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Reminders and Reasons to Visit Cinchona When Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so many fantastic sites for birding, it can be a challenge to know where to go. How to pick the sites for your best birding experience? The answer depends on how you want to connect with birds, what you want to see, and budgets for time and money.

I’ll leave a more thorough treatise of such questions and answers for future posts. In the meantime, I would like to focus on a site that would be tough to leave off of any birding itinerary for Costa Rica. This special spot is one of the classic birding sites in Costa Rica, a location that has made a positive impact on thousands of birders (as well as non-birders), the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

Also known as the Cafe Colibri and the Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando, I have often written about the benefits and beauty of this site. Even so, no birding spot is static, especially ones like Cinchona where tropical forest is growing back with a vengeance. Check out these reminders and reasons to include a visit to Cinchona during a birding trip to Costa Rica:

Regenerating Forest Can Grow Fast

Before the 2009 earthquake, the Cafe Colibri was a two story structure situated next to mature, fairly intact forest. At least that’s sort of how I recall it. I do know that more birds were present and even umbrellabird was seen every now and then (!). Tragically, more than 30 people died in the the 6.6 earthquake, it destroyed the two story structure that was the original Cafe Colibri, an adjacent, similar establishment, and much of the adjacent forest.

Although the disaster was a terrible blow to Cinchona in every possible way, since 2009, regarding the Cafe Colibri, it has been rebuilt on the original foundations, and the forest has been steadily growing back. It will take decades before trees reach their previous heights but as the vegetation has grown, more birds have returned, including species that are more dependent on forest.

With that in mind, when visiting the Cafe Colibri, keep an eye out for such birds as Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Sooty-faced Finch, and other species. These species have been occurring with more frequency and it wouldn’t be all that surprising for shy birds like Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, and foliage-gleaners to eventually make appearances. Let’s hope so!

Ornate Hawk-Eagle!

While visiting Cinchona yesterday, the owner and matriarch of the Colibri Cafe mentioned that an interesting bird had been seen. I wondered what it might be, maybe some different tanager at the feeder? Much to my surprise, she showed me a picture of a subadult Ornate Hawk-eagle!

A pair of this fancy, powerful raptor live rather close to Cinchona but they seem to mostly stick to forests away from the main road. It’s not that often that one is seen in the canyon and usually not perched in one of the remnant, bromeliad covered trees visible from the Cafe Colibri. As the habitat improves, we can only hope that this becomes a more regular occurrence.

Still Great for Hummingbirds, Maybe Even Better

Cinchona has always been a hummingbird hotspot. Time of year and weather conditions can have an effect on the number of birds and species but a visit is always warranted, especially when 7 or 8 species of hummingbirds can be accompanied by fresh, delicious Costa Rican coffee. Even better, this past year, yesterday included, the uncommon and local Black-bellied Hummingbird has become regular at Cinchona. There might be a delay for the bird to appear but it’s hard to find fault with a wait highlighted by close views of Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violetear, Lesser Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem!

The barbets are nice too…

More Parking Spaces…and Donkeys

The Cafe Colibri now has paved and delineated parking spots on both sides of the road that make it that much easer to enjoy this special place. For whatever reason, the other side of the road also has a corral with a couple of donkeys (if you feel like ticking off the “hand feeding of mules” box on your list of things to do during a birding trip to Costa Rica).

Every Visit Helps a Local Business that Loves Birds, Birders, and Conservation

Supporting the people who support birders, birds, and bird awareness is just as important as being treated to exquisite views of Green Thorntails. Please support the Cafe Colibri by enjoying a meal and leaving a generous donation.

If traveling to or from Sarapiqui on Route 126, make sure to visit one of Costa Rica’s first classic birding sites, the Cafe Colibri. If planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, see which places to visit and prepare for your trip with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Benefits of Slow Birding in Costa Rica

Birding is “just” watching birds, plain and simple. As long as you are paying attention to birds, watching or listening to birds to enjoy, appreciate, identify, or study them, that’s birding. Slow birding is, as one might imagine, taking your time with birds, doing the birding thing more like a patient puffbird or heron than a fast and furious Big Day Merlin.

The Merlin might be the antithesis of slow birding.

These are some of the benefits of slow birding in Costa Rica, of practicing stillness, patience, and the general way of the Sloth as you watch the birds:

Careful Patience Pays Off in the Rainforest

Take a brisk hike through rainforest and you will see a lot of plants. Some other things, leafcutters, but mostly plants. Slow it down, even stand in place for a while and birds are eventually revealed. The same goes for other animals, insects, and countless other denizens of the tropical forest.

Be patient like a waiting heron and you will see more because everything is in hiding, including the birds. A bird can’t take any chances when they live in a place where highly camouflaged predators lurk in the leaves, where so many other animals are always looking for an easy meal. They hear you coming down the trail and may retreat or keep still until you walk on by. Wait around, though, and they might get used to you, realize that you aren’t really a threat. That’s when the birds start to become active again, begin to call and forage because although staying hidden keeps a bird alive, so does eating. Be patient and wait for birds to forage, for a tinamou to step onto the trail for tanagers to move through your field of view.

