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Introduction

The 8 Most Endangered Bird Species in Costa Rica (and What’s Needed to Save Them)

Endangered species are a sign of our human dominated times. We hear about so many animals being endangered that society has become all too accustomed to hearing about the plight of the Giant Panda or Rhinos disappearing, or so many other species being “endangered”. We hear about the term so much, when people talk about wild animals, we almost expect it to be used. It becomes normal, accepted and that’s insane because endangered means nothing less than a steady path straight to extinction. Gone. Gone for good and there ain’t no way the Labrador Duck is coming back, no more return or revival of the Passenger Pigeon or Carolina Parakeet or any of the other 1,000 plus bird species that have likely gone extinct over the past few thousand years.

If it weren’t for the massive effects we as a species have on our natural surroundings, I gather that “endangered species” would be a categorization limited to flora and fauna with extremely limited ranges and/or specializations that make them more vulnerable to sudden natural changes to their habitat or ecology. It might also be limited to the few species already on their way out the evolutionary door. However, since extinction doesn’t normally happen in the blink of an eye, even those naturally doomed species would be very few in number.

For the most part, the Anthropocene has been a bad and mortal ride for other life on Earth but they aren’t taking this trip alone. We are the ones driving this roller coaster of connected life and unless we make it safer for everyone on board, we’re going to engineer a crash that also takes us out of the picture. Luckily, we have made some adjustments, some solutions to keep more life around. Let’s hope that we can also find solutions for the following 8 most endangered resident bird species of Costa Rica:

Harpy Eagle

The king of Neotropical birds, its monstrous proportions, lethal capabilities, and rarity have given it near mythical status…at least in Costa Rica where its status is presently uncertain. Healthy populations of this top raptor formerly hunted in rainforests in many parts of the country; a number of indigenous artifacts that portray the Harpy Eagle show that it was well known among peoples in Costa Rica for thousands of years. However, this was when much larger areas of unbroken rainforest covered the lowlands and foothills of the Caribbean slope and the southern Pacific slope.

These days, this huge eagle is much less prevalent in Costa Rica if it even still breeds in the country. The only documented sightings since 2009 have been one bird in Tortuguero and another north of Rincon de la Vieja in 2017. Both of these were likely wandering eagles in search of territory but given the amount of forested habitat in a few choice spots and studies assessing Harpy Eagle populations in Panama that showed pairs using around 20 square kilometers of forest, a handful of pairs may still occur in Costa Rica. The places to look for them would be in the Barra de Colorado-Tortuguero National Park forest complex, the northern forests connected to the Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, forests of the eastern Talamancas near Panama, forests on the north slope of Rincon de la Vieja and Guanacaste National Park, and maybe even in remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Sadly, although the Osa Peninsula and the adjacent Piedras Blancas National Park may have enough forest to support 3 or even 4 pairs of Harpy Eagles, since the last sighting there occurred in 2006, I doubt it still lives in that part of the country.

Crested Eagle

If the Harpy Eagle is the king, the Crested Eagle is either a prince or a grand duke of neotropical raptors. It occurs in much of the same rainforest habitats as the Harpy and also acts as a top predator. As with the Harpy in Costa Rica, the Crested Eagle has likewise certainly disappeared from much of its former range.

It is rarely seen but, unlike the Harpy, one or two are spotted just about every year. It may be hanging on (if by a thread) in the same areas where Harpy may still occur, in the forests of the Osa and Golfo Dulce (there have been recent documented sightings), in the Las Tablas area, and in any large area of foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope.

In some places, I can’t help but wonder if this big raptor may have taken up the niche left by the absence of the Harpy Eagle. This might help it survive although it would still surely need large areas of healthy habitat and perhaps habitat that hosts healthy populations of large reptiles.

Solitary Eagle

Back in the 90s, there were fairly regular reports of this massive black-hawk from several sites. Even taking into account the confusion of this species with the similar Great Black-Hawk, it seems that the Solitary Eagle was seen now and then in Virgen del Socorro, near San Vito, in the Osa, and other sites.

Not any more.

I’m not sure what happened but given the paucity of sightings, in Costa Rica, the population of this large raptor must be very low. Since there seems to a fair amount of possible habitat for this species (primary forest in hilly areas), it seems that it should still occur in such places as Braulio Carrillo National Park, in the Talamancas, and elsewhere. But if that is the case, then why aren’t we seeing it more often at suitable, accessible sites?

