Costa Rica might be a small country but that doesn’t stop it from hosting a variety of distinct habitats and areas inhabited by localized species. One such part of the country is the lowland area near the border with Panama. Historically, this low-lying area supported an avian cast similar to that of the nearby Golfo Dulce but as with many other flat areas on the planet, the lands near Ciudad Neily were largely deforested long before any talk of preservation. Patches of forest persist in riparian zones and at the base of the coastal mountain range but most of the region presently features oil palms, rice, or pastures for the cows.
Oil palms have some birds including occasional owls and potoos at night.
Although mature lowland rainforest would be more conducive to high biodiversity, the open country and wetlands near Ciudad Neily have provided habitat for some species more readily found in Panama. It makes for a bunch of additions to your Costa Rica list and is why many a tour pays a visit to sites near Neily. Given the five hour drive, I rarely make it down that way but thanks to recent guiding during a Birding Club trip, this year, I had the chance to get in some Neily birding and add several species to my 2017 list.
There are several options for accommodation but we stayed at FortunaVerde, a small, very affordable hotel with great service and a patch of forest with rare Central American Squirrel Monkeys. Although rain and lack of time kept us from properly exploring those woods, I bet they host a fair selection of lowland forest species. Two of the local targets, Crested Oropendola and Brown-throated Parakeet also flew by or frequented nearby trees every day along with Blue-headed Parrots, and Costa Rican Swift. I didn’t notice any other swifts but would be surprised if Spot-fronted and maybe even White-chinned didn’t also occur on occasion.
Tropical Mockingbirds were a constant at FortunaVerde.
For targeted birding, we checked a few different sites in the vicinity including the La Gamba-Esquinas area. Although it takes 35 minutes to drive there from Neily and you have to pass through a border checkpoint, the excellent birding there is worth the ride. Rain checked most of our birding but we still managed the target Rusty-margined Flycatcher at our first stop, heard a Uniform Crake, and got onto one brief endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. With better weather, 80 species in that one afternoon wouldn’t have been out of the question.
On the following day, we birded the Coto wetlands and rice fields near Ciudad Neily. As is usual for these sites, the birding was excellent and gave us nice views of local target species like Gray-lined Hawk, Scrub Greenlet, several Brown-throated Parakeets, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and other birds. No luck with any rare shorebirds but Upland, Buff-breasted, and others can occur and were probably hiding somewhere out there in the grass during our visit.
No Wattled Jacana this time but it was still fun to scan through dozens of whistling-ducks, herons, Glossy Ibis, and other wetland species while looking for them.
A roadside Fork-tailed Flycatcher was also a treat.
In the afternoon, we raced against rain in the area south of the hospital to see some birds. We got onto a few before heavy rain but eventually, the precipitation slowed and thanks to some local help, were able to scope a nesting Savannah Hawk.
Distant but identifiable!
We also got onto our first Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, a species that has become much more common at this site over the past few years.
It was also larger than I expected.
Given our afternoon birding in the rain, we hoped for better weather at the same site the following morning. The clouds were still there but the birds were very active and treated us to constant bino usage as we watched Pale-breasted Spinetails, the same Savannah Hawk, more Fork-tailed Flycatchers, many a Giant Cowbird, flocks of Red-breasted Blackbirds, Dickcissels, Tricolored Munias, more Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, and other species. No dice with Red-rumped Woodpecker but we sort of made up for it with a responding Paint-billed Crake (!). Like most of its kin, it almost came in close enough for good views but a few of us did catch fleeting glimpses of this rare, sweet target bird.
After listening and staring for the crake, we headed back for breakfast and the bird list but not before some final, close looks at a couple of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.
On my next visit, I hope to stay at the FortunaVerde Hotel again and check their forest while exploring the nearby wetlands. I was also happy to see that the roads we birded could also be done with a regular, small car. Please share your sightings from that area on eBird but don’t find Costa Rica’s first Crimson-backed Tanager before I do!
For the past few weeks, most of my birding has taken the form of scouting for the Global Big Day on May 13th. Since I plan on starting shortly after midnight, I will actually be celebrating this modern birding holiday in a matter of hours. Hopefully, all of that scouting and planning will pay off with a Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and enough singing birds to push our total over the 300 species mark. The good thing is that if that doesn’t come to pass because of rain (very likely chance of precipitation) or other factors, it’s still going to be a great day of birding pretty close to the home base.
A view of Poas Volcano- not erupting on this morning.
Since much of that scouting involved the Poas area, I figured that it would be pertinent to give an update on the birding situation around there. Aside from scouting Varablanca, Poas, and Sarapiqui, since I also got in a nice day of guiding at Carara, I figured I would talk about that too.
The Poas situation: If you hadn’t heard, the park is closed because the volcano started erupting a month ago. Although activity has calmed down somewhat, the park is still off limits and probably won’t be opened for several months or even years. That said, don’t write off birding up in those mountains yet because you can still see quite a few good highland birds on the way to Poas and around Varablanca.
The barrier on the road up to Poas just after the Poas Lodge.
At the moment, the road is closed around three to four kilometers from the edge of the national park. This means that although the best highland forests are now off limits, you can still see most species in patches of forest from the village of Poasito up to that barrier, AND, with very little traffic. Unfortunately, Sooty Thrush, Highland Tinamou, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and most Peg-billed Finches are now beyond that barrier and therefore inaccessible but you can still see both silky-flycatchers, Prong-billed Barbet, Large-footed Finch at a few sites, and most of everything else including chances at Resplendent Quetzal. Fortunately, the Volcan Restaurant is still open as is Freddo Fresas; two sites with hummingbird feeders and riparian zones.
Try Varablanca: The area of Varablanca is very much open and accessible and because it’s around 45 minutes from the airport, continues to be a good site for a first or last night on a Costa Rica birding trip. Accommodation options include Poas Volcano Lodge, Poas Lodge, The Peace Lodge, and a few other spots. A fair number of highland species can be seen around accommodation, in riparian zones on the route towards Barva, and in the area between there and Socorro.
