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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Go Birding in Costa Rica to Escape the Heat

I may have written a post like this in the past but given the crazy elevated temperatures and subsequent tragic results up there in the temperate latitudes, I must reiterate: Come on down to Costa Rica to get away from the heat. No, you won’t be jumping out of the flames and into the heart of the fire. It will be more like tip-toeing out the door of a sweatlodge and walking into the refreshing air of much more reasonable temperatures. Basically, it will be like heading to a place with “normal” summer temperatures.

As I write this, I’m not sweating nor blasting my energy bill to the sky with delightful yet luxurious air-conditioning. I don’t need it because it’s a pleasant 80 degrees around here. It might actually be a couple degrees hotter than that but in glancing out the window, I see cloudy skies and that usually equates to slightly cooler days in Costa Rica. Don’t get me wrong, it does get hot in Costa Rica but it’s nothing compared to the heat waves that are ravaging much of the USA. In fact, it’s usually a bit cooler at this time of the year than during the months when Costa Rica is most commonly visited by birders (January-April).

In July, mornings are often sunny and then the rains fall to cool things off in the afternoon. Oh yeah, and there are also plenty of birds to see too. Although you won’t encounter migrants from the north, you have just as good a chance at seeing resident species as during the dry season. In fact, I think the cloudy weather makes it a bit easier to see more resident species because that tends to boost bird activity. At least it was like that a few weeks ago when I had near non-stop birding on the road to Manuel Brenes. Seriously, it was so good that I have been yearning to get back there ever since.

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Can’t wait to go back to this spot.

It’s still hot and humid in the Caribbean and south Pacific lowlands but it probably won’t get hotter than 90 degrees and things like weirdo tinamous, macaws, a cavalcade of parrots, gorgeous trogons, crafty antbirds, and other awesome tropical birds are pretty good compensation in any case.

Of course, if you wanted to avoid perspiration entirely, you could also just opt for birding in the highlands. It will be cool enough for a light jacket and while you relish the Autumn-like temperatures, you will also see fantastic near endemics like  Black and yellow Silky-Flycatcher

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Ruddy Treerunner

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Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush

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Black Guan

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Peg-billed Finch

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and Flame-throated Warbler

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Of course, you also have a very good chance at seeing Quetzalcoatl’s messenger.

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The Hummingbird Garden Near San Ramon

On the underbirded, super birdy route between San Ramon and La Fortuna, one of the many sites of interest is the Bosque Nuboso El Cocora Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden. It’s just a 20 minute ride from San Ramon to this sweet little site and even a short visit is well worth the $6 entrance fee. I visited a few days ago while guiding a client in the area and it turned out to be a fitting end to a morning of near non-stop bird action on the road to Manuel Brenes (that mixed flock madness merits its own account!).

I was happy to see that this little ecotourist attraction had invested in its infrastructure and built a small cafe and improved the hummingbird feeding area. The cafe serves typical Costa Rican food at fair prices and is a great place to have a coffee while watching Swallow-tailed Kites do their aerial ballet. As for the hummingbirds, I suspect that the number of species varies over the course of the year but you can always be guaranteed a fantastic frenzy of those little feathered dynamos. On that most recent visit, our most abundant hummingbird was the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald. They looked like white-tailed bugs as they went crazy with the feeders.

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Male Coppery-headed Emerald.

There were a few Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, one of which guarded a lone feeder.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Stay away from my sugar water!

Beautiful Violet-crowned Woodnymphs were pretty common too.

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A couple of big Violet Sabrewings salso howed up to cause some purple havoc, male and female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems were nice to see and the excellent lighting turned the Green-crowned Brilliants into flying, glittering emeralds. A surprise Steely-vented Hummingbird also showed up and after a long wait, a female White-bellied Mountain-gem made her appearance for our final and eight hummingbird species. I was surprised that we only saw one as this uncommon near endemic has been one of the most frequent hummingbirds on past visits.  Given the number of hummingbirds that were zipping around, we could have easily missed something else as other days have also seen such species as Green Thorntail, Brown Violetear, and Violet-headed Hummingbird.

In addition to the hummingbirds, this site has a short trail through a patch of middle elevation forest. Its brief 200 meter length is one of the big downsides to this place (the other being the 9 am opening time, 12 noon on Sundays) but it’s still worth a visit. Although the “width” of the forest isn’t much and is flanked by pasture, its old growth aspect and connection to more extensive forests away from the road create a wealth of possibilities. We saw little on the most recent visit but did hear Black-faced Solitaire, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and saw Tawny-capped Euphonia and Slate-throated Redstart. In the past, I have seen goodies in there such as Rufous Motmot, Blue-and-gold Tanager, and Azure-hooded Jay. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it also harbored things like leaftossers or even Scaled Antpitta. It’s surely worth a careful look and might be worth it to hang out where the trail looks into the canopy until a mixed flock passes by or some cool ground bird pops into view.