The slow birding day only gets better when a Speckled Tanager pops into mind blowing view.

Slow and Attentive Birding is Highly Productive Birding

Birding on the slow and easy doesn’t mean mindlessly standing around and looking at your phone or casually strolling down a trail as you check your photos. Productive slow birding is moving slow so you can be attentive to your surroundings. Standing still and moving slow gives you the time needed to scan every bush, check every branch, and listen for every peep.

This is especially useful in tropical forest because so many birds hide in plain sight. A suspicious rock might actually be a tinamou. There could be trogons and other frugivores lurking near fruits in the canopy. Puffbirds and other sit and wait predators might be watching you from a forest perch. Have a birding passenger pay attention while driving on the road to Poas and they might even see a quetzal silhouetted in the mist (as happened a few weeks ago!).

Slow Birding is also Easy-Going Birding

Be attentive and you will see more but if you would rather hang out back at the lodge and have a coffee or cold beer while watching chachalacas and aracaris, that’s slow birding too. If that means relaxing while casually watching the birds that fly into view, there’s nothing wrong with that. This type of birding can come with the benefits of savoring local cuisine, quality coffee, and views of toucans and trogons.

Slow Birding in Costa Rica Works With the Tropical Birding Dynamic

The dynamic nature of birding in Costa Rica always makes for exciting birding. Watch the edge of the forest over the course of a morning and new birds keep popping into view. Go back the next day and more birds show up. Walk a trail and it can go from being frustratingly still to a forest suddenly moving with tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species.

These are just a few examples of the tropical forest dynamic; a situation where most birds occur in low density populations, where many birds move in mixed flocks, and where various species concentrate at fruiting trees. When you go slow with the birding from one spot, species after species may appear as they move through your field of view. Move slow and attentive and you might have a better chance of finding that mega mixed flock or an antswarm. Take it slow and easy and you also see more than birds because of course, there’s always more than birds to birding.

To learn more about some of the tricks to seeing more birds in Costa Rica, check out How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Prepare for your birding trip to Costa Rica by making target lists and listening to sounds of more than 800 species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Some day, I hope to see you here!

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The Rocky River Heron

Joan Jett of Blackhearts and The Runaways fame first sang, “I love rock and roll so put another dime in the jukebox baby!” Weird Al’s twist on that classic 80s rock tune says, “I love rocky road! So weren’t you gonna buy half a gallon baby?”

When visiting California Gulch or some roads in Costa Rica or so many other off beat places we go for birds, the song gets changed to, “I love rocky roads so put another wrench in the toolbox baby!” However, if the Fasciated Tiger-Heron could croon, if that rocky river loving bird could put words to the tune, it might say, “I love rocky flows so put another fish in the eddy baby!”

If you ever wondered what the Fasciated Tiger-Heron does, that lyric just about sums up how it spends most of its time. Unlike so many other herons, this species doesn’t visit marshes, doesn’t wade in estuaries or fly along any ocean shore. It doesn’t even stalk the shallows of slow, steady-flowing tropical lowland rivers. In the nations where our rocky river bittern ranges, those habitats are used by the related Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and the Rufescent Tiger-Heron. At some period in evolutionary history, we can only assume that in occupying and become more adapted to rocky forested rivers, the ancestor of the Fasciated became the bird that it is today.

Like other Trigrisoma herons (the tiger-herons), the Fasciated is a fair-sized bird with a thick, and powerful neck, sharp beak, and medium-length legs. In other birding words, its more or less shaped like a bittern, like a compact, modern dinosaur. However, unlike bitterns, the Fasciated and other tiger-herons don’t bother to hide themselves in the grass, don’t make any noises that sound like a water pump.

No, these birds are too rough and tough characters for any of that quaint country stuff. More in keeping with their dino ancestors, tiger-herons stalk where they wish, make growling noises that sound like some scary predator of the night, and eat baby crocodiles. At least the Bare-throated and Rufescent eat young crocs. The Fasciated doesn’t but I bet that’s only because saurians don’t inhabit the bird’s cold, rocky river habitats.

In fact, the Fasciated is so adapted to rocky streams and rivers, it just can’t seem to live anywhere else. Ranging from Costa Rica through much of the tropical Andes, the Fasciated Tiger-Heron uses rocky streams and rivers that flow through forested landcapes. As one might gather, this special heron also has a morphological feature or two that help it survive in its rushing river home. A bit stockier than other herons, like a feathered goat, it has shorter legs that may help it find better balance on slick river rocks. Its slightly blunter bill might help it catch more crayfish or other prey items peculiar to its cold, splashing home.

Although it’s far from being the only heron that patiently waits in place to eventually catch unwary prey, the Fasciated T. seems to be especially adept at practicing stillness. This river bird stands in place for so long, it can seem more like a garden statue, just another rock in the river than an actual living bird. With water constantly rushing and splashing past it, the heron seems to be making some natural Zen statement. Compared to herons of lowland tropical places, keeping still for long periods of time might be a necessary adaptation to catch enough food in places with fewer prey items. Being “Zen” also probably helps to avoid predators as does another of its characteristic features; its cryptic plumage.

