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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see Tinamous in Costa Rica

I wish I had photos of tinamous but other than pics of Undulated Tinamous from Tambopata, Peru, I haven’t been lucky enough to get adequate pics of any other of these goofy-looking, wonderful, feathered footballs (and by “footballs” I mean the somewhat cylindrical, all American “pigskin”). So, if you were hoping for lots of breathtaking imagery in this blog post, I am sorry to disappoint.

However, if you want to find out how to see tinamous in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) read on!

Tinamous as a family range from tropical Mexico all the way south to the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia. They stick to the ground in both humid and dry forests, thick second growth, above the treeline in the October-colored paramo, and in the grasslands of the southern cone. They are also pretty tough to see no matter where you go but at least love to vocalize with haunting songs that are easy on the ears; a boon for birders who happily make ticks on their life list with “heard onlys”. For those of us who need visual confirmation to add one more precious bird to our life lists, though, the ventriloquil songs of Tinamous can quickly turn from being magical and beautifully mysterious to being maddening and horribly frustrating. Although they may be rather “primitive” birds, tinamous aren’t exactly dumb. On the contrary, they must be pretty smart to have survived as a family for several million years and are very adept at remaining unseen. Like avian ninjas of the neotropics, tinamous start the day by taunting birders with their loud, beautiful songs, but then carefully slink through and hide in the undergrowth as soon as binocular-toting, khaki-wearing people hit the trails. After a tinamou-less day inside the forest, and usually while musing about tinamous over drinks right around 5 P.M., the football-shaped birds laugh at the birders with a flurry of vocalizations emanating from deep within the forest. Some tinamous think the joke is so good that they just can’t help themselves and insist on singing in the middle of the night. Really, its’ no wonder that so many people who live near tinamous want to shoot and eat them!

I don’t want to do tinamous any harm whatsoever, nor do I even mind their sneaky behavior. As Zen as I would like to believe myself to be, I have to admit that it’s easy to withstand the tremulous laughs of the tinamous because I am the one who gets the final guffaw. You see, I think that one must think and act like certain birds to see them. In the case of tinamous, this means taking the birding gloves off and getting downright sneaky. You can try playback with tinamous, but aside from over-harrassing the birds, they don’t respond so well. I admit that I have had some success with playback on tinamous, but don’t find it to be as useful of a tool as some other tricks to see these guys.

The most basic and best way to see more tinamous is to walk carefully, quietly, and slowly through the forest. Stop often, be patient, constantly scan the undergrowth, and keep an eye on the trail ahead. Most of all, do not talk, and remember to think like a ninja! Don’t worry about rushing; there are birds around and some might be looking at you. In addition to tinamous, I often end up seeing other ground birds this way such as quail-doves, antthrushes, and wood-quail.

Watch for food sources. Although tinamous mostly eat small creatures such as bugs and lizards, many will also take fallen fruit. Watch for tinamous at antswarms, below fruiting trees, and at spots where flowers that have fallen from the canopy may attract more insects.

Track down singing tinamous at dawn and dusk and bring a flashlight. Get out there when they sing- you might be able to sneak up on one close to the trail.

If the above advice pays off and you do see a tinamou in Costa Rica, at least their identification is pretty straightforward. The five species in Costa Rica are:

Great Tinamou : Common in lowland and foothill rainforest, if you see a brown tinamou with grayish legs that looks bigger than a chicken, it’s this one. Although found at a variety of sites, the most reliable places are Carara and La Selva because Great Tinamous tend to be more tame in these protected forests. It sings with deep, tremulous whistles.

Slaty-breasted Tinamou : Restricted to the northern half of the Caribbean slope, there aren’t too many places to see this species in Costa Rica because of extensive deforestation. To me, they don’t seem as common as they used to be at La Selva although they are still fairly reliable there. Other possibilities are Tortuguero, the forested areas around Laguna del Lagarto lodge, and around the Arenal area. Slaty-breasted Tinamous also occur at Rara Avis and Quebrada Gonzalez, although they are more common in the lowlands. This species might be easier in countries to the north. I recall seeing one or two at Palenque in Mexico. Listen for two very low-pitched whistles that are the song of this one and watch for the gray breast.

Thicket Tinamou : If you see a tinamou in the dry forest, it’s probably this one. Watch for the barring on the upperparts, rufescent tones of the plumage, and reddish legs. During the dry season, especially watch for it in gallery forest and listen for the low, whistled song.

Little Tinamou : The most common and at the same time most difficult to see tinamou in Costa Rica, you will know that one is near when you hear what sounds like a horse that has been sucking on helium balloons whinny from the thick, humid, second growth. Their preference for dense vegetation makes them very difficult to see. Peering into the forest edge might reveal one or you might see one foraging below the Rara Avis feeders or at shaded kitchen middens behind restaurants in the lowlands that are adjacent to thick second growth. The Little Tinamou is indeed little (American Robin-sized) and is mostly plain brown.

Highland Tinamou : This is a tinamou of the cloud forest and the one you are most likely to see along the trails at the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves. In fact, try as hard as you can to see it at these sites because the Highland Tinamou is more regularly seen here than other sites in its range. Watch for the lightly spotted back, and the gray head with rufous throat. It doesn’t not sing as much as other tinamous, nor does it sound anything like the other species in Costa Rica. Listen for the repeated, short, rather harsh notes that make up its song.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction middle elevations

Pocosol: Little known Costa Rica Birding Destination

“Pocosol” may have rhythm as far as words go, but except for the occasional vampire wannabee (or unfortunates who are extremely sensitive to ultraviolet rays), “Little Sunlight” doesn’t sound all that inviting. Despite being strongly diurnal in nature, the Birding Club of Costa Rica was nevertheless undaunted in planning and doing a trip to Pocosol and although we found that the place lived up to its name, we had a great time anyways. Actually, we were a lot more concerned about constant rain than the lack of sunlight and therefore chose to visit Pocosol in September, the driest month at this very humid, Caribbean foothill forest that gets drenched with more than 4 meters of rain per year. This strategy worked out in avoiding the agua but Pocosol still managed to stay true to its name with constant, heavy cloud cover. Even during the driest of times, this cloud cover apparently ensures a high level of humidity. Although the watery air made photography difficult (at least with my silly set-up), it makes Pocosol a haven for frogs. Even without doing a night walk or having any focus on amphibians, we couldn’t help but notice the large number of frogs that were calling and we saw several right around the cabins and on the trails without really searching for them.

Here is an undentified tree frog trying to hide on one of the dormitory windows.

