I started this year’s birding in Costa Rica six days late but only because the first days of 2016 were spent birding around Niagara Falls, New York. It was gray, it was cold, there were two owls, and looking at birds with old birding friends. It was a gift. But now I am back in Costa Rica and eager to see how this winter’s birding compares to Januaries of the past, to see if I can manage some good images and recordings of things like Tawny-faced Quail, Black-breasted Wood-Quail, and Azure-hooded Jay (among other toughies), and to get a healthy start on the year list.
Casual birding near the house and scanning the skies from the window has turned up the usuals on sunny, dry season days. Yesterday, a day of guiding at Cinchona and Poas was likewise clear and filled with a bright tropical sun. As expected, the birds were mostly taking a break but careful scanning still resulted in several nice birds, and activity picked up after the clouds blanketed the peak of Poas in the afternoon.
At the Colibri Cafe, a lot of birds came for breakfast, the best being a male Red-headed Barbet as soon as we arrived, along with close looks at Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Tanager, and several other species.
Hummingbirding was also quality with close inspection and flybys of massive purple Violet Sabrewings, feisty Coppery-headed Emeralds, a male Green Thorntail, and others including near constant company of two or three White-bellied Mountain-Gems.
After breakfast, clear skies meant that we were in for some slow birding but the scenery was nice, and as expected, some raptors came out to play. Those taloned birds included a distant Double-toothed Kite, White-tailed Kite on the drive up, expected TVs and BVs, Red-tailed Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, three Barred Hawks, and a beautiful pair of White Hawks down in the canyon at Virgen del Socorro. A little way into the canyon, watching a fruiting tree also turned up a few tanagers.
The birding was better back up on Poas but only because clouds took the brunt off the high elevation sun.
If you find yourself at Cinchona on a sunny day, get to the Colibri Cafe early (opens around 6), and enjoy much of the morning there. If you have a four wheel drive vehicle, head down to Virgen del Socorro and hang out by the bridge until it clouds over again. Bring a lunch, watch for birds, and when it gets cloudy, get ready for a lot more birds on the rest of the road.
I have written about it before and am happy to do so again. The Poas area is an easy, fun way to see a bunch of nice birds, and the photo opps aren’t that bad either. Last Friday, I was reminded of that while guiding around Cinchona and Poas. It would be a lucky break to see something like Black-breasted Wood-Quail and other species of the forest floor because most of the birding is done from the road, but that doesn’t leave out a lot. We actually heard the wood-quail near Cinchona and had excellent looks at 100 or so species. These included such birds as:
White-bellied Mountain-gem, and several other hummingbirds.
Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher
There were lots of other species that I didn’t get pictures of. Buffy Tuftedcheek, Streak-breasted Treehunter, and several other Furnarids showed well, as did Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and various other birds.
Saving one of the best for last, we finished off the day with roosting Bare-shanked Screech-Owl!
Costa Rica is a dream for any aficionado of topography. Before you ask yourself if there really are people who dig topography, let me assure that there indeed are. Most of us like a mountain scene or two (partly why those Ricola commercials are so memorable), and when I lived in the flatlands of Illinois, I met more than one person who was surprisingly enthused about any change in topography. “Topography!” they would exclaim as we drove over a bit of escarpment. I don’t bemoan that excitement in the slightest for I too am an aficionado of abrupt changes in elevation!
In Costa Rica, you are better off being a fan of a crumpled, up-lifted landscape because that describes most of the country. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. That’s also partly why we have so many birds that occur nowhere else but Costa Rica and Panama. It’s also why we have a bunch of birds that normally live in the Andes. AND, it also makes it easy to leave the urban zone behind and head up into the mountains to one of the closest, best spots for birding near San Jose.
Varablanca is just 40 minutes to an hour from the San Jose area and it’s an easy place to see a good variety of highland birds. Most birders don’t go there because they save their mountain birding for Cerro de la Muerte (aka Savegre, the Dota Valley, Quetzal Paradise). While there is more habitat up that way, Cerro de la Muerte is also 2 and a half to 3 hours from San Jose. The proximity of Varablanca makes it an easy, honest option for a first night in country, and I know of at least one local birding tour company that does stay in Varablanca for the first night of most tours.
