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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Where to See Birds in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

When I started planning my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I followed the same routine as every birder did before taking a trip to a place overflowing with potential lifers. Since we didn’t have the same crazy amount of Internet-based information available nowadays, trips were based on conversations, information derived from the the latest guide book, whatever bird finding book was available, and any trip reports we could get our hands on.

Aside from showing pictures of the birds waiting to be seen in Costa Rica, the Stiles and Skutch guide also provided the other most important information for planning a trip, that of biogeographical regions and the places with the best habitat. While looking through the book, I quickly realized that some birds were only found in dry areas in the northwestern part of the country. With that in mind, I planned a trip to Santa Rosa National Park to look for those dry forest specialties. Given its size, the fact that one could camp there, intact habitat, and access by public bus (at least to the entrance road), it seemed like my only and best option for Yellow-naped Parrrot, White-throated Magpie Jay, Banded Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, and all of those other dry forest species that couldn’t be seen in cloud forest or in the wet rainforests on the other side of the mountains.

As it turn out, Rufous-capped Warbler can be seen in lots of places.

The trip to Santa Rosa was a memorable success highlighted by Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Elegant Trogon, expected parrots and parakeets, Thicket Tinamou, and lots of other birds. The long, hot hike to the campground was worth it (I think it was) but I didn’t know then that  there were other options for dry forest species. In fact, there’s lots of options for dry forest birds in Costa Rica. Some show up in the Central Valley and most can be seen from around Chomes north to the border with Nicaragua (with a fair number occurring south to Tarcoles).

Yellow-naped Parrots are uncommon and declining but still seen at various sites in Guanacaste south to Tarcoles.

Open fields  with scattered trees are the most common habitat in Guanacaste and are pretty reliable for everything from magpie jays to Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

Black-headed Trogons don't really have crests. This one is fighting the wind.

Nonetheless, the best birding is usually around the more forested riparian zones that have the birds listed above plus Little Tinamou, Long-tailed Manakin, Banded Wren, Painted Bunting, Olive Sparrow, and lots of other birds including chances at Collared Forest Falcon and maybe a Crane Hawk.

Laughing Falcons are also regular.

If you can make it to Santa Rosa or any area of protected dry forest, chances are much better for Cracids, Thicket Tinamou, and mammals but if you can’t fit that in to the itinerary, don’t fret because there are still have plenty of options to check out the blues on a Turquoise-browed Motmot, study a Roadside Hawk in flight, and tick a thick-knee. Get out early for roadside birding at such sites as the road to Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road in front of Cerro Lodge, the lower slopes of Rincon de la Vieja, areas near Playa Hermosa, Playas del Coco, and other beaches, and you have a chance at seeing most of the dry forest species. Mid-day is of course slow but early morning and late afternoons are always birdy in any wooded area or riparian zone in Guanacaste, including any wooded areas at or near your hotel.

Spend more than a day in the northwest and expect to see White-throated Magpie Jay.

Not to mention, wetland sites such as Chomes, Punta Morales, Palo Verde, and any other wetlands are usually just as good for smaller birds as they are for aquatic species.

A typical Chomes binocular view.
Jabiru (neotropical waterbird royalty) also occurs in some Guanacaste wetlands.

I guess I should also mention that since you can probably clean up on Guanacaste birds in a few days, you shouldn’t need more time than a week. Another possibility is basing yourself in the northwest and doing day trips to Heliconias, Cano Negro, Rincon de la Vieja, and Carara. Do that and you put yourself in range of 600 or species.

Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica dry forest Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Don’t Disregard Chomes when Birding Costa Rica

On Sunday, I took a trip to Chomes and the Colorado salt pans with a friend of mine to look for shorebirds, to look for the Maguari Stork that showed up on September 16th, and get recordings and digiscoped shots of various feathered creatures. Although every trip to that area has been good, this one leaves me convinced that the Chomes area is a true birding hotspot. While the shrimp ponds, mangroves, and mud flats always turn up a fair variety of waders, the road in to Chomes also deserves just as much attention.

We were sort of in a hurry to reach the shrimp ponds on Sunday morning to catch as much of the high tide as possible but couldn’t help but make a few stops on the way in. The road is always productive because it goes through several kilometers of fields dotted with a good number of tall trees, a couple of nice riparian zones, and wide open areas that sometimes have mud flats. The variety of habitats makes it good for just about every dry forest species and on past trips we have seen such goodies as Yellow-naped Parrots, Crane Hawk, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and many other birds. On this trip, the few stops we made turned up great looks at Spot-breasted Oriole, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Gartered Trogon, Orange-fronted Parakeet, White-fronted Parrot, and several other bird species seen without even trying.

We saw a couple of Ferruginous Pygmy Owls without even trying for them.
A couple of Gartered Trogons called from the tree tops. We also had Black-headed Trogons in the same area.

