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Costa Rica Bird Photography with Benefits- Tawny-faced Quail at Laguna del Lagarto

Bird photography in Costa Rica is fantastic. Sure, we could say the same about dozens of destinations and there might be excellent bird photography right in your own backyard but what you might not have birds like

yellow-throated-toucan

Yellow-throated Toucan

and Orange-chinned Parekeet.

You may not have access to a site that offers more than typical feeder species. In Costa Rica, one such top choice for bird photography is Laguna del Lagarto. It’s a place I have blogged about on more than one occasion and with good reason; this classic Costa Rica eco-lodge offers world class bird photography benefits that can be tough to beat, one of those being a chance to capture images of Tawny-faced Quail.

This image was taken at Laguna del Lagarto by local birder, Luis Ricardo Rojas.

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this beautiful little ground birds, if you haven’t seen many pictures. On account of its shy behavior and dense, dark rainforest habitat, this small quail is one of the most infrequently seen bird species in Costa Rica. However, thanks to the efforts of local birding guide Juan Diego Vargas and Laguna del Lagarto, chances to see Tawny-faced Quail have greatly improved. Even better, not only can you see it, you have a fair chance of getting pictures too!

The problem with seeing Tawny-faced Quail is that this species doesn’t like to be seen. This isn’t one of those birds that will walk into the open, it’s not a bird that takes many chances. In general, small groups carefully move over the forest floor and then freeze at the slightest hint of danger. Since their plumage acts as perfect camouflage in the dark forest interior, you could easily walk right past them and have no idea the bird was sitting still, just a few meters away.

Most birds that live in the understory of the rainforest are tough to see, most are experts at staying hidden. However, most also give whistled songs and calls that reveal their presence. Most do that but much to a birder’s chagrin, the Tawny-faced Quail bucks the trend. This little quail rarely sings and instead of using its voice in the morning, it often waits until dusk and even them, it calls just a few times.

The timing and manner of its song makes this bird incredibly easy to overlook. Even worse, in Costa Rica, this quail seems to sing more often during just two months; May and June. The bird can also be found and heard at other times of the year but based on the experience at Laguna del Lagarto, the most reliable time to see them is definitely during May and June. This is when they call the most and this is when Laguna offers your best chance to see them.

We all know that no bird is guaranteed, anything can happen while birding but I also know that May and June is when most of the local guides have visited Laguna to see and photograph this quail. I know that Laguna has found roosting sites for this bird and have followed careful protocols to make sure every visiting birder sees them. During the past two years, when a roosting quail at Laguna is known, the success rate of visiting birders for seeing this bird has been very high.

Perhaps roosting birds will also be found at other times of the year? Hopefully, but at the moment, May and June are the best months to book a trip to Laguna del Lagarto and photograph this bird. It’s one of several excellent side benefits when visiting Costa Rica for bird photography. Laguna being one of the better places for bird photography in Costa Rica, some of those other benefits include close photo opps for toucans, tanagers, tityras, puffbirds, and a host of additional rainforest species like the stunning Green Honeycreeper shown below. I know I’m looking forward to the next time I visit this special place!

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Recent Observations from Birding at Finca Luna Nueva

The birding is always good in Costa Rica. Go birding where at least some forest or other native habitat is present and there will be more than enough to look at. Even so, some birding sites in Costa Rica host more birds and higher biodiversity than others, some sites host birds not found in other places. Some such birding hotspots are on the regular birding tour route but many other birding sites occur well off the main beaten path.

As with any region in our one and only planet, find the best habitat and you find the highest numbers of birds. The site known as Finca Luna Nueva shows that some of the best birding can also happen on a farm. However, no mere property used for cultivation will do, because, as Luna Nueva demonstrates, the farm has to be sustainable, surrounded by mature rainforest and second growth, and, most of all, organic.

That organic part of the equation is key, of this I am sure. I might not be able to see the difference in numbers of insects between a farm that kills insect and fungal competition with poison and a farm that does not but I can see the difference in birds. The difference in birding at Finca Luna Nueva is obvious. Crested Guans and toucans are up there in the trees, parrots, parakeets, and even Scarlet Macaws (!) fly overhead, and wrens, ant-tanagers, and so much more are calling from the vegetation.

Black-throated-Wren
The Black-throated Wren is one of the morefrequently heard wren species at Finca Luna Nueva.

Recently, I once again had the fortune of birding there for a bit. These were some of the more interesting observations from my morning of birding.

Black-and-white Owl

black-and-white-owl

This big and beautiful owl might be regular at Luna Nueva but that never stops it from being a birding highlight. Weather permitting, do some pre-dawn birding and you will probably hear one. With some luck, you might also see one in the evening or just before dawn, even right by the lodge buildings. We had great views of one that continued to call well after dawn.