Getting to El Cocora is also super easy. If driving, take the road towards La Fortuna from San Ramon. You will drive through a steep canyon right after leaving town, than pass through deforested areas that are frequently cloaked in fog. Not long after, you start to descend onto the Caribbean slope. Watch for signs to the place and look for it on the left (west) side of the road about 15-20 minutes out of San Ramon. It can also be reached by buses between San Ramon and La Tigra, San Lorenzo, and La Fortuna.

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Where to go for Target Species when Birding in Costa Rica at Carara National Park- part uno

In the highly important block of habitat known as Carara National Park, the birding is always productive even though there are few trails that actually access the forests of the park. Even so, they are enough to provide access to just about every species that occurs there and can even turn up some amazing surprises. For example, one resident guide told me that he was pretty sure that he saw an Oilbird once and another very reputable person is certain that he saw a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. As bizarre as that sounds, he was 99% sure about the cuckoo, so was the person he was guiding, and although I won’t say who the guide was, believe me when I say that you can trust his observations. The only scenario we could think of was that this shy, low density species may have an undetected population that normally keeps to the higher parts of the park.

Unfortunately, since the national park service doesn’t show any indication of putting in trails that would access those areas, they will keep their avian secrets  and birders will have to “settle” for the River Trail and the forest trails near the HQ.  Although they barely scratch the surface of the park, they do provide access to most of the bird species that occur at Carara and are exciting no matter how many times you bird them. Recently, a reader of my blog was inquiring about target species along the trails at Carara. Is the River Trail better for certain species than the HQ trails? Is it passable during the wet season? Or maybe you were wondering how these trails differ?  Read on for some answers:

General Differences and Similarities between the two sets of trails:

Habitat:

  • The River Trail passes through a mosaic of semi-open, viny, riparian forest. It also accesses thick, second      growth, and towards the end of the trail, an oxbow lake and closed, primary rainforest.

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A scene along the River Trail.

  • The HQ trails access some second growth but mostly pass through beautiful, old-growth rainforest with immense trees. A couple of forest streams are also found along this trail.

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The forest along the Universal Access segment of the HQ Trails at Carara.

Climate: Pretty similar for both trails but it feels hotter on the River Trail due to its more open nature.

Difficulty: Both are mostly flat and easy for walking. The HQ trails also have a cement, “Universal Trail” that can be accessed by wheelchair.

Accessibility: Both are easily accessed along the coastal highway between Orotina and Jaco. The trailhead for the HQ trails is at the main entrance to the national park. The River Trail is 2-3 kilometers from the main entrance along the highway, heading back towards Orotina and San Jose. Drive slow, ignore the horns of impatient drivers, and watch for a strip of yellowish paper tied to a tree on the right (east) side of the road that marks the entrance to the trail. If that sounds easy to miss, you are right, it is! It’s kind of ridiculous but watch for that strip of paper and a steep turn-off that goes down to a small parking area. The River Trail does flood on an annual basis and is closed when this occurs. This of course depends on the rains but usually happens from September to December. Check at the HQ to see if it’s open.

Restrooms and drinking water: Best to bring your own water for both but the HQ trails do have restrooms at the HQ and on the Universal Trail. Such facilities are lacking at the River Trail. The water is potable from faucets at the HQ but who knows if it will always be like that.

Safety: Both trails are safe but vehicles should always be parked where someone can see them. For the HQ trails, this is in front of the office where tickets are purchased. For the River Trail, this is at the trail head but only park the car there if someone is present to watch it as vehicles left alone have been broken into on many occasions. That said, it goes without saying that you should never leave anything of value in the vehicle.

And now for the birds.. Keep in mind that many of these can also be seen elsewhere and some are easier to see in mangroves, etc.

Species that are only found on the River Trail:

  • Boat-billed Heron: A few are usually found roosting in trees at the edge of the oxbow lake.

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Boat-billed Heron or NAG- the “neotropical avian gargoyle”.

  • Other waterbirds: Widespread species such as Northern Jacana, Anhinga, Black-necked Stilt, and various herons and egrets are often seen at the oxbow lake.

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The oxbow lake at the River Trail- always some good stuff here.