Check a stream for this heron species and you might need to do a double take. Look carefully at the river with binoculars and don’t be surprised if one of those many “rocks” turns into a bird that was hiding in plain sight. Coupled with its art of being still behavior, the mottled gray plumage of the adult helps it blend in remarkably well with the surrounding river rocks and rushing water. The orange and black plumage of the juvenile is another story and raises the question of why the adult seems to be more camouflaged than young birds; a situation typically the other way around.

If you feel like pondering such questions while birding Costa Rica, come visit and scan rocky rivers and streams in rainforest for Fasciated Tiger-Herons. On account of the bird’s natural stealth and likely low density populations, it might take a while to find one. But don’t give up! Think like the heron, check the river with care because you can bet that the birds are somewhere on that waterway. They might be standing just around the bend, or keeping still on the other side of a big river rock, being Zen, hiding in plain sight.

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What to Do When You Want to Go Birding in Costa Rica But Can’t…Yet

Want to go birding in Costa Rica? I do and I live here! I usually start the day with some “lite” birding from the back balcony every morning, today a Ringed Kingfisher perched nearby for the first time as a Barred Antshrike, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and Cabanis’s Wrens called from the vegetation.

When I get the chance to do so, I travel further afield and submerge myself in the tropical birding experience. That bird immersion means venturing into tropical forest or other habitats just around dawn and taking it all in; parsing out the distant mournful calls of Collared Forest-Falcon, listening for the first hints of woodcreepers, and watching the avian scene come to life.

It’s a natural show that requires, demands attention, I like to lose myself in it but I also love to share it with visiting birders. These odd days, although some birders are in Costa Rica, the number is much less than it would be; its the same for so many other places and understandable. The dynamic will eventually change but for those who would love to be here now, especially during these frozen days of February, here are some ideas for things to do when you can’t bird in Costa Rica (or elsewhere for that matter):

Study a field guide

Get out a field guide or buy one and start studying. Read it from start to finish even if it takes a few months. Pick out the birds you like the most, study field marks, and keep doing that because some day, you will be here and you will be better prepared for birding in Costa Rica.

Ready to see a Baird’s Trogon.

Listen to birds sounds, play with a birding app for Costa Rica

Studying bird sounds isn’t for everybody but with plenty of time to kill before the trip, why not? Even if you don’t feel like memorizing the differences between Little and Great Tinamous, its still fun to listen to their tremulous calls, listening to birds that occur in Costa Rica helps you get ready for that eventual birding time in Costa Rica.

The best way to listen to and study sounds is with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I know, I am a co-founder of the app and work on it but since it now has sounds for more than 900 species and images can be viewed while listening to vocalizations (unlike a few other apps), I stand by that statement. The app can also be used to help prepare for a trip by studying and checking out birds filtered by region, habitat, family, and other factors.

Learn about the habitats in Costa Rica and the best sites for birding

Learn about tropical rainforest, cloud forest, tropical dry forest, and other habitats in Costa Rica. What are those habitats like? Which birds live there? Where can you experience the fantastic birding in those amazing places? There’s a lot of information out there but given the tendency for Google to turn up results biased for SEO, searching will turn up some answers but maybe not the best of information.

Books like the Neotropical Companion are always a good read, there is information about bird habitats on the Costa Rica Birds app, and you just might find a thing or two at this very blog. If you want to know about the best sites for birding, and how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, you will find more than enough information to prepare for any birding trip to Costa Rica in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Check out a virtual birding tour for Costa Rica

Virtual live birding is an exciting, new way to give a hint of what the birding is like in Costa Ric and help you get ready for a trip. Not to mention, its also a great way to support local guides, many of whom are also involved in conservation in Costa Rica.

Think about doing a trip

Its never too early to start planning a trip to Costa Rica, and its definitely not early to start thinking about one now. The best birding trips are planned months in advance and even if you aren’t sure of the exact dates for the trip, the planning will eventually pay off. Look into plane tickets, think about dates, pick your target birds, and think about the pros and cons of group tours versus small tours versus birding on your own.

Support organizations and policies that protect bird habitat

Because intact ecosystems are good for birds, biodiversity, and people. There are several to choose from including The Children’s Eternal Rainforest and the Cerulean Project.

Costa Rica might seem impossible or far off but the birds in Costa Rica are closer than you think. As the travel situation improves, coming to Costa Rica will take shape and before you know, you might find yourself looking at tanagers, motmots, and quetzals.

And Squirrel Cuckoos!

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Why Get a Field Guide for Costa Rica Now?

With the world on hold, now might not seem to be the ideal time to plan a birding trip. It might not appear to be the best moment to buy a field guide, look into tours, and figure out which birds a birder wants to see the most.

The Ornate Hawk-Eagle is high on the target list of many a birder.