King Vulture Hide (!)

A new feature at Luna Nueva, the hide is easy to visit and is starting to attract a few of the local King Vultures that are often seen circiling high above the property. Sooner or later, pictures of this fancy scavenger taken from the hide will show up on Luna Nueva’s Facebook page.

Scarlet Macaws

The conservation success story for this fantastic bird in Costa Rica just keeps getting better. Over the past decade, populations of this spectacular parrot have become established in various parts of the Caribbean slope. A few years ago, some started showing up around Finca Luna Nueva and they have chosen a certain part of the property for roosting. Don’t be surprised if you see macaws on the drive in to Luna Nueva (as we did) as well as around the ecolodge. On a related note, Finca Luna Nueva seems to provide important habitat for Psittacids in general. In addition to the macaws, we had views of all 7 other expected species in just one morning of birding.

Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet

A tiny Tyrannid might not be as eye-catching as a big, red, yellow and blue parrot but this species isn’t nearly as easy to see as a macaw. It was also interesting to see this particular species at Finca Luna Nueva because the very similar Brown-capped Tyrannulet also occurs in this area. In fact, upon seeing the pair of tyrannulets near the bamboo tower, I assumed they would be Brown-cappeds. Luckily, excellent definitive views showed that they had gray crowns and were therefore, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulets.

Sightings of this species have also occurred near Arenal. It seems that, similar to the Olivaceous Piculet, forest fragmentation also also helped this species to expand south from the Cano Negro area. How will competition play out with the Brown-capped Tyrannulet? Only time and more focused birding will tell.

Hummingbirds

It was of interest to note that hummingbirds were commonly heard and seen throughout the morning. It seemed like we were constantly seeing one or more hummingbirds chasing each other around. Yes, there are lots of hummingbirds in Costa Rica but in many places, they don’t seem to be as common as they used to be. Without focusing all that much on hummingbirds, we still had Long-billed Starthroat, hermits, White-necked Jacobin, Blue-throated Goldentail, and several Rufous-taileds. I bet more species were present, I can’t help but wonder if organic farming is especially beneficial for these high energy mini-birds.

Blue-throated goldentail
Quality optics helped me appreciate the colors of this goldentail.

Healthy and Delicious Cuisine

If you enjoy quality cuisine made with fresh local ingredients, you will love dining at Finca Luna Nueva. I know I do! The food and smoothies are fantastic and locally brewed craft beer is also available. Even better, dining might also be accompanied by views of a sloth, wood-rails, toucans, and other birds.

Luna Nueva is the perfect place to blend tropical birding with delicious organic dining as well as visiting Costa Rica with family who might not watch birds as much as you do. As always, I look forward to my next visit to this special place. Happy spring birding!

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Puntarenas, Costa Rica- A Hotspot that Merits a Bird Observatory

From time to time, I have been asked if there are any vagrant traps in Costa Rica. In birding lingo, this translates to wondering if there are any particular sites that concentrate lost migrant birds. I usually respond that yes, as one might expect from a lone island in the vast waters of the Pacific, Cocos Island acts as a vagrant trap (Eastern Phoebe has occurred along with annual records of various other vagrants). I then mention that the Caribbean Coast can be good for occasional species that are rare for Costa Rica, and that the southern area of the Nicoya Peninsula may have some tendency to attract rare warblers.

However, since the rare vagrants for Costa Rica tend not to be birds that visiting birders would prefer to see, unless a birder wants to add Northern Parula or White-eyed Vireo to their Costa Rica country lists, they don’t prioritize visits to such places.

Even so, birding on the Caribbean coast and southern Nicoya Peninsula is always fun, migration season or not!

Other than Cocos Island, we might not have a Cape May, Scilley Isles, or Eilat, but we do have Puntarenas.

This old port settlement doesn’t bear witness to the massive numbers and types of migrant species like the aforementioned legendary sites, but it does seem to bring in enough to merit more serious bird observation than has occurred. As with other good sites for bird migration and vagrant species, Puntarenas is an area of land near or surrounded by water. Places like this can be excellent for migration because they tend to attract waterbirds that use coastal habitats, small birds that get concentrated in coastal areas because they would rather not risk flying over water, and seabirds that can be pushed toards shore by weather systems.

Puntarenas is essentially a sandspit that juts into the sea. The area just to the north hosts mangroves, the area to the south is the outer Gulf of Nicoya, and the tip of Puntarenas points directly into the junction of the inner and outer parts of the Gulf. Although it doesn’t seem to be situated on a major flyway for passerines, it does attract an interesting number and variety of seabirds (and maybe more passerines than we think).