  • Plumbeous Kite: Sometimes seen soaring high above the River Trail but easier at Cerro Lodge and in mangroves.
  • Crane Hawk: Occasionally encountered on this trail, but easier at Cerro Lodge and in mangroves.
  • Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers: Yep, at the oxbow lake.
  • Olivaceous Piculet: Rare but if you are lucky, this is where you will probably see one at Carara. Keep an eye out for it in mixed flocks and learn its high-pitched, quiet, trilling song.
  • Black-bellied Wren: Listen and look for this babblerish skulker in the heliconia thickets.
  • Cherrie’s Tanager: Rare at Carara but sometimes seen along this trail.

Species that are only found on the HQ Trails:

  • Blue-crowned Manakin: I suppose one could also turn up on the River Trail but I have never seen it there.

Both trails actually harbor many of the same species but it’s worth it to allocate quality birding time to each because some species are easier along one compared to the other. If you don’t see something mentioned (Rufous-tailed Jacamar for example), it’s because I have encountered it along both sets of trails with the same degree of frequency.

Species that are easier to see on the River Trail:

  • Collared Forest Falcon: More regular along this trail.

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A rather bad picture of this large raptor from the River Trail.

  • Swifts: The more open nature of this trail facilitates watching (and being subsequently confounded by) swifts.
  • American Pygmy-Kingfisher: Much easier near at the oxbow lake.

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The American Pygmy-Kingfisher is one gem of a bird.

  • Barred Antshrike
  • Royal Flycatcher: If you can’t do the River Trail, look for it near the stream on the HQ Trail and along the Universal Trail.
  • Orange-collared Manakin: Although I have seen it almost as often along the HQ Trail, especially along the beginning of the trail and the Universal Trail.
  • Yellow-billed Cotinga: Rare but easier to see at fruiting trees along the River Trail.
  • Turquoise Cotinga: Ditto.
  • Rufous-breasted Wren: It’s common along the HQ Trails too but easier to see along the River Trail.

Species that are easier to see on the HQ Trails:

  • Great Tinamou
  • Muscoy Duck: Oddly enough, yes, along the creek!
  • Blue-crowned Motmot: Although still easier in hotel gardens of the Central Valley.
  • Long-tailed Woodcreeper: I see it much more often in mixed flocks along the forest trails than the River Trail although I have also encountered it there.
  • Black-striped Woodcreeper
  • Black-faced Antthrush
  • Streak-chested Antpitta

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Carara National Park is one of the more reliable places to see Streak-chested Antpitta.

  • Golden-crowned Spadebill
  • Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
  • Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
  • Eye-ringed Flatbill
  • Red-capped Manakin
  • Thrushlike Schiffornis
  • Rufous Piha
  • Scaly-breasted Wren
  • Tropical Parula: More common and much easier to see at middle elevation sites.
  • Spot-crowned Euphonia

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The S-P Euphonia is a nice little near-endemic.

If you can’t bird the River Trail, don’t fret too much about missing Royal Flycatcher or Orange-collared Manakin because you still have a pretty good chance for them along the Universal Trail, especially if you hire a guide who is familiar with birding the park. For the Black-bellied Wren, though, I am afraid that you will have to bird some Heliconia thickets a bit further south.

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O-C Manakin males are fancy little birds!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What Woodpeckers are You Going to See When Birding Costa Rica?

Woodpeckers are one of those bird families that are so cool and distinctive that they are even immediately recognized by most non-birders. Thanks to Woody Woodpecker and the unforgettable antics of birds that thrive on “head-banging”, someone who has no idea what a chickadee or flycatcher is can still correctly identify a woodpecker when they see one. They won’t know if it’ a Downy, Hairy, Greater Spotted, or Lineated (if they live in the neotropics) but they still get credit for recognizing a bird at the family level.

In common with most of the American tropics, Costa Rica has a wealth of woodpeckers. The diversity for this chiseling, strange, long-tongued bunch gets even higher in the Amazon and forested habitats of southern Asia but with 16 species to choose from in a place the size of West Virginia, I’m not complaining! Here is a rundown of this fine family of birds that includes information on where and how to see them when birdwatching in Costa Rica:

Olivaceous Piculet: The piculets are a strange group of mini-woodpeckers that will remind you of titmice or maybe nuthatches. Most species reside in South America although a few are found in Asia and one occurs in Africa. In Costa Rica, just one species occurs and as with most of these miniscule woodpeckers, it’s easy to overlook. It’s sometimes seen along the river trail at Carara but is much more regularly sighted further south. Forest edge, gardens, and viney second growth in places such as the Golfo Dulce area, Hacienda Baru, and the Valle del General are all good sites to see the Olivaceous Piculet in Costa Rica. You might also see it around Cano Negro and I have run into it on more than one occasion in guava orchards near Arenal.