Carara: The Carara area is always good for birds no matter when you visit. Now is especially nice because the wet weather has resulted in lots of singing birds, good activity, and temperatures a bit more comfortable than the blazing Carara furnace from February to April. On my recent trip, we had Crane Hawk and good looks at Collared Forest Falcon on the Cerro Lodge road, several singing Northern Bentbills on the national park forest trail, excellent looks at Golden-crowned Spadebill at the bridge,
This is what a Golden-crowned Spadebill looks like.
good looks at vocalizing Long-tailed Woodcreeper (future split), trogons, excellent point blank views of Streak-chested Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and other expected species. What we didn’t have were many hummingbirds, nor many parrots. We still had plenty of macaws but very few other members of that esteemed family.
One of the close Streak-chested Antpittas, hopefully these will be recorded during the Global Big Day.
Hope to see you in the field. To learn about more sites for birding in Costa Rica as well as how to find and identify birds in this biodiverse country, see my e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It can be purchased through Kindle as well as PayPal, just follow the link. I will transfer the book within 24 hours of confirmation of purchase.
Last weekend, I guided a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to the Los Campesinos Ecolodge. This site is one of several rural tourism initiatives in Costa Rica, and like most, provides somewhat basic yet good service and food in a setting surrounded by green space. The birding at these sites varies in terms of “quality” birds (“quality” being synonymous with large areas of mature forest) but it’s always nice (“nice” meaning that you will see a bunch of birds, and different ones every day).
Some information about birding at Campesinos:
Nice views: With the cabins situated on a ridge between streams, you have a fair view of a couple of forested hillsides. The distant trees are the perfect opportunity to make use of that scope that you almost didn’t bring to Costa Rica. We saw Golden-naped Woodpeckers, a few raptor species, tityras, and other expected birds. Other species are of course also possible, maybe even Turquoise Cotinga. It does live in the area after all. The ridge-top location also allows views into much closer crowns of trees. Our hoped for mixed flocks at eye level never showed but could certainly happen, and we did have nice looks at Olivaceous Piculet (common there), Eye-ringed Flatbill, Blue Dacnis, Long-billed Starthroat, and other species.
This Eye-ringed Flatbill was very cooperative.
Secondary forest:Although there is some older growth along the stream, it seemed like most forest around the ecolodge was secondary in nature. There are still plenty of birds but that type of forest doesn’t usually have as many raptors and many species as older rainforest. That said, we had some nice species indicative of older forest anyways including a Striped Woodhaunter that entertained us with its ringing calls all day long, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and Scaly-throated Leaftosser. These were all on the trails that went down to the streams.
The view from the cabins.
Mature forest on the road up: Although the birding is OK at the ecolodge, I suspect that it is much better on the drive up. Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to bird along the road but the habitat looked really good with lots of huge trees, and streams. I really want to survey that road and would expect such species as White-tipped Sicklebill, Blue-crowned Manakin, various woodcreepers, trogons, and various other forest-based species (I did hear White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Rufous Piha from the car…).
Swifts: As in this seems to be a good place to watch them. In addition to White-collared and Costa Rican Swifts, we also had Lesser Swallow-tailed, Chestnut-collared, and at least one likely Spot-fronted. It was a tail view of a silent bird but it wasn’t a Chaetura and flew different from White-collared and Chestnut-collared.
Trails:There are a couple, one going up a hill and the other going down to the base of a beautiful waterfall. The one going up the hill passes through nice forest along a stream for a bit before making a steep ascent. We didn’t do that ascent but had some nice species near the stream (the ones mentioned above). The other trail goes through thick, viney forest for a short ways. The rest of the birding we did was on the entrance road to the lodge. That was fine with several second growth species and some canopy birds including Rufous-breasted and Black-bellied Wrens (Riverside is everywhere), Cocoa Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Piculet, and others.
There is also a long, bridge to the waterfall.
The road there: The road to Londres is pretty good but once you get past there, you really need four wheel drive. During really heavy rains, I could see that road being impassible. The challenging part of the drive up also coincides with the best habitat.
Accommodating:The ecolodge was very accommodating and were willing to make us coffee at dawn. Since we didn’t want them to have to come all the way up there at dawn just to make us coffee (we didn’t schedule breakfast until 8:30), we asked them to make coffee the evening before and leave it in a thermos along with cups. They did just that, always served good, home-cooked food, and were always attentive to our needs. Rooms were also clean and were equipped with fans.
One of the cabins.
This site would be a good day visit from the Manuel Antonio area, especially the mature forest on the road up. I suspect that the views over forest are better in the Esquipulas area but it would be interesting to see what could be found on the road to Campesinos. Whether visiting either site, Johan Chaves would be one of the guides to go with from the Manuel Antonio area. See my eBird list from Saturday at Campesinos.
All of us birders love cotingas. Along with the manakins, those weird, beautiful birds are the neotropical convergence answer to the birds of paradise, and like those Papuan feathered crazies, a lot of cotingas are brightly colored, make weird noises, have weird shapes, and would be proud, card carrying members of the feathered fancy fab club if there was such a thing. The only problem with cotingas is that several are kind of hard to see, especially the shiny blue ones. This is no fault of their own because they evolved to live in large areas of primary rainforest and not patches of forest in a hot, chiggery sea of cattle and grass.
Since they can’t live in pastures, some of these amazing birds have also declined and have even become endangered. In Costa Rica, the Yellow-billed is critically endangered, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is endangered (and maybe on its way to being cricitally so), and the Turquoise is Vulnerable. Since there are few reliable sites for the Turquoise Cotinga, especially possible as an easy day trip from San Jose, it was a happy surprise to see this beauty at and near Rancho Mastatal the past weekend. I wondered if the species might be present but didn’t have high hopes because it’s usually rare and hard to find just about everywhere in the country (the exception being Luna Lodge and other sites in the Osa Peninsula).