Although it’s arguably silly to plan a tour for a given date without knowing when the destination will be open, now is actually perfect to think about traveling for birding, buying field guides, and dreaming of target species. Here’s why:

Destinations Will Eventually Open

Any type of limbo can present serious challenges to seeing the end of the tunnel because in the absence of a definite time frame, it’s that much harder to envision when something will happen. We think of the future and it seems to be blocked by black velvet paintings of uncertainty, by what ifs and unforeseen problems. When that happens, we need to sit back, have a tequila or eat a donut or whatever you need to do to ground yourself and push the mental curtains of uncertainty aside to be able to look at things through realistic, hopeful eyes. In the case of world travel, it’s more than likely that countries will eventually open back up and when they do, they will be more than eager for visitors. It will be a fantastic time to travel and it will eventually happen. Nothing better to do that be ready for it!

It Pays to be Prepared for a Birding Trip

Speaking of being ready for a trip, birding trips require a special degree of preparation. Yeah, you could jump on a plane to Australia or Fiji at a moment’s notice but you wouldn’t be any bit of ready for the birding. You would have no idea what to look for, what to identify, where to go, nor where to stay. It would sort of be like some happy go lucky nightmare situation. Whether visiting Polynesia, France, or Costa Rica, it’s far better to be over prepared than wondering what you are looking at and lamenting about birds and cool places missed during and after the trip. The more time you have to study, the less stressful and more fulfilling the trip will be. With that in mind, start studying for Costa Rica now to have the best and most satisfying trip possible.

You don’t want to miss seeing an Emerald Tanager.

Get a field guide in advance and you can take as much time as you want to learn about the lifers you will eventually see. Learn about different families of birds, learn how to identify everything from woodcreepers to hummingbirds, pick the birds you want to see the most. In the case of a digital field guide, you can mark target species, study birds by region, by family, make notes, and listen to their songs while looking at images of the birds you hope to see.

Part of the Fun is Getting Ready for the Trip

Not to mention, a big part of going somewhere isn’t just being there for the experience. It’s also getting ready for the trip, looking into places, trying to get an idea, a picture of what to expect. It doesn’t just make for better preparation, thinking about that trip also gives you something to look forward to, life goals to meet, and most of all, birds waiting to be seen. Check out field guides, decide which ones to get and buy them. Once you have that book in hand, that digital field guide on your phone, you are already on your way to Costa Rica.

Time On Our Hands

If anything, during a pandemic, many a birder has more time on his or her hands. It’s a perfect time to look into and study for future trips. Use these days, these months, to get ready for birding far afield.

Supporting Tours is Support for Conservation

I should also mention that looking into tours now and maybe even signing up for one translates to support for conservation. Most birding tours actively support local conservation efforts either directly and/or indirectly. The sooner you can safely reserve or sign up for lodging or a birding tour, the sooner you will be making a difference for people who often act as the front line of protection for tropical forests.

Conservation for endangered species like the Great Green Macaw.

Think Positive!

Most days, the news isn’t exactly on the bright side of the spectrum but that doesn’t change the fact that many vaccines are being worked on, many people are doing their best to make it through this pandemic and safely open as soon as possible, and that this will eventually pass. Stay safe, support conservation and start planning for that trip, the birds will be waiting.

Want to think about birding in Costa Rica? You can’t go wrong with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book with information on where to go birding, what the birding is like in Costa Rica, and how to identify many of the species waiting to be seen.

Fancy birds like the Violet-headed Hummingbird.

As far as field guides go, the book I recommend is the handy and excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean. The size of the book is right as are the excellent illustrations, information and range maps.

Since no modern birding trip would be complete without a digital field guide, I also recommend the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Yes, I do work on it and because we want birders to have a trip of a lifetime, we have made a steady set of improvements since its inception. A birder can now customize their app with target lists, notes on birds, good range maps, and much more. Since the latest update includes information and range maps for every bird on the Costa Rica list, multiple images for 919 species, and sounds for 829 of them, this birding app is just as excellent for reference and planning for a trip as it is in the field (even I use it pretty much every day!).

Start planning a trip to Costa Rica today, birds like this Fiery-throated Hummingbird will be waiting.

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The Backyard Hummingbird in Costa Rica

Backyards and hummingbirds? Ha! Not while growing up just off Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. Seeing a hummingbird, even the only one remotely likely in my area, seemed like a pipe dream, something that could never happen. How could they occur in our tiny backyard? Northern Cardinals, occasional Blue Jays and a once in a while Downy Woodpecker yes but a backyard hummingbird? No way. And yet, on one rare day on a rainy May morning, I did see a hummingbird on our street and it was NOT a Ruby-throated!

All these years later, I can’t say whether it was a Rufous or an Allen’s but it was most certainly one of those western vagrants. An extreme rarity for western New York and yet there it was checking out some potted flowers just across the street from our house in what must have been 1983. I know it must have been that year of parachute pants, Culture Club and Gorf because I spent much of that summer hanging out with Henry and Robbie and it was Henry who noticed the bird. We were on Rob’s porch when non-birding Henry suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, what’s that?”. The subject of interest was a rufous-colored hummingbird inspecting some flowers and then it was gone. I didn’t run to my house for binos, I had no idea how rare and unusual that sighting actually was but I did see it very well and yet I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no social media, I wasn’t connected to any possible rare bird alert and am not even sure if I had met another birder at that point.