No pics for this minute bird.

Acorn Woodpecker: This clown of the high elevations is fairly common and easy to see wherever oak trees are found. Although it lives on Poas and Barva, it doesn’t seem to be as common at those sites compared to Irazu Volcano and the Talamancas.

birding in Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker: This is a true beauty of a bird that evolved in the humid forests of southwestern Costa Rica and western Panama. You can’t see it anywhere else and it’s not as common as the related Black-cheeked Woodpecker is on the Caribbean slope. Although it does occur at Carara National Park, seeing it there during a day of birding is by no means guaranteed. I usually hear it inside the forest but don’t see it too often. However, it becomes more common in rainforest further south. It’s pretty easy to see at sites like Hacienda Baru, the Osa, and other areas with humid forest from about Jaco to Golfito.

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Black-cheeked Woodpecker: Most woodpeckers are bold, handsome birds and this species is no exception.  It hides a red belly and yellow front, but the red crown, black cheeks, and white stripes on a black back are easier to see. Happily, this fun bird is also common and easy to see in humid forest and edge in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. This is one that will be hard to miss when taking a birding trip to Costa Rica.

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Red-crowned Woodpecker: A common edge species in Panama and northern South America, it’s also easy to see on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Although it hybridizes with the next species around Carara and Jaco, what appear to be pure Red-crowns are easily seen from Manuel Antonio National Park and points further south. Watch for it in gardens and other non-forest habitats.

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Hoffmann’s Woodpecker: This nice looking woodpecker is only found from southern Honduras to northern Costa Rica. It’s common in any dry forest habitat from the border of Nicaragua south to Carara National Park and the Central Valley. They have also been showing up in deforested parts of northern Costa Rica on the Caribbean slope. This is the de-facto woodpecker species in the Central Valley and if staying in hotels in the San Jose area, you will probably see a few right in the garden.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Yes, this woodpecker makes its way south to Costa Rica for the winter. Not too many make the trip but you may come across one or two when birding in Costa Rica. They can show up just about anywhere although seem to be encountered more often in foothill and highland areas.

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Hairy Woodpecker: It might be the same species as Hairy Woodpeckers from the north, but it sure looks different! The birds in Costa Rica are similar to Hairy Woodpeckers from the Pacific northwest in having duller, browner plumage. They also seem smaller than birds from the north. A commonly encountered species in high-elevation forests.

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Red-rumped Woodpecker: This is by far the toughest woodpecker to see in Costa Rica. You can go to known sites for them and still miss this species (at least that has been my experience!). They are much more common in western Ecuador and Colombia so count on seeing Red-rumped Woodpeckers there. If you need to see one in Costa Rica, try looking in edge habitats and mangroves around the Golfo Dulce. It’s supposed to also occur in the mangroves near Carara but I haven’t seen nor heard it there.

Sorry, no pics of this one!

Smoky-brown Woodpecker: This one can get overlooked although it’s a fairly common bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. It prefers edge habitats and second growth over primary forest and once you learn its vocalizations, you at least hear it on most birding trips within its range. It’s also frequently seen and sometimes joins mixed flocks. Birding at most Caribbean slope sites can turn up this species.

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A rather Gargoylish image of a Smoky Brown Woodpecker!

Rufous-winged Woodpecker: This is always a nice bird to see and Costa Rica is a great place for it. Rufous-winged Woodpeckers are fairly common in both primary and secondary forests on the Caribbean slope. They sometimes join mixed flocks but tend to stay in the canopy. They often reveal their presence with their loud, jay-like calls and are seen on most trips to the Caribbean lowlands and foothills.

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Not the best image of a Rufous-winged but at least one of its staring bluish eyes is visible.

G0lden-Olive Woodpecker: This widespread highland species is fairly common in Costa Rica although it seems like it occurs at low densities. It can turn up in edge and forested habitats at any middle elevation site although it might be a bit easier around Monteverde.

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Cinnamon Woodpecker: This and the following species are members of the Celeus genus, a fact that makes them exceptionally cool because you won’t see anything like these rufousy, fruit eating woodpeckers up north! The Cinnamon Woodpecker is fairly common in humid forest on the Caribbean slope (lowlands and foothills) but its love for the densely vegetated canopy presents challenges to seeing it. However, patience and knowing its vocalizations usually result in sightings of this beautiful species when birdwatching where it occurs. La Selva, Quebrada Gonzalez, and most forested sites in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills are good for this bird.

No photos for this one either!

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker: This striking woodpecker is uncommon in Costa Rica but you still have a fair chance seeing it when birding in the Caribbean lowlands. It turns up in both primary forest and edge habitats at places like La Selva, Tortuguero, and most Caribbean lowland sites.

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Lineated Woodpecker: Common and widespread, the Lineated is one of the easier woodpeckers to see in Costa Rica. Birding in edge habitats and gardens at lowland and middle elevation sites usually turns up one or two Lineated Woodpeckers. Their laughing song is reminiscent of the Pileated’s (their northern cousin) and is often heard in hotel gardens.

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Pale-billed Woodpecker: This is the biggest woodpecker species in Costa Rica and is placed in the Ivorybill genus (Campephilus). Like other members of this celebrated genus (at least in ornithological circles), it gives a distinctive double knock. In Costa Rica, it shows up in forested sites in the lowlands of both slopes. It’s not super common but should turn up during a two week birding trip to Costa Rica.

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Check out the Good Birds on Poas when Birding Costa Rica

Poas Volcano is somewhat overlooked as a birding destination. Birders in search of highland specialties head off to the more extensive forests on Cerro de la Muerte and have a grand old time with the R. Quetzal, Collared Redstarts, Zeledonias, and other birds that got an evolutionary foothold in the rising Talamancas. Nevertheless, you can still see a bunch of darn good birds at places like the volcanoes of Barva, Poas, and Irazu. In fact, I see great birds there all the time. The habitat looks nicer in the Talamancas and you can access more of the temperate zone forests but Poas and Irazu are more easily done as day trips from San Jose. Poas also makes for a nice place to spend the night when staying in the valley and Irazu looks like the perfect spot to look for Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl. Poas is only a forty-five minute ride from the airport, there are more than a few hotels to choose from, and if you like strawberries, locals hawk bags of your favorite red berry on the side of the road.

So, don’t discount Poas as a birding destination but especially because it can turn up some great birds. For the time being, you also might want to fit a trip to Poas into the itinerary because the bamboo has seeded and some good birds have arrived! I almost discounted bamboo birds for the area because I kept checking the place and coming up with nothing save Mountain Elaenias and bush-tanagers. Well, to be completely honest, there were other birds too but none of the species that have a natural obsession with seeding bamboo. Maybe their absence stemmed from a lack of seeds? Maybe the crop just wasn’t ripe enough to please their avian palates? Whatever the reason for their no-show in the past,  some bamboo birds are certainly in the house on Poas in the present.

Thanks to Steve and Liz for mentioning that they has seen LOTS of Peg-billed Finches on the road to Las Lagunillas, I decided to scout the area on Sunday with a friend of mine. Although we spent most of the morning on the San Rafael de Varablanca road and saw cool stuff like Bicolored Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and Golden-bellied Flycatcher (until reaching a washed out part of the road), a brief trip to the Lagunillas Road in the afternoon was the prize as it yielded several Peg-billed Finches and flyover Barred Parakeets!

Golden-bellied Flycatcher- a cool, middle elevation near endemic.


Unfortunately, my camera has something against Peg-billed Finches. This was the best image of a bunch.

While guiding in the area on Monday, we didn’t even bother with the Lagunillas Road as we had several Peg-billed Finches along the main road to Poas as well as in front of the Restaurant Volcan. Many of the wild avocado trees were also in fruit and as luck and patience would have it, a male Resplendent Quetzal briefly glided past us as we waited for mixed flock activity. Although the flock never showed up, we were still rewarded with several Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, many Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, and one Green-fronted Lancebill!  Saving the best bird for last, we heard at least one Slaty Finch. This serious rarity sang a few times from the dead bamboo at the stream across the street from the Restaurant Volcan and although we didn’t manage to see it, the high-pitched buzzy trill that rises and briefly falls couldn’t have been anything else.


The Restaurant Volcan seems to be reliable for Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher.


You will also be entertained by Yellowish Flycatchers.

Even if we hadn’t seen any bamboo birds, the hummingbird show at places like the Restaurant Volcan and Poas Lodge would have been reason enough to visit:

Magnificent Hummingbird


Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Violet Sabrewing

I don’t know how long those bamboo birds will be present on Poas but I will be visiting again soon! It’s probably my best chance at getting that Costa Rican Holy Grail of Columbids, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. I was very fortunate to see it once before but since that happened in 1994, I would love to have another look.