There is enough avian action happening at Puntarenas to merit much more focused birding than the site sees and it would be a wonderful spot to establish a bird observatory. Here’s why:

A Meeting of Currents

Puntarenas marks a point where currents from the inner and outer Gulf of Nicoya meet and mingle. This mixing of waters is evident while watching from the area of the lighthouse and may be why this same site can turn up everything from storm-petrels to jaegers, various terns and gulls, Brown Noddy, and many other birds. They aren’t there all the time but enough to merit seawatching from this spot.

As with so much other birding, mornings seem to be best and the birds that occur vary by season but scoping from this spot is always worth it. Even if nothing seems to be happening, wait long enough and some interesting bird will appear or fly past. At least this has been my experience while seawatching from the tip on every single occasion. For example, while my partner Marilen and watched from the point for an hour yesterday afternoon, we had a couple Brown Boobies along with a flyby of two migrating Franklin’s Gulls. Various Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns were also moving through and lounging on the choppy water. I’m sure other birds were out there but probably weren’t visible as they floated among the whitecaps.

On other occasions, I have seen three species of storm-petrels, Galapagos Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, and various other species.

Vagrant Seabirds

Perhaps because of that meeting of currents, this site can also turn up vagrant seabirds, I am sure more than get reported. For the past few years, a Western Gull found its way to Puntarenas and has apparently decided to stay for good. At least, it hasn’t migrated yet and why would it with such a regular and easy food source at the small fish processing plants in town?

Recently, while birding with a friend to look for that very gull, we ended up stumbling upon a very rare for Costa Rica Pacific Golden-Plover (!). Luckily, it stayed long enough for many other local birders to see it too.

Watching the plover in Puntarenas.

The most unusual bird know of that has appeared at the point was a Christmas Shearwater seen by Johan Kuilder Ineke van Leeuwen, and Adela Rufatti and myself in june, some years ago. This bird seemed to appear out of nowhere as it literally floated right in front of us at the point. Given the dynamic nature of this site, no doubt, other unusual seabirds occur from time to time along with more expected species including Least Tern, Sabine’s Gull, and jaegers, and so on.

Christmas shearwater

It’s worth mentioning that many of these and other pelagic species are more easily seen from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Two of the most noteworthy birds seen from the ferry have been Costa Rica’s first and only Peruvian Booby, and Inca Tern.

Much Potential, Heavily Visited, yet Underbirded

Given its location and the birds that have been known to occur, this site deserves a lot more attention. No, there isn’t a whole lot of habitat other than marine and coastal birding but extensive mangroves also occur and it is close to some wooded areas. Perhaps most importantly, Puntarenas being a popular destination for locals also makes it an ideal place to promote birding and bird awareness. This factor along with it being a good place to record data on migrant species as well as the endemic and endangered Mangrove Hummingbird make Puntarenas a good candidate for hosting a bird observatory.

Since Puntarenas has also been underbirded, who knows, maybe higher numbers of regular and rare migrant songbirds also occur more than we expect? Hopefully we can set up some form of scheduled and coordinated seawatching at this important and underbirded site.

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Can You See 300 Bird Species While Staying at Cerro Lodge?

Cerro Lodge hasn’t been visited by birders as long as some other places but I would still easily call it one of Costa Rica’s classic birding lodges. The birding is just too good. Shortly after opening around 2008, it didn’t take long for word to spread about Cerro being an excellent base for visiting Carara National Park and other nearby birding hotspots. Folks with binoculars also quickly realized that the birding was nothing short of fantastic, right at the hotel.

The highlights were many; Black-and-white Owls and Pacific Screech-Owls were frequent nightly visitors. The gaudy screeches and colors of Scarlet Macaws were a regular, daily occurrence. Birding from the deck of the restaurant turned out to be excellent for views of endangered flyby Yellow-naped Parrots and several other parrot and parakeet species. It was also good for raptors, especially the uncommon Crane Hawk. Guides scoping the distant mangroves even found displaying Yellow-billed Cotingas! Speck level distant but still identifiable and once in a while, one or two would move through the reforested grounds of the hotel.

These days, the owls don’t seem to visit the hotel as much (although they still live in the area), and some parrots may have declined but the birding is still fantastic. Thanks to an observation tower along with improved habitat, I would say that the birding chances might even be better and photography is excellent. With so many bird species possible at and near Cerro, I began to wonder if a birder could stay there and see more than 300 species.

The view from the tower.

After some analysis using the official Costa Rica Birds checklist, and knowledge of which birds are present at Cerro and nearby sites, these are my findings for birding during the winter months:

Birding Just at Hotel Cerro Lodge: 230 Species

This total includes the “La Barca Road” that goes past the entrance of the hotel but upon seeing the numbers, I admit, I was still somewhat surprised. I have had lots of great birding at the hotel and along that road, many a fantastic birdy morning, but I never got more than 120 species (which isn’t such a shabby number in any case). Even so, the numbers don’t lie and that’s even with leaving off a few vagrants or other very rare species (!).