Lately, I have been spending more time up that way guiding and watching birds at the Poas Volcano Lodge. Here are some recent highlights and observations from Varablanca, Cinchona, and Poas:
If it’s raining, go to Cinchona: It might be raining there too, but I have escaped the water on more than one occasion by heading to a lower elevation. The other plus side for Cinchona is still being able to watch birds come to the feeders even if it happens to be raining.
Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.
Black-thighed Grosbeak: Although it often moves to lower elevations in rainy weather, it seems to be fairly common at Poas Volcano Lodge and in the general area.
Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher: The general area always seems good for this cool endemic. It sounds like a cricket and usually hangs out in the crowns of tall trees. The Black and yellow is also fairly common around Poas.
Don’t discount quetzals and guans: The R. Quetzal is far from common around Poas but it is there. Hang out long enough at the Volcan Restaurant (please support their buisiness and donate generously for the feeders), and there is a fair chance that one will show. Find a fruiting avocado and you might also see one or two. Black Guan is more regular, especially in the forest along the road to Poas.
Prong-billed Barbet: This species is pretty common in this area. It can show up in any spot with forest but if you want really close looks, check out the feeders at Cinchona and Poas Volcano Lodge.
Red-tailed Hawk: Yes, readers from the USA and Canada will be saying, “So what?”. To that, I ask if you think this looks like a Red-tailed from home? It doesn’t sound like one either. I wonder how far genetically removed it is from birds up north? Maybe a little, maybe enough for a split. Varablanca and Poas are good areas to study this highland endemic subspecies.
Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.
When booking your hotel for that first and last night in Costa Rica, remember that birdy Varablanca is just 45 minutes to an hour from the airport.
One of the best and most accessible sites for middle elevation birding in Costa Rica is just 30 minutes from Cartago. It’s the place where most birders in Costa Rica see their first Streaked Xenops, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and other decidedly uncommon, middle elevation species that are much easier to see in the Andes. Although these can still be easily missed at Tapanti, it is the most reliable site in Costa Rica for the birds mentioned above (except the antthrush- easier at the San Gerardo field station). Lots of other quality birds also show up in the quality, mossy forests at Tapanti, including Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Sharpbill, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and so on. So, why is it then, that I rarely bird there? After all, it’s pretty close to the Central Valley.
Ironically, the vicinity to the Valley is also what keeps me from going there. You see, it’s near the eastern side of the Valley while I live on the western side. Lack of a good ring road means a trip through the traffic of San Jose and then Cartago to get there, and then again to come back. Hit the rush hour traffic and we are talking two to three hours of slow going vehicles with more than a few people who appear to not know how to operate them. And that’s just one way. So, that’s what keeps me from Tapanti and I wish it didn’t because the birding is always good and the forests are fantastic.
Last weekend, since we hadn’t been there in more than a year, Susan and I decided to visit Tapanti on Saturday. A weekend always means more people in the park but I doubt that it affects birding that much. There was some light rain, but for the most part, we lucked out with cloudy weather and had around 70 species.
I was very pleased with the xenops because in Costa Rica, Tapanti seems to be the only accessible, reliable place for it. A year bird and also one that I needed for the Birding Field Guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama. It was hanging out with a small mixed flock that also had Slaty-capped Flycatcher, some tanagers, and a few other species.
After hanging with the xenops, we headed towards the entrance. It was still too early for the eight o’clock opening time but you can still run into quite a few good birds in that stretch of forest before the gate. We checked the streams for lancebills without any luck, but saw another mixed flock with several expected, small bird species. No rarities but still nice to watch Tawny-capped Euphonias, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and so on.
Once the park opened, we went in, paid our entrance fees, and birding along the main road to the Pavas Trail. The cloudy weather resulted in lots of activity including Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds. Still none of my other targets (which are pretty rare anyways), but still fun birding in beautiful surroundings.