It would have been cool to go herping but that required more than the three days that we dedicated to full time birding. We essentially started at the Pocosol office near the town of La Tigra and saw several of the usual suspects that do well in non-forest and forest-edge habitats. Birds such as Gray Hawk (a juvie that casually flapped by and got all the small birds giving high-pitched alarm calls), Ruddy Ground-Dove, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Groove-billed Ani, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Social Fly, Great Kiskadee, TK, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Passerini’s Tanager, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Common Tody-Flycatcher

While enjoying these common birds, the real treat was seeing hundreds of Northern Rough-winged Swallows, a smattering of Cave Swallows, and a few Purple Martins that were passing over in flock after flock on their way south. Much to our chagrin, this was not a preview of our Pocosol birding experience. We must have got unlucky and hit a a dry spell during fall migration because we saw hardly any warblers, vireos, or thrushes during our stay at Pocosol. One of our only warblers was this Black and White female.

The poor thing was probably exhausted as she attempted to forage and rested on the steps of the dormitory.

At least the resident species were around and the birding was pretty good overall. I admit that I expected more, but that’s the way it goes at high diversity sites; you just have to put in the time and effort if you want to see rare species and a couple days of birding just wasn’t enough for that trip. Sure, we identified something like 130 species but saw no hawk-eagles (and the habitat looked perfect), no Crested Eagle (has been seen here on occasion), dipped on Keel-billed Motmot (Pocosol is a good site for this rare species and means that I have to go back), Black-crested Coquette (we saw few of the flowering trees they prefer), and Lattice-tailed Trogon, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and Sharpbill (these three are never guaranteed anywhere).

In any case, most of these are more dependable at the far more accessible Quebrada Gonzalez. When I head for that elusive Motmot (which I may have heard and wrote off as Broad-billed Motmot-they sound very similar), I am going to spend a bit more time birding the road to Pocosol. This will be easy because although the place is just 3 hours from San Jose, it might be best to trot up there on a horse, hike the 13 kilometers from La Tigra, or motor up on an ATV. If you don’t go for one of those options, then be ready to test out the four wheel drive and clearance on your rental vehicle. The first nine kilometers are ok and pass near some nice habitat in the Penas Blancas river valley (where I am sure a morning trip would be great for birding). The other four kilometers also pass near or through birdy-looking areas but you might be too preoccupied with figuring out how to navigate the rocks and furrows to even raise your bins for a TK.

Scenery along the road to Pocosol.

Arriving to Pocosol.

As long as you have four-wheel drive, you will see immediately see why it was worth the efforts in getting here. All around the station is beautiful secondary and primary forest where birds like this Black-faced Grosbeak

and animals such as this Three-toed Sloth can appear at any time. We even saw a group of Spider Monkeys moving through the trees next to the station.

Some of the best birding was right from the balconies in the spacious dormitory building that gave beautiful views into the nearby and distant canopy. We often saw tanagers and other small birds from the balconies and frequently had good looks at Blue and Gold and Black and Yellow Tanagers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Although I kept scanning the forested hillside, I saw nary a cotinga and it wasn’t until our final morning that we saw a couple of birds perched out there; a White Hawk and adult King Vulture (always nice!).

View from the balcony.

From the balcony, the nearby lagoon at Pocosol was also visible if fairly birdless (a few Least Grebes and Green Kingfisher). More birds were seen along the trail that led to this crater lake and included small mixed flocks led by Golden-crowned Warblers, Tawny-throated Leaftosser foraging on the trail, Brown-billed Scythebill, and several Thicket Antpittas that called (laughed at us?) from the undergrowth. This hard to see but constantly heard species was pretty common at Pocosol. We heard them from dawn to dusk but only a few of us were lucky enough to glimpse one in the dense second growth they prefer. Trails around the lake passed through abandoned guava plantations and weren’t so good for birds but were great for peccaries. These wild pigs were so concentrated in this area that there must have also been a jaguar or at least a puma around which we of course didn’t see (although others have).

The lagoon at Pocosol.

The other main trail at Pocosol is a loop that goes up onto a ridge, passes by fumaroles, and passes through some of the best primary rain forest I have seen in Costa Rica . Since we did one quick walk here at the slow time of day (mid-morning), we didn’t see too much but still managed Song Wren, Slaty Antwren, heard Dull-mantled Antbird and Black-headed Antthrush, and got fair looks at one, large mixed flock led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager that held Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, most of the tanagers, and Russet Antshrike. The next time I go to Pocosol, I would love to spend a whole day just slowly birding that beautiful trail- it looked like the type of place where rare birds or a cat could show up at any moment.

The other area we birded was along the section of the entrance road closest to the station.

Habitat was more open with lots of Cecropias but there were still quite a few birds. The best were Rufous-winged and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers (fairly common at Pocosol), Immaculate Antbird (h), and great looks at…

Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

We didn’t get lucky with owls but the caretaker has seen Spectacled and Crested right around the station and I heard one Mottled Owl. Speaking of the caretaker, he did a great job and I would go back in a second as the service and food were good, the dormitory rooms comfortable, and the forest as peaceful as it was beautiful. Costs for visiting Pocosol are an affordable $45 per night that includes a bed and meals. They can also provide transportation up the road but charge a lot for it. For more information and making reservations, see http://www.acmcr.org/pocosol_biological_station.html

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Introduction middle elevations

Rara Avis, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites

This past weekend I visited Rara Avis, one of the classic birding sites for Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon- a fairly common bird at Rara Avis.

There were several Olive-sided Flycatchers in the area. Love these birds!

Founded in 1983 by conservationists, Rara Avis started out as an organization whose goal was to demonstrate that rain forest could be managed in both a profitable and wise manner. Or, in other words, that people will benefit far more from keeping the spectacular rain forests of Costa Rica intact as opposed to cutting them down. With this concept playing a central role in all things Rara Avis, it’s no wonder that they became pioneers of ecotourism in the rainforest. On my recent visit to Rara Avis, I discovered that more than 20 years later, they have stuck to this central theme, and in my opinion, the place still ranks among the top birding sites in Costa Rica.

Area around lodge.

Rara Avis at dawn.

Ironically, it doesn’t attract very many birders. Only a fortunate few include Rara Avis on trips that visit other “must see” sites such as Monteverde, Carara, la Selva, and the Dota region. Those few birders that make it to Rara Avis, though, are indeed fortunate because they end up seeing a variety of species difficult to find elsewhere in the country. The 360 plus species list at Rara Avis includes such birds as Great, Slaty-breasted, and Little Tinamous, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Wood-Quails, Sunbittern, Barred Hawk, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Tiny Hawk, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Great Green Macaw, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, White-chinned Swift, Green-fronted Lancebill, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Lanceolated Monklet, Barbets, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Immaculate Antbird, Spectacled, Thicket, and Black-crowned Antpittas, Black-headed Antthrush, Thrushlike Schiffornis, Speckled Mourner, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Nightingale Wren, Pale-vented Thrush, many tanagers including Blue and Gold, Black and Yellow, and Ashy-throated Bush, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

All of these are regularly heard or seen at Rara Avis. Indeed this may be the most reliable spot in Costa Rica for Blue and Gold and Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers. One of the guides who became a birder at Rara Avis told me that he had been pretty surprised when he found out that Blue and Gold Tanager was NOT one of the most common species in Costa Rica because at Rara Avis he was seeing several every single day.

