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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Pacific slope

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.

birding Costa Ricabirding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

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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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Hummingbirds

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 Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

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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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope

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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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica central valley high elevations

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.

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and for a closer look…

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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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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Pacific slope

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….

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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.

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The Best Sites for Seeing Cotinga Species when Birding Costa Rica

Cotingas! An appropriately evocative sounding name for breathtaking birds that look like the results of someone’s wild imagination. They all seem to be odd or wacky because birders familiar with temperate zone families just don’t know what to make of them. Purple-throated Fruitcrow- hmmm, if it’s a crow then why does it have shiny purple throat? Three-wattled Bellbird- why does the male have long, black wormy things hanging off of its bill? Bare-necked Umbrellabird- what mad scientists combined a Magnificent Frigatebird with a long lost dwarf cousin of the king of rock and roll?

Before a birding trip to Costa Rica, we flip through the pages of Garrigues and Dean or Stiles and Skutch to feed our excitement and prep for our trip. As if those antbirds with blue around the eyes and delicate, fancy manakins weren’t enough to make you want to change the date of your flight for tomorrow, when the pages fall open to the cotingas, you almost question whether such fantastic looking birds can actually exist. In addition to the three mindblowers above, there are four other species that consistently grasp the attention of birders headed to Costa Rica. These are the two Carpodectes species (Snowy Cotinga and Yellow-billed Cotinga) and the two Cotinga species (Turquoise Cotinga and Lovely Cotinga).

We try to make sense out of their strange dovish shapes and brilliant white or glittering blue and purple plumages and can only come to the conclusion that we MUST see these birds! After ungluing our eyes from the page that showcases these avian treasures, this quartet of Costa Rican birds become major targets. Upon reading the text, however, our elation is given a serious blow by dreaded descriptions of status such as “uncommon” and “rare”. They don’t cease to be target birds but we now know that it’s going to take some serious effort to see them because they are pretty tough no matter how good your best birding aim might be.

Nevertheless, as with any challenging bird species, the probability of seeing them goes up if you know where and how to look for them. The following are my hints and educated guesses for ticking off all four of these major targets when birding Costa Rica.

All four species: Find fruiting trees that attract these hardcore frugivores. Since Costa Rica strangely lacks canopy towers (a major aid in seeing tree-top loving cotingas), this is the most guaranteed means of ticking off the cotinga quartet. Ficus and Lauraceae species trees in particular are goldmines for these birds but also watch for them at any fruiting trees within their ranges. If you notice a tree in fruit, scan those branches and hang out for a bit. Even if a cotinga doesn’t show up, other birds and monkeys might make an appearance.

Snowy Cotinga (Carpodectes nitidus): To make things easier, let’s start with this most frequently encountered member of our cotinga quartet. It lives in the Caribbean lowlands and despite the tragic, extensive destruction of lowland rainforests in its Costa Rican range, still hangs on and is regularly seen in a number of areas. It is often seen in riparian forest although this could also be a function of more forest being found along river corridors or that it’s easier to see into the canopy. It isn’t common but you have a fair chance of seeing it by looking for it at the sites below:

  • La Selva and Sarapiqui- Look for white or light gray (the female) birds where the canopy is visible along the Sarapiqui River, the La Selva entrance road, and around the La Selva buildings. I have also seen it at such lodges as Selva Verde and El Gavilan.
  • Tortuguero-  Snowy Cotingas are regularly seen in the forest canopy visible from the canals.
  • Hitoy Cerere- Good, quality lowland forest means nunbirds, Great Jacamar, and Snowy Cotingas! I saw small groups of this species at the HQ on several occasions during visits in 2000 and 2001.

Yellow-billed Cotinga (Carpodectes antoniae): The other gleaming white cotinga in Costa Rica is much rarer than the Snowy. It isn’t overly difficult to see in appropriate habitat but therein lies the problem. The Yellow-billed Cotinga has evolved on the Pacific slope of southern Costa Rica  and western Panama to be a rather finicky species that requires lowland rainforest adjacent to mangroves. Take away one of these habitats or remove forest that connects the two and this fancy species gradually disappears. Because of limited habitat within a small range, this bird is in trouble. I bet strategic reforestation and planting native fruiting trees would help it though.

  • Rincon de Osa- Extensive, tall mangroves next to primary rainforest make this the most accessible and reliable site to see Yellow-billed Cotinga when birding Costa Rica. You still may need to locate a fruiting tree but you have a pretty good chance of getting this rarity around here.
  • Bosque del Rio Tigre- Yellow-billed Cotinga is often seen near the lodge and if not, the owners offer day tours to see this species at other sites. They should know where it is because they have done studies to assess its status.
  • The Osa Peninsula in general- Yellow-billed Cotinga can show up along rivers just about anywhere in forested parts of the Osa.
  • The Sierpe River- Watching the mangroves from the village of Sierpe or taking a boat ride through them offers a very good chance at seeing more than one as mangroves along the Sierpe River are indeed the main stronghold for this species anywhere in its small range.
  • Ventanas de Osa- Traveling south from Dominical, one comes to a small plaza with a high end liquor store and souvenir shop. Across the street is rainforest that sometimes harbors Yellow-billed Cotinga.
  • Carara National Park- I wouldn’t list this among the best sites to see this rare species but include it to give you an idea of your chances for seeing it there. It still shows up at fruiting trees along both trails in the park, sometimes makes an appearance on the mangrove boat tour, and is occasionally viewed from the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles or from Cerro Lodge BUT don’t expect to see it. The population here probably can’t cope with the lack of forest between mangroves and the national park because it seems to have seriously declined over the years and might even become extirpated from around Carara at any time.

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This Yellow-billed Cotinga was at Rincon de Osa.

Turquoise Cotinga (Cotinga ridgwayi): This gorgeous bird of birds is uncommon but seen with regularity at several sites. Once again, fruiting trees are the way to see it and it could turn up in any forested lowland or foothill area from Carara (where it is very rare) south to Panama. A few of the more reliable sites are listed below.

  • Wilson Botanical Garden- It might turn up, it might not but you have a fair chance of laying eyes on it here and resident birders might also be around to let you know where it has been seen.
  • Los Cusingos- This small reserve and former farm of Alexander Skutch could be the best site to get this species.
  • The Osa Peninsula- The Turquoise Cotinga seems to be most common in the lowland rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. A visit to any lodge here could turn up one or more and perched birds are often scoped from the front of the Bosque del Rio Tigre.
  • Talari Mountain Lodge- Although this site isn’t extensively forested, Turqoise Cotinga is seen quite often.

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A glowing male Turquoise Cotinga from Talari Mountain Lodge.

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This one was at Rincon de Osa. One often sees both Yellow-billed and Turquoise at this site.

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A backlit Turquoise Cotinga.

Lovely Cotinga (Cotinga amabilis): The most difficult of the quartet, this is somewhat of a mystery species in Costa Rica. I suspect that it has declined with deforestation in the Caribbean Lowlands because what little information we have of this bird in Costa Rica points to it being an elevational migrant. Skutch studied a pair that nested and visited a fruiting Lauraceae tree near Varablanca several decades ago and discovered that like several other frugivorous species on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica, it nests at middle elevations during the start of the wet season and likely descends to the lowlands at other times of the year in search of fruit. I scan the treetops every time I visit the Varablanca area but because so much forest has been cut since Skutch’s day and since I have never heard of anyone seeing it at the Waterfall Gardens or Virgen del Socorro, I wonder if it still occurs there. It seems to be espied more often in Honduras and southern Mexico but if you are headed to Costa Rica, you might get lucky by scanning the canopy and watching fruiting trees at the sites below.

  • Silent Mountain- This excellent middle elevation site near Rancho Naturalista is probably the most reliable site for Lovely Cotinga in Costa Rica. It’ a long walk uphill and is probably seasonal but even if you don’t see a cotinga, you might get other rare birds such as Sharpbill or Rufous-rumped Antwren. This is offered as a guided trip at Rancho Naturalista.
  • Arenal- The Observatory Lodge is just about the only place where this species is sighted with regularity in Costa Rica. It might also turn up at fruiting trees along the road into Arenal, around the lake, at the hanging bridges, or at the waterfall near La Fortuna.
  • Tenorio, Miravalles, and Rincon de la Vieja- It has occurred a few times at Las Heliconias lodge during April and should occur on the Caribbean slope of these volcanoes at other sites too.
  • El Copal– During the second week of August, more than one Lovely Cotinga has shown up at fruiting Melastomes right in front of this community owned lodge and reserve!

Since all of the cotinga quartet seems to be prone to wandering, they could show up at a number of other sites as well. Keep watching those fruiting trees, scan the canopy, and if you seen one or know of other sites for these species, please comment about it below!

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Carara National Park is good for ground birds

Carara National Park is one of the better sites in Costa Rica for seeing ground birds of the forest interior. These are the terrestrial bird species that opt for shade over sun, that relish quiet, careful walks through the leafy texture of the forest floor, that haunt the dark understory with ventriloquial voices. You wont get warbler neck gazing at any of these birds but good luck in just getting a glimpse! The leaf litter may be rife with tasty arthropods but its always a haven for bird hungry predators so to stay alive, ground birds of the forest interior need to keep alert at all times and feign invisibility. The only problem with this strategy is that it also works on birders. You might see one tinamou and antthrush for every 6 heard, a quail-dove if your lucky, and where the heck are the antpittas and leaftossers?

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Great Tinamou

Its always frustrating to walk through beautiful rainforest without seeing such strange and cool birds when you know that they must be somewhere in the vicinity. In most places, the birds hear you coming down the trail and fade away into the recesses of the forest because they decide that its better not to take any chances on whether or not the two legged thing with binoculars will kill and eat them. If they learn that Homo sapiens doesnt pose a threat, however, then the shy, feathered denizens of the forest floor can lower their guard enough to let you watch them at your leisure. You still have to play by their rules and thus walk and watch in a quiet, unobtrusive manner but at least you get to watch them go about their business.

In Costa Rica, there might be no better place for doing this than Carara National Park. La Selva is also a good site for seeing tinamous and antthrushes in this manner but unfortunately, along with many other understory species, they have become much less common. I was reminded of just how good Carara is for seeing ground birds during guiding there this past weekend. During two mornings of birding along the trails that leave from the park headquarters, we had good looks at most of the ground birds that occur in the park. Our main misses were Great Curassow and Marbled Wood-Quail although these species are pretty rare in that part of the forest in any case. As for the more expected species, we had:

Great Tinamou: At least six were heard but only one was seen as it quietly foraged at a small antswarm. It allowed us watch it for at least ten minutes as we hoped and waited for other birds to show (only Northern Barred Woodcreeper made an appearance).

Ruddy Quail-Dove: A female sitting right on the cement pathway of the Universal Access Trail was a bonus. As she slowly made her way into the forest, we watched her for at least ten minutes while being entertained by very tame Chestnut-backed Antbirds.

Gray-chested Dove: This is one of the easier of the ground birds that occur at Carara. Three to four birds total gave us good views.

Streak-chested Antpitta: One of the star birds of Carara, a calling bird revealed itself by hopping near the trail and puffing its breast feathers in and out. We marvelled at the similarities between its plumage and that of other understory species such as thrushes and Ovenbird.

Black-faced Antthrush: None were vocalizing but we still mananged excellent looks at three birds. Each was noticed by the leaves that were being tossed about as it foraged.

Scaly-throated Leaftosser: Speaking of leaves being tossed, this was also how we got prolonged, close looks at the juvenile of this shy species. It was nice for me to get this uncommon species out of the way so early in the year!

Some of the other ground loving species we got that usually arent so difficult to see were Chestnut-backed Antbird, Wood Thrush, Swainsons Thrush, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Orange-billed Sparrow.

Another reason why Carara is so conducive to seeing ground bird species well is simply because the forest understory is rather open. Although it helps to know their vocalizations, patiently spending an entire day of peering into the understory while carefully and quietly walking along the trails should yield looks at all of the species listed above and maybe some that we didn’t get such as the curassow, wood-quail,  Gray-headed Tanager, and Bicolored Antbird.