Unfortunately, I suspect that this species has declined in large part because lower rainfall even in protected areas has resulted in lower productivity and thus fewer large snakes that make up an important (or even vital) part of its diet. At the same time, given all of that available habitat, much of which is inaccessible, it seems that there should still be some pairs that breed in Costa Rica. Needless to say, studies to ascertain what’s going on with this large raptor are urgently needed.

Red-throated Caracara

This specialized wasp eating falcon has become the classic very rare bird of Central America. Sightings are so few and far between, one would never guess that its raucous screams used to play a common role in Costa Rica’s morning chorus. However, that was some time ago, back when there was enough healthy forest (and perhaps other factors) to support large populations of its requisite wasp larvae prey.

Long gone from most parts of its North American range, in the present era of the Anthropocene, the last Red-throated Caracaras of Central America mostly occur where one might expect them; in the final few remaining large forest blocks. In Costa Rica, some continue to be seen in the heart of the Osa Peninsula and others are occasionally found in northern Costa Rica. Wandering individuals might also still show up on the Caribbean slope of the Talamancas and in the foothills in and near Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

Never heard of the Gaunacaste Hummingbird? Don’t feel bad, this lost species is only known from one old specimen. Also called, “Alfaro’s Hummingbird”, Costa Rica’s biggest avian mystery hasn’t been seen since its discovery in 1895.

Recent determined searches have yet to find it but since it can be easily mistaken for the Blue-vented Hummingbird, and because there is more ground to cover, researchers are still looking for it. If you happen to be birding on or near Volcan Miravalles, take pictures of any hummingbirds you find. Who knows, you might rediscover a lost species and the most endangered bird in Costa Rica in one fell swoop.

Speckled Mourner

This becard relative may lack bright, shiny colors but its still high on the wanted list of many a local birder. In Costa Rica, there are very few sightings of this extremely rare bird, and most actually travel to the Canal Zone of Panama or Indio Maiz in Nicaragua to see it!

An uncommon species of lowland and foothill rainforest, this mourner probably needs large areas of intact primary forest, especially along streams. As far as records from the past ten years, there are rumors of it still occurring at La Selva and I know a reputable guide who saw one in perfect microhabitat for it in the Osa (a flat area of primary forest along a stream) but haven’t heard of any other possible sightings. That said, it seems that it should still occur in a few places. Surveys should look for it along streams in lowland and foothill primary forest in all of the largest forest blocks.

Yellow-billed Cotinga

Although this bright white bird with the yellow beak and butterfly flight can be readily seen at Rincon de Osa, don’t kid yourself, this species is seriously endangered. In fact, other than the hummingbird, this cotinga would probably be the most globally endangered species in Costa Rica.

The reasons for this unfortunate designation stem from it needing a particular combination of threatened habitats next to each other in a naturally small range. Those habitats are lowland rainforest and mangroves. Take one away or limit their connection and cotingas have troubles. This is why there is a tiny and nearly extinct population at Carara, and why the only other populations are probably limited to areas near Dominical, in and near the Osa Peninsula, and one or two places in Panama.

The overall world population of this cotinga is not precisely known but it believed to be pretty darn small, maybe even as low as 150 birds. Its main hope for survival are the mangroves and rainforests of the Osa and Golfo Dulce. If it starts to decline there, it’s hard to understand how it would not go extinct.

Bare-throated Umbrellabird

It was hard to choose an 8th species for this list but after thinking about which rare birds have declined the most, I had to settle on this large and bizarre cotinga. Rare for some time, the umbrellabird of Central America hasn’t been getting any more common. One can go birding in perfect habitat time and time again without seeing it and sadly, the reason for not seeing it is simple; there are very, very few of them.

A precious few are seen at La Selva and a couple other sites in the winter months, at Pocosol perhaps all year long, and on breeding grounds in Monteverde but the numbers are always low and sightings rare. Since large areas of suitable forest are present in less accessible areas of Braulio Carrillo and the Talamancas, there is hope that a good number of umbrellabirds also occur there but data are lacking.

Honorable Mentions

Unfortunately, some other birds in Costa Rica are nearly as threatened with extinction or at least require further study. They are:

Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle

Like a large Short-tailed Hawk or Booted Eagle, this aerialist hides in plain sight. However, no matter how well it can hide while soaring up there against the clouds, it still seems to be decidedly scarce. Never common, this raptor nevertheless seem to be much more rare in Costa Rica than in the past.

Wandering Albatross

We don’t know how often this equatorial albatross species uses Costa Rican waters but since it has been recorded from time to time and is critically endangered, it certainly merits a mention.

Galapagos Petrel

The same thing can be said about this pelagic bird.