Oddly enough, that Selasphorus was the only hummingbird I have ever seen on Augustus Place. Ruby-throateds ended up being regular just outside of town but when I was 11, almost all of my birding was restricted to backyards, a nearby series of grassy vacant lots, and the Niagara State Park. Since then, my sphere of birding has expanded to include many places with a common, garden hummingbird species. Some places have several birds buzzing the flowers and feeders out back, Costa Rica included. However, if we had to name one classic backyard hummingbird for Costa Rica, it would have to be the good old Rufous-tailed.

This edge species is the most frequent hummingbird in many parts of Costa Rica and the de-facto nectivore around San Jose. A common bird of open and edge habitats, the Rufous-tailed is a good one to learn well so you can recognize other hummingbird species that dare to venture into the garden as well as birds that live in more forested habitats. Basically, if the hummingbird has a reddish tail, greenish throat, and mostly red bill, it’s a Rufous-tailed. Different types of lighting can make things tricky but if the bird has those afore-mentioned characters, it is a Rufous-tailed.

BUT, it’s not the only backyard hummingbird in Costa Rica and for folks who live in the highlands or dry areas, it might not even be present. Up in the mountains, many more species are likely, the Lesser Violetear being one of the most frequent.

Like the Rufous-tailed, the violetear is an edge and semi-open species. However, you can still expect to see it with several other species, even beauties like Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

and even Violet Sabrewing.

In dry areas, the Rufous-tailed is replaced by the Cinnamon. Another Amazilia, this bird is pretty much the Rufous-tailed of the dry forest areas of Guanacaste and also occurs in parts of the Central Valley.

While watching one of those feisty Cinnamons, you might also see a Canivet’s Emerald.

Blue-vented Hummingbird is also regular both in dry forests and many parts of the Central Valley.

In humid zones, although the Rufous-tailed is still one of the most common species in gardens and open areas, it shares space with several other species including hermits, Crowned Woodnymph,

Blue-chested Hummingbird on the Caribbean slope,

and Charming Hummingbird on the Pacific slope.

As testament to Costa Rica’s amazing biodiversity, folks who live in or near forest can also expect several other species, some tours see 30 or even 40 species (!). One we get past this pandemic, they will be waiting, maybe even one of Cope’s best backyard species, the White-tipped Sicklebill.

In the meantime, be careful, stay safe, jeep watching birds and study for that eventual trip to Costa Rica.

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Costa Rica = Easy Fantastic Birding

I haven’t spent much time birding lately. Now is when the guiding season reaches a low point, and by chance, now is also when I have been working on other projects. I am still grateful though, and I still see birds. I step through the front door and swifts pattern the skies every morning. Chestnut-collareds forage over a mango tree and nearby coffee farms along with three or four species of swallows, Vaux’s Swift, White-collared Swift, and one of those non-vocalizing Cypseloides. That’s what we call Spot-fronted and White-chinned Swifts most of the time, or, at least when they don’t vocalize and fly too high up there to see the pattern on their faces.

One of those friendly neighborhood Chestnut-collared Swifts. 

Right out the front door they are along with a Lesson’s Motmot or two, Brown Jays, a flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, handsome Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers (aren’t most woodpeckers handsome?) and other birds. This morning, Baltimore Orioles chattered from brushy trees. New arrivals and now here for the winter duration. May they thrive and fly all the way back to breed. The same goes for Yellow, Tennessee, and Chestnut-sided Warblers all here now and just outside the door. At times, I hear the calls of a Short-tailed Hawk from high overhead, that’s one of our common hawks. Other times, I detect the audible presence of one of the other common raptors, the Gray Hawk. And at night, I hear the occasional shriek of a Barn Owl canvassing the neighborhood, keeping the rat numbers down.

These, just outside, and I’m not even birding and that’s partly why Costa Rica is easy fantastic birding (EFB if you will). There’s a lot of green space, there are beautiful tropical forests, and because this country is not one of the bigger nations of our world, it’s all within arms reach. A few arguments for Costa Rica being synonymous wth EFB:

Easy to visit– Folks who live in southern Canada or much of the eastern USA can get here on one or two flights, usually six hours flight time at most. Yeah, that’s all! Before you know it, you are here and the list is 920 plus species. There are plenty of choices for accommodation and good infrastructure for tourism. As testament to this, I know many birders who visit Costa Rica over and over. They saw how easy it was to visit, the great birding is impossible to ignore and so they just keep coming back.

Because Northern Emerald Toucanet. 