Incredible as that sounds, it should actually be expected to see a few “rare” bird species at Rara Avis. The reason for this is because most of these “rare” birds require the type of extensive, primary rainforest at Rara Avis that has become very difficult to gain access to on the Caribbean slope. In addition to the above mentioned species, there are a few other indicators that Rara Avis harbors some very special habitat. It was one of the last places where Red-throated Caracaras have been seen in Costa Rica (the other sites are on the Osa Peninsula), is one of the few sites where Crested Eagle has been seen in Costa Rica (the other sites being the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol, and Tortuguero), and is one of the only sites where Wing-banded Antbird has been possibly seen in Costa Rica. The antbird in particular is a most intriguing and enigmatic record. A ground loving antbird that occurs in lowland rain forest in Nicaragua, Panama, and northern South America, this peculiar species is considered hypothetical for Costa Rica. Nevertheless, in speaking with Wilbur, the resident bird guide at Rara Avis, it’s hard to believe that he saw anything but Wing-banded Antbird. He got very good looks at the bird on three occasions during 2001, but hasn’t seen it since. He even showed me the exact spot along the “Plastico” trail where he saw the bird, an area that at that time was mostly closed canopy primary forest of about 650 meters elevation.

The hummingbird feeders attract…

Green-crowned Brilliants,

lots of Violet-crowned Woodnymphs,

and lots of Orangish Nectar feeding bats at night!

Considering that Rara Avis has so much to offer for birders, their relative absence is almost as enigmatic as Wilbur’s sighting of Wing-banded Antbird. Although the accommodation at Rara Avis is more basic than that of other lodges, it is clean and several rooms have balconies that provide views into the canopy. A stay at the lodge that includes meals, guided walks, and transportation from Las Horquetas is also priced accordingly (about $80-$90 per person). The only real issue and barrier for most people is the road that leads to Rara Avis. It can’t be driven and although it qualifies as a road for maybe one third of its length, better terminology for the rest of the way might be “rough track”, “extremely rough passage”, or “blasted, lurching, boulder-strewn mudway”. I think this last description best portrays the access road to Rara Avis. The 15 kilometer trip takes around 3 hours and involves an Ok ride on a durable truck and a pretty awful ride on some sort of cart pulled by a tractor. The cart thing on its own is actually comfortable with well-padded seats. It’s the huge rocks and ruts found along the way that are the problem. They make the cart jump and jerk like a rusty, maniacal ride operated by a bipolar carnie who neglected to take his meds. Actually, lots of people endure the ride up and kids would probably enjoy it. For people who aren’t as pliable or resistant though, that ride up and down is another matter entirely. For birders visiting Costa Rica who can handle the “road”, 3-4 nights at Rara Avis will probably turn up some of the best birding of their trip. On a bright note for birders who can’t handle the rough ride (I barely can), there has been talk of actually fixing it. Although some worry that this might take away from the experience, about the only thing that it will change at Rara Avis is putting this excellent site back on the itinerary of every birder visiting Costa Rica.

The Unimog truck.

The tractor cart thing.

The infamous “road”.

Rara Avis is also very good for herps and has the highest recorded herp diversity for Costa Rica. This Eyelash Viper was poised to strike at this heliconia. While I took a pics, a Long-billed Hermit was feeding nearby. It fed on all the heliconias in that area except for this one!

On my short visit (one night and morning of birding), here is a list of all things identified from the cattle pastures of Las Horquetas up to the beautiful forests of Rara Avis. Birding was more or less limited to the clearing at the Waterfall Lodge, and along the El Plastico trail. A huge number of trees along most of the El Plastico trail were unfortunately felled by an odd, violent windstorm a few years ago. Although this has affected the quality of the habitat along this trail, other trails at Rara Avis still provide access to beautiful primary forest. During my stay, the hot and sunny weather quieted things down quite a bit. Nevertheless, I identified 111 species in just one brief evening and morning of birding and am sure I would have gotten several more if I had stayed for two more nights. My best birds were Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Cerulean Warbler!

Black-breasted Wood-Quail- h

King Vulture- a few seen

Barred Hawk- 2 heard

Black Vulture- a few seen

Turkey Vulture- a few seen

Gray Hawk- few seen along road.

Bat Falcon- seen and heard

Barred Forest Falcon- 1 heard

White-throated Crake- heard El Plastico clearing.

Gray-breasted Crake- one called from marshy pasture along road when tractor stopped for 3 minutes.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail- pair foraging in garden.

Purple Gallinule- marshy pasture.

Northern Jacana- marshy pasture.

Red-billed Pigeon- 2 along road.

Pale-vented Pigeon- near Las Horquetas along road.

Short-billed Pigeon- a few heard.

Ruddy Ground Dove- a few along road.

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove- one singing in morning from perch 3 meters high inside forest near kitchen.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet- a few along road.

Olive-throated Parakeet- one pair along road.

Orange-chinned Parakeet- a few along road.

Red-lored Parrot- a few along road.

White-crowned Parrot- a few along road.

Groove-billed Ani- a few along road.

Mottled Owl- 1 heard at night.

Central American Pygmy Owl- 1 heard 6:00 P.M.

White-collared Swift- a few flocks.

Green Hermit- a few in forest.

Stripe-throated (Little) Hermit- several.

Long-billed Hermit- a few in forest.

Violet Sabrewing- 2 in forest.

Green-crowned Brilliant- a few at feeders.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph- most common hummingbird. Several at feeders and many in forest.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- 1 second growth.

Violet-headed Hummingbird- several at Verbania around lodge.

Black-throated Trogon- a few heard, 1 seen forest.

Lattice-tailed Trogon- a few heard, 1 seen forest.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- few heard and seen.

Keel-billed Toucan- 1 seen El Plastico.

Collared Aracari- a few seen El Plastico.

Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several heard and seen.

Smoky-brown Woodpecker- 1 seen.

Spotted Barbtail- 1 heard.

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner- 1 heard, 1 seen.

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- a few heard and seen.

Spotted Woodcreeper- a few heard and seen.

Fasciated Antshrike- 1 heard.

Russet Antshrike- a few El Plastico.

Immaculate Antbird- 1 heard around lodge.

Thicket Antpitta- a few heard along El Plastico trail. Their population should be booming with all the gaps created by the storm.

Black-faced Antthrush- a few heard and seen.

Paltry Tyrannulet- very few heard and seen.

Common Tody Flycatcher- heard and seen Las Horquetas.

Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant- several heard and seen.

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher- a few seen.

Olive-sided Flycatcher- at least 7 different birds seen! Must be coming through in numbers.

Eastern Wood-Peewee- 1 heard.

Tropical Peewee-  1 El Plastico.

Black Phoebe- along road.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher- El Plastico.

Boat-billed Flycatcher- 1 heard.

Social Flycatcher- along road.

TK- along road.