When one factors the dynamic nature of lowland tropical habitats into account, especially at such a fantastic ecotone as the Carara area, I guess I shouldn’t really be all that surprised by a total of 230 plus possible species. After all, Cerro Lodge is an excellent, birdy spot. Such a good number of birds combined with comfort, a pool, and good food make Cerro a worthy destination all on its own. 300 species aren’t possible right at the hotel but what if we used Cerro as a base to bird additional sites in the area? Let’s say sites less than an hour’s drive from the hotel?

Birding at Cerro, Carara National Park and Sites within an Hour’s Drive: 415 Species!

The 200 plus species at Cerro are plenty to look at but if you really want to boost that birding experience, stay long enough to get the full ecotone monty. When we include the rainforests of Carara along with the mangroves and estuary at Tarcoles, and throw in the rich habitats at Jaco, our list of potentials rushes well past 300 and even surpasses 400 species!

Carara offers a chance at forest birds like the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher.
The endangered Mangrove Hummingbird occurs at sites near Cerro Lodge and has even shown up at the lodge on a couple of occasions.

Once again, this is without including several extreme rarities and vagrants that have occurred. To hit 400, a birder would need to do some careful, focused forest birding in the national park, be quick with the binos, and stay for several days but it could certainly be done. What if we went further afield? Say, to sites within 2 hour’s drive and include a pelagic trip?

Adding Sites Within 2 Hours of Cerro Lodge and a Pelagic Trip: Chances at 40 or More Species

As it turns out, since most of the birds are available rather near the hotel, this strategy wouldn’t add a huge number of species. It would still be fun though, especially a pelagic trip because we all know how exciting those boat trips can be. Not to mention, in two hours, you could also make it to sites good for Costa Rica Brushfinch, bellbird, and some other choice species.

Could You See 500 Species?

Half a thousand species? If you only use Cerro Lodge as a base, probably not. BUT if you also spend a couple nights at Monteverde or birding in the Poas area, sure, 500 is certainly feasible. Once again, I was a bit surprised but if you manage to find 415 species while staying at Cerro and then do two or three days of some focused ninja birding at either of those highland sites, yes, you could certainly find an additional 80 plus species to push you over 500.

It would require lots of birding though. You would have to look for and look at a lot of birds. That won’t be a problem when staying at Hotel Cerro Lodge, major crossroads of tropical biodiversity can be like that.

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5 Reasons Laguna del Lagarto is a Top Site for Birding in Costa Rica

What are the top sites for birding in Costa Rica? Which places will treat you to the best variety of Costa Rica birds? In all honesty, based on birding most corners of Costa Rica since 1992, I would still insist that it depends on what you want to see. Since each bioregion has its own avian offerings, naturally, birding in the cool, misty rainforests of the Talamancas i a world away from scanning humid skies for King Vultures and treetops for Snowy Cotingas in the rainforests of the lowlands.

King Vultures are common at Laguna del Lagarto.

That said, each bioregion has its best sites; the accessible places where there are plenty of birds to look at and where rare species are possible. Although even sites within the same region have their own strengths, in the Caribbean lowlands, one of the places that truly comes out on top is also one of the first authentic ecolodges in Costa Rica; Laguna del Lagarto.

These are 5 reasons why I believe this ecolodge in Costa Rica is one of the top birding sites in the nation:

Extensive, Quality Rainforest

No matter where you go, the birding is usually best in large areas of natural, old-growth habitats. At least that’s the case for rainforest. The incredible complexity of this archetypal tropical habitat provides niches and possibilities for a huge number of bird species (and other cool living things) BUT that same complexity only works in full in large areas of old growth forest.

This is why its pretty easy to see a large number of edge species in any number of places, but why birds such as large raptors, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and White-flanked Antwren require visits to places with intact, mature rainforest. Laguna del Lagarto is one of the few, rare ecolodges in Costa Rica that protects and has access to such areas of mature lowland rainforest. They are still large enough to host populations of everything from nunbirds to antbirds, and rare raptors, and can be explored on several trails at Laguna as well as along nearby roads.

Rainforest Lagoons

Mature rainforest is necessary for fantastic birding in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica but its not the only type of habitat used by birds. Forested lagoons and other wetlands are also important for various key species like Agami Heron, Sungrebe, Green Ibis, kingfishers, and others. Laguna del Lagarto has several lagoons visible right from the lodge and that can also be explored by canoe.