Easy to access habitat– Every major habitat in the country and I guess even minor ones can be visited by vehicle. Easily. Want to try and see an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl? Um, yeah! It’s cold up there but it’s a drive into the mountains on good roads. How about ye good olde mind blowing quetzal? Ditto, although not nearly as cold. And, a couple dozen birds only found in Costa Rica and Panama live up there too…

Like the fancy Purple-throated Mountain-Gem 

Wetlands, lowland rainforest, foothill rainforest, cloud forest, tropical dry forest. Each have their own suite of species and all are accessible. Imagine driving from Florida to Colorado but in a couple hours and then to California a couple hours later, and then swinging down to sweet Arizona but in another hour. Except that the habitats have more birds, like hundreds of them. I’m not sure if that paints the best picture of birding in Costa Rica but I hope it hints at how amazing this place is for birding.

Easy to see birds…no..a lot of birds!– Like the ones out my front door. Or just up the road in the mountains. At other sites, the birds just keep on coming. Like the Carara area. Holy smokes, can you imagine identifying 100 species in a couple hours? And then adding birds all day long? That’s Carara for you, a major meeting point of different habitats with hundreds of bird species. Or, lowland rainforest on the other side of the mountains, likewise, lots of birds, lots of species, and they just keep coming. Or, the good birding in the highlands, or just innocently driving along. For example, the other day, while driving from the Caribbean lowlands to the highlands, minding my own business and without trying, six or more toucans couldn’t help but be noticed along with groups of oropendolas, four or five species of parrots and parakeets, the usual Bat Falcon on its perch, a couple other raptor species, Amazon Kingfisher, and I also heard the voices of several other species, some of which were missed by my Team Tyto during birding on Global Big Day in the same area! It’s almost like you can’t not see birds.

Hard to not see.

Fantastic birding– All this adds up to fantastic birding. I suppose that’s birding where additional species keep on popping into view. Where the action is good for much of the day. Where migrants mingle with coveted residents. Where mixed flocks of tanagers, woodpeckers, and whatever else make your head spin as they hurriedly forage their way through lush forest. I guess it’s a situation where the birding never seems to stop. There’s always more and it’s always exciting! It’s also fantastic when you bird with the right person or people,  and that’s why Costa Rica is also perfect for sharing with a birding partner and friends. As a bonus, heck, a birder doesn’t even have to take a trip with other birders to still connect with hundreds of species. Thanks to the abundant tourist offerings in Costa Rica, a birder can stay at key places with the family and sneak in early morning birding time during the trip with nary a critique from the non-birding ones.

The birding in Costa Rica really is easy and fantastic, as always, I hope every birder gets a chance to bird Costa Rica at least once in their lives. Need guiding and/or help to set up your trip? I would love to help. I know some excellent birding tours offered for great prices and can also set up custom trips. Contact me at information@birdingraft.com

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preparing for your trip weather

Five Reminders for Birding Costa Rica During the Winter

At this time of year, I tend to be bathing in the warmth of my parent’s home in Niagara Falls, NY accompanied by family and a plate of good old fashioned gnocchi from the Como Restaurant.

Yum.

My daughter also lives up to her yearly promise of hitting me with a snowball as I enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of red cardinals, chickadees, and juncos. This, year, though, we didn’t make the trip and given the reports of soul-biting temperatures and abundant white stuff, I kind of don’t mind that we stayed in Costa Rica, that I missed out on Como gnocchi in late December. It’s not so bad, I mean I got the chance to do some awesome Christmas Bird Counts, pushed up the year list total a little bit more and finally even saw a Spotted Rail!

While staying here for the changing of the years, I was also reminded of some things to keep in mind when birding in Costa Rica. These are five of them:

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are the de-facto Empid: Never mind the Leasts, here’s the Yellow-bellieds! No matter how uncommonly seen it may be up north, most winter Empids in Costa Rica are this one. Pish and it will probably call back, take advantage of studying them but do keep an eye out for Acadians. The southern Empid is here as well, just not as common as the little flycatcher on vacay from the boreal zone. An occasional Least is also seen but know that the small Empid with the gray head is quite the rare find this far south.

The Yellowish Flycatcher is also common in middle elevation forest but its much more obviously yellow than migrant Empids.

I may have a yellow belly but I still rule the winter Empid scene in Costa Rica.

It’s cooler now: Just like up north, temperatures go down but instead of sinking to bitter freezing cold, they only skip-drop a few degrees. This makes for slightly more welcome temperatures in Carara and other sun-baked areas of the Pacific lowlands, as well as a nippy climate when owling for the Unspotted Saw-whet.

Beware of festivals: Not that there’s anything bad about streets being taken over by prancing horses, random fireworks, and loud music. It’s just that when you need to get somewhere to see birds, such activities can become rather problematic. At least festivities tend to be held in urban areas and not on major highways, and Waze should let you know when you need to make that detour (unless you do feel like partaking in beers, horses, and experiencing the local version of “yee-haw!”).

Dry and windy in the west, rain in the east: Or, is that north and then south? Yes, you could say that too, I suppose it’s easiest to remember that it’s dry on one side of the mountains and wet on the other. A generalization for sure but more or less true at this time of year. It probably won’t infringe upon the birding too much, stick with it and you will still see a lot!