The best sightings along the road in were a field with 15 or so Double-striped Thick-Knees and prolonged, wonderful looks at Lesser Ground-Cuckoo.

Check out the ducky Double-striped Thick-Knee.

Although the Lesser Ground-Cuckoo is a common bird, its love of skulking in dense brushy habitat presents obvious challenges to seeing it so it was very nice to be able to hang out and admire the yellow and blue colors of its eyering combined with the pumpkin orange underparts.

A fine Lesser Ground Cuckoo in Costa Rica.

It vocalized too and started out with its distinctive song.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo song.

Then, it gave its soft whistled call over and over as Boat-billed Flys decided to go nuts with their own vocalizations.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo call.

It then showed how nice it was by fluttering up to a tree and creeping along a branch with raised tail.

A Lesser Ground Cuckoo up in a tree.

Although I will be missing a crisp and spooky North American Halloween, the colors of a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo are a fine substitute. Now all I need to do is buy some candy corn and corn syrup creation pumpkin candies and munch on them while visually absorbing a Lesser Ground Cuckoo on October 31st…all while dressed like a vampire, a politician bought by big money who allows the government to shut down while still taking a paycheck, or some other frightening creature.

A Lesser Ground Cuckoo gives all of those incompetent, self-serving politicians a wicked "malocchio" (the good old evil eye).

Keep in mind that we barely birded the entrance road and still had several choice avian experiences. Now back at the shrimp ponds, the birding was also pretty good. A handful of flint-headed Wood Storks was all we got in terms of Cicconidae but we couldn’t help but be impressed by the constant bird action. Small groups of chattering (or ratatatting) White-fronted Parrots flew overhead, flocks of seedeaters flushed from the undergrowth, the metallic calls of a Blue Grosbeak contrasted with the buzzy notes of a few Dickcissels, and so on. A group of seedeaters suddenly revealed themselves to be Tricolored Munias (most being hen colored or perhaps juvenile birds), and one of our target birds called from the short Black Mangroves. Clapper Rail! Scan as we might, we couldn’t find the rails and they only called twice but since I count heard only birds for my country list, on it they went!

Clapper Rail from Costa Rica.

Shorebirds were also around but heavy rains had drowned the erstwhile mud flat habitat in the ponds and so most of our sandpipers and plovers were scattered far and wide over the honest to goodness mud flats of the Golf of Nicoya. Nevertheless, in the ponds, we still got good looks at several herons, White Ibis, and common shorebirds like Least Sands, Wilson’s  and Semipalmated Plovers, Black-necked Stilt, Willet, and Whimbrel, and one uncommon American Golden Plover.

Good numbers of Semi Plovs were in attendance.
Of course Least Sandpipers were also around.

Out by the shore, there was also a good sized flock of Black Skimmers, some Black-bellied Plovers, Marbled Godwits, a couple of American Oystercatchers, a distant flock of terns (Royals, some Elegants, a few Sandwich, and one Common), and a few Short-billed Dowitchers.

We then braved the rising heat (Chomes is blazing- come prepared!) to head down the track that parallels the beach and ends at a nice patch of mangroves. Pygmy-owl calls turned up Streak-backed Oriole, Northern Scrub Flycatchers, American Redstart, and several other species.

The usual Brown-crested Flycatchers showed up.
Yellow Warblers have come back to town.
As have their lovely Prothonotary cousins.
A female Mangrove Hummingbird also turned up! It's always good to see this endangered endemic.

Vying with the Mangrove Hummingbird for best bird in that area was a Rufous-necked Wood Rail! The bird was heard (and happily recorded!), and it even allowed itself to be seen very well as it hopped up and walked on a branch! I wish I could show that I was quick on the digiscoping draw for that photo opp but I wasn’t. Photo bomb it wasn’t but still a fine view of a Rufous-necked Wood Rail nonetheless. With that bird, I am just two rails away from getting a full run of Costa Rican rail species this year! Granted, some are heard only but I still count them for the year list. If I manage Spotted and Sora (both are feasible), 2013 will be my one and only official year of the rail.

After nearly melting at a mid-day Chomes we grabbed a quick lunch somewhere along the highway and headed over to the Colorado salt pans to see what was up. It was fairly birdy but no hoped for Long-billed Curlew nor any other new species for the year. After once again ignoring any possible Masked Ducks (snicker all you want you feathered, skulking, web-footed zorros…your time will come!), we headed back up into the rain, cooler elevations, and over population of the Central Valley.

It was nice to get close looks at Lesser Yellowlegs at Colorado.
We also had close looks at Western Sandpipers.
and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

So, if there’s going to be any point to this story, it’s that the Chomes area is really good for birding. Get there early and bird that road in. Although I have yet to fully explore the area and riparian zones on the way in, I wouldn’t be surprised if they even turned up things like Thicket Tinamou, Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, and so on.