On our first morning of birding, my scope scanning of a forested ridge hit paydirt when the bright blue image of a male cotinga appeared, as per usual, right at the tip top of a tall tree. Luckily, it stayed long enough for everyone in our group to parse the distant blue bird out of the green background. We were pretty happy to see this tough species once so it was a surprise to get another one on the walk back to Rancho Mastatal! This other bird seemed far enough from the first to be a different individual and was seen perched high in the bare branches of a dead tree. We would have easily missed it if it hadn’t fluttered and revealed itself with one of the only sounds it makes, that of twittering, twinkling sounds made with the wings. After hearing that sound and catching some movement in the tree, it dawned on me that we had another cotinga! Even then, it wasn’t easy to find because most of the bird was obscured by a branch. Eventually, we positioned ourselves for more scoped views before it flew off into the forest.
There were no more cotingas that day but on the following morning, while watching the canopy near the goats at Rancho Mastatal (yes, goats, it’s a working organic farm), a bird flies into the top of a Ceiba and becomes another male cotinga in the binocs! More scope views, this time closer, to appreciate the gem-like colors before it flew away. This could have been the same male as the one in the dead tree on the previous day but when it comes down to it, we had three sightings of Turquoise Cotinga with rather little effort. I don’t know how big or small the population is at that site but even if you don’t find a fruiting tree, Rancho Mastatal lends itself to seeing this and other canopy birds because there is more than one excellent spot to view the canopy of the forest and tall trees ( including figs that could be amazing when fruiting), both on the grounds of Rancho Mastatal and along roads next to Cangreja National Park.
Other benefits of birding this area are:
Not too far from the San Jose area: While it’s not a mere 40 minute drive, it probably takes around two hours or so along a curvy road that leaves from Ciudad Colon.
Birding en route is alright: The first part of the road is awfully deforested but eventually passes through patches of nice habitat along with one area that might be the best site in the country for Costa Rican Brush Finch (we had 4 or more in an hour on the side of the road). This is the patch of habitat just after Salitrales.
Birding at all hours: The national park sticks to the same 8 AM opening office hours as other parks but you can see most of the same species along a couple of quiet roads that pass by the edge of the park. We had the cotinga on one of those roads (main one between Mastatal and Salitrales).
Several other humid forest birds: This area is more humid than accessible forests in Carara. Therefore, birds like Golden-naped Woodpecker, Baird’s Trogon, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, and Ruddy Quail Dove are fairly commn. As for Blue-crowned Manakin, that pretty bird is one of the most common species in the area!
Lots of herps: Frogs seem to be more common here than other sites. The park should really be checked for possible populations of Harlequin Toads and other rare species.
Rancho Mastatal: This very special place mostly focuses on giving hand-on courses to learn how to live more sustainably with our surroundings, especially in the tropics. They are actively doing this, work with the local community, and grow a huge variety of organic crops. I would describe the food as being “organic gourmet” and if you like all natural foods with creative recipes, you will love this place! Lodging is also offered and they have some nice trails.
If you need the cotinga and brush finch, and would like to bird an under-birded place with a lot of potential, take a trip to Rancho Mastatal and nearby. Even if you don’t stay at the Rancho, there is plenty of excellent birding at the edge of the national park, and can ask about using the Rancho Mastatal trails.
It’s no secret that Costa Rica has a healthy abundance of great birding just about everywhere one goes but but some places stand out for the avian attractions they offer. One such place is the general vicinity of La Gamba, a small village in southwestern Costa Rica. I have had some nice birding there on previous trips but after the most recent journey to La Gamba, I left the area convinced that it’s one of the best birding sites in the country. I don’t really think that there’s one best of the best when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but I would say with conviction that La Gamba ranks up there in the top five sites for Costa Rica. Here are the reasons why:
Serious biodiversity: Yeah, lots of places in Costa Rica are packed with a fine array of creatures but La Gamba still stands out. The rainforests in the area support a huge number of tree species and that high biodiversity is also shown by the birds. For example, after doing an eBird tally of species from one long day in the area that didn’t even include any degree of forest interior birding, my eyes briefly bugged out when I noticed a species total of 152! Yes, the biodiversity is serious and that means that you keep seeing new birds the longer you stay.
Good array of habitats: More habitats means more birds and in the La Gamba area we have some fine old rainforest in Piedras Blancas National Park, birdy gardens at Esquinas and the Tropenstation, open fields and seasonal wetlands with their respective bunch of birds, flowering trees and bushes that bring in the hummingbirds, and one heck of a birdy riparian zone.
Endemics: Since La Gamba is located in the southwestern Pacific endemic bird area, it provides a home for species like Charming Hummingbird, Spot-crowned Euphonia, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and the others. All seem to be more common there than at many other sites too. Not to mention, it’s also a good place for Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, one of Costa Rica’s only true endemics. I heard several singing their dawn song on this recent trip and am sure we would have seen them if we had done more forest birding.
Uncommon, local birds: The habitats at La Gamba are particularly good for a variety of uncommon species. So many “good” birds can be seen there that this could be the deciding factor for it being one of my major faves. For example, here’s a short list of uncommon species that are regular around La Gamba-
Great Curassow: They walk around the gardens of the two main lodges like happy turkeys. Wild, tame, and super easy to watch and that’s how we like them!
Uniform Crake: Seen regularly on the lagoon trail.
Blue-headed Parrot: We had several good looks at these.
Band-tailed Barbthroat: This uncommon hummingbird was fairly common in the gardens of the Tropenstation and along the road.
Veraguan Mango: Look for this fine target when the Erythrinas are in bloom. I had at least two of this lifer on the recent trip!
Red-rumped Woodpecker: Uncommon but regular and we had it right at the main bridge over the stream!
Olivaceous Piculet: Had nice looks at this one.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher: We had at least 4 of these sveldt birdies.
Slate-colored Seedeater: Regular in lodge gardens and along streams.
Red-breasted Blackbird: Not uncommon in rice fields in several parts of Costa Rica but always a favorite.