Great Green Macaw

On account of steep declines in other parts of its range, this beautiful bird is now considered to be “Critically Endangered”.

Thanks to conservation and reintroduction efforts, at the moment, this major bird is fairly easy to see in Costa Rica. However, if we don’t stay firm with protecting this species, including the Mountain Almond trees it depends on, it could be lost.

Gray-headed Piprites

A very little known and little seen bird, there are very few regular sites for it. Studies are sorely needed to asses its status and try to figure out what this bird exactly needs for habitat.

Yellow-tailed Oriole

Common in some other parts of its range, on account of the local pet trade, this large oriole has become very rare in Costa Rica. These days, the best places for it seem to be sites in and near Cano Negro. It also likely lives in a few other scattered sites but not many. Hopefully, increased campaigns against bird trapping will change its status for the better.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

One of Costa Rica’s most recently described endemics is also highly threatened. This is another bird for which ecological studies studies are urgently needed to try and keep it from suddenly going extinct. I realize that can sound alarming for a bird of second growth but given that urbanization has destroyed and overlapped large parts of its extremely small range, and that it doesn’t seem to be all that common, I think the concern is warranted.

Luckily, at the Project Cabanisi, there are people studying and working on the conservation of this towhee relative. Please consider giving some support to this project.

Edit- One Last Important Honorable Mention!

Sedge Wren

I’m not sure how I overlooked this one, thanks to Paz Irola of Get Your Birds! and various local bird conservation projects for the reminder!

In Costa Rica, Sedge Wrens occur in small and localized populations that require sedge or dense, grassy habitats, mostly around Cartago and in some parts of the slopes above the Central Valley. Unfortunately, those same habitats aren’t afforded any protection and are thus typically slated for “development” or for grazing.

Climate change is also probably making the situation worse as drier weather decreases the amount and quality of habitat for the Sedge Wren. Not to mention, birds that occur in Costa Rica aren’t the same as the much more numerous Sedge Wrens of the north. They do not migrate, sound and look a bit different, and are either the same species as similar resident Sedge Wrens in northern Central America, the Grass Wren of South America, or a highly endangered species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama. No matter what their taxonomic status may be, they form a distinct phylogenetic group that is under serious threat.

How to Save Endangered Birds in Costa Rica

The birds on this unfortunate list differ from each other in various ways but the solutions to conserving these and so many other birds tend to be the same. To varying degrees, they all need:

  • Studies to ascertain populations, to see where they occur so we can focus conservation in the right places.
  • Life history studies to figure out what they need for survival as well as the factors that contribute to their decline.
  • Short and long term plans for effective conservation. This can include habitat protection, management, and reforestation, awareness education about the importance of these birds, reintroduction, and other efforts.

Not mention, there are also choices we can make to conserve birds at home and further afield such as eating less meat, using organic products, buying songbird friendly coffee, maintaining a garden with native plants, and supporting organizations like the American Bird Conservancy that actively work to protect birds. It also doesn’t hurt to promote birds and nature connection as much as possible.

If you would like to know more about where to find the birds on this list along with other information about birding in Costa Rica, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book designed to help every birder see and identify more birds in Costa Rica.

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Introduction

3 Fantastic, Easy Costa Rica Birding Day Trips

Long overnight trips aren’t absolutely necessary for great birding in Costa Rica. Oh, they can help (!) and, for some places and birds, are necessary and awesome but they aren’t the only options. “Good birding” is where the habitat it, it’s what you want to see and how you feel like doing your birding.

I see or hear a Lineated Woodpecker every day and it’s always good.

I get a kick out of all sorts of birding but if I had to pick a favorite, it might be listening to the dawn chorus in any high quality habitat. A new day gives rebirth to new birds, listen close and you pick up the sounds of hidden things, of birds whispering, some shouting, daring you to find them when as the day matures.

It’s an exciting celebration of life and the best you can do is just listen and take it all in. Some of my best dawn chorus days were in the Amazonian forests of Tambopata, Peru. Thanks to Rainforest Expeditions, I could venture into the early morning forest, sit and listen, and hear well over 100 species in less than an hour. Even if you stayed in bed and just listened, you might count the sounds of 60 species including occasional Blue-headed Macaws, Black-throated Antbirds, and Lemon-throated Barbets.

Once in a while, my roommate and friend Rudy Gelis would do that, calling out bird names from each of our respective mosquito-net dens. “Orange-cheeked Parrot”, “Gilded Barbet”, “Spotted Puffbird”!