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Fine Spring Day of Birding Costa Rica at Chomes

North American birders who are in Costa Rica for a couple of weeks won’t be going to the Chomes shrimp ponds. The reasoning is straightforward: Why watch shorebirds that you can see at home when you have tropical forests replete with flocks of glittering tanagers, sneaky antbirds, woodcreepers, and dozens of interesting flycatchers at your disposal? However, birders who reside outside of the western hemisphere would be well advised to make a trip to Chomes. It’s the best shorebird hotspot in Costa Rica, access is free and rather easy (a boon in a country where national parks and reserves seem not to want to cater so much to birders-strange but true) and the drive in is great for dry forest species.

Although I’m originally from North America, I love going to Chomes because I don’t get too many other chances to see shorebirds, terns, and the like. In Costa Rica, sites for seeing big concentrations of waterbirds are rather few in number and/or hard to access, especially around the Gulf of Nicoya. A sea kayak would be the best way to survey those waders and web-footed birds that frequent the estuary of the Tempisque River but at least we have Chomes to watch them from solid ground.

Two or so weeks ago, Susan Blank and I went to Chomes to see if any shorebirds were around and the trip did not disappoint. Despite not arriving at optimal high tide time, we still managed views of several shorebirds, saw some terns, and also connected with a few mangrove specialties. As usual, it was tough not to stop on the way in to hear and see the healthy variety of dry forest species that occur.

Shorebirds were our goal but they were trumped by four, hefty Yellow-naped Parrots.

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Yellow-naped Parrots are uncommon, awesome parrots of the dry forest.

As usual, these smart birds watched us with curious, wary eyes while giving their distinctive calls.

Giving a pygmy-owl whistle also turned up White-lored Gnatcatcher,

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White-lored Gnatcatcher have dark lores at this time of the year while Tropicals have white lores (yes, it is confusing).

and Brown-crested Flycatcher. We also heard at least one Nutting’s but Brown-cresteds were much more common and seem to outnumber Nutting’s in more open areas.

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This Brown-crested Flycatcher was fearless.

Moving on, we reached the village of Chomes in 10-15 minutes and drove on in to the shrimp pond area using the public access road at the southeast corner of the village. You can also go in through the front gate to the ponds if it is open but it’s easier to just use that access road. It doesn’t look like much but to take it, just head to the very southeast corner of the village and follow the dirt road towards the coast.

As soon as we reached the first pond, we were greeted by the songs of Red-winged Blackbird, and the sights and sounds of Black-bellied Plovers. Many of the plovers were in breeding plumage and were the most common shorebird seen on that day (we might have seen 150 or so)

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Chomes habitat.
birding Costa Rica
We also saw our first of many Wilson's Plovers.

Continuing on through the complex of shallow ponds, we saw Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and other expected wading birds while being entertained by the constant songs of White-collared Seedeaters, and the chattering of White-fronted Parrots.

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Quite a few White Ibis were around.
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Along with many Black-necked Stilts.

At the larger, back ponds, a fair number of shorebirds were present, including two of our better birds for the day; Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover. Pecs are expected in Costa Rica if you visit the right habitat at the right time of the year but since you have to catch them during migration, they were a nice find.  The plover passes through the country but is by no means a common, expected sight. In fact, these were my first for Costa Rica so it was pretty exciting to see them!

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Pectoral Sandpipers look kind of like a Bigfoot Least Sandpiper.
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American Golden Plover

Other shorebirds included Willet, Whimbrel, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated Plover (just one), and Wilson’s Plover. Many of these were already foraging on the extensive mudflats as the tide went out so I am sure that we missed some good birds. Scanning the flats revealed many a distant wader and an enticing group of terns and gulls whose identity was kept a secret by heat waves that roasted the area.

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Distant mud flats at Chomes.
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A much closer Black-bellied Plover.

Locals searched for clams and we searched for shorebirds before cooling off in the air-conditioned car and driving down a mangrove lined track to see what else we could turn up. At one stop, we got more great looks at Brown-crested Flycatchers, saw a Streaked Flycatcher, and got wonderful, close looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Warblers, and Mangrove Vireo.

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A Mangrove Yellow Warbler trying to crouch behind mangrove foliage.
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Mangroves vireos really blend in to the light gray branches of their mangrove habitat.

Since we seemed close enough to the Colorado salt ponds and the Amistad bridge, we decided to give those sites a shot. As it turned out, although those places would be a quick ten minute flight for a Least Sandpiper, they end up being an hour’s drive if you attempt to go the shortest route. Despite the scenery along the way, you will save a lot of time by heading back out to the highway and making a turn-off to reach Colorado rather than taking rough roads that pass through a few villages.  Once you get to Colorado, don’t expect signs for anything. Just take the main road west through the village and watch for the school on the left. Immediately after that school, follow the main road and take a left (south), a right, and then another left to head in to the salt pond area (sounds obscure but once you are there, it will hopefully make sense).

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What the salt ponds sort of look like.