Eastern Kingbird- small flock along road.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird- pair seen near El Plastico. Female sallied out to snatch a large katydid- incredible!

White-collared Manakin- 1 lodge clearing.

Red-eyed Vireo- a few seen.

Lesser Greenlet- a few seen and heard.

Blu and white Swallow- a few seen.

Barn Swallow- constantly migrating overhead.

Bank Swallow- several migrating overhead.

Purple Martin- group of dozen of both sexes along road.

Long-billed Gnatwren- a few heard.

Tawny-faced Gnatwren- 1 heard.

Stripe-breasted Wren- several heard, a few seen.

White-breasted Wood-Wren- a few heard.

Nightingale Wren- a few heard.

Pale-vented Thrush- several seen.

Clay-colored Robin- heard Las Horquetas.

Blackburnian Warbler- a few seen.

American Redstart- several seen.

Canada Warbler- 1 seen.

Cerulean Warbler- at least 2 seen very actively foraging high up with mixed flock near El Plastico.

Buff-rumped Warbler- 1 heard river at lodge.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- a few heard road.

Bananaquit- a few heard and seen.

Ashy-throated Bush-tanager- several in mixed flock near El Plastico.

Olive Tanager- a few heard and seen.

White-shouldered Tanager- pair seen.

Tawny-crested Tanager- a few heard.

Black and yellow Tanager- several seen and heard.

Passerini’s Tanager- several at El Plastico.

Speckled Tanager- a few near lodge.

Golden-hooded Tanager- along road.

Silver-throated Tanager- 1 seen.

Blue-gray Tanager- a few along road.

Palm Tanager- a few along road.

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- a few around lodge.

Green Honeycreeper- a few.

Shining Honeycreeper- a few.

Variable Seedeater- several along road.

Orange-billed Sparrow- a few near lodge.

Buff-throated Saltator- a few in gaps.

Black-faced Grosbeak- several in forest.

Eastern Meadowlark- a few along road.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique- a few heard in forest.

Montezuma Oropendola- a few along road.

Olive-backed Euphonia- several heard and seen.

Tawny-capped Euphonia- several heard and seen.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding La Georgina, Costa Rica

Most birders visiting Costa Rica seem to get their fix of high elevation Talamancan endemics at Savegre Lodge or somewhere in the Dota Valley. I may have done the same when I did my first high elevation Talamancan birding in Costa Rica in 1994, but as is common with wandering, young birders (colloquially referred to as bird bums), I couldn’t afford to stay there. In fact, I couldn’t afford to stay almost anywhere. I rode the bus, hitched, camped out, and stayed in cheap hotels where the walls were so thin that guests would simply communicate with friends in other rooms by yelling back and forth. If conversations would have been interesting, perhaps I would have joined in. I just stuffed tissue papaer into my ears though because they usually went something like this:

“Hey Julio! What are you doing?”

“Nothing Raul!! What about you!!?”

“Nothing Julio! Lets go drink some beers!!!”

“Ok Raul!! Do you want to drink them here or in the park!?!”

“Hey Julio!! The shower doesn’t work!!”

“Ha! Maybe we can stand in the rain!!! If we are drunk we won’t feel it!!! Ha ha ha!”

The noise level of cheaper hotels in latin America is often the biggest problem (well, not counting the bed bugs that attacked a friend of mine and I during our stay at a $3 per night doozy in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). On one particularly noise-ridden night in Buenaventura, Ecuador, I was so fed up with the audio intrusion that I was going to buy the loudest noisemaker I could find, like say a stick of dynamite, and set it off outside the door of my noisy neighbor at 5 A.M. My neighbor lucked out though, because the birding is so incredibaly good at the Buenaventura Reserve that I just didn’t get the chance to look for large caliber firecrackers.

In any case, my first experiences at night in the high Talamancas were wonderful in all respects because I spent them camping out in the fantastic forests along the trail up to Chirripo (camping along the trail isn’t actually allowed and I don’t think you could get away with it nowadays which is a shame because it was the best high elevation birding I have ever had in Costa Rica). I saw nearly every highland specialty including the only time I have ever seen Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Since then, most of my visits to the high Talamancas have been to the easiest, most accessible, budget site for high elevation birding in Costa Rica; La Georgina.

Situated along on the east side of the highway that connects San Jose to San Isidro de el General, La Georgina is a diner/truck-stop/cheap place to stay with excellent birding about 10 minutes after the pass on Cerro de la Muerte. The pass can be recognized by it being the most extensive area above the treeline-if you don’t visit Irazu, then this is where you stop for Volcano Junco. At 10,000 feet (slightly over 3,000 meters), La Georgina is pretty high up there for Costa Rica and you will feel it both in terms of the lack of oxygen and darn cold nights. It also rains quite a bit up there at La Georgina, as it did the other day when I made a day trip to the place despite the clear forecast. Although the foggy, misty weather pretty much foiled most of my attempts at bird photography, it was still nice to check the place out and especially nice to see that La Georgina has improved as a birding site. Unlike so many other birding sites in Costa Rica, La Georgina does not charge to use their trails, and still charges reasonable rates for lodging. The very friendly, humble family that runs the place still serves good, local food and the birding is still very good if not better than in the past.

The dining area provides perfect views of Fiery-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds that visit their feeders.

Extensive gardens have been planted that host Volcano Hummingbird, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Large-footed Finch. This young Large-footed Finch was nice and camera friendly.

Two “cabinas” have been built that overlook the gardens and nearby forests. Lodging costs $30 per night. I believe this is per cabina and not per person although I am not 100% sure. It would be very interesting to stay the night here and try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Almost no one has seen or heard this bird in Costa Rica; a subject that Robert Dean and I were discussing recently. We wondered if it might be related to these owls only vocalizing during a particular season, or possibly that they occur higher than the Savegre Valley (where most birders spend the night). If our second hypothesis explains the dearth of sightings of this bird, perhaps birders who stay at the cabinas at La Georgina can test this. In addition to the cabinas, there are $10 rooms available at the diner. Although the walls are thin, I think the few guests that stay here are too cold to yell to each other.

About the only disadvantage of La Georgina is that one has to be fairly physically fit to walk their trails. Although the paths aren’t too steep, there is enough of a grade to make to make the going a bit rough, especially because of the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. Birders (and hikers) who are fit enough to do these trails, though, should definitely bird them. I have never seen a place where Zeledonias were so common. I must have heard and easily seen (sans binos mind you) at least 10 while walking the main trail.

The trails at La Georgina mostly cut through old growth, temperate zone rain forest. Bamboo is prevalent in the understory and the trails go near a few streams. A testament to the high quality of these forests were the tapir tracks found along the trail. Essentially, this area is an extension of the huge La Amistad Park as the roadless, peopleless forests of La Georgina are connected to those of the park. They don’t get birded much although probably harbor all the high elevation specialties.

