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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living Introduction

A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Birding the La Selva entrance road, Costa Rica

The OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) station, “La Selva” is one of the most famous research centers for studying tropical ecosystems in the world. It is located near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in the north Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica and protects 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres)of primary and secondary lowland forest. With so much of the lowlands already deforested and La Selva a 2 hour drive from San Jose, its lowland rain forests are also some of the most accessible in Costa Rica.

Being that it is a research station first, ecotourism site second, they charge an entrance fee that unfortunately isn’t as low as its elevation. It costs over $30 for a guided walk (guide necessary), more for overnight stays. At least early birding walks are offered and the guides are top notch. Meals are pretty costly though especially for being quite basic ($12 for lunch!). Most unfortunately, the rates are the same for Costa Rican residents. Since the average wage in Costa Ricais far less than wages of most visitors, guess who has little incentive to visit La Selva and learn about the wonders of the rain forest? Guess who is more likely to continue with beliefs that rain forest, although pretty useless, is for some weird reason valuable to rich foreigners? I am guessing and hoping that OTS probably has a community outreach program with free guided visits for local school groups. If they don’t, they better start since it is the local people who ultimately decide how natural resources are preserved, used, or obliterated.


Oh yes, since this post is supposed to be about birding the entrance road, though, I better start writing about that! If you don’t want to bird the reserve proper, people in the past have often had good birding along the access road. I visited the road for a few hours last week and the birding is not just good; it has improved! I saw more forest based species than in the past; especially in the vicinity of the stream crossing. Activity was good all morning (I recorded nearly 80 species) and I hope to get back there soon- not just because I love a morning of good birding but also because workers were building what looked like a kiosk just past the entrance to the road. I won’t be surprised at all if this structure ends up being something to control access to the entrance road itself which will probably mean goodbye to the good birding there unless you want to pay an exhorbitant entrance fee. I will keep readers posted about that. Meanwhile, enjoy these pics of the fine morning I had along the La Selva entrance road:

The view of a road with great tropical birding

Grey-capped Flycatchers are a common sight in the humid lowlands.

One usually sees Plain-brown Woodcreepers at antswarms. Woodcreepers are actually not that toigh to ID if you get a good look at the head. Note the straight bill and near lack of markings on Plain-brown. Got lucky with this at the stream crossing along with…

Black-throated Trogon,

a beautiful Broad-billed Motmot,

and best of all, Rufous-winged Woodpecker!

The Woodpecker is a pretty uncommon sight. I also had flyover Double-toothed Kite, a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks and several Ospreys steadily flapping their way southeast towards the same place I would go for winter; the Caribbean.

Other highlights and interesting sightings were Pied Puffbird calling across from the bus stop, flyover Brown-hooded Parrots, good looks at lots of Yellow Tyrannulets, both Yellow-Olive and Yellow-Margined Flycatchers, Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

very close looks at Cinnamon Becard

and a big flock of both Oropendola species rummaging through and ravaging the bromeliads and foliage in their search for arthropodic delights.

Sightings weren’t just limited to birds; I also saw this Two-toed Sloth,

and Green Iguana as well as Howler Monkeys.

Like I said, I hope to get back there soon!

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living weather

The Costa Rica Meteorological Institute

Its the rainy season and its not going to get any drier until December. In fact, the next two months are when it pours buckets of water sometimes night and day. The combination of lower light levels and a hydrophobic camera make bird photography very challenging. But, I have an excellent resource on my side to help me choose the best day to head out and practice patience with the birds. The trick up my sleeve, the ace in the hole, is the National Meteorological Institute of Costa Rica. They have been consistently accurate and also provide forescasts by region. Its especially helpful since the daily newspaper doesn’t bother with the weather. Maybe they figure its too predictable; hot in the lowlands, cooler in the mountains with rain most of the time! Ha!- this is a mere generalization; some days in rains more than others or its sunny only in the morning. These subtle factors are critical for me in deciding when I will head out for bird pics. Although the site is in Spanish, it should still be helpful to non-Spanish speakers and is a great resource for anyone on their way to Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