As with other visits to this shorebird site, I didn’t see very many birds but did pick up a couple of good ones. Birds also come and go so it pays to keep scanning the ponds. This was reflected by our latest experience because after driving back in and seeing very little, we ran into a nice flock of shorebirds on the way out that consisted of more than a dozen Lesser Yellowlegs, two Pectoral Sandpipers, and one beautiful, breeding plumaged female Wilson’s Phalarope. Since that needle-billed bird was a second new addition to my Costa Rican list, our birding day was turning out to be a productive, memorable day indeed. Our luck stopped there, however, because there were almost no birds at mud flats below the Amistad Bridge, and we couldn’t find a way to access the mangroves in search of Clapper Rail.

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A bad yet identifiable picture of a Wilson's Phalarope.

As always, I wish I could bird Chomes more often because you can bet that rare birds show up there on a regular basis, there’s just not enough people checking the place to find them.

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Good Birding on the Guacimo Road

Trip reports from other birders and birding tours are a fantastic resource for planning a trip. Read enough detailed trip reports and you can pretty much plan your own tour. Most people will still be better off by hiring a guide and/or an experienced ground agent but trip reports can at least give you a heads up on what’s in store when your plane touches down in Costa Rica. One of the sites that makes a frequent appearance on tour reports is the “mysterious Guacimo Road”. Used as a quick, accessible spot for dry forest species near Carara, it’s gets the mysterious label because it’s exact location is nevertheless omitted from most reports.

Something that adds confusion to the mix is the occurrence of several “Guacimos” and “Guacimas”  in Costa Rica. It’s the name of a tree, a racetrack, small towns on both slopes, and who knows what else. For birders visiting the country, though, there is but one Guacimo and I am going to clearly reveal once and for all where this birding site is located.

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The Guacimo Road.

The Guacimo Road is a road that leaves the San Jose-Caldera highway between Orotina and Caldera. To get there by vehicle from San Jose, follow the highway towards Caldera and once you pass the exit for Orotina, watch for an exit that says, “Ceibo Guacimo”. Take that exit and go to the left or south (even though it looks like a one way bridge), cross the bridge over the highway and start looking for dry forest species on the famed Guacimo Road. If coming from Caldera, take that same exit and go right (south).

Susan Blank and I recently birded this road on our way to Bajamar to look for shorebirds and had a grand old time watching a a bunch of dry forest species. Doves were all over the place, including several Plain-breasted Ground-Doves. We could hear this uncommon species vocalizing along most of the road along with dozens of Common Ground-Doves, and a few Ruddy Ground-Doves.

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Distant male Plain-breasted Ground-Dove. The pale gray head of the male is apparent even at a distance.

Blue Grosbeaks were seen at just about every stop we made, we heard a couple of Crested Bobwhites that refused to show themselves, saw several Blue-black Grassquits, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and got all three dry forest parrots and parakeets. Orange-fronted were the most common, Yellow-naped the least common with just 4 birds encountered. We also saw such dry forest classics as Black-headed Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Olive Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, and lots of Stripe-headed Sparrows.

Here is what it sounded like that morning on the Guacimo Road

Species in order are: Orange-fronted Parakeet, Rose-throated Becard, Black-crowned Tityra, Blue-black Grassquit, Blue Grosbeak, Crested Bobwhite, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Ani, Eastern Meadowlark,

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A young male Blue Grosbeak molting into adult plumage.

In a riparian zone filled with birdy vine tangles, Banded Wrens sang while Streaked Flycatchers caught cicadas. Little Tinamous called from the thick undergrowth, Barred Antshrikes revealed themselves, and we watched both Tropical and White-lored Gnatcatchers do their hyperactive thing.

Eventually, the road led past interesting scrubby mangroves where a couple dozen White Ibis were nesting. Past that point, the condition of the road became much worse before meeting up with the main road heading to Bajamar. We handled the sketchy part alright with four-wheel drive but I would never attempt it with a two-wheel drive, low-clearance vehicle. On a positive note, that part of the road gave us nice looks at a beautiful Lesser Ground-Cuckoo perched in some grass.

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That same Lesser Ground Cuckoo.

Over in Bajamar, we checked the rocky promontary for seabirds and waders and met with success in the form of five Surfbirds! I was hoping to add that pigeon-like shorebird to my Costa Rican list at that site because the wave-washed rocks seem perfect for it. We also saw some beautiful turnstones but dipped on tattlers. Out on the ocean, despite trying to make distant Black Terns into Brown Noddies and Bridled Terns, all of the candidates ended up hailing from North American marshes. I did pick up a Brown Booby though along with the idea of sea watching from that same spot during stormy weather.

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Record shot of one of the five Surfbirds we saw.