The hummingbirds won’t mind.

Birds take vacations too: Many in Costa Rica move to lower elevations and odd places in quests for food and more pleasant climes. Watch for fruiting trees and bushes in lowland and foothill rainforests on both slopes. That’s where a lot of the birds are!

Beautiful Bay-headed Tanagers might show up.

I hope these reminders are of help for any bird-related trip to Costa Rica. As always, I also hope to see you in the field, especially if we happen to be watching a Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, or a Loggerhead Shrike (nope, not on the list yet and not likely, but I did have a vivid dream about seeing one in Costa Rica).

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Two Weeks of Costa Rica Birding Highlights

Regarding birding endeavors, the past two weeks have been good ones . I have added some really good year birds, visited the birding oasis known as Rancho Naturalista, and have shared birds with clients and friends while guiding at every elevation on the Caribbean slope. I also managed to add a surprise year bird to my 2017 list while checking the Pacific coast for storm driven vagrants. The following is a summary of those highlights:

Birding the Pacific coast yields a major surprise: There have been some major storms may out there in the Pacific. Although they didn’t roar on in to Costa Rica, the outlying waves from those storms did make it to our shores and they have surely brought some good birds with them. With that in mind, I decided to check a few coastal sites with friends on August 13th. It took a while but we did eventually find a mega Sooty Shearwater! Hours of scanning rough seas from Tarcoles, Caldera, and Puntarenas had yielded little more than a few Black Terns, a few Sulids, and brief looks at Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel when Johan suddenly exclaimed, “What’s this bird here?!” A dark bird floating on the surface moves right in front of us, all the while looking like some odd, lost duck. Except that the dark bird just offshore from the tip of Puntarenas isn’t a duck but a brown species of shearwater. We run to the end of the overlook near the Puntarenas lighthouse and manage some looks at a Sooty Shearwater before it floats too far into the gulf for easy looks. Although this species used to be seasonally common in pelagic waters off of Costa Rica, you would need some powerball luck to see even one during ten pelagic trips. With that in mind (and the fact that a Swallow-tailed Gull was seen in Seattle), I can’t help but wonder what other serious megas are lurking out there in Costa Rican waters.

Sooty Shearwater for the year list!

Guiding around Tirimbina: The birding is always going to be good in the Sarapiqui region. During a day of guiding at Tirimbina and nearby, our best birds were Snowy Cotinga, White-fronted Nunbird, Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, and perched Great Green Macaw just before the rain poured down.

Tirimbina is one of the last sites in Sarapiqui where the nunbird is reliable.

Hummingbirds at Cinchona and the Volcan Restaurant: Both of these sites have feeders that attract a bevy of sugar-pumped beauties. Since both are also just 35 minutes to an hour from the airport, you might want to consider a stop at these avian oases to treat yourself to good photo opps of several hummingbirds and supporting local businesses that have always supported birds and birders.

The local White-bellied Mountain-Gem was showing well at Cinchona.

The former Magnificent (now Talamancan) Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem also showed well at the Volcan Restaurant. This is on the main road to Poas. Watch for it on the left about 300 meters after the police station.

Rancho Naturalista: It’s hard to emphasize how nice it is to stay at Costa Rica’s first birding lodge. The birding is non-stop and includes relaxed birding from the balcony, checking the forest trails for manakins and so on, watching shy forest species come in to the moth light, visiting the hummingbird pools, and having several options for birding further afield. Throw in friendly, wonderful accommodating service, excellent on-site guides, and delicious cuisine and this place is hard to beat.

Bicolored Hawk is one of several shy species regular at Rancho.

Ask to visit Rancho Bajo to see coquettes. We had looks at male and female Black-crested and the much less expected White-crested Coquette!

Cope and El Tapir: “Cope” is the nick-name of a local artist who also loves to show people roosting owls and other birds, and he does this very well. Along with some other birds, we saw both Crested and Spectacled Owls after a couple hours at El Tapir that had turned up point blank views at Snowcap and a distant Tiny Hawk. Yeah, that was a morning with some serious quality birds!

Crested Owl.

San Luis Canopy: Most people pay a visit to San Luis to zip-line their way through the forest canopy. However, with glittering tanagers rummaging in fruiting trees and hopping around a fruit feeder, yeah, I’ll pass on the zip line for excitement! Yesterday, we enjoyed close looks at Black and Yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers along with a perched White Hawk and a few euphonia species. Although we dipped on the Speckled Tanager (usually easy at this site), we did connect with Dusky Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens at the start of the Manuel Brenes road.

The lovely Emerald Tanager.

The skulky antbirdish/babblerish Black-throated Wren even posed for shots!