Tapir tracks

As far as birds go, along the trails of La Georgina on that day, my best find was Costa-Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Like the one I had last year on Irazu, I found it by virtue of a pair of upset Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that were mobbing it. Just after the owl, I had a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unfortunately though, he was a lot more camera shy than the owl. Like other forested areas of the high Talamancas, Resplendent Quetzal is fairly common at La Georgina. Come to think of it, I have never missed this species when walking their trails.

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird that was happily relaxing in the gardens of La Georgina far away from any Pygmy Owls.

I also had Black Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a few Gray-tailed Mountain-Gems, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous, Gray-breasted Wood, and Timberline Wrens, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Hopefully I will get back to La Georgina sometime soon to spend the night and try for a mega lifer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Barva Volcano Birding in Costa Rica

Last weekend, I finally got the chance to visit the Barva Sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park after years of hoping to check out this site. Despite seeing its welcoming, jade-green vegetation beckoning from a distance on a daily basis, I hadn’t become acquainted with the upper reaches of Barva Volcano because of the difficulties in accessing this mountain with public transportation. Last weekend, though, a friend of mine who teaches at the European School was bringing a group of students up to Barva for some hiking and had one extra space in the bus. My friend graciously offered me that coveted little seat and I finally got the chance to see the Barva Sector for some recon and birding.

Meeting up at the European School in San Pablo de Heredia (you always have to mention the “de Heredia” part because there might also be a “San Pablo de Cartago” or “de Limon” or “de who knows what else”), the old, riparian growth behind the school contrasted with the nearby car-exhausted streets and over-profusion of concrete to provide a sanctuary for birds and other animals that somehow manage to hang on in the Central Valley. Rufous-capped Warblers called from the undergrowth while Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers complained about the White-tailed Kite that was conspicuously perched at the top of a bare tree. The resemblance this raptor has to a gull during flight never fails to impress me. Really, if you think you see a gull anywhere inland in Costa Rica, it’s probably one of those graceful White-tailed Kites. Although this will sound like an extreme non-event to most birders, I also got my first Mourning Dove of the year. These aren’t too common in Costa Rica and I needed it for my Big Year (which is coming along slowly yet steadily).

After waiting for the few compulsory late students, our bus joined the stream of traffic moving through Heredia and made our way towards Barva Volcano. Not to be confused with the volcano (although like the roads here it is certainly confusing), we passed through the town of Barva and followed the brown volcano signs on curvy roads that threaded their way uphill through coffee plantations. I wish I could tell you which roads we actually took but since no roads are signed, all I can suggest is that you follow the brown volcano signs, or better yet use a GPS. Some of the rental cars have fantastic GPS systems that show your car moving along Costa Rica’s confusing labyrinth of roads- I personally wish I had one of those showing me walking through the maze of streets. That way I could faithfully walk with purpose to my destination instead of walking with purpose to the next pulperia to ask for directions that are usually about as sound as Costa Rica’s active fault lines.

After around 40 minutes of ascending through pastures, coffee plantations, and patches of cloud forest that would be worth birding, we stopped when the asphalt gave out. My friend then informed us that the hiking was to commence! Three ks uphill to the ranger station and then on into the park. Fortunately, I didn’t have to keep up with those energy-filled adolescents because I simply couldn’t. They seemed to race on uphill through the rarified, 2,000 plus meter air while I slowly trudged up the road wishing that I had an oxygen tank. Although I was carrying a scope and more gear than them, I discovered that I was much more out of shape than I had realized! This was not a happy discovery but at least moving more slowly meant that I had a better chance at getting bird pics. Well, that’s what I thought until in addition to this self realization that I needed to exercise more often, I also found out during the course of the day that highland birds are far from sluggish. On the contrary, most are dowright hyperactive which makes them very difficult to get pictures of (hence the general lack of photos in this post).

Although the birds were tough to photograph, at least the scenery was nice. From this high vantage point, I could see the dreadful extent of urbanization that has occurred in the Central Valley and be grateful for the fresh, mountain scented air.

The walk up those three ks to the ranger station was OK for birding in pastures with remnant, massive oak trees but got better once the high elevation forests of the park were reached. Species I had on the way up were flybys of Band-tailed Pigeons, Hairy Woodpecker, Mountain Elaenia, Blue and white Swallow, Mountain Robin, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers, Flame-throated Warbler, Collared Redstarts, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and a whole mess of Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Cool, massive, oak tree at least 300 years old.

One of the many Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Slim pickings overall really with the most interesting birds being Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds concentrated around a large flowering bush.

Here is a nice, little female Volcano Hummingbird.

The area around the station was pleasant for birding and just hanging out. There were a few picnic tables amidst good, high elevation habitat. As at most high elevation sites in Costa Rica, a Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush was hopping around and being friendly (I love friendly birds- they get named extra-friendly when they pose for pictures).

Extra friendly Black-billed Nightingale Thrush.

Many other birds came to the ranger station and although I didn’t see any Quetzals, I am sure they show up now and then. From the ranger station, the road gently ascends to lagoons, an overlook, and a couple of trails. I never made it to the lagoons as I took the “Cacho de Venado” trail. The trail was beautiful and the birding good in high elevation forest with sections of interesting elfin forest.

Main trail for Barva.

High elevation forests always have this enchanting, mystical appeal for me. Whether it’s the pleasant climate, lack of mosquitoes, or lack of oxygen that makes you think you are seeing birds that never existed, a visit is always thrilling (at least during rare, nice weather). The huge, old trees are covered in moss and some look like the “dark side of the force” tree on Dagobah.

Dagobah-like tree sans visions of Darth Vader or the far scarier Jar Jar Binks.

Striking red bromeliad- an adaptation for the high UV index typical of high elevations in the tropics.

On Barva, the tinkling calls of Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers filtered down from the canopy while Black-faced Solitaires sang their beautiful, etheral songs from the understory. Mixed flocks were pretty common and included quite a few Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers. Here is a young one that was friendly.

Other bird species I saw or heard in the forest and at the station were Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo (just one), Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous Wren, Black-cheeked Warbler, Zeledonia (one heard), Spangled-cheeked Tanager, Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches (too hyperactive to be friendly), and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

This young Chlorophonia was friendly enough.

We left Barva when as it started to rain around 1 P.M. Although I would love to visit the peaceful, quiet woods of Barva again, it probably won’t happen until we get a car. By then, though, we should be living in nearby Santa Barbara de Heredia and so might visit on a regular basis.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds; Identification Issues

Last weekend, I escaped the Central Valley to guide the BCCR (Birding Club of Costa Rica) trip to Baru near Dominical. The drive to Dominical is always interesting as the most direct route from San Jose traverses the high Talamancan mountains. Once you find your way to Cartago (which would be fairly easy if the signs were located a few blocks before the turn-offs instead of after them) and get on the road to San Isidro, the highway quickly ascends the fantastic Talamancan Mountain Range. Although the scenery is nice, it is particularly fantastic because most of this rugged cordillera is cloaked in high elevation rain forest. Just after departing Cartago, the road passes through and near beautiful cloud forest that probably holds a bunch of rare birds. Although there isn’t any good way to bird it from the highway, at least Tapanti National Park provides access to this forest type for excellent birding.