There are lots of other good birds to see as well!
Hummingbirds: When the plants are in bloom, this area can be really good for hummingbirds. Heliconias in the gardens attract 4 species of hermits, Charmning Hummingbird is common, and a nice variety of species come to the flowering Erythinas. We had at least 13 species during our stay, including 2 to 3 White-crested Coquettes!
Vagrants: This is a good areas for vagrant species from Panama. Although we didn’t see them, other trips in the past have turned up things like Wattled Jacana and other species could also show up (like maybe that first Yellowish Pipit for the country). On our trip, a couple of the participants had a Mangrove Cuckoo and are pretty sure they saw a vagrant Green Ibis!
Access: To be honest, the best birding is usually up there in forests that we can’t get to so it’s a major bonus when you can drive to a site with a small car. La Gamba is very easy to get to- just take the turn to Esquinas Lodge and Golfito from the highway and drive on in to the Troppenstation or Esquinas.
Lodging: Speaking of those two places, Esquinas Lodge is pricey but has great service, excellent food, and nice lodging. The Tropenstation research station is cheaper ($66 per person, includes 3 meals) and rooms have two bunk beds each but it’s clean, comfortable, and has good food. I would also go back for the feeder action! Esquinas is closer to better forest but trails into the rainforests of the national park can also be easily accessed from the Tropenstation.
Proximity to other good birding sites: Didn’t see Yellow-billed or Turquoise Cotingas at La Gamba? No problem, there’s a good chance for both at Rincon de Osa or even along the road to Golfito. You could also drive an hour or so to the rice fields near Ciudad Neily to try for Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, crakes, and other good birds. Or, if you feel like going further afield, the middle elevation habitats around San Vito are also within striking distance.
So, to sum things up, La Gamba is easy to get to, it’s extremely birdy, easy to bird, and offers a chance at tons of good species! I can’t wait to get back to that area.
Sierpe is one of those out of the ways places that few birders visit when doing Costa Rica. It’s off the beaten track, isn’t exactly surrounded by large areas of protected forest, and is easily bypassed for such better known southwestern Costa Rican sites as the Osa Peninsula, Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, and Wilson Botanical Gardens near San Vito. However, if you have time to see Common Potoo, maybe get a roosting owl or two, watch Scarlet Macaws forage right in town, and see a few pelagics including more or less guaranteed Red-footed Booby, then make some time for Sierpe!
I just did four days of birding and guiding around Sierpe and we had all of the above and quite a bit more. Although the village itself isn’t exactly a bastion of high quality habitat, you can see a fair number of quality species in and near town, and it’s an excellent base for taking boat trips through a huge maze of mangroves, to Cano Island for a few pelagics, and to Corcovado National Park. On our recent trip, we did two of the boat tours mentioned above with pretty fine results.
On the afternoon of our arrival to Sierpe, we started with a three hour boat tour through some mangroves and along a channel that passed through oil palm plantations flanked by bamboo. While the oil palms aren’t exactly appealing for birds, we headed up that way because our guide wanted to show us roosting Common Potoo, an owl or two, and American Pygmy Kingfisher. Although the barn Owl under the bridge was a no show, the Crested Owl was on its roost, and we got the other two including our first potoo of the trip. The guides also mentioned that they sometimes see Agami Heron in that area. No luck for us with the sneakiest of Costa Rican herons but it was certainly a worthwhile trip. We also had several parakeets and parrots flying around, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-mandibled Toucan, White-vented Euphonia, and several other bird species.
That night, a bit of nocturnal birding failed to turn up more owls but we did have Southern Lapwings on the football pitch (aka soccer field), and we found an either Rufous Nightjar or a Chuck wills Widow. The hefty nightjar was perched on a fence post near the tech school and let us watch it for a bit but failed to call. Nor could we see its rictal bristles or undertail pattern to get a solid identification but there was always another night to get a better view.
Our second day in town was our biggest and most memorable. From 8:30 in the morning to around 5 in the evening, we boated through a huge area of mangroves before making our way to Cano Island. This was followed by the boat swinging by islets with a bunch of birds, lunch at a secluded tropical beach at Isla Violenes and another ride back through the mangroves. On the way out, we didn’t see too many birds and surprisingly to me, dipped on Yellow-billed Cotinga (as that area is the stronghold for this endangered species), but managed a small group of Semipalmated Plovers among common heron species and a few others.
After hearing some pretty frightening stories about weaving through the waves at the river mouth, we were rightly concerned. Luckily, the trip out past the mouth wasn’t too bad but we had a choppy ride the rest of the way to the island (maybe 45 minutes?). I successfully countered the effects of those waves on my land lubber physiology with a rock solid stare at the horizon and a constant supply of crackers accompanied by sips of water. Sadly, we only saw two birds on the way to the island- a Brown Booby and a Magnificent Frigatebird along with very close looks at Spotted Dolphins. As usual, the wave action and lack of birds made me question why I was once again on an ocean going boat but those uneasy concerns were assuaged a bit once we reached the island and its beautiful tourmaline waters.
The island looked lush and my original hope was to hang out on the beach and scope the ocean but that plan was derailed by a recent decision to forbid any landings by tourists until a proper sanitation system is put into place. Although that was annoying, they are right to do so because we of course don’t want to ruin the island. The unfortunate part of this situation is that if it’s anything like most situations in Costa Rica, the solution will require so much needless bureaucracy that it may take years to put in even a port a potty.
Well, as it turned out, we saw almost no birds near the island in any case so it was better to leave it, and especially because the ride back was a complete contrast to the trip to the island. Instead of cloudy weather and choppy water, the sun was shining and we rode the swells like swimming on cloud nine. Oh, and we saw some birds too! Pelagic ones! Even a glimpse of a storm petrel from a bouncing boat is worth ten birds on land because you just can’t see them from land! A fine Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel was our first true seabird of the trip and as it bounded away, we got close looks at a duo of Red-necked Phalaropes! Shortly after that, we were treated to a few nighthawkish Black Storm Petrels and then we got our best pelagic of the trip- an immature Red-billed Tropicbird! The tropicbird was right in our path and as it raised up off of the water, it shook its entire body a couple of times before flying off and out of sight. Since all of these birds were seen in a time frame of around 35 minutes and were only seen because they were in the path of our boat, I bet you could see a bunch of nice birds by doing a proper pelagic in that area.