My Favorite Rain Forest for birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has made a name for itself with its National Parks and protected areas. Monteverde combines beautiful cloud forest with excellent tourist infrastructure. Carara offers exceptional birding at the junction of humid and dry ecosystems. The Pacific beaches of Manuel Antonio are set against a rain forest backdrop. Wild and rough Braulio Carrillo, though, is my favorite. I admit I could be biased because this was the first place I experienced rain forest. The first place a White-necked Jacobin appeared out of the jade green surroundings to hover in front of my face. The first time I saw a White Hawk and a King Vulture; breathtaking neotropical bird species.

In addition to exciting birding in fantastic primary rain forest on every visit, I might also be biased because I could get there so easily; less than an hour from San Jose on any morning bus to Guapiles. Like most rain forest birding, some days are slower than others, you can easily get rained out for the entire day, and seeing the birds can be a serious challenge. Although I sometimes feel that the birding was better in the past (I used to see more Tinamous and Quail Doves), its still my favorite spot as well as my birding patch here in Costa Rica.

The 500 meter elevation of this very wet, Caribbean slope forest ensures a good mix of lowland and foothill species. Some of the forest dependent species that have become rare at La Selva still regularly occur at Quebrada Gonzalez such as:

Ornate Hawk Eagle

King Vulture

White-whiskered Puffbird

Antwrens and Antvireos

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers

The place is especially good for large mixed flocks led by White-throated Shrike Tanager.

While I took pics of this male, the surrounding vegetation resounded with the calls of various Tanager species, Woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, Scarlet-rumped Caciques and others.

On my last visit, I got some lucky shots of this juvenile Ornate Hawk Eagle.

and here this formidable predator looks like it is about to attack! In the Amazon, these guys are one of the main predators of Squirrel Monkeys and Macaws. A friend of mine saw one catch a Curassow- same size as a Turkey.

Quebrada Gonzalez is probably one of the easiest places in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) to see this spectacular raptor. Ornates are often seen in flight from the parking lot on sunny days from 10 AM to 12 noon.

My patch is also one of the best sites to see Black-crowned Antpitta. Well, to be honest, they occur here but are very difficult to actually see. While this male sang, a Little (Stripe-throated) Hermit buzzed around in front of the Antpittas face. It acted as if the Antpitta was a threat!

Green Hermits are the most common hummingbirds here.

I often see White-faced Capuchins, Spider Monkeys and other animals such as this diabolical looking Collared Peccary.

One rainy day, this Northern Tamandua was hanging out next to the ranger station.

I always usually see some cool lizards.

There are two trails; a well maintained 1 k. loop trail behind the ranger station and two longer loop trails across the highway that lead down to the river. The one behind the station is easiest, the trails across the highway sometimes blocked by fallen trees. They are open from 8 AM until 4:30 PM and cost $8 for non-residents, $2 for residents.

Quebrada Gonzalez is found along the highway from San Jose to Guapiles about 4 ks after the bridge over the Rio Sucio. By bus, take any bus to Guapiles from the Caribeños bus station and tell the driver to let you off at Quebrada Gonzalez. To get back to San Jose, flag down any passing bus; some stop, most don’t.

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living

Yiguirro: The national bird of Costa Rica

Many places have a Thrush species that has become adapted to living around people. In much of North America, American Robins are as synonymous with front lawns as sprinklers.  Europeans have the Blackbird; immortalized in song by the Beatles and in prose by Shakespeare. In Costa Rica, Ticos chose the Clay-colored Robin (Turdus grayi) for their national bird. Opting for familiarity over splendor, it trumped spectacular species such as Resplendant Quetzal and Scarlet Macaw as well as undeniably cool birds like the Harpy Eagle. Clay Coloreds are THE garden bird of Costa Rica. Found from lowlands to cloud forest (where it gets replaced by the Mountain Robin), they sing a lot like their northern counterparts but are shyer; their presence usually revealed by their querelous, meow-like call. As their name suggests, Clay-colored Robins are also less colorful. My wife even goes as far as to call them downright ugly. These Yiguirros were at the Cinchona feeders. I think they look OK; judge for yourselves if you agree with my wife.