Over on the beach, a couple of Sanderlings foraged with Whimbrel, Willet, Black-bellied Plover, Collared Plover, and Wilson’s Plover. Those birds gave us hope that the lagoons at the end of the road would be filled with waders of all sorts. However, when we got there, they held nothing more than a single, teetering Spotted Sandpiper. We wondered if high waves had filled the lagoons with water and erased the mud flats that usually attract a healthy supply of terns and waders. Whatever the reason, we opted for driving over to the other side of the Tarcoles River mouth to see if we could get closer to the birds that adorned a sand bar.

After a round-about thirty minute drive, we reached Playa Azul and got close enough to the sand bar to see that nearly every bird was a Brown Pelican. There were a few Royal Terns too but waders were limited to a few Semipalmated Sandpipers, Willet, Whimbrel, Wilson’s Plovers, and Collared Plovers foraging at the waters edge. It was a good mix of birds overall but oh how I need to head out to Chomes for a bigger dose of shorebirds.

To sum things up, I think you can expect fair dry forest birding on the Guacimo Road but four-wheel drive is needed for the most part. It’s a good dry forest fix if you are staying near Carara but there is better dry forest birding at several sites in Guanacaste.

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Good Birding in Costa Rica near Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa is a beach in the northwestern part of Costa Rica. There may be other places called “lovely beach” in the country but this is the official one. The beach is decent but, for birding, you should really head inland. I went up that way this past weekend for a short family vacation with friends and was more than pleased with the birding. Even accounting for the extra enthusiasm associated with birding a habitat that I don’t get to that often, it was still pretty darn good.

Although Playa Hermosa itself has some alright birding in woodlands near the beach, the area I focused on was the road between Playa Panama and the turn-off to Golfo Papagayo (if you are driving, this will make sense). Maybe 10 or 12 kilometers in length, that stretch of road is so good because there are just one or two houses at most and agriculture is limited to rice fields that provide habitat for birds! As with any place in hot Guanacaste, you have to get out there and bird from 5:30 to 8:00 in the morning to really catch the avian action, find a shady or air-conditioned place until 3 pm, and then head back out into the nearby wilds. This birding rubric was perfect for a family that likes to sleep in on weekends and even though I skipped out on the afternoon birding, I still got more than what I was looking for.

On the first morning, I headed out onto the road and stopped at riparian woodlands near the coast. White-throated Magpie Jays were calling, Clay-colored Robins were singing, and other common birds joined in with the dawn chorus. Not hearing anything uncommon, I drove up into the coastal hills and stopped in a scrubby area to record a group of Yellow-naped Parrots that were flying past. Blue Grosbeaks and Stripe-headed Sparrows sang from the grassy areas and I heard my first Thicket Tinamou of the day and year.

As I continued on, I picked up Brown-crested, Piratic, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers by voice and stopped off in a nice looking area of dry forest and riparian habitat about 7 kilometers from Playa Hermosa. This was the hotspot for the morning and I picked up just about every expected bird without even walking from the car. There was so much birdsong that recording individual species became a challenge. It reminded me of other mornings surveying birds in the pine forests of the Rocky Mountains or doing May point counts in the deciduous forests of northern New York where the quantity of birdsong makes you feel like you have walked into a little piece of Heaven.

The following species are in this recording of the dawn chorus from this site: Thicket Tinamou, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Elegant Trogon, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Banded Wren, Hoffmann’s Woodepcker, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon, Inca Dove, Rufous-naped Wren, and Blue-crowned Motmot. It sounds like there might also be an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper near the beginning of the recording but it’s too far away for me to say for sure.

As Thicket Tinamous sang from the woods and Elegant Trogons called from the hillsides, a Streak-backed Oriole alighted in the top of a tree for my first photo opp. of the day.

Streak-backed Orioles are much more common that Spot-breasteds in Costa Rica.

A Pygmy-Owl imitation brought in one of the small owls and a host of small birds that mobbed it.

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Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are much more common south of the Texas border.

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Stripe-headed Sparrows are a handsome species that is easy to see when birdwatching in Costa Rica.

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birding Costa Rica

It was nice to get lots of looks at beautiful little Banded Wrens.

Plain-capped Starthroats were pretty common along that road.

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I found several Brown-crested Flycatchers but no Nutting’s.

I also got my year Canivet’s Emerald but failed to get a good picture! Other species that came in to the owl were Yellow-Green Vireos, Lesser Greenlets, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, Blue Grosbeaks, Rufous-naped Wrens, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler, Scrub Euphonia, and Great Kiskadee. Away from the owl, Turquoise-browed Motmots were visible while a Blue-crowned called from the dry stream bed, a Plain Chachalaca made a sudden appearance (good bird in Costa Rica!), Squirrel Cuckoo appeared, an Olive Sparrow sang a few times, and both Black-headed and Gartered Trogons called and revealed themselves. Overhead, Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets flew past along with a handful of White-fronted Parrots.

As the song died down around 7:30, I drove 2 kilometers further to a flat area used for cultivating rice. Just as I had hoped, part of the field had been flooded and yielded a new country bird in the form of Pectoral Sandpiper (!). I also heard a few Leasts and a large white spot in the back of the field turned out to be a….