Once we got near shore, the Islitas Violines beckoned. Also known as the “booby rocks”, we indeed saw several Sulids along with some other niceties. Brown Boobies and Red-footed Boobies were equal in abundance and both were nesting! The Red-footed was a much awaited lifer for myself and was also new for several people on the trip. While taking in the form of dark morph Red-footed Boobies, we also picked up two Wandering Tattlers along with Brown Pelicans and frigatebirds. Good stuff!
After that nice bunch of birds, we boated in to the beach at Isla Violines for a good picnic lunch. We also looked a bit for birds there but as it was the quiet time of the day, didn’t see much. It did look like a good area to see cotingas and lots of other birds though because the island is covered in forest. Before you go wandering around, though, keep in mind that the island also has a sort of abundant population of Fer-de Lance! That kept us from walking around much.
The ride back in to the river was easy going and the birding on the way back turned up Scaled Pigeon, flyby parrots, lots of Pale-vented Pigeons going to roost, a Peregrine, and another Common Potoo among some other bird species.
On the next day, half the group drove an hour or so to the la Gamba road in search of seedeaters aand other species of weedy fields and forest edge. Although we didn’t visit Esquinas Lodge, that birding hotspot is also a possibility. They charge some sort of entrance fee to use trails that access great forest that has Black-cheeked Ant Tanager and the general area around the lodge is also very good for many rainforest species. We also birded rice fields near Ciudad Neily a bit but there wasn’t too much around. It probably would have been better later in the afternoon.
That night, we tried for the nightjar again after looking for owls. No show on the owls but lots of pauraques, we heard a Barn Owl, had Southern Lapwings, and at 8:30, the nightjar made its appearance on the same fence post. Fortunately, I got a good look at the undertail as it flew. Buff on almost the entire length of the undertail feathers showed its identity to be a Chuck wills Widow and not a hoped for Rufous Nightjar but a Chuck is still a great bird to get in Costa Rica!
Our final morning was nothing more than a walk just outside of town but it still turned up several species, the best of which were Striped Cuckoo, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and Mourning Warbler among Red-crowned Woodpecker, Red-lored Parrots, Orange-chinned Parakeets, and lots of common flycatchers, seedeaters, etc.
Upon doing the bird list, we found that we had identified around 150 species and that was without doing any serious rainforest birding! Add a morning trip to Esquinas and one might even get 200 species during 4 or 5 days in the area. Along with the birds, I also have to mention that the best part of the trip was staying at the Hotel Oleaje Sereno.
Forget about those old bad reviews on Trip Advisor because they pertain to another owner and different management. The new owner and management is nothing short of exemplary. Having visited many hotels in Costa Rica, they gave us some of the best service I have experienced anywhere. They were prompt, friendly, always available, and always went out of their way to help us. They also set up our tours and did an excellent job. Incredibly, the prices we paid for our stay at the Oleaje Sereno Hotel (basic but air conditioned and clean rooms), and Perla del Sur Tours were very low and might be the best value I have ever paid for accommodation and tours in Costa Rica. If you go to Sierpe and are on a budget, this place and their tours are a fantastic bargain. They also had nice birding from their dock (scope the trees on the other side of the river) and Scarlet Macaws foraging in short Beach Almonds next to the hotel.
On my next visit to the area, I would stay at the same hotel and do the same boat trips but I would do more owling on the road between Sierpe and the highway, and do a day trip to Esquinas. With enough time, I would also check sites closer to the border to see if I could add Yellowish Pipit to the Costa Rican list!
See the first post of this birding adventure here.
After driving off from Buenos Aires, we took the route to San Vito in case we ended up having time to check a site for Lance-tailed Manakin and other specialties of the area. The route between Buenos Aires is a nice one due to the lack of traffic although once you start heading to San Vito, the road gets pretty curvy. Before the San Vito turn-off, there are several enticing looking savannah areas but with no obvious means of accessing the grasslands, we just drove on past. However, on the road to San Vito, we did make a quick stop for Pearl Kite, one of 18 raptors recorded over the course of this trip.
This bird was nice enough to stay put and let me snap off a bunch of digiscoped shots.
Once you get to San Vito, you sort of have to guess where to go but the place is small enough to diminish the chances of getting lost. Signs for Ciudad Neily only show up after you turn right and head uphill but that’s why every visiting birding should rent a GPS navigator when using a vehicle. We made a quick stop at Finca Cantaros to see if the Masked Ducks were around but didn’t stay when the owner told us that the zorro waterfowl had left and were only present during the dry season.
Continuing on, we ticked Crested Oropendola from the car as we drove by the entrance to Wilson Botanical Gardens and then took the winding road on down into the lowlands. We made one stop at a small marsh hoping to get Chiriqui (Masked) Yellowthroat but no dice there. On the way down the slopes of the coastal cordillera, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much forest was still there. Lots of great habitat, the area would make a wonderful birding lodge.
It had started to rain once we reached Ciudad Neily so we lunched at one of two nearly identical Nuevo Mundo chinese restaurants and found a hotel. That choice for lodging was the Hotel Wilson and although our room smelled kind of musty, and the hot shower only sprayed out cold water, it was an Ok, secure place to stay. Cost for the room was $40 for a triple. It was interesting to note that herons and White Ibis used a couple trees behind the hotel as a rookery!
After checking in to the hotel, we ventured off in search of wetlands along a road about 8 kilometers south and east of Ciudad Neily. This road heads south from the highway and passes through oil palms, some nice, forested riparian areas, and scrubby fields. We didn’t find any wetlands but were nevertheless, pretty happy with flocks of Brown-throated Parakeets! We got great looks at this uncommon species as they perched in nearby trees and screeched overhead. Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots were also around but the Brown-throateds were the most common.