I figured we would check out the Waterfall/Pavas Trail to look for forest birds. It’s not as steep as the Arboles Caidos, and based on habitat, looks ideal for everything from antpittas to Sharpbill and maybe even Lanceolated Monklet. Although we didn’t find any of those, I bet you could. The thing about tropical birding is that birds can be present but go unseen one day and then be hopping on the trail the next. It also means that it’s worth it to spend several hours of several days in quality forest. You will see new birds every day and probably eventually run into most of the rare species. I bet that would happen on the Waterfall/Pavas Trail, I sure wish I had the time and resources to test that hypothesis with four or five days of surveying that site!
We had more of the same that we had already seen along with heard only Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that showed well but just wouldn’t stop long enough for photos. Even if it had stopped for more than three seconds, the understory was probably too dark anyways. By then, it was around 11, and the rain was starting up so we walked out of the trail and checked along the road a bit higher up. Things were pretty quiet but we had nice looks at a female Black-bellied Hummingbird.
Birding on the way out was likewise quiet so we decided to check out a soda (small diner) just outside the park entrance. The place is called “Los Maestros” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a shame that I didn’t know about the place before I finished my bird finding/Costa Rica birding companion e-book but at least I can mention this special spot now. Los Maestros is up the first small road outside of the entrance to the park with a sign that says “Tapanti Ecoturs”. Go up that road (and watch birds on the way, this is where we had the xenops), and walk up to the small soda on the left. It seems connected to a house but don’t worry about that. The food was surprisingly good and is inexpensive, the view looks suitable for raptors and seeing other birds in the treetops (we didn’t see much because of the rain), the owner has her heart in the right place (she talked about our need to improve the environment, has worked with local kids along those lines, and has a grandson who is a birder), and Black-billed Hummingbirds fed in the Porterweed. A fruit feeder and food scraps on the ground for other birds could bring in everything from tanagers and barbets to Scaled Antpitta. I hope I can somehow convince her to do that…
After lunch, the rain lessened so we gave the entrance to the park one more check. Once again, we ran into another nice mixed flock with several expected species. Nope, nothing rare but you gotta keep trying!
On a sobering note, large areas of semi-shade coffee have been cut down on the way to the national park. These areas were very birdy, acted as habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and many other species, and will now be rather birdless. Will the Golden-wings that wintered there survive? Who knows but most probably won’t. Some of the shade coffee is still around but who knows for how long? I suspect that the coffee bushes stopped producing due to drier, hotter weather, so the landowners cut everything down and planted tomatoes and other crops instead. It was a sad reminder of the link between a suddenly warmer world, shifting agriculture, and the subsequent, detrimental effects on biodiversity.
The Catarata del Toro is a massive, scenic waterfall at the edge of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. if you are wondering where that is, think central Costa Rica, the mountains between Poas and La Fortuna. If it helps, it’s also near Bosque de Paz. If you aren’t headed to Bosque de Paz, it’s a bit of a detour off the route between Arenal and Sarapiqui but here are some reasons why the detour is worth it:
A couple of loop trails through good cloud forest: Although I have only birded on them twice, I think there is a lot of birding potential. The elevation is around 1,200 meters, the forest has a lot of big trees (indicators of quality habitat), and the forest is connected to the national park. On my limited time on those trails, I have had Highland Tinamou, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Pale-vented Thrush, and various common middle elevation species. I bet a lot more could occur.
Hummingbird feeders: This is the main reason for paying a visit. Sometimes, they can be slow but during rainy weather and, when hummingbirds are hungry, the Colibridae action is out of sight.
Crazy, close shots of hummingbirds:
Black-bellied Hummingbird: Not a whole lot of accessible sites for this one.
Coppery-headed Emerald: Common, near endemic (one population was found in Nicaragua).
Black-breasted Wood-Quail: They used to come into the garden but one of the owners told me that she thought their recent absence might be related to Coatis showing up now and then. She is probably right but the wood-quail should still be in the forest. I wonder if Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas are also around.
Not to mention, the owners also provide good service, can provide meals, and also offer 3 simple rooms. Sounds like a good place for a lone birder or small group to stay and check out. If you do, please send me a report to publish on the blog.
Whether putting the focus on birds or just checking out nature’s details in the backyard, there’s always something to see. Keep that open mind and you still go birding during the post-breeding doldrums or when the rain pours down. But let’s face it, it’s always going to be easier to get more excited about birding in places that always offer a chance at something new, rare, or mysterious. That’s pretty much the score for tropical rainforests. The natural complications of those ecosystems make them unpredictable and always capable of delivering a rare experience. Frustrating? Maybe, but frustration can be easily pushed aside by the excitement of the unknown.
This was why I was excited to do a day of guiding/birding at Virgen del Socorro last week. Although I have been there dozens of times over the years, I still never know what I am going to run into, and I know that there is always that chance of seeing a Lovely Cotinga, finding a fruiting tree with Red-fronted Parrotlets, or even espying a Solitary Eagle. Any of that trio is unexpected and would indeed make for a rare, red letter day but it’s always possible! Our group wasn’t so lucky on our recent trip but still managed some quality birds.
The unlucky factor was the ironic sunny day. Ironic, because it’s beautiful weather yet dismal bird activity. A good day for scenery but not many birds. I always wonder where they are because the difference between avian activity on a cloudy day and during tropical, sunny weather is uncanny. So, we had a hot, sunny, fairly birdless day in the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, we still got onto some nice birds.
A first stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up an American Dipper.
We didn’t spend much time at Cinchona because we were going to stop there in the later afternoon anyways but still got in your face looks at a Green Thorntail.
Down in Virgen del Socorro, our first stop turned up Collared Trogon and a fruiting tree with Black-mandibled Toucans and Emerald Toucanet. The realization that it was a Lauraceae raised hopes for a cotinga or other uncommon frugivore but despite a lot of careful checking, the tree was cotingaless. I would have loved to have left a camera there to record the birds that came and went for the rest of the day because it was ideal for a Lovely Cotinga.
In that same area, we also saw a few tanagers and got excellent looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher.
After that, the sun took over and birds quieted down. Black Phoebe was the only bird at the bridge but at least the sunny weather brought out the raptors including hoped for White and Barred Hawks, Short-tailed Hawk, and a few Broad-winged Hawks.
The corner by the bridge is a good area for Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Saturday was no exception. We got really good looks at that tiny thing while Crimson-collared Tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpeckers, and Sooty-faced Finch called from the understory.
The mixed flock failed to appear over in the better forest on the other side of the river but we got nice looks at flocks of Vaux’s Swifts and listened to Striped-breasted, Bay, and Nightingale Wrens. Further on, we went up and out of the canyon and head to the good forest just past Albergue del Socorro. Although it was naturally quiet at 2 p.m., fruiting Melastomes produced Black and Yellow Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Green Honeycreeper, and Hepatic Tanager.
To leave the area, we took the road to San Miguel instead of backtracking through Virgen del Socorro. This gave us Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck at a small reservoir, and a glimpse at a very promising birding area with an overlook of extensive forest, and access to foothill forest. I’m looking forward to checking that site on some fine morning to survey it!
We finished the day at Cinchona accompanied by Emerald Toucanets, Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, and a few other birds.
If you want to look for Lanceolated Monklet, tanagers, and other middle elevation species at Virgen del Socorro and are coming from the Sarapiqui area, take the road to San Miguel and go left at the police checkpoint. After crossing the first big bridge, take the first road on the left and down into the canyon. If coming from Cinchona, head downhill and watch for the short sticks with red and yellow markings on the right that mark the entrance to the road into the canyon. This is just before the road makes a sharp left to head down to a big bridge
I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:
After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.
We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.
Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.
A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.
Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.
Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).
Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!
We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.
It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.
Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).
The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.
Birding is often unpredictable especially when looking for all things avian in complex tropical habitats. That seems to be the rule whenever I go birding in the rich foothill rainforests of Braulio Carillo National Park. For example, if someone were to ask me about the chances of seeing Black-headed Nightingale Thrush at Quebrada Gonzalez, I would say that yes, although they are fairly shy, expect to hear them and careful searching should turn up sightings of a bird or two. That answer is based on years of experience at the site but during a mid-morning visit last week, guess which bird failed to make a peep? I still got in some nice birding with a couple of healthy mixed flocks and close looks at Dull-mantled Antbird but the unpredictable nature of birding in the tropics was the rule of the day.
While that “birding law” makes every visit to rainforest an exciting one, having a bird just show up when and where you hope it will is a very welcome occurrence. It’s even better when the bird sticks around after driving through pouring tropical rain for a couple of hours, but the icing on the brownie is when the bird also happens to be a rare lifer. The lifer in this case was the Oilbird and seeing one in Costa Rica was one of the more satisfying personal birding coupes de grace I have experienced.
Here are a few reasons why seeing an Oilbird on Saturday night was such a satisfying accomplishment:
The Oilbird is a one of a kind avian weirdo: Nope, I can’t mince words when it comes to the Oilbird. This nightjarish thing is the only member of its avian family and with good reason. Like some feathered troll, it lives in caves or very dark ravines, makes weird clicking and grunting noises, and only comes out at night. Fortunately, although it sounds like a vampire, this wonderful wacky creature only feasts on fruit. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like some sort of big, feathered fruit bat.
The Oilbird is indeed oily: Side effects from gorging themselves on fatty fruits (think mini avocados) are an equally fatty physiology. It’s more pronounced in the youngsters and because of this, Oilbirds were formerly harvested and rendered into fat.
Lifer!: Although I have heard Oilbirds once or twice during the night near Jatun Sacha, Ecuador, I had yet to actually see one. I figured that might eventually happen at a cave in maybe Ecuador or Trinidad but no point in betting on unlikely travel when you can see them right here in Costa Rica! Are they vagrants? Do they migrate to Costa Rica on a regular basis? Although I suspect that the latter is the case, no one really knows what’s going on with Oilbirds in Costa Rica except that they have showed up around Monteverde in August for the past few years. This year, several birds have been seen just about every night, so, when a small window of opportunity presented itself, I took the chance and the chase was a success!
Not quite a chase but an adventure none the less with a long drive to get there: Actually, to be honest, this was about as far from a chase for a bird as one could get (and I was very fine with that). On Saturday, after realizing that driving up to and spending the night around Monteverde was a possibility, I called Robert Dean to see if the birds were still around. He then made a call to someone in the know and got back to me with the answer I was looking for. An hour later, I was out the door and driving down to the coast. Near Puntarenas, pouring rain slowed me down but I was still on time (had to make it to Robert’s by 6 PM). After watching a few drivers take unnecessary risks at passing slow vehicles in places where they couldn’t really see who might be coming in the other direction (including speeding buses and massive Mack trucks), I was very pleased to leave the madness of the Pan American highway and start driving uphill. Although that pleasant drive lost its happiness when the pavement was replaced by pot holes and stones, luckily, I still had plenty of time to make it to Robert’s because my speed was reduced to an average of 15 or 20 kilometers an hour (which also of course makes that portion of the trip seem to last an eon or two).
I shouldn’t complain, though, because the road up to Monteverde used to be much worse. Made it up to Robert’s by 5:30, he showed me some of the paintings for the second version of the Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (which look fantastic by the way), and we left for the Oilbird show by 6:15.
Didn’t have to look for the bird: Some birders will say that they like to find their own birds or whatever. Well, that pride of finding their own birds will probably get tossed into an ethereal trash basket when asked if they would (1) like to spend hours, days, or years to look for a needle in a tropical forest haytstack, or if (2) they wouldn’t mind being shown the bird by someone else after a ten minute walk. Yeah, if you don’t mind, I’ll take option number two please at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.
Thanks to Robert being an insider around there, the reception got in touch with one of the main guides, he came and met us a few minutes later, and then we walked off with him into the dark on an easy, well maintained trail. A short ten minutes later, we come to a group looking at something up in the trees. Robert say, “There it is!” and yes, there it was!
Just like that, I got my lifer Oilbird. Too easy you say? Ha! Getting a lifer is NEVER too easy in the unpredictable tropics. It’s never too easy when the bird in question is a rare, even more unpredictable, nocturnal oddity. Give me easy lifers any day of the week because I don’t have too many more to get in Costa Rica. After watching the first bird for a while, we walked on and got great looks at two more Oilbirds. All of them were quiet, perched birds that slowly moved back and forth with these odd hypnotic movements (hmmm, maybe they are vampires after all..). We also got to see one of them cough up a seed, saw roosting toucans, and two beautiful green Side-striped Pit Vipers (lifer snake, hell yeah!) all in about 40 minutes. I have to mention that Oilbirds aside, the night walk at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge might be the best I have ever seen and other experienced travelers have said the same. The guides are great, keep track of what is seen, and are in constant communication by walkie-talkie so if one group sees something, the others can as well. It also looks like an excellent place to go birding during the day- hope to do that some time!
I probably should have birded the refuge the next morning but the afterglow of getting my lifer Oilbird left me with such a subdued, easy-going demeanor that I felt fine with merely watching the darn House Wrens singing in the backyard. Well, at least I remembered to take a few pictures of some other birds too.
Oh, and no trip to the Monteverde area is complete without a stop at one of the best bakeries in the country, Stella’s Bakery! I already regret not having bought a dozen of those fantastic brownies.
Ujarras, Costa Rica is a small settlement situated near the Cachi Dam. This structure is in turn located in the Orosi Valley and is meant to hold back the water of the Reventazon River so it can be used to generate electricity. A side effect was the creation of a lake that produced Costa Rica’s first Canvasback in 2011. Sadly (and stupidly) I didn’t manage to make it over to Ujarras to look for that country first. I went there yesterday and the bird has of course not made it back to such a southerly location (yet) but there were a few other ducks around. In fact, there were a good number of ducks and although Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and American Wigeon won’t tickle the fancy of most visiting birders, I and my birding friend Susan were pleased to scope them because they are kind of uncommon in Costa Rica and reminded me of birding in western New York.
The lower temps than normal and windy weather also brought back oddly fond memories of much worse weather conditions while scanning for ducks on Lake Ontario. Fortunately, in Costa Rica, it never gets so cold that you feel as if the wind is going to waltz away with your very being so we had nothing to worry about. That was one of the day’s highlights for us and here were a few others:
1. Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: I think Ujarras and surroundings might actually be the most reliable site for this species. Forget about wandering the gardens of the Bougainvillea, not seeing it and wondering if you might connect on the next trip. Instead, Go to Ujarras and scan the dirt road behind the ruins. If that doesn’t work, walk up to where you can see into the Chayote cultivation (looks a bit like a vineyard) and watch there until one comes into view. We saw 4 to 5 birds without even trying and I came pretty close to getting a photo but they appear to be a camera shy species. We also saw a few more next to the coffee plantations at the Casona del Cafetal.
This is a cool looking bird but is the much more common White-eared Ground-Sparrow. They also occur around Ujarras and the Orosi valley.
The Casona del Cafetal is worth a visit- nice restaurant, good food, and good birding (don’t worry, it isn’t tilted in reality).
2. Hummingbirds: When the Chayote is in bloom, this area offers up some of the best hummingbirding anywhere. I don’t just mean for Costa Rica either, I am talking really anywhere. “Not so!” you say? I beg to differ based on reports of literally several hundred hummingbirds of 17 or so species seen in one day (including both coquettes!). Mind you, the chayote fields have to be in full bloom and they weren’t on November 25th, so our sightings of these glittering sprites numbered in the dozens instead of hundreds. Nevertheless, we still saw a fair number of Rufous-taileds, Ruby-throateds, Violet Sabrewings, Violet-headeds, and Green-breasted Mangos and would have probably found more if we had just focused on searching for hummingbirds.
Violet-headed Hummingbirds were feeding on flowering Ingas.