As the road twists and turns its way up Cerro de la Muerte (the name of this mountain), it passes through interesting looking stands of lichen covered Alders and old growth oak forests with an amazing profusion of epiphytes, mosses, and bromeliads on their branches, and passes by the turn-off to San Gerardo de Dota- the valley where most birders stay when ticking high elevation Talamancan endemics. Further on, the highway passes by the entrance to the Paraiso de Quetzales (Quetzal Paradise) where Eddie Serrano can take you on a short tour to see Resplendent Quetzals. He also has cabins now, but like several places, has unfortunately raised prices over the past few years.

Still ascending, the highway reaches its highest points in the paramo zone above the treeline (aside from visiting the Irazu crater, this area is the most accessible site for Volcano Junco). About 15 minutes (?) after the paramo, La Georgina is found on the left side of the road. This roadside diner offers good, traditional food and even better high elevation birding. A steep trail behind the place goes through primary forest and harbors all high elevation forest species of the Talamancas, while the feeders just outside the windows of the diner provide opportunities for studying Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. Although Volcano Hummingbirds and Gray-tailed Mountain-gems are present, they mostly stick to the garden and forest, leaving the feeders to the two larger species. Similar in size, Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds can look quite similar as they both have long, straight bills, and a small, white, postocular spot. Feeders, though, at least provide the opportunity to study the differences between these two high elevation hummingbird species.

Structurally, the Fiery-throated is daintier with a more needle-like bill,

while the Magnificent is a bit more grandiose because of its larger bill size.

A close look at the bills also reveals one of the easiest ways to separate them. Note the reddish on the lower mandible of this Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

while that of the Magnificent is entirely black.

Of course the color differences seem to be obvious too but like most hummingbirds, the colors you see depend upon how the light is reflected off of their feathers. At first, none of these birds showed these glittering plumages that resemble finely jeweled chain mail. They just looked like large, dark hummingbirds until the flash of the camera revealed their colorful secrets.

Another way to separate them when their colors aren’t evident, is by the more defined gorget that the Magnificent shows. Even if this patch of beryl-green is not visible, the gorget stands out as a darker throat, something that the Fiery-throated lacks. It also lacks the distinctive face pattern shown by the female Magnificent.

Our stop at La Georgina was a short one, but I will make up for that by visiting soon to get all the high elevation species needed for my BIG YEAR.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands middle elevations

How to see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird

“Cephalopterus glabricollis”. I love the official, scientific term for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. It makes it sound like some massive-headed, ominous creature from the depths of darkest outer space that uses its supreme intelligence for ominous plans so nefarious that even the strongest among us (such as E.O. Wilson, the Dalai Lama, and Alex Trebek) would swoon with despair at the merest of glimpses into those dark machinations. Someone should make a movie….

In the meantime, unfortunately for most birders visiting Costa Rica, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is so hard to see that it might as well be from outer space. One of the largest Passerines in Costa Rica, this crow-sized bird has seriously declined with deforestation. While many species need just one type of forest for survival, unfortunately for the Umbrellabird, it needs at least two types of forest; lower middle elevation rain forest and lowland rainforest. Breeding in the mossy, very wet forests between 700 and 2,000 meters, this species spends the rest of the year in the hot, humid, Caribbean lowlands. While the lowlands are still there, most of the lowland forests aren’t, and since umbrellabirds don’t hang out in banana plantations or cattle pastures, they might be in serious trouble. It’s hard to say if so few individuals of this species are seen because they occur at naturally low densities or because their populations have declined because of massive deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands. In any case, this is definitely one rare bird. The experiences of those photographers and field naturalists extraordinaire, the Fogdens, mirror mine with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. In a paper they published in the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club (supercool- all celebs should join), the Fogdens mention how this species seems to have a patchy occurrence even within suitable looking looking habitat. I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered why I don’t see the Umbrellabird in what appears to be intact forest at the right elevation. I don’t think its a question of difficulty in seeing this species either because on the few occasions I have seen a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the birds were always easy to see, stayed in the subcanopy, and weren’t particularly shy; the same impression it has had upon other birders I have spoken with. In any case, I think its apparent rarity merits surveys carried out on its breeding grounds (albeit a very difficult endeavor), and in the foothill forests and patches of lowland forests (much more feasible) of the Caribbean slope. In conjunction with surveys, at least some assessment of the fruits it utilizes should also be done to possibly help this species through propagation of its food sources. Although I suspect it needs intact forest to survive (as it also feeds on large katydids, stick insects, and small invertebrates), I think such a study would be worthwhile.

In addition to a bit of rambling about studies I would love to do, I hope the information above gives you some idea of why you didn’t see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird on your visit to Costa Rica. However, if you have yet to visit Costa Rica for wonderful birding, butterflying, getting rained on, and eating rice and beans, don’t swoon with hopeless dismay at the prospect of not seeing a Bare-necked Umbrellabird. They do occur more regularly in some places than others and there are a few things you can do to increase your chances at connecting with this Elvis Presley of birds (don’t believe me? –take a look at its hairdo!).

During the breeding season (probably March to July), you might have more luck with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird by visiting a lek on its breeding grounds. Until other accessible leks are found, an adventurous trip only for those fit enough to hike a few hours downhill (and then back up to get out) to the San Gerardo Field Station of the Monteverde Preserve could be the most reliable way to see this species. March is the time of year to go to this field station, which, if you don’t see the Umbrellabird at least has excellent birding for other foothill species. There are one or two lekking sites near the station, which have had fewer birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Although the birds are only active at dawn and display from high up in the trees, the sight of bizarre male Umbrellabirds inflating their red throat patches while making low-pitched hooting noises will give you a birding high that might keep you awake for a few days.

If you aren’t visiting Costa Rica in March or don’t fancy a long hike to see the Umbrellabird, the other most reliable site for this mega species is at the Aerial Tram near Braulio Carrillo National Park. The Bare-necked Umbrellabird is seen most days at this site and the expert guides, most of whom are serious birders, keep up to date on sightings of this and other species. One a recent excursion to the Aerial Tram as part of a high-school trip where my wife teaches, we had good looks at one male Bare-necked Umbrellabird (my first for the year!). Although they are sometimes seen during the ride through the canopy, this one was hanging around the main buildings.

Although I don’t have photos of the Umbrellabird, here is what some of the canopy ride looks like.

The canopy ride was beautiful and our friendly guide top-notch. Although the habitat is fantastic foothill rainforest, the birding during the ride was pretty slow (as is typical during the tram ride). Birding is much better on the trails or around the main buildings. The only bad thing about this place is that you have to take an expensive tour for access. They don’t allow one to simply walk in and use the trails and have seemed pretty adamant about this which seems to be not very birder friendly in my opinion. I must stress that, however, the bad points of the Aerial Tram are associated with management working from some disassociated office and is not related in any way to the excellent, friendly, guides and staff who work on site.