Further on, we were told that a bridge was out so we opted for looking in a rice field near Rio Claro where a friend of ours had seen Paint-billed Crake last year. We checked a couple of small rice fields that may have been the site but they seemed kind of dry and didn’t really turn up anything so we headed back to Ciudad Neily to check a large rice field complex just south and east of town.
This turned out to be the hotspot for the area and a site that could certainly turn up rarities like Wattled Jacana and who knows what else. Although we didn’t hear any Paint-billed Crakes that day, we did catch the vocalizations of White-throated and Gray-breasted Crakes. Red-breasted Blackbirds were also present and a vegetated ditch out in the middle of the field to the west (accessible by a gravel road with a barbed wire gate) was filled with seedeaters. We got every possible species including one Slate-colored, Plain-breasted ground Dove, and several other birds.
Heading back out to the main road that goes through the middle of the rice fields, we checked roadside ditches sans success but ended up being treated to a beautiful Barn Owl that quartered over the eastern rice field in fantastic light. The prolonged looks and lighting made us feel as if we were living a wildlife documentary experience. We saw the owl drop into the field several times and were more than ready to tick a struggling Paint-billed but we didn’t see it catch anything. Nevertheless, its failed attempts didn’t stop us from dubbing the owl the “Crake Hunter”.
That evening, we ended up eating a pizza in town before crashing for the night with dreams of Paint-billed Crakes in our heads.
The following morning started with coffee before quickly heading back to the nearby rice field. We enjoyed more looks at the owl before checking the main vegetated ditch once again. This time, calls on Susan’s device did elicit a response from one Paint-billed Crake! It called a few times and we may have glimpsed it but it didn’t hang around. That morning, there was more of the same along with groups of Blue-headed Parrots and Brown-throated Parakeets. The other main good bird was Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. We saw at least two and got excellent looks as they quartered over the ground and perched. The best views, though, were of a vulture that perched on a post and let us watch it from nearly arm’s length!
It was around 8 in the morning and we were ready to call it quits on the crake so we decided to not drive back through San Vito and instead, take the quicker coastal route. That turned out to be a very fateful decision. While driving towards Rio Claro, we noticed a big rice field on the right and realized that this was probably the site where Paint-billed Crake had been seen! It was larger and wetter than the other rice fields and no sooner had I walked over to the edge of the field and looked down a wet ditch when a dark crake ran into the rice! Situating ourselves, we played the call and got an immediate response from two birds. In they came through the dense rice plants making a grunting sound. Suddenly, one appeared at the edge and gave us a quick look before ducking back into the rice! We finally had our Paint-billed Crake, a lifer for all three of us, including Robert Dean, the artist who illustrated the Costa Rica field guide (and Panama, and other things). We got even better, prolonged views of this gallinulish bird before finally deciding to try for the Slate-colored Seedeater that had been singing from oil palms on the other side of the highway. That bird refused to show but after having seen the crake, we could have cared less!
Moving on, we decided to hit the hotspot birding road at La Gamba before making the long drive back home. This was another fortuitous decision that yielded brief looks at a Fork-tailed Flycatcher (a bird that seemed to be strangely absent from the savannahs), Scrub Greenlet, Gray-lined Hawk, and other species. At the turn off to Esquinas, we caught up with a few Slate-colored Seedeaters (all young males), and got great looks at definite Rusty-margined Flycatchers. I had seen this species many times in South America but forgot how incredibly close they resemble Social Flycatchers. Even their song sounds kind of similar although their calls are very different.
The drive back home took us through Dominical (where we lunched at a beautiful seaside restaurant, ticked American Oystercatcher, and glimpsed some interesting species of Cetacean (too small for a Humpback, too big for a dolphin)), through Perez Zeledon, and up over Cerro de la Muerte where we made a stop for Volcano Junco and briefly tried for Ochraceous Pewee. That potential lifer didn’t show but oh well, you can’t expect everything in one trip! With 4 lifers under my belt, 7 or 8 new country birds, and 610 species for the year, I don’t mind at all saving the pewee for another day.
Carara National Park and surroundings is always a good bet for birding in Costa Rica. Whether it happens to be your first time in the neotropics or your 20th, the easy access to a variety of habitats and high quality forests in the national park turn the general area into a birding paradise. However, if I had to make a critique or two, they would be:
1. The place is damn hot (at least for me).
2. The park doesn’t open at 6 am, nor does it offer refreshments (like say an ice bath).
3. The pastures between the rainforests of the park and the Tarcoles mangroves may doom the local Yellow-billed Cotinga population. I don’t say this lightly. Since, the cotingas appear to have decreased over the years and the population is probably fewer than 10 individuals, who knows how long this endangered species will persist in the area.
Solutions to such complaints might be:
1. Do the usual fluid drinking thing (and drink the very refreshing, cold coconut water often sold by a guy at the crocodile bridge).
2. The park hours aren’t going to change anytime soon so just bird outside of the park at sites such as the Bijagual road, around Tarcoles, or near Cerro Lodge.
3. We need to plant more fruiting trees near the Tarcoles mangroves and make better corridors between the mangroves and the national park.
Ok, so as far as updates and highlights for Carara go…
1. The Universal Trail is finally done. For the past 5 months, the Universal Trail was closed but now it’s finally done, and there is a new booth for park tickets right there at the the main parking lot. Oh, and the trail looks great too with several spots to sit and wait for Great Tinamous and Spectacled Antpittas to walk on by.
2. Outside of Carara, the vegetation around Cerro Lodge continues to grow and attract birds, and air conditioning is planned for at least some (maybe all?) rooms later this year!
3. Speaking of Cerro Lodge, Striped Cuckoo was showing well from the restaurant the other day, along with flyby Yellow-naped, White-crowned, and White-fronted Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons, Turquoise-browed Motmots (very easy there), and other species.