The Rare Factor is Always High

When large areas of quality habitat are present, the chances for rare species go up. Since the forests at Laguna are contiguous with other areas of mature rainforest that connect with the huge and extremely important Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, this opens the door of possibilities to the rarest of the rare. Those would be birds like Red-throated Caracara and even Harpy and Crested Eagles. Seeing them at or near Laguna would be a rare and extremely fortunate event but its not out of the range of possibilities. Those species do live in forests connected to Laguna and could certainly show up (they have in the past).

More typical endangered, rare and uncommon species that occur regularly at Laguna include:

Great Curassow, Tawny-faced Quail, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Agami Heron, Gray-bellied Hawk, all three hawk-eagles, Central American Pygmy-Owl and 5 other species of owl, Short-tailed Nighthawk, 2 potoo species, American Pygmy and Green-and-Rufous Kingfishers, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, Great Green Macaw, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Gray-headed Piprites, Song Wren, White-vented Euphonia, and Slate-colored Grosbeak. Check out the eBird list for Laguna del Lagarto.

Excellent Birding, Even Better Bird Photography

The combination of natural feeders, plantains available for the birds, and access to the lagoons make this pioneer ecolodge in Costa Rica a fantastic site for bird photography. Toucans, Brown-hooded Parrots, tanagers, and a wealth of other species can be photographed at close range. As a bonus, guides at Laguna occasionally know of roosting owls and where to find rare species like Agami Heron. Not to mention, there’s also a hide for King Vulture photography…

Accommodating Service

No birding lodge would be a top site without also providing good service. Laguna does this in several ways, including bringing visitors to roosting owls or other birds they want to see. The lodge also accommodates with early breakfasts and coffee, and have always been willing to please guests to the best of their ability. I know I have always been impressed!

This excellent ecolodge might be a bit off the beaten track but better roads have made it much easier to visit and feasible as a destination on a trip that also includes sites in the Arenal and Cano Negro regions. That said, the habitats at Laguna have such high potential, a tour could easily spend 5 nights there and still see new birds on a daily basis. Not to mention, that would also increase the chances of finding rare species, I can’t wait for my next visit!

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Strategic Birding in Costa Rica at Rincon de La Vieja- Rinconcito Lodge

Rincon de la Vieja is one of the more interesting places to go birding in Costa Rica. An active volcano that also acts as a 34,000 acre (13759 hectares) national park with tropical forest transitioning between dry, wet, and middle elevations…how could it not be great birding?

Maintained trails in the park provide access to chances at an entertaining array of species associated with a fine ecotone of habitats including such uncommon and rare birds as Violaceous and Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, Black-eared Wood-Quail, King Vulture and other raptors, Tody Motmot, and even one of the grail birds of the Neotropical region, the one and only Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

By nature of their very being, the visiting birder can’t always expect to see the rare ones, but toucans, White-fronted Parrots, Gray-headed Tanagers, Thicket Tinamous, and plenty of other species will still keep you smiling, especially when you can access key habitats in and outside the park. Accessing those different habitats is essential for seeing a healthy selection of bird species and no focal point is better for doing that than Rinconcito Lodge.

White-fronted Parrot

A small, cozy hotel situated just outside of the national park, these are the reasons why Rinconcito is located in the best spot for birding several habitats:

Access To Two Different Park Entrances

The lodge is right on a good road that leads to two different park entrances; Las Pailas and Santa Maria. The Las Pailas area has trails that access moist forest with a wealth of species. Whether birding, hiking, or both, this part of Rincon de la Vieja delivers. Santa Maria also offers similar excellent birding and hiking with better chances at Caribbean slope species like the uncommon Yellow-eared Toucanet, antbirds, and other species.

A Road To the Wet and Wild Caribbean Slope

For additional exciting Caribbean slope birding including chances at everything from rare raptors to Lovely Cotinga, take the road to Colonia Blanca and then on to Colonia Libertad. Rough enough to require four wheel drive, birders who enjoy exploration will love the rainforests along this route! The area hasn’t seen much birding but has a lot of potential. Surveys in the 90s by Daniel S. Cooper found all 3 species of hawk-eagle, and the mega rare Gray-headed Piprites among other species.

Watch for the weird and wonderful Sunbittern on streams.

The birding is great along much of this road, just be prepared for rain, good mixed flocks, and overall excellent birding.

30 minutes to Oak Savannah Habitats

The western flanks of the volcano host interesting, wind-blown oak savannahs. Although they aren’t the easiest places to bird on account of frequent windy conditions, this unique habitat could have some interesting avian surprises. It would be best visited in the early morning to look for Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows along with an outside chance of finding Rock Wren.