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Another country bird for me and an excellent find! I have heard of them showing up near this area in the past so knew it was a possibility but with 60 or in all of Costa Rica (I think), seeing one is an accomplishment. Oddly enough, there weren’t any other storks around and the only herons with it were Great Egrets and Cattle Egrets. After pulling off the road to check a vegetated ditch, I got a Limpkin and Bare-throated Tiger Heron as they flew into the nearby field.

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Limpkin- a good year bird to get.

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Bare-throated Tiger Herons are the easiest of the three tiger heron species in Costa Rica.

Although that field could probably turn up rails and Masked Duck, I didn’t get so lucky when I was there. On the dove front, however, I saw three Plain-breasted Ground-Doves compared to one Common and two Ruddys so the rice fields could be a good spot for that uncommon species. Heading back up the road towards Playa Hermosa, I made one more stop along the way where the it passes by nice forest on its western side and got pictures of

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Elegant Trogon and

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Streak-backed Oriole in its nest.

I also heard Long-tailed Manakins and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo there and the forest is probably good for other species.

The following day, I checked the hotspot once again and added Laughing Falcon, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet to the list. The rice fields had more water and both yellowlegs instead of the pecs as well as 5 species of swallows. The Jabiru was in the same spot and a pair of Southern Lapwings called from the fields. I was also hoping to bird the catfish farms but the ponds appeared to be dry and it didn’t look like any birds were present so I didn’t spend any time there.

The road between Playa Hermosa and the turn off to Golfo Papagayo is a bit too far to walk but it would be an excellent place to bird from a bicycle. There is very little traffic and there are several places where you can pull off the road and park the car. Although the area is pretty quiet and has low population pressure (hence habitat for birds), as with any roadside birding in Costa Rica, I wouldn’t walk far from the car to avoid possible break-ins. To get to this road from Liberia, just take the main road past the airport and turn right where signs indicate “Golfo de Papagayo”. They might also say, “Playa Panama” but I don’t think they mention “Playa Hermosa”. Follow that road and then take a left towards Playa Panama. You should see the rice fields shortly after. There is also some nice habitat at that intersection that probably holds some good Guanacaste birds.

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Guanacaste Pacific slope

Birding Costa Rica in Chomes

Chomes, Costa Rica is this end of the road village on the Gulf of Nicoya. There is a sign for it on the Pan-American highway, but your average tourist just zooms on by as if the place never existed. I don’t know what the guide books say about Chomes but if the place is even mentioned at all, it’s surely something along the lines of, “nothing of interest there” or “don’t bother with Chomes”. If you didn’t watch birds, they would be right. A friend of mine and I went to Chomes on Saturday and we didn’t see any restaurants, hotels, or anything remotely related to tourism for that matter. That was Ok with us, though, because we weren’t visiting good old Chomes to stroll the dusty streets, watch a community soccer game, or learn how to pick pineapples. We were there for a much better reason and it was called, “shorebirds”.

Chomes is pretty much the shorebird capital of Costa Rica. As those long distance, long-legged migrants fly south, they stop off in the food-rich estuarine habitats of the Gulf of Nicoya. A lot also stay for the winter but even more pass through during the fall trifecta of August, September, and October. They use mudflats and mangroves all around the gulf but so many of those are inaccessible. Since few birders make it to hotspots that can be scanned with a spotting scope, I wonder how many rarities get missed.

We didn’t connect with any super rare birds at Chomes on Saturday but since we also couldn’t check the entire place, there could have easily been something like a Long-billed Curlew, phalaropes, jaegers, boobies, or much rarer birds among the maze of mangroves and shrimp ponds. Before the place was divied up to cultivate shrimp, it was probably a much more productive area of mangrove forests and natural mud flats. Nevertheless, a heck of a lot of birds still use the temporary mud flats that form in the shrimp ponds and you can drive along most of the dikes that criss-cross the area. Birding from the car in hot and shadeless wetlands reminded me of wildlife refuges up north and I half expected to see brown signs that depicted a flying goose. However, the total and utter lack of signage combined with the calls of Orange-fronted Parakeets and Groove-billed Anis reminded me that I was still in Costa Rica.

But before I talk any further about the wonderful, blazing hot shrimp ponds at Chomes, let me tell you about the birding on the way in. After leaving the highway, the road to Chomes goes for 9 kilometers through patches of dry forest, pasture, at least one old growth riparian zone, some wet fields, and way too many acres of bird-bereft pineapples. In case you didn’t know, do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica if you want to protect bird habitat! Lots of chemicals are used, they cover massive areas, and you would be lucky to find even one Tropical Kingbird. There should be laws that restrict the amount of land dedicated to farming pineapples and the chemicals used on them because it’s an incredibly unsustainable way to misuse invaluable natural resources.

Away from the pineapple fields, the birding was pretty good (surprise surprise)! With our hearts set on shorebirds and shrimp ponds, we only made a few stops in the dry habitats along the way but were immediately impressed by a Crane Hawk doing its usual floppy foraging act, flybys of Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, and calling White-fronted and Yellow-naped Parrots. On another conservation note, Yellow-naped Parrots have become rather uncommon due to the cage bird trade. You can still see them in a lot of areas of Costa Rica, but we need to do more to protect nesting sites and educate people that keeping birds in cages is cruel and just plain wrong.

Other species near the Crane Hawk included White-lored Gnatcatchers, hordes of Yellow Warblers, one Red-eyed Vireo, a few Eastern Wood Pewees, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Blue Grosbeak, White-collared Seedeaters, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Anis, a bunch of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Gray Hawk, White-winged, Inca, and Common Ground-Doves, Violaceous (Gartered Trogon), Turquoise-browed Motmot, Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Rufous-naped Wren. All of these are a typical litany of birds that you run into when birding Costa Rica’ Pacific northwest and I’m sure we would have seen more had we started birding at dawn and concentrated our efforts in the riparian zones.

birding Costa Rica

The road to Chomes.Here is what it sounded like: chomes road medley1.

Just before we reached Chomes, a field with tall grass and a hidden wetland yielded a dozen Double-striped Thick-Knees and a bunch of Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets. We wouldn’t have known about the wetland had we not seen the heads of the tall wading birds at the far end of the field. It was a shame that we couldn’t get closer to the wet area because it looked like perfect habitat for Pinnated Bittern- a potential lifer. I bet there was one or two out there in the tall, wet grass but my lifer P. Bitty will have to wait for a day with better visibility.

birding Costa Rica

One of 12 Double-striped Thick-Knees near Chomes.

Looking forward to shorebirds, we drove with determination through the dusty streets of Chomes and after 4 blocks, came to a halt at the end of town. Where were the shrimp ponds? Why don’t they have a sign that shows a proud Marbled Godwit standing next to a smiling, claw-waving crustacean? If everyone was a birder, we would see so many cool avian-themed signs. There would be an annual laying of wreaths at monuments to the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Paroquet. We would see top ten hits of songs that paid homage to Nightingales, Northern Cardinals, and pratincoles, and poems and jokes about birds would grace greeting cards throughout the world.

“Your eyelashes are more beautiful than a Rhea’s, your voice more lovely than the caroling of a Hermit Thrush. Be My Valentine!”

“Macaws and albatrosses still look great at 65 and so do you. Happy Birthday!”

“If heaven exists, she is watching a flock of Pink-headed Ducks as a parade of Great Auks and Moas march through the streets. Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.”

But alas, crowds of New Yorkers aren’t exactly pulling out binoculars from briefcases to scan the sky for peregrines and residents of Chomes don’t hang out at the shrimp farms to count shorebirds. They are, however, aware of birders, friendly, and told us how to get to the shrimp ponds. When you get to what appears to be the last block in town (there aren’t that many), go left until you see an obvious gate with a blue archway. Ask for permission to enter and say that you would like to watch birds (for the non-Spanish speakers out there, you could say, “Podemos entrar para ver aves?”).

Someone should let you in and may also tell you that the main road to the beach is impassable. This was true on Saturday and so we could only check out a few of the ponds but we still saw a bunch of cool birds. Black-necked Stilts were the most common shorebird.

birding Costa Rica

Black-necked Stilt. My camera really hates to focus on this skinny bird.

There were also quite a few Short-billed Dowitchers, plenty of yelping Willets, and lots of Whimbrels. Hundreds of Black and Least Terns also entertained us by flying around and calling but we had to walk to the last shrimp pond on the right to hit the shorebird mother lode.

birding Costa Rica

A glimpse of the Chomes shorebird mother lode.

That wonderful mud flat was pretty much crawling with shorebirds. A group of orangey Marbled Godwits held court in the middle with a bunch of Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers, Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed Terns, two Elegant Terns, and one Black Skimmer! Elsewhere on the mud flat, there were a bunch of Spotted, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, and White Ibis. Yeah, it was pretty damn cool, especially because I picked up a few new year birds.

There might have been something else in that muddy shrimp pond but to keep from turning into dried out, wraith-birder husks, we walked back to the car for rehydration and AC. In checking out the road to the beach, we discovered that a massive water-filled hole was indeed preventing any further passage and therefore proceeded to do a 10 point turn to aim the car towards the exit.

birding Costa Rica

Heading towards the exit. Note the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

At the entrance (now exit), we had to wait five minutes for a friendly shrimp pond worker to unlock the gate. I don’t know how frequently people come and go at the shrimp farms so if you do go birding there, don’t stay until evening or you might spend the night in your car (or on dike with the mosquitoes for company).

I hope I make it down to Chomes at least one more time before the end of the year to pick up a rarity or two. It would be nice if I could drive to the beach but I don’t expect them to fill that huge hole anytime soon.

birding Costa Rica

Willet pretending to be a dead branch at Chomes.

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Testing a new camera

Some readers may have noticed a general paucity and possible recycling of bird photos on this blog. The reason that posts may have been a bit more wordy than “imagey” for the past two months is because my other digiscoping cameras weren’t cooperating very much for bird photos. Well, most birds didn’t either but although my old Nikon Coolpix was trying its best, its  four megapixels just weren’t giving me the type of resolution I wanted. My formerly trusty Sony Cybershot would probably still be dishing out beautiful images just as it did during its glory days but ever since I subjected it to digital camera surgery, it sucks up battery juice faster than a vampire robot. I kid you not. The little AA battery image is bright with energy when you turn it on and then just five minutes later is anxiously blinking on and off to warn you that the camera is going to shut down for lack of power.

Taking pictures with it had not only become nearly impossible but the endeavor was also as frustrating as bites from a ravenous band of chiggers so I made the decision to buy a new camera. Since my camera requirements are not what those hand-held image gathering devices were engineered for, it took some research and gambling to get the right one. I don’t have the bucks for any serious digital SLRs so I opt for point and shoots that will work with my scope.

This basically means that in addition to taking beautiful pictures, the camera in question has to have a bunch of pixels so that when I crop it to rid the image of vignetting and make the bird look bigger, there were still be enough resolution to show some sweet details. My other main requirement is a camera that will work well in the low light conditions so prevalent in Costa Rica. This second requirement is especially difficult to meet with point and shoots but a very few models at least make attempts at generating low-grain images. By “low grain” I mean pictures that don’t resemble some pointillist revival movement. No, I don’t want to be artsy, I just want detailed shots of birds that will make me say, “Ahhh, now that’ s what I’m talking about”!

Oh, I should also add that my digiscoping kit is about as survivalist as you can get. Instead of some precision machined adapter that neatly attaches to my scope, I use a small tube that was cut out of a plastic bottle with an average pair of scissors. It fits onto the viewing part of the scope and keeps the camera at just the right distance to coordinate picture taking between lenses of both camera and scope. It’s tricky to use and when the lenses refuse to cooperate or have problems with communication, shots can look pretty weird and worthy of sending to some ghosthunting outfit but with practice it works surprisingly well.

With these requirements in mind and the knowledge that reviewer’s raves about face recognition and taking action shots of sand castle contests on the beach were going to mean nothing to me, there still seemed to be enough of the stuff that I needed to take a chance on buying the “Sony Cybershot G”. Like a small metal book, its compact, solid nature makes you feel as if you have acquired a piece of alien technology or at least have a tough little camera durable enough for taking pictures in rough and tumble situations like construction sites, rainforest hikes, and high school lunch lines. In reality, like any piece of digital equipment, its tough exterior and demeanor belies a delicate interior that doesn’t take well to shaking as well as a serious, justifiable phobia of water.

So, although it feels durable, I am going to treat it like a delicate salt sculpture and keep it shock proof and dry at all costs. This will be a challenge in humid Costa Rica but nothing that a small camera bag and silica gel packs can’t handle.

As for pictures, it hasn’t been one hundred percent stunning but considering that I am still learning how to best use it with my crude, home made digiscoping device, I am pleased with the results. So without further ado,  here are a few pictures taken with my new camera at dry forest sites on my way to guiding in the Monteverde area this past weekend:

Here is a Turquoise-browed Motmot taken with the image stabilization setting for low light conditions. It’s still a bit grainy but this wouldn’t have even been possible with my other cameras.

costa rica birding

and here is the same motmot in slightly better lighting.

costa rica birding

I wish I would have gotten more shots of Nutting’s Flycatcher or at least images of one that was perching on something more natural than a telephone wire but I was happy with this shot.

costa rica birding

Here is a female Blue-black Grosbeak doing a bad job of hiding behind some twigs.

costa rica birding

Of course birds perched in good lighting conditions like this Laughing Falcon tend to come out nice no matter what the camera is.

costa rica birding

This Orange-fronted Parakeet was so compliant that it almost went to sleep as I took its picture.

costa rica birding

Languid Howler Monkeys are wonderful to photograph. This one was in a group of Howlers along the gravelly road between the highway and Guacimal. It was great for dry forest birding as most traffic on its way up to Monteverde wisely takes the more paved route through Sardinal.

costa rica birding

American Pygmy Kingfisher was a great find. I heard it ticking away from the vicinity of a small, shady stream.

costa rica birding

It was nice to finally get decent shots of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, the migrant Empid most commonly seen in Costa Rica.

costa rica birding

Finding a cooperative White-fronted Parrot lit up by afternoon sun was also a boon.

costa rica birding

In a few days I will be off to the Osa Peninsula for the Bosque del Rio Tigre CBC! Whether I get in more camera testing fun or not, I will post about the experience.