4. Inside the park, bird song resounded among the immense trees and dim understory. Although it took a while to actually see some of those birds, the morning song ambiance was priceless. Some of the first birds we saw ended up being species like White-whiskered Puffbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Gray-headed Tanagers at an antswarm! We also got fantastic looks at a Black-faced Antthrush that was walking back and forth and a couple of Bicolored Antbirds.
5. Around the same time, we had amazing, close looks at a Great Tinamou that carefully walked on past and stood in the forest as we took photos.
6. Further up the trail, the next big highlight was finding a small group of Marbled Wood Quail while trying to watch a lek of Stripe-throated Hermits! This was a serious treat because these unobtrusive understory birds are rarely seen at Carara. I found them after hearing the quail scratching in the leaf litter. It was kind of ridiculous trying to digiscope birds in very low light conditions that look like leaf litter and are obscured by vegetation but try I did and some shots sort of came out..
After foraging for a bit, the wood quail got up onto a low branch and roosted together. We could actually watch them through the scope for several minutes.
Leaving the wood quail, we got close looks at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, had very good looks at a rare Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, and got onto some nice mixed flock activity before eating lunch at a seaside restaurant (where we also saw a dozen Surfbirds for a new year bird bonus!).
It seems like no matter how many times you bird Carara, you are always in for an exciting, birdy time.
Dominical is this tiny beach village in southwestern Costa Rica that appears to be mostly populated by surfers, people with stylistic tattoos of the moon, and fishermen. Although Hacienda Baru welcomes a fair number of birders, Dominical rarely features in birding tours to Costa Rica. Local birding tours might do more birding in the area but in general, most birders visiting Costa Rica just drive on past Dominical.
It’s hard to pick sites to focus on when planning a two week birding trip to Costa Rica but don’t feel as if you have to leave Dominical out of the picture. The entire area has more much more birding potential than people realize and after having spent a weekend of guiding down that way, I really wish that I could have had more time to explore the general area. The hills above and near Dominical are mostly forested (and accessible by more than one public road), scrubby fields host interesting species, Hacienda Baru, Rancho Merced, and other nearby sites have trails that access fair habitat, there are beautiful beaches in with offshore rocks that host seabirds, and mangroves near Dominical have Mangrove Hummingbird.
That adds up to a lot of possible birds and our local birding club ended up identifying 150 or so of them in just 2 and a half days of rather casual birding. We stayed at the Villas Rio Mar and this hotel turned out to be a fantastic choice for lodging. There are a few different types of comfortable rooms (most of which have air conditioning), a truly excellent restaurant, great service, a tour desk, and gardens that host a fair variety of bird species including Fiery-billed Aracari, Blue Dacnis, and Thick-billed Euphonia.
The gardens can be good for bird photography.Thick-billed Euphonias such as this female, Bananaquits, Tennessee Warblers, Gray-capped Flycatchers, and other species were visiting the palms for flowers, fruit, and bugs.
On our first afternoon, we birded the road in front of the hotel. It parallels the river and goes past fields, riparian growth, and may eventually access better forest habitat. It also offers an excellent view of a nearby forested ridge where scoping may turn up a Turquoise Cotinga and raptors. Although we didn’t connect with the cotinga, we picked up King Vulture, Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Gray-lined Hawk in that area. We studied Gray-breasted Martins, Southern Rough-winged Swallows, and Blue and white Swallows that were perched on the wires, and saw a fair variety of common edge species.
That evening, a pair of Spectacled Owls and a juvenile called from forest next to the hotel. Although they didn’t show up after dinner, we did manage to see one of the Barn Owls that is presently nesting under the bridge just before the police checkpoint.
On Saturday, our group visited Rancho la Merced for a couple hours of birding on their trails. The birding was fairly slow and the trail my group took went through old second growth but I think they also have at least one trail that accesses primary forest. Best birds were White-necked Puffbird, Double-toothed and Gray-headed Kites, Rufous Piha, Blue-crowned Manakin, and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. We also had other common species like Riverside Wren and Black-hooded Antshrike but overall, the birding was much slower compared to the high quality forests at Carara. Nevertheless, I suspect that their trails and the road through the reserve have a fair amount of potential.
Juvenile Double-toothed Kite at Rancho la Merced.
After a wonderful buffet breakfast at the hotel, some of the group opted for cooling off in their huge swimming pool or visiting the village while the rest of us went birding at the mouth of the river. While watching from a shady spot, we saw a small sampling of common shorebirds, herons, and egrets, White Ibis, both Amazon and Green Kingfishers, Plain Wren, and a few other species. Best bird was a Pearl Kite!
We also had that miniature, tropical Tree Swallowish species known as the Mangrove Swallow.
That afternoon, some birded the road again while the rest of us checked out the short trail at the hotel. It doesn’t access very good habitat but the riparian growth and second growth can turn up a fair number of species and the stream hosts small birds that come to bathe in it in the late afternoon. We heard Great Antshrike and Little Tinamou, and saw Eye-ringed Flatbill and one of the best birds of the trip- Black-tailed Flycatcher! This flycatcher is pretty rare in Costa Rica and the one we saw was a long-awaited lifer for yours truly (yee haw!)! It’s remarkably similar to Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher but has paler, olive upperparts and paler underparts. Although the bird we saw did have a bit of color on the breast, it was much more subdued than the contrasting colors of the Sulphur-rumped.
Female Cherrie’s Tanagers have beautiful plumage- they showed their stuff while bathing in the stream.
Female Blue-crowned Manakins also visited the stream along with Riverside Wren, and a few migrant warblers.
The next morning saw us making a trip to the Guapil road and mangroves. This is the next road on the left after Hacienda Baru. I believe it’s signed and I’m glad that we checked it out. The scrubby fields at the beginning of the road had a small flock of Yellow-breasted Seedeaters, at least one Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Smooth-billed Ani, Red-crowned Woodpecker, and other open country species. Although we didn’t get niceties like Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Scrub Greenlet, or Red-rumped Woodpecker, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in that area.