I hope the information above can help you with  your own birding endeavors in Costa Rica. Come on down, this birding paradise is closer than you think. Get ready for your trip with my 700 page e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

 

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Spotted Rail Fail

I am sometimes asked about the number of bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or if I am still missing some. Although I have seen a good number of the birds on the Costa Rica list and am approaching 800 birds seen or heard in country, since the list includes more than 900 species, I could add a lot more including several lifers. Granted, most of the gaps on my checklist are very rare vagrants and pelagic species but a choice few are indeed residents like the White-tailed Nightjar and Rufous Nightjar, two species that I should really make more of an effort to see. Another bird that I really, really need to see even though it happens to already be ticked off my country list is a mottled black and white chicken-like marsh bird known as the Spotted Rail. It’s on my country list because I have heard it a few times but since “heard only” species don’t make the grade for my official life list, the elusive Spotted Rail is a major target.

Russet-naped Wood-Rail- Another chicken-like marsh bird that is much more common and much easier to see.

As one might imagine, like so many other chicken like marsh birds, this one is typically a pain. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, this bird is nothing like the secretive yet much more reliable Viginia Rail up north. Search for it and you don’t find it. Search again and you still don’t find it. Maybe you get a brief staccato one time response to playback. Or, maybe just a peaceful swishing of a breeze in the marsh grass that must be hiding a bevy of sulking, skulking rails. Whatever they are doing, they are oh so reluctant to come out and play. With various raptors and demented herons to deal with, I can’t blame them but I sure wish I could catch a break with this bird!

In June, several people did catch a break with Spotted Rails and right in one of the areas where I have briefly heard and tried to see them sans success. Pictures were posted, including images of sooty, fuzzy youngsters! The birds came out onto the sunny track, the observers made jubilant exclamations about hearing them call over and over! It was a veritable bonanza of Spotted Railness, but I wasn’t there to partake in the party. I was out of country at the time but did hope to give it a try after coming back to Costa Rica.

Where the rails were seen.

Try I did with a few friends, leaving the Central Valley at 3 am so we could hopefully reach the rice fields west of Liberia by 6:30 or 7. Although this is of course the dead of the night, believe me, it’s the best time to drive in Costa Rica! As long as you can avoid any racing or inebriated drivers, you can enjoy mostly vehicle-free roads and make excellent time to your destination. We were on track for doing just that but as dawn broke over the lush rainy-season fields of Guanacaste, a wrench (aka spanner) was thrown into the birding works. While talking about some bird related subject or another just south of Canas, the car suddenly coughed and subsequently died. We were able to partially pull off the road (not many shoulders in Costa Rica, even on the Pan-American highway) and quickly set up road triangles in the hopes of keeping speeding trucks from smashing us into oblivion.

During the ordeal, we still remembered to watch birds. Some dry forest species were flying around, especially good numbers of Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Stripe-headed Sparrows were singing as we called the two truck. Fortunately, while doing that, a friendly mechanic stopped and helped us out on Sunday morning, a time when most places are closed. Unfortunately, there was no way that car was starting again and eventually, we towed it to his shop around 6 kilometers up the highway. He figured it was probably the fuel pump and brought us to the bus stop. Luckily, a nearly empty bus came by, we got on, and Spotted Rail quest numero uno was converted into a sleepy bus ride back to the San Jose area.

The car gets ready for its very own ambulance ride.

Always nice to watch the common yet ever handsome Stripe-headed Sparrow.

Over coffee, we discussed how these sort of things happen and how we could maybe try again if the car could be repaired soon. A few days later, I found out that yes, the car was good! The internal fan belt had broke, it had been fixed, and the car sounded wonderful. When I was once again picked up at 3 am a week after our first attempt, it did indeed sound better than before. In fact, the orange Chevrolet sort of purred. We drove back down through the dark of the night to the Pacific lowlands and once again watched the heat lightning play in the distant sky as dawn broke over green fields punctuated by scattered, umbrella-shaped trees. We drove past Canas, feeling grateful for the mechanic who lived there and talked how we would recommend him to other birders. We zoomed along the lovely new, spacious highway to make up for lost time during road work and just as we approached Liberia, my heart dropped as I heard an odd coughing noise. As much as I wished it was the sound of a large truck two vehicles back, no, sadly, it was the sound of our very own, sick car. We pulled over in a gas station and turned the car off.

“Oh, look, there is some loose piece of plastic under the car, it must be that!”

But it wasn’t. The car wouldn’t start and we stood there in shock as we tried to comprehend how this had happened. As the same dry forest species as the week before called and flew over, and called our mechanic, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were living some Groundhog Day moment. The Spotted Rail was just out of reach, if only we could have broke down next to a marsh! At least much to our good fortune, once again, our mechanic came through and was able to reach a friend with a tow truck, all during the non-working time of Sunday morning. We rode the tow back several kilometers to Canas where Kendall the friendly mechanic was waiting. He was just as surprised as we were, especially when he opened the side of the motor to see that the new internal belt was loose. It should be fixed by now but after two failed attempts to even reach the home of the rail, and on precious birding days at that, I can’t help but feel really reluctant to do another birding trip in that same car. At least we now know a good, friendly, helpful mechanic who lives and works in Canas. I you need one in that area of Costa Rica, I recommend him- his name is Kendall and his number is 89772749. He only speaks Spanish, who knows, maybe he will become a birder- he heard enough about birds in Costa Rica from us!