The other main area to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird and where most birders have seen it is at the La Selva Biological Research Station. Visiting the forests of the station offer a fair chance at seeing Umbrellabird sometime during your stay. Taking the guided tour (compulsory for a day visit) at La Selva will increases your chances at seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at most times of the year-just make sure you tell the guide how important it is for you see this it. Once again, if you don’t stay overnight at the station, you can only access the forests on one of their guided tours which are at least more affordable than those of the Aerial Tram.

Away from La Selva, other regular sites for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird are other forests in the Sarapiqui area such as Selva Verde, the forests around Arenal such as the Hanging Bridges and trails at Arenal Obsevatory Lodge, and Heliconias Lodge at Bijagua. No matter where you go to look for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, your best bet at finding them is to watch out for mixed flocks of toucans and oropendolas. Anytime you see a group of Aracaris, and especially if you run into a large flock of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, keep your eye out for this elusive Elvis-like bird. If you think you see a crow, remember, the only crow-like bird in Costa Rica is the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica birds to know; Paltry Tyrannulet

Bird names run the gamut from the highly descriptive (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) and evocative (Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant) to the plain and simple (House Sparrow or Common Swift). In Costa Rica, one very common species even has a name that sounds downright pitiful; the Paltry Tyrannulet. Despite valiant attempts by Stiles and Skutch to change its name to Mistletoe Tyrannulet, a more upbeat, and accurate title evocative of sleighbells and frightening advances from egg-nogged partygoers, the ornithological powers that be still appear to support the repression of this little guy. I mean how many birders really want to see something whose name is synonymous with insignificance especially when it has contenders with fancy marketable titles like the smart and curious sounding Black-capped Pygmy-tyrant, the circus-like Northern Bentbill or that paparazzi magnet the Royal Flycatcher? Possibly Costa Rica’s most ignored, overlooked species, I have been witness to such shameful behavior by birders from the hot buggy lowlands all the way up to the misty highland forests of the Talamancas. It’s always the same story; the Tyrannulet calls over and over begging to be seen in just about every possible habitat BUT NOOOO it’s easier to stare at the soaring vultures, more tempting to train your binoculars on Acorn Woodpeckers, to run down the road after a Gray-necked Wood Rail (well, those do look pretty spiffy). Sure the Tyrannulet is small and hard to see in the canopy and looks like a small gray warbler-like thing but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find it, take a shot at identifying it. Sure its short monotone call doesn’t sound too inviting nor as interesting as the hauntingly beautiful songs of Solitaires, the ancient tremulous tones of Tinamous or the staccato auditory attack of the Tapaculos but that doesn’t mean we should take our cue from Simon Cowell (“I found it forgetful, boring, downright paltry”) and dismiss the P. Tyrannulet. As insignificant as it might look and sound, the behavior of this spunky little guy is far from boring and since it is one of the most common species in Costa Rica, the P. Tyrannulet should be watched for and learned. Stiles and Skutch weren’t kidding around when they proposed “Mistletoe Tyrannulet” for this flycatcher species. This flycatcher, instead of sallying out for prey like a kingbird, mostly eats mistletoe berries! Yes, a flycatcher that feeds on fruit! Not only that but the P. Tyrannulet looks like a warbler and acts like a warbler; in addition to feasting on mistletoe berries, it gleans the vegetation for arthropodic delights and cocks its tail up like a Chestnut-sided Warbler (another common species often found with the P. Tyrannulet). So, don’t be fooled by its name, the P. Tyranulet is a bird worth watching and will be found at every site you visit in Costa Rica.

Keep an eye and ear out for the P. Tyrannulet when birding in Costa Rica. Watch for a small warbler-like bird with a stubby, almost chickadee like bill and a line through the eye. Listen for the brief monotone call of the P. Tyrannulet; a typical element of the soundscape in every habitat in Costa Rica.

Here are a few photos of the not so Paltry Tyrannulet:

Although lighting can affect how color is perceived, the shape stays the same.

A P. Tyrannulet nest.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica feeders Introduction

Costa Rica Feeder Birds

Feeders; what a great way to bring the birds to YOU, to see them up close from your nest instead of searching for theirs. Place that cornucopia of bird food strategically and you can watch the birds eat breakfast while you eat breakfast. When you get home from work, you can tune into the feeder instead of zoning out to the TV. Heck, it’s your home; if you feel like it, dress in tweed and pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, invite a friend to be Watson and solve bird ID quandaries; “No, you haven’t seen an Ivory-billed at the feeder; that is a Pileated my dear Watson” (you could also do this on field trips but unless it’s Halloween or you despise networking I wouldn’t advise it).

Watch your trusty feeder to get inspiration from Cardinals, Goldfinches, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, and Mourning Doves (yes this species CAN generate inspiration…although mostly when they get wacked by Cooper’s Hawks). I admit some feeders have a hard time at being inspirational; I know this from personal experience. I watched our family feeder as a kid in downtown Niagara Falls and to risk being called close-minded, it pretty much sucked. The few highlights at our feeder were rare visits by Downy Woodpecker and Song Sparrow. I wondered where all the Goldfinches, Grosbeaks, Redpolls and other cool birds were and eventually learned two main things from my first bird-feeder:

1.) That my backyard had an unholy affinity for Pigeons, Starlings and House Sparrows and 2.) I had to search for the “cool” birds elsewhere. I eventually found those “cool” birds and ended up in a country with a huge variety of very cool birds; Costa Rica. Here, I never have to be concerned about a trio of invasives being the only stars in the backyard bird show. Exotic bird families show up and species differ by location, elevation and feeder food offered. For the most part, fruit is used instead of seeds; papayas, ripe plantains and bananas. In fact, with feeders in Costa Rica, you almost want to go out there and feed with the birds. Birds like….

that most versatile of flycatchers, the Great Kiskadee.

These guys will eat just about anything and are far from shy; kind of like the “Blue Jay” of Costa Rican feeder birds. This one is choking down a lizard.

Blue Gray Tanagers are standard. Locals called them “Viudas” which means “Widows”. This is a true Tico entymological mystery because Tica widows don’t wear blue. One would have expected Groove-billed Anis to have this monniker but they are called “Tijos” after their call.

Instead of House Sparrows (which seem to be restricted to gas stations and MacDonalds, go figure), we’ve got Rufous-collared Sparrows. This one was at one of the only seed feeders I have seen in Costa Rica; at the Noche Buena restaurant high up on Irazu Volcano.

The common backyard finch in much of Costa Rica is the Grayish Saltator. Their finchy song can be heard all over town but they can be kind of skulky.

Clay-colored Robins, the national bird of Costa Rica are faithful feeder visitors.

Summer Tanager shows up at fruit feeders all over Costa Rica. This species has to be one of the most common wintering birds.

Another very common wintering species that loves the fruit is Baltimore Oriole.