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Black-crested Coquette at El Tapir

El Tapir is a defunct butterfly garden (how many sites have that claim to fame?) a couple kilometers past Quebrada Gonzalez on the right side of the highway as you head towards Limon. During the latter 90s it received a fair number of visitors and cabins were being built to provide accommodation for excited, happy birders. I don’t know if that was actually the goal for the cabins but excited, happy birders would have certainly been the outcome. The place is easily accessible, has the full complement of foothill specialties, good populations of other birds that require primary forest, acts as a good lookout for raptors, and has a bunch of Porterweed bushes that are one of the few reliable sites in the country Snowcap.

However, to visiting birders great misfortune, the cabins were never finished and El Tapir was let to its own devices. The buildings are falling down, you would never know that a beautiful little, enclosed butterfly garden used to grace the entrance to the place, and there aren’t any more souvenirs for sale. Nevertheless, despite it’s defunct appearance, El Tapir can still be visited, there are a few trails through the forest, and hummingbirds still show up at the Porterweed bushes. Many of those magic flowering hedges have been cleared from the garden for unknown reasons and this has diminished the numbers of hummingbirds that show up but the place still sees visits by most of the expected species.

This past Sunday, while guiding at El Tapir, we were entertained by one of the more uncommon hummingbird species to visit the garden, an exquisite male Black-crested Coquette. It came to one of the flowering Porterweed bushes near the caretaker’s house and he let us know every time it made an appearance. It buzzed in low like a bumblebee for fantastic, close looks…

Black-crested Coquette is so small that it can just about hide behind a Porterweed stem!


It slowly moved into view and showed off its fine-plumed crest.

Neither common, nor rare, like so many other tropical bird species with low density populations, the Black-crested Coquette is perhaps best described as “uncommon”. This means that they are probably in the neighborhood when visiting their habitat but could easily escape detection if you don’t find the right type of flowering trees. Other factors that make it that much more difficult to locate this species are their tendency to move up and down slope in search of food and their naturally inconspicuous behavior that aids them in poaching nectar from flowers in the territories of other, larger, nastier hummingbirds.

I don’t see this species that often at El Tapir so don’t be surprised if you go birding there and miss it. However, even if you miss the coquette, consolation prizes often come in the form of Snowcap, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Thorntail, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Violet-crowned Woodnymph. You might also run into some good mixed flocks, pick up foothill birds in the forest, see King Vulture, and even run into a tapir! On Sunday, we had all of the hummingbirds listed above along with White-necked Jacobin and Purple-crowned Fairy. A sunny day made for pretty quiet birding inside the forest but we still managed to see Spotted Antbird (also heard Bicolored and Ocellated), Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Speckled Tanager, and King Vulture.

If you do visit El Tapir, just ask the caretaker if you can enter and pay him $5 per person. On a side note, the forest looked much drier than normal this past week and that could be why we picked up a few ticks so put on the sulfur powder and wear rubber boots!

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Birding in Costa Rica at Paraiso de Quetzales

Costa Rica is definitely a hot, tropical country. At 9 degrees latitude, the sun’s rays can burn with the intensity of some vicious alien device. In the humid lowlands, you sweat but just can’t seem to cool off. 80 degrees is the norm, it feels like summer most of the time, and thank goodness for that! However, the uplifted nature of Tico topography also makes a fair portion of the country as cool as an October night. Go high enough in the mountains and that electric October feeling can also morph into a chilly November. I know this from personal experience because I have wandered around the high, temperate zone oak forests on breezy, misty nights in search of Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl,  and Dusky Nightjars.

The latter two birds are regular while the first is pretty darn rare. I still need the saw-whet sans spots but plan on getting it this year. Part of that plan will include several layers of warm clothing, the outer shell of which will be impervious to water. I know this is what is needed to wander around high mountain forest while tooting like a tiny owl because I tried it on Saturday night at Paraiso de Quetzales (in retrospect, I think you also need to be willing to temporarily trade in some of your sanity). Although I didn’t connect with the owl, I know they are up there because others have seen them in the past.  Perhaps we would have gotten it too if we had checked more sites for a longer period of time. Although we could have spent most of the night wandering around the cold, dark forest, we didn’t want to lose a morning of birding so our small group of owl searchers opted for blanket-covered beds and traded a chance at the owl for much needed sleep.

There is some really nice high elevation rain forest at Paraiso de Quetzales.