Their names sound like candy, to the birding eye and searching mind, they were indeed blueberry delight, chocolate-covered licorice, and heavenly citrus sorbet. In Costa Rica, we also have our dessert birds and many of them can be seen on easy birding day trips from the San Jose area. For the following three suggestions, you don’t even have to be there at the break of dawn. That’s always nice but arrive later and there will still be birds:

Poas and Varablanca

From the San Jose area, especially near the airport, the highland habitats of Poas are a quick 45 minute drive. Make your way up the mountain and a healthy variety of highland species are suddenly in reach. The best habitat is on the upper parts of the road to Poas, a few spots between Varablanca and Los Cartagos, and on the San Rafael de Varablanca road.

Roadside birding can turn up anything from Mountain Elaenias to Resplendent Quetzal and Barred Parakeets. Seeing the quetzals usually depends on finding their food source but the fun part of that is seeing other birds during the search. Mixed flock action often hosts one or two species of chlorospingus, Slaty Flowerpiercers, Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, and others of the cool mountain bio-realms.

Roadside birding can even include such crazies as Black Guan, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and Buffy Tuftedcheek. Get up there and bird but don’t go on a Sunday afternoon. That’s when local motorcycle and car enthusiasts tend to flock to the scene and “call” in a most non-melodic fashion.

Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro

Also in the Poas area, these middle elevation sites could be mixed with higher elevation birding. If you have just one day to go birding from the San Jose area, I recommend a full day that includes Cinchona and Poas. If you have more than one day to work with, it’s worth allocating a day each to high elevations and middle/foothill elevations of Cinchona and Socorro.

Cinchona is a classic site with fantastic close looks at hummingbirds, barbets, and toucanets. For many birders, it feels like a dream come true and I guess it sort of is. I’ve been there dozens of times and still look forward to every visit.

Virgen del Socorro is a bit further down the hill and is slightly rough enough to require a four wheel drive vehicle. At 800 meters, you start to get into foothill tanager territory shared with Slaty-capped Flycatchers, White Hawk, and many additional species. Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga are both very rare but always possible. I wish I could say the same for Solitary Eagle; although there are reliable sightings of this species from this site 30 years ago, I haven’t heard of any since. Even so, the connection of forests in this area to more forest in Braulio Carrillo National Park makes for wishful thinking. Keep an eye on the skies and take pictures of big raptors (as if a birder wouldn’t…)!

Nectar and Pollen and Quebrada Gonzalez

Nectar and Pollen might sound like a boutique for bees but for hummingbirds and the birders who like them, this is the real deal. A new site just outside of Braulio Carrillo, the extensive flowering Porterweed with Snowcaps and coquettes makes Nectar and Pollen a nice substitute for the presently inaccessible site known as El Tapir.

The friendly owner charges a very reasonable entrance fee and requires a reservation to open. Contact him at the Nectar and Pollen Reserve Facebook site. If you have any difficulties communicating, let me know, I would be happy to help.

The foothill rainforests of Quebrada Gonzalez are just uphill from Nectar and Pollen and are the perfect accompaniment to edge birding. The forest trails can turn up excellent mixed flocks of tanagers and many forest species including shade-loving shy birds like Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, ant-following birds, and many other species. The very fortunate birder could also find less common species including anything from Olive-backed Quail-Dove to Yellow-eared Toucanet, the Caribbean slope subspecies (and possible split) Streak-chested Antpitta, and maybe even Black-crowned Antpitta.

If you feel like reviving for a day in rich foothill rainforest, Quebrada Gonzalez is the perfect place to do this. Since the park doesn’t open until 8 a.m., it’s worth visiting Nectar and Pollen from 6 to 8 before going to Quebrada Gonzalez.

These sites might sound familiar to folks who have followed this blog. I have indeed extolled the birding virtues of such places in more than one piece but it’s not without warrant. These are places with easily accessible, quality habitat, places that always come with an automatic chance of seeing something rare or unexpected. To learn more about these and other places to go birding in Costa Rica, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

If you would like a local guide who knows where the birds are, I would be happy to be of help, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

I hope to see you some day in Costa Rica, until then, may you have long days and pleasant nights, and happy birding!

Categories
Introduction

A Good Year for Violet-Green Swallows in Costa Rica

Swallows are perhaps the most beautiful of overlooked birds. Naturally painted in metallic hues of blue, jade, and purples, highlighted with orange and adornments of red. If a child used their favorite markers on thick aluminum and then held that metal creation up to be touched by the magical shades of sunset, Barn Swallows take flight.