One of the only warblers that will visit a fruit feeder is the Tennessee Warbler.

In the Caribbean lowlands, the resident oriole species is the Black-cowled. It also takes advantage of fruit feeders.

As do striking Passerini’s Tanagers

Feeders near cloud forest attract some seriously mind blowing birds. Some of the best feeders were located in Cinchona; a town tragically destroyed by the January 8, 2009 earthquake. The following images of some downright clownlike birds were taken there.

Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet,

Red-headed Barbet – check out the blue cheeks on this female

Prong-billed Barbet

Silver-throated Tanager

And Crimson-collared Tanager

The hummingbird feeders in Costa Rica are also  fantastic; so fantastic though, that I think they merit their own, separate post.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Carara is Hot and Dry in April but the birding is still good

I guided some folks for a couple of days at Carara 2 weeks ago. As always, the birding was good; a walk in the forest near the HQ in the morning and a mangrove boat ride in the afternoon yielded 128 species. It sure was hot though; hot and dry! This is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica; the end of “summer’ for the locals. Although it hasn’t rained yet, it’s getting cloudier by the day and when those clouds burst, it’s gonna to be a daily rainfest. Shortly after the rains begin anew, Carara will green up again (and get flooded in parts). On April 10th, though, the leaves crackled under foot and the sun beat down mercilessly. At least it was cooler inside the forest.

I started the day at the bridge over the Tarcol River. Even at dawn, a few people were moving single file down the narrow sidewalk to get looks at the crocodiles. Later in the day, there is a constant crowd of people walking out to see those aquatic monsters. With the guardrails missing in places, it’s amazing that some unlucky drunk fellow hasn’t fallen over to be horrifically devoured. The crocs are certainly large enough to do it!

Scanning for birds, I saw several heron species, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt and a few groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. This is par for the course at the bridge. That particular dawn, I also saw 100s of Baltimore Orioles flying from their roosts towards the forests of Carara, along with many Barn Swallows and common open country stuff like Melodious Blackbird, Kiskadees, White-winged Doves, etc.

Melodious Blackbird has firmly established itself in Costa Rica.

Since taxis and buses were absent on Good Friday, I walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to the entrance. It was a nice morning walk actually with lots of bird activity along the way including Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendola; uncommon species for Carara.

The parking lot at HQ is a great place to see common species such as Rose-throated Becard. This is a female; in my opinion better looking than the male in Costa Rica. Although in Mexico, the bird truly has a rose-colored throat, here in Costa Rica, the male is all dark. In the same tree, I had Violaceous Trogon, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Yellow-throated Euphonia while a Northern Waterthrush was yearning for water at the edge of the parking lot.

Philadelphia Vireo- one of the most common wintering birds around Carara.

We entered the Universal Trail (named as such because it is handicap accessible) and slowly made our way through the drier secondary growth. We saw lots more Becards, Common Tody, Streaked and Piratic Flycatchers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Trogon and other common species. We also had great studies of Greenish Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatchers- both common birds of Carara.

Just as we reached the primary forest, we had good looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons as a Jacamar called in the distance. Our walk through the primary forest was quite productive, especially for flycatchers. Overall it was a great day for flycatchers with 25 species by dusk! In various mixed flocks typical for Carara, we had Cocoa and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike (just one shy bird), Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1 Tropical Parula, gorgeous Bay-headed Tanagers and White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers.

An amazing sight; a Lesser Greenlet staying still!!

Outside of mixed flocks we did alright too with Purple-crowned Fairy, Steely-vented Hummingbird, excellent looks at feeding Brown-hooded Parrots, Baird’s Trogon (had to work for that one), a few White-whiskered Puffbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbird, both Spadebill species, Royal Flycatcher building a nest, lots of Northern Bentbills, and excellent looks at Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Northern Bentbill

male Spot-crowned Euphonia

Manakins seemed to be absent and I’m not sure where the Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Antpitta were hiding but it was a good four hours of birding nonetheless. We lunched at the closest, nicest place; Villa Lapas.

Villa Lapas is pricey but has good accommodations, service and restaurant. The grounds are also pretty birdy and they have a bridge/canopy walkway.

During lunch, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron worked the stream,

and a pair of Green Kingfishers entertained.

After lunch and a short rest, we were off to the mangrove birding tour. As in some other tourist frequented sites, around Carara, the taxis were charging a mint to get around; $10 for the short drive between Villa Lapas and the Carara HQ and $50 round trip to the mangrove birding tour. The regular price for a taxi in Costa Rica for the same distances should be at the most $4 and $24 respectively. Yet another reason to rent a car.

Anyways, at the boat dock we started seeing new birds straightaway; Amazon Kingfisher perched on the dock, our first of many Common Black Hawks, Anhinga and various herons. As the boat departed, a Zone-tailed Hawk swiftly soared across the river mouth and Black-necked Stilts became visible. During the boat trip, the pair of Mangrove Swallows that nest in a box in the boat accompanied us. Despite the high tide (not ideal for birding), we identified 77 species.

After checking the river mouth, we went up a channel through tall mangroves. As with any mangrove boat trip I have done, the mangroves are tall and it’s a cool habitat but the birds are pretty scarce. We saw a few herons and got nice looks at Ringed Kingfisher then picked up Common Ground Dove (which was interesting because there wasn’t any dry ground) and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Peppershrike was a nice surprise. This widespread neotropical species is rather uncommon in Costa Rica and mostly found in underbirded areas such as the Central Valley and mangroves. After the Peppershrike excitement, we investigated a smaller mangrove channel and stopped to play tape of various species. Although we didn’t get any responses from the Wood-rail or Woodcreepers, we got nice looks at Panama Flycatcher and Common Black Hawks and one of our group almost certainly saw Mangrove Hummingbird.

Back out in the main channel, we taped in one of the common mangrove specialties; Mangrove Vireo then headed upriver. With the sun to our backs, we had beautiful looks at any birds that flew in front of us. One of the best was a quick flyby of Crane Hawk, its redddish legs standing out in the sun. We also had many Red-billed Pigeons and started to get parrot flybys as the afternoon progressed. We had a few macaws although Red-lored and Mealy Parrots were the most frequent parrot species. A green field was filled with Barn, Southern Rough-winged and a few Cliff Swallows while Costa-rican Swifts fed low over the water. One of our best birds was Double-striped Thick-knee; a pair lounging in a sparsely vegetated rocky area with half buried tires and other pieces of trash. This noctural shorebird of dry fields occurs in the extensive pastures visible from the bridge but is tough to see away from the boat tour.

Somewhere out there is a Double-striped Thick-knee, a bird that by name and appearance belongs in a Roald Dahl story.

Whimbrels were common. We also saw loads of Spotted Sandpipers, several Willets and Ruddy Turnstones.

We ended the tour with a beautiful sunset, Lesser Nighthawks feeding near the river mouth and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls calling near the dock for yet another great day of birding around Carara National Park.