The next morning, I I forced myself to get up at 5 and listen for birds. They weren’t exactly flying around at that unforgiving hour but were definitely making their presence known with song. On my brief, pre-breakfast stroll down the Zeledonia Trail, I heard a flock of Barred Parakeets,  several Large-footed Finches, Zeledonias, the wing rattle of a Black Guan, Black-thighed Grosbeak calling a lot like its northern Rose-breasted relative, and Collared Redstarts singing their cheerful, hurried songs. The most welcome sound of the morning, though, was the calling of Resplendent Quetzals. At least two of these spectacular birds were singing. Here is what some of the morning medley sounded like: Zeledoniaandquetzal

After some of the best coffee in the world (seriously) and a tasty breakfast, our birding club group were led by the Jorge, owner’s son, in our search for quetzals. This involved walking up to an area with a large number of wild avocados in fruit and waiting for the birds to show.  After about ten minutes, someone in our group spotted a female flying through the canopy and we quickly got onto the bird.

A typically dull female Resplendent Quetzal.

Jorge explained that the male was also probably nearby since the birds had probably finished feeding for the morning and were just sitting around, digesting the avocado fruits they had eaten for breakfast. While watching the female and waiting for the male to fly into view, someone in our group spotted the male sitting in the same tree as the female. It was perched up there in the canopy the entire time but despite its brilliant plumage, was obscured enough by a clump of leaves to keep us from noticing him! After some strategic repositioning of the scopes, we got the male into view and everyone enjoyed prolonged, soul satisfying looks at this amazing, iridescent creature.

A bad picture of the fancier male.

Watching quetzals.

As nice as quetzals are, they aren’t the only birds you see at “Quetzal Paradise”. Black-capped Flycatchers were hawking insects from fencepost perches, Large-footed Finches scratched in the leaf litter, Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the bushes, and mixed flocks of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Collared Redstarts, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, and other highland endemics rushed through the vegetation. Our group also had great looks at Buffy Tuftedcheek that came in to playback and some people also had glimpses of Silver-fronted Tapaculos that skulked in the dense undergrowth. The best sighting was arguably that of a Peg-billed Finch spotted by two fortunate individuals as this uncommon finch has been a tough bird to find in recent years.

Of course the hummingbird action at the feeders was pretty darn good too! The lighting was perfect for admiring the jewel-like plumage of multiple Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds vied with the Fiery-throateds for attention, and an occasional Green Violetear zoomed in to the feeders before being chased away. Volcano Hummingbirds were also common at Paraiso de Quetzales but they didn’t dare come to the feeders. I was surprised to not see White-throated Mountain-Gem in the forest as an orange-flowered sage species was blooming throughout the understory.

Green Violetear.

Fiery-throated Hummingbirds look OK from the side,

but turn into living jewels from the front.


Magnificent Hummingbirds look pretty nice too.

Another big miss was Ochraceous Pewee as the area is usually reliable for this uncommon bird. Oh well, that’s yet another reason to head back to Paraiso de Quezales for exciting highland forest birding in Costa Rica.

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Is It Going to Snow when Birding Costa Rica?

Costa Rica probably hasn’t experienced a good snowfall since the last ice age and even then it was surely limited to the highest peaks. Treeline habitats probably experience frost once in a while but most of the country is consistently warm. The chance of even the tiniest bit of snow further diminishes when global warming is taken into account. Heck, with the winter of 2012 shaping up to be the year without cold white precipitation in most of the northern tier states and  southern Ontario, you might wonder how or why I would even mention “snow” in reference to Costa Rica. Well, the “snow” that I’m talking about isn’t the associated with the realm of jolly Saint Nick and Ivory Gulls.

It’s snow of the avian kind and anyone headed to Costa Rica for birding hopes to experience a flurry or two because it’s kind of hard to find this feathered weather elsewhere. Not that it can’t be encountered in Honduras, Nicaragua, or western Panama, it’s just that this most wanted avian snow is more accessible in Costa Rica. I had a welcome bit of avian snowfall yesterday while birding around Chilamate, Sarapiqui and hope that it’s a harbinger of more snowy days to come when birding Costa Rica in 2012.

Costa Rica’s snowfall comes in the form of the peaceful looking Snowy Cotinga. Is it a mutant dove? An overexposed, albino tityra? Nope, the Snowy Cotinga is an unmistakably, brilliant, December-white bird that swoops around the canopy of lowland rainforest in its search for delectable fruiting trees. In extensively forested areas you can sometimes encounter 6 or 8 of these magic birds as they forage together although such flurries are the exception. Typically, you have to be content with seeing just one or two but if you bird the right places, you have a good chance of snow.

You usually see Snowy Cotingas like this, sitting high up in some emergent tree.

You get better looks if there is a fruiting tree in the vicinity.

Even if they try to hide, Snowy Cotingas are still unmistakable.

Snowy Cotingas can show up at any forested site in the Caribbean lowlands. Scan the treetops and watch fruiting trees for them in the Sarapiqui area, southeastern Costa Rica, Tortuguero, and the area around Laguna del Lagarto. Wishing you snowy days in Costa Rica in 2012!