Further on, the road goes next to a small creek and eventually goes along the beach. It ends at the mouth of a river and a nice area of mangrove forest. Upon arrival, we checked the estuary first and got nice looks at several common shorebirds, egrets, Pale-vented Pigeons, and Bare-throated Tiger Heron.
Black-bellied Plover minus the black belly.
When we went to check the mangroves, a short fruiting fig was busy with common bird species, Blue Dacnis, and Thick-billed Euphonia. While watching that tree, Panama Flycatcher also made an appearance and two Mangrove Hummingbirds suddenly showed up and let us watch them for several minutes! They may use dead twigs there for a regular perch because we didn’t see them feeding on any flowers. This elusive, endangered endemic was arguably the bird of the trip. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay long enough for me to get a photo…
On the way back to the hotel, we picked up our 16th diurnal raptor species for the trip in the form of a Laughing Falcon and watched a distant shrimp trawler covered in Brown Pelicans, Brown Boobies, and Mag. Frigatebirds. I probably won’t get the chance to bird Dominical again any time soon but the next time I do, I plan on exploring the forest along roads that go up into the foothills!
This gorgeous butterfly was right at the entrance to the hotel. Please let me know what this is if you happen to know!
This past weekend, I did some guiding and birding down at the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica near the Osa Peninsula. It was the first time I got the chance to go birding in the area and I would go back in a second. I wouldn’t go back there because the birding was spectacular (it was good but not good enough to make me want to call it amazing). No, but I would love to visit Esquinas Lodge again because it might be the only place with easy access to Piedras Blancas National Park.
This national park was originally a sector of Corcovado National Park but was named a separate national park for management purposes. Piedras Blancas protects a large area of lowland rainforest that marches up and down rugged, steeply sloped hills. The rough terrain has kept the forests of this little known park intact but also make it very difficult to visit.
The trails at Esquinas are probably the easiest (and only) ones in the park and are still fairly rough. During the short time we spent on them, we sweat buckets as we climbed up steep steps and sweat some more as we tried not to slip down the hill while descending. One of us also got stung by a stinging caterpillar after barely brushing up against a tree, and we had to climb over at least three fallen trees that were blocking the trail.
No, Piedras Blancas is not for the faint of heart but I would love to get back to those wild, unexplored forests to get a better idea of what lives in them.
The lodge is nice and appeared to be under good management. It’s also surrounded by good forest and very birdy gardens. Species such as Riverside Wren, Orange-billed and Black-striped Sparrows, Buff-rumped Warbler, Orange-collared Manakin, and many more are easily seen around the cabins. From the dining area, we also saw Gray-chested Doves and got amazing looks at a Black-faced Antthrush as it foraged along the edge of the forest.
The lodge and surroundings were especially good for hummingbirds. All four species of hermits were seen visiting the numerous heliconias planted in the gardens and although we didn’t see White-tipped Sicklebill, I would be surprised if this fancy hummingbird species was not present. Other hummingbird species encountered around the lodge (and several were seen as we dined) were: Charming and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin, Purple-crowned Fairy, Garden Emerald, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and Scaly-breasted Hummingbird.
As luck would have it, we did not see our target species; Veraguan Mango and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. We hoped for these recent invaders from Panama along the road to Esquinas Lodge (the La Gamba road) but saw very few plants that were flowering, so May could be the wrong time of year to look for these rare hummingbirds in Costa Rica.
Another target bird we missed along the La Gamba road was Brown-throated Parakeet. Another recent invader from Panama that has moved into Costa Rica following the deforestation that has occurred near the border, this parakeet has been seen with regularity near the town of La Gamba. I seriously doubt it was present during our stay though, because we spent a fair amount of time intently looking and listening for it. Although we saw many Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots as they flew to their evening roosts, there was no sign of Brown-throated Parakeet. Once again, May could be the wrong time of year for this species at la Gamba.
It’s the right time for a few other good things however. Our best birds were:
Crested Oropendola– a new one for Costa Rica for the both of us! We had at least three along the highway between La Gamba and Rio Claro.
Slate-colored Seedeater– I heard at least 5 or 6 near the rice fields between the town and the lodge.
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater– just one, nice looking male.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher– what an elegant, beautiful bird!
Eastern Kingbird– seems to be getting a bit late for these guys. We saw 6.
Southern Lapwing- it’s getting more common in Costa Rica but is always nice to see.
Red-breasted Blackbird– nice looking bird way out in the rice fields.
Unidentified rail– some unknown rail or rails responded with atypical vocalizations from wet rice fields after playback of both Spotted Rail and Paint-billed Crake. I suspect that at least one was a Spotted Rail because it gave a Rallus-sounding call.
Here’s the full list of bird species we saw or heardalong the La Gamba road and near Rio Claro:
Little Blue Heron
possible Spotted and/or Paint-billed Crakes- responded to tape of both species.
Costa Rican Swift
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Back at the lodge and on the trails, our highlights were:
Collared Forest-Falcon– we got alright looks at one hunting along the forest edge.
White Hawk– this beautiful raptor was perched near the lodge.
Laughing Falcon– we also saw this smart looking bird perched near the lodge.
Baird’s Trogon– this regional endemic appears to be fairly common at Esquinas.
Rufous-winged Woodpecker– we got very close looks at this beautiful woodpecker.
Black-striped Woodcreeper– this handsome woodcreeper was especially common at Esquinas.
Bicolored Antbird– we got brief looks at a few that were foraging at a rather inactive antswarm.
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet– heard once and the briefest of looks at this small, rare flycatcher.
Rufous Piha– fairly common in the forest.
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager– Esquinas is a great place for this Costa Rican endemic. They were easy to see right at the lodge and in the forest.
Here is a full list of birds that we recorded around Esquinas Lodge and in the nearby forests of Piedras Blancas National Park: