is to say, I am striving to identify as many species as possible within the territorial boundaries of Costa Rica. This is different from a year list because that would be simply keeping track of all species identified.

To truly be recognized as a BIG YEAR, I think one has to make serious efforts to see EVERYTHING. For example, if that means that I will have to waltz around in the middle of the cold and windy nights in the high mountains while monotonously whistling like an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl then so be it! One has to do what one has to do for a BIG DAY or BIG YEAR. It’s going to be especially challenging because I work a weekday job in a birdless environment (birds have not evolved to occupy office space) and most of all because I have a 6 month old daughter but I am giving it a shot. “Giving it a shot” means that I might not only have to do that waltzing and Saw-whet sans spots whistling but also take a trip to the Osa, bird near the Panamanian border on both slopes, hit Palo Verde, Cano Negro and Guanacaste, bird migrant hot spots, probably take the Puntarenas ferry several times and carry out other as of yet unknown birding missions. At least Costa Rica is a small country and you can get to just about everywhere. One thing I won’t do is carouse around the open ocean chumming for pelagics. Pelagic birds are super cool but seasickness isn’t and I get roaringly sick out on those darn waves. At least I can handle that Puntarenas ferry though and that will probably give me a few pelagic or semi-pelagic birds.

Although I haven’t been able to get out too much as of late February (and I need to because its going to rain from May to December), I have broke 300 species. My best bird so far is Tiny Hawk! This a good one because even though they are around, you can hardly plan on seeing one. I got lucky with a glimpse along the La Selva entrance road. We were attempting to locate some hidden Tanagers that were giving alarm calls when this thrush sized bird with blunt head and tail barring burst out of a palm to fly across the road and out of site. Yep, typical Tiny Hawk experience.

I hope to up the BIG YEAR list soon with some rare migrants along the Caribbean coast during March and April. I will keep you updated with that and good birding to all in 2009!