A Bit Further To Wetlands and Other Dry Forest Sites

Although there are plenty of dry forest species at and near the lodge, additional dry forest sites such as Santa Rosa National park and Horizontes are anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half drive from the lodge. The same goes for the open field and wetland hotspots of Las Trancas and the Sardinal Catfish Ponds.

Birding at Rinconcito

But what if you don’t feel like driving anywhere? If you would rather go for an easy-going blend of birding, pool time, and drinks, Rinconcito delivers for that too! Orange-fronted Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, magpie-jays, and other birds are on and near the grounds of the hotel while trails can host Sunbittern and even Tody Motmot.

At Rincon de la Vieja, the windy weather of the continental divide can be a challenge but the birding is always good and there’s no spot more strategic than Rinconcito Lodge.

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Where to Kick Off a Costa Rica Birding Trip- Insider Tips

The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.

It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.

Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:

Close to the Airport

For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.

Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.

Further from the Airport?

Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.

Some Place with Green Space

There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.

Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…

Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat

A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.

Start and End the Trip at the Same Place

If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.

With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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Birding at Tierra de Suenos

Each October, I organize a trip to the southern Caribbean zone for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Easy access to mature forest always makes for a worthwhile visit but we go during the month of Halloween because this is when we can also catch fall migration. A sky river of swallows, Chimney Swifts, and raptors is a special event but there’s more than enough to see at at any time of year.

Little coverage, lots of habitat, and proximity to Panama always lend excitement to birding in the southern Caribbean. What’s hiding in those mature forests in the hills? Black-crowned Antpittas? Great Jacamars? Some new addition to the country list? Yes. Discoveries are waiting, you just need the time, resources, and know-how to find them.

Last week, we found ourselves doing a bit of exploration in the Playa Chiquita area. Basing ourselves at the lovely Tierra de Suenos, our small group looked for birds at this site for yoga retreats, in the nearby hills, and at Manzanillo. A couple of days is never enough for this bird-rich area but we still had fun! How not when Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common? When there is a nice mix of migrants, Great Green Macaws, and other birds of the lowland rainforest?

A few highlights from the trip:

Birds at Tierra de Suenos

Tierra de Suenos has bungalows nestled in greenery and shaded by massive trees. As one might expect, this makes for a bunch of birds including species like Black-crowned Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, toucans, woodcreepers, and more. Many species are possible and some no doubt wander in from larger areas of forest in the hills behind the lodge. This was surely the case for the Great Jacamar that was heard earlier this year by birder and part owner Jason Westlake!

Breakfast at Tierra de Suenos

Nothing like sharing breakfast time with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers and other rainforest birds. I enjoyed that a well as the tasty, healthy food. The blended ginger and passionfruit juice was simply fantastic, and although I enjoy “pinto” (Costa Rican rice and beans), delicious grilled sandwiches and burritos made for a pleasant change.

Birding the Paradise Road

Some of the best forests near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca occur in the low coastal range behind town. Although much of those rainforests are inaccessible, we can still do a fair bit of birding along a few roads that go up and over the forested hills, one of which has the official inviting name of “Paradise Road”. Located between Playa Chiquita and Cocles, this gravel road passes by the edge of promising mature forest. I have made short visits to this road during the past three trips to the southern Caribbean zone and each time, I drove back feeling like we only scratched the surface.

On this recent trip, we had several Purple-throated Fruitcrows, many red-eyed Vireos and Bay-breasted Warblers, White Hawk, and various other forest species. The best find was a pair of Sulphur-rumped Tanagers! An uncommon and challenging species in Costa Rica, their presence was given away by their distinctive call that sounds a bit like that of a Black-and-yellow Tanager. As is often the case with this bird, our views were limited by their canopy-loving ways but we did see them!

On past trips, I have also had Pied and White-necked Puffbirds and various expected species. The next time I go to this area, I hope to do some serious surveys on this road that include pre-dawn starts.

Roadside Birding

With tall, old growth trees right on the side of the main road, it’s no surprise that roadside birding between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo can be pretty darn good. Roadside birding on past trips have revealed sightings of many toucans, woodcreepers, and both Rufous-winged and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers. On this trip, we enjoyed Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Great Green Macaws, and several other birds during a memorable early morning stop.

Roadside afternoon birding in Manzanillo was pretty quiet but along the Recope Road, we had some nice looks at Cinnamon Woodpecker, Semiplumbeous Hawk, fruitcrows, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other birds.

Recommendations for Future Trips

Tierra de Suenos is definitely suitable for birders and even better if you enjoy a blend of yoga and birding! If you stay there, ask Jason what he has been seeing, and enjoy the meals! As always, I also suggest making stops at the Italian bakery, Gustibus. Authentic focacia, pizza rossa, and other Italian baked goods, man, this place is good! It’s also an excellent lunch stop for sandwiches and other truly serious treats.