 

Monster Clay Colored Robin

 

Note the yellowish bill- field mark to separate it from Mountain and Pale-vented Robins.

 

More pics of the same bird; a juvenile molting in its head feathers.

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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

Birding Cinchona, Costa Rica

***Update*** Although tragically, the town of Cinchona was destroyed in the 6.2 earthquake of 1/8/2009 and the original Cafe de Colobries destroyed, it has been rebuilt. Fruit and hummingbird feeders attract many of the same bird species and it should improve with time.

Costa Rica has become quite developed for birding. Although lacking in canopy towers, the field guide has been updated, there are lots of excellent professional guides, protected areas with bird lists throughout the country and hummingbird feeders at many sites visited by tourists. Not all of the feeding stations, though, are accessible to the public. Cinchona is the exception; the feeders attracting up to ten species of hummingbirds, amazingly close looks at Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanets, both Barbet species and others are at an accessible roadside stop and only cost $1.

Cinchona is located along the alternate, slower, curvier route to Sarapiqui that passes by Varablanca. It is about two hours by car from San Jose, three hours by bus. Last week, I did the three hour ride for a day of hummingbird madness; a welcome change from busy, almost birdless San Jose. Leaving on the 6:30 bus, the comfortably empty bus quickly filled up en route; we must have picked up passengers at every scheduled and unscheduled stop until folks were standing in the aisles. About 9:30, I happily relinquished my seat upon arrival at Cinchona, and stepped off the bus into fresh cloud forest air.

The Vista Cinchona hummingbird feeding station

The balcony was buzzing with birds.

One of the most common species was a Costa Rican endemic; Coppery-headed Emerald.

Great looks at Brown Violetear

Aside from very close looks at 10 species of hummingbirds, the fruit feeders also attracted Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet

You can get ridiculously close to Emerald Toucanets here!!

many Silver-throated Tanagers

Crimson-collared Tanager and

The Yiguirro or Clay-colored Robin

The views of a waterfall in a beautiful cloud forest filled canyon weren’t all that bad either.

For lunch I ate at the soda next door. They also had fruit and hummingbird feeders with much of the same. Although it was the quiet time of the day for birding, I still managed to see a Squirrel Cuckoo.

The rain starting at noon, I opted for the 1 PM bus back to San Jose as the following bus wasn’t until 5 P.M.

Tips and notes:

A sunny day might be good for raptor species.

Don’t be shy about giving a donation at the feeders.

If you have to take the bus, get the 6:30 A.M. to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui via Varablanca at the Caribeños bus terminal.

Make sure you tell the driver Cinchona or you might end up in the Sarapiqui lowlands (not too bad of an alternative actually).

This is a good site to combine with the nearby Virgen del Socorro road.

Don’t forget to stop at the beautiful La Paz waterfall!

Bird species recorded:

Bat Falcon: One flew into view carrying a small bird, a Green Violetear buzzing it the whole time.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet: flyovers

Squirrel Cuckoo

Blue and white Swallow

Green Hermit: occasionally at feeders

Brown Violetear: lots

Green Violetear: also lots, sometimes flaring their “violet ears” in typical hummingbird rage.

Violet Sabrewing: big, beautiful purple males.

Green-crowned Brilliant: a few always present.

White-bellied Mountain Gem: a few.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird: 1 at the front feeders.

Coppery-headed Emerald: lots.

Emerald (Blue-throated Toucanet): a few coming in very close at banana feeders.

Red-headed Barbet: a pair in vicinity.

Prong-billed Barbet: a few.

Gray-breasted Wood Wren: a few heard.

Clay-colored Robin

Brown Jay

Bananaquit

Slate-throated Redstart

Common Bush Tanager

Palm Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager: lots

Blue-gray Tanager

Crimson-collared Tanager

Passerini’s Tanager

Sooty-faced Finch: calling from understory

Variable Seedeater

Rufous-collared Sparrow

Montezuma Oropendola