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How and Where to See Buffy-Crowned Wood-Partridge When Birding Costa Rica

Domesticated jungle fowl have given a bad rap to other Gallinaceous birds. Tragopans and pheasants are made exempt by merit of their un-chickenlike shape, fantastic glittering plumages, and fancy feathering but there is a tendency to put less importance on seeing the more somberly attired wood-quails, grouse, and wood partridges. I admit that the difficulties in espying these shy birds makes it all that much easier to just focus on brightly colored tanagers, hummingbirds, and trogons. After all, they don’t seem to mind being watched whereas since those chicken-like birds don’t want to be seen, why waste precious birding time by peering into dense thickets and vainly looking for invisible calling birds? Difficulties in seeing them aside, I am convinced that they are somewhat discriminated against because of their vaguely chicken-like appearance.

We are so used to viewing chickens as familiar barnyard animals that we easily forget that they descend from wild Red Jungle Fowl that need to watch out for Leopard Cats and Burmese Pythons as they carefully forage in south Asian leaf litter. We forget their wild side and transfer this neglect over to similar looking creatures. It’s not that we don’t want to see wild, chicken-like birds, it’s just that they usually aren’t all that high on most birders’ target lists. One such chicken like bird in Costa Rica is the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. Birders coming to Costa Rica wouldn’t mind seeing one but most don’t really expect it or make much of an effort to tick it. With so many other very cool birds that are much easier to see in the country, I can’t say I blame them but that doesn’t mean that wood-partridges should entirely written off when birding Costa Rica. It is true that they like the thick stuff but they are also common enough to show themselves if you spend a modest amount of time searching in the right places.

Here is how to see a Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge in Costa Rica:

  • Look for them in the right places– The B.C.W.P. commonly occurs in coffee plantations and scrubby habitats in the upper part of the Central Valley. They don’t really like forest all that much so you need to stick to the “trashier” habitats. Some of the better sites for this species are the Orosi Valley, on the slopes of Irazu as well as in the paramo vegetation of the crater, and up above Grecia. They also occur in the Dota Valley but I don’t think they are as common there.
  • Go birding with a dog– Well, not seriously but that is how I saw my first one! While walking along the road near Kiri Lodge some years ago, a dog that was in the area began to investigate some thick, scrubby, streamside habitat. Next thing I knew, two or three Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges burst out of the grass and one even perched long enough on top of the vegetation to allow me perfect looks. A nice surprise tick!
  • Check trails and little traveled country roads at dawn or late afternoon– Keep an eye out on the road ahead, use binoculars to scan that path through scrubby grass as far as you can, and watch the edges of coffee plantations.
  • Listen for their song– This of course let’s you know where they are. Use playback and they just might show themselves (with the caveat of not overdoing it of course).
  • Go to the Los Lagos restaurant in the Dota Valley– Ok, so you may or may not see a wild B.C.W.P. there but when I visited in February, the people next door had two in a cage!

Sad as it was to find them being held captive, at least you can see what they look like.

birding Costa Rica

and for a closer look…

birding Costa Rica

Of course I would much rather hear that you saw one of these beautiful birds in the wild.  Follow the tips given above and you have a fair chance of seeing Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge when birding Costa Rica.

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Scarlet Macaw in a Beach Almond

During recent guiding in the Carara area, Scarlet Macaws were hanging out at the beach near the village known as Tarcoles. These unbelievable looking birds do this now and then to feast on seeds of the “Beach Almond” (Terminalia catappa). A common sight on beaches in Costa Rica, this tree species isn’t really an almond nor is it native to Costa Rica but the macaws sure love it. I do too and not just because it frequently plays host to Scarlet Macaws but also because its large leaves provide solid, welcome shade when the tropical sun is bombarding everything in its path with intense UV rays.

While attempting some shots of these brilliant birds, I was surprised to see that they are somewhat camouflaged in the foliage of the beach almond. The shocking red, yellow, and blue plumage of the Scarlet Macaw might be a bit too much to describe them as being “camouflaged” but they sort of blend in with the red, yellow, and green leaves of the Beach Almond.

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A Scarlet Macaw trying to hide in a Beach Almond….

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followed by an unflattering view from the rear….

birding Costa Rica

until it clambered out from the leaves to…

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munch on a seed.

As with most neotropical birding, Murphy’s Law came into effect when this and other macaws were nowhere to be found when I showed up with two serious photography enthusiasts on the following day. At least we still recorded around 140 bird species during a day of birding the wonderfully diverse area around Carara.