Green-breasted Mangos were buzzing the orange flowers of Poro trees.
3. Wintering warblers: Recent reports of rarities from Ernesto Carman (such as Cape May and Nashville Warblers) had us spishing until our lips ached. Although we didn’t come across any serious rarities, the warbler scene was still pretty good with fair numbers of resident Rufous-cappeds and Tropical Parulas, and 11 migrant species including Golden-winged, Worm-eating, and Bay-breasted Warblers.
We also had several Mourning Warblers. It was interesting to note that their call sounds somewhat like that of the Plain Wren (or vice versa).
4. Other birds typically seen in the area: The Orosi Valley is always a birdy place so even if you don’t find something rare, you may be entertained by three saltator species, White-crowned Parrots, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Least Grebe, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, White-lined, and Bay-headed Tanagers, Slaty Spinetail, and on and on. Being close to good forest at Tapanti and other nearby sites also ups the birdiness of the Orosi Valley..
Good birding and wish me luck on my next venture to Ujarras and surroundings!
On the underbirded, super birdy route between San Ramon and La Fortuna, one of the many sites of interest is the Bosque Nuboso El Cocora Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden. It’s just a 20 minute ride from San Ramon to this sweet little site and even a short visit is well worth the $6 entrance fee. I visited a few days ago while guiding a client in the area and it turned out to be a fitting end to a morning of near non-stop bird action on the road to Manuel Brenes (that mixed flock madness merits its own account!).
I was happy to see that this little ecotourist attraction had invested in its infrastructure and built a small cafe and improved the hummingbird feeding area. The cafe serves typical Costa Rican food at fair prices and is a great place to have a coffee while watching Swallow-tailed Kites do their aerial ballet. As for the hummingbirds, I suspect that the number of species varies over the course of the year but you can always be guaranteed a fantastic frenzy of those little feathered dynamos. On that most recent visit, our most abundant hummingbird was the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald. They looked like white-tailed bugs as they went crazy with the feeders.
Male Coppery-headed Emerald.
There were a few Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, one of which guarded a lone feeder.
Stay away from my sugar water!
Beautiful Violet-crowned Woodnymphs were pretty common too.
A couple of big Violet Sabrewings salso howed up to cause some purple havoc, male and female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems were nice to see and the excellent lighting turned the Green-crowned Brilliants into flying, glittering emeralds. A surprise Steely-vented Hummingbird also showed up and after a long wait, a female White-bellied Mountain-gem made her appearance for our final and eight hummingbird species. I was surprised that we only saw one as this uncommon near endemic has been one of the most frequent hummingbirds on past visits. Given the number of hummingbirds that were zipping around, we could have easily missed something else as other days have also seen such species as Green Thorntail, Brown Violetear, and Violet-headed Hummingbird.
In addition to the hummingbirds, this site has a short trail through a patch of middle elevation forest. Its brief 200 meter length is one of the big downsides to this place (the other being the 9 am opening time, 12 noon on Sundays) but it’s still worth a visit. Although the “width” of the forest isn’t much and is flanked by pasture, its old growth aspect and connection to more extensive forests away from the road create a wealth of possibilities. We saw little on the most recent visit but did hear Black-faced Solitaire, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and saw Tawny-capped Euphonia and Slate-throated Redstart. In the past, I have seen goodies in there such as Rufous Motmot, Blue-and-gold Tanager, and Azure-hooded Jay. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it also harbored things like leaftossers or even Scaled Antpitta. It’s surely worth a careful look and might be worth it to hang out where the trail looks into the canopy until a mixed flock passes by or some cool ground bird pops into view.
Getting to El Cocora is also super easy. If driving, take the road towards La Fortuna from San Ramon. You will drive through a steep canyon right after leaving town, than pass through deforested areas that are frequently cloaked in fog. Not long after, you start to descend onto the Caribbean slope. Watch for signs to the place and look for it on the left (west) side of the road about 15-20 minutes out of San Ramon. It can also be reached by buses between San Ramon and La Tigra, San Lorenzo, and La Fortuna.