If you do bird down the way of Tierra de Suenos and Manzanillo, keep an eye out for any birds that look odd or out of place. Take pictures, you might end up documenting something new for Costa Rica.

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A Day of Birding at Albergue Socorro

Usually I go birding in more places and more often than I have been doing. In the year of the pandemic, for a fair percentage of the global birding community, I am guessing that’s par for the course. Whereas I would normally be birding once a week and guiding trips here and there at least a few times a month, since March, my birding endeavors have been placed on hold. The big pause button was and is pressed down by an assemblage of closures, restrictions, and associated economical effects. The good news is that birds are everywhere, I can still connect with the avian side of nature by way of Blue-and-white Swallows perched just outside the window, and by waking up to the calls of bobwhites, the warbles of Blue Grosbeaks, and various songs of other neighborhood birds.

But there’s so much more out there to see (!), to personally discover. What biological madness is happening in those nearby cloud-covered mountains? Is there a weird and rare Sharpbill accentuating a mixed flock on the other, wetter side of the hills? Can Solitary Eagle still exist in Costa Rica? A good place to check would be the other side of those mountains out the back window, on the wild and Caribbean side of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Does the massive black-hawk persist over there or has it already succumbed to the effects of climate change (a victim of life cascades brought to deadly drought by warmer, drier weather)?

I haven’t had a chance to dedicate time to look for Solitary Eagle, Sharpbills, nor much of anything else but at least I can still make plans for the eventual search. Thanks to a local, resident world birder, recently, I did have a chance to look for some birds. We were after more than Sharpbills and Solitary Eagles and knew that our chances at finding our very rare targets were as slim as a Sharpie’s tarsi but you can’t have homemade-made cake unless you bake it, can’t reach the hidden peak unless you climb it.

With parrotlets, ground-cuckoos, and piprites on the mind, we spent a day and half searching for some bird cake at the Albergue Socorro. Encountering such rare and unreliable species in a short amount of time can’t be expected but the more you try the better your chances and given driving times to destination, the beautiful lower middle elevation rainforests of Socorro seemed like a good place to bring our bins.

In our brief window of birding, we did not find the super rare ones but I can’t say that it was for lack of trying. Following a strategy of covering as much ground as possible to increase chances of encountering an antswarm or hearing our targets, we walked on moist, bio-rich trails through beautiful forest, kept going on a road that bisects an excellent area of forest, and walked a bit more. Although the focus was on a search for rare birds, during those walks, we still saw and heard plenty of other things. Early morning on the Las Lomas trail saw us move beneath massive rainforest trees with crowns obscured by a an abundance of vegetation; the aerial “soil” of the canopy. We were accompanied by the upward, tripping songs of Tropical Parulas above and dry ticking of Golden-crowned Warblers below.

While keeping an eye on the trail for gnomish antpittas, we heard and saw a mouse-like Tawny-throated Leaftosser, had glimpses of candy-beaked Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, stood still and listened to the low frequency calls of a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.

The chips and calls of Silver-throated and other tanagers were a constant and we had close encounters with less brightly-colored Plain Antvireos. Despite having to navigate the clutching branches of two fallen trees, we walked that trail back out to the open rocky road and kept searching. There were Crested Guans honking like mutant geese, Swallow-tailed Kites riding the currents overhead, and Tufted Flycatchers calling and quivering their tails at the side of the road.

The bird with a way too long name (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant) was also present in fair numbers, we saw a few of them.

Calling White-throated Spadebills managed to stay hidden but a tail-pumping Zeledon’s Antbird was cool (as always),

and it was nice to see the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner was one of the “better” (and expected) birds. A natural born acrobat, this smallish foliage-gleaner does above-ground skulkingas it forages in bromeliads and other aerial vegetation like a big chickadee (sort of).

Another good one was White-vented Euphonia, a bird that is sometimes very common in this area. Even in poor lighting, this little bird can reveal its identification by its tail wagging behavior.

On the raptor front, we enjoyed a view of a perched White Hawk against the green, Short-tailed Hawks above, and, maybe best of all, were treated to an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle in flight.

The target birds might not have shown but we can’t say that we didn’t try and in doing so, we still enjoyed some much appreciated avian cake during the trying days of a pandemic. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Albergue Socorro, one of many exciting birding spots in Costa Rica that are already open and ready to safely accept guests. I hope I can visit again soon.

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The Birding Tower at Cerro Lodge

The Carara National Park area is one of the top sites for birding in Central America. The reason I say “area” rather than just talking about the national park itself is because there is so much more to birding Carara than just sticking to the protected zone. Don’t get me wrong, the forests of the national park are the main, well deserved attraction but you would be letting yourself down if you limited birding to the trails at Carara.

It seems odd to say that about a place where one can watch Streak-chested Antpitta, Baird’s Trogon, and many other species but yes, there is still more to see!

Nearby roads also provide access to slightly different habitats above the park, to mangroves, seasonal wetlands and coastal habitats around Tarcoles, and dry forests on the other side of the river. The end result is a mega tropical ecotone that has played host to literally hundreds of bird species. As one might guess, this means that you just can’t ever go wrong when birding the Carara area.

Given the fantastic birding in and around Carara, it seems odd that so few accommodations for birders area available. There are a couple of hotels and many more options around Jaco but fewer than expected so close to the national park. One of the best of those few places for birders is Cerro Lodge. A cozy place around ten minutes drive from the entrance to the national park, this excellent site is situated within a mosaic of tropical dry transition forest, open fields, and second growth just above the floodplain of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. This combination of habitats give the place a healthy selection of birds, several of which are not found in the limits of the national park.

Such as White-lored Gnatcatcher.

Fruiting trees bring in Scarlet Macaws, Yellow-naped Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons and several other species, many of which can be seen right from the deck of the outdoor restaurant. Part of the reason some of these and other birds are present is a result of reforestation undertaken by Cerro Lodge, and, over the years, the owner has also made additional improvements to provide guests with a more comfortable, better birding experience. The most recent addition is one that I wish every birding site had, an observation tower!

The view from the tower.

It’s not a big one but then again, thanks to it being placed on a hill, it doesn’t have to be. The new tower at Cerro provides an excellent view of distant mangroves and adjacent forest. I have only been there once but these were some of my impressions and expectations:

Crane Hawk

The Cerro Lodge area has always been good for this uncommon, odd, long legged raptor but the tower really ups the ante for seeing it. Basically, it just provides more area to search for it and since a couple pairs live in around Cerro, there’ s a really good chance you will see it. It might be far off or it might be close but keep looking and you have a really good chance of finding it (yes, we did see one).

Other raptors

The tower also seems ideal for finding other raptor species because it has everything a raptor counter likes; a wide open view over good habitat for better observation of perched raptors and birds in flight. In addition to the Crane Hawk, we also had both caracaras, Bat Falcon, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and vultures. It should also be good for Plumbeous Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Hook-billed Kite, Gray-headed Kite, and perhaps a surprise or two.

Flyby parrots and other species

The tower is pretty much superb for flybys of macaws and parrots. We had close views of Scarlet Macaw and Yellow-naped Parrot among five other species. Yes, that does make for good photo opps!

Given Cerro’s location near a river and mangroves, many other birds also fly past, some flying to and from wetlands, others flying out of their roosts in the mangroves. This area can also be good for swifts. I can’t wait to check out the tower in the winter months and during migration!

White-necked Puffbird and other perched birds

As with any tower near good habitat, the one at Cerro makes it easier to see White-necked Puffbird, trogons, and other species of the canopy. Just keep scanning to see what you can find. We had wonderful constant, comfortable views of the puffbird, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Streak-backed Oriole, and other species.

Yellow-billed Cotinga

On account of it being endangered and looking so different, this star bird deserves its own bit of information. The tower at Cerro will be the ideal place to look for this bird. That’s great but it’s also bittersweet because I honestly wonder how long we will be able to see this rare species in the Carara area.

Its small population has been slowly but surely declining for several years and in all likelihood, it will unfortunately go locally extinct around Carara. I sure hope not but to be honest, that is what will likely happen because the bird has a very small population, there have been no signs of an increase or it even holding steady, and habitat at Carara is getting drier and thus not as good as it used to be for a species that likely requires a variety of fruiting trees in rainforest all year long.

Even worse, there has been no reforestation of the large cattle farms between the mangroves and the forests of Carara. This barrier can’t do any good for the cotinga and is probably the main factor contributing to its long term demise at this site. Once the bird is gone from the mangroves near Cerro, it won’t be back because the nearest population is too far away. So, in the meantime, we may see a few birds from the tower but I wonder for how long.

Access, comfort, and use

The tower is open to guests of Cerro Lodge but you do have to walk down from the hotel and then up to the tower. It’s not far and they do seem to maintain the trail though so most people should be fine. The tower itself is also only one and a half stories high so there shouldn’t be too much trouble there either. As for the tower itself, it can hold around 8 people or so and has a roof for much needed protection from sun and rain. There are also a couple of places to sit down.

Overall, it looks like a great place to bring a cold drink and some snacks and just relax with the birds. Bring a scope to scan all the way to the mangroves and just keep looking! On a final note, I bet the tower is also good for night birding, I hope to try that out on October Global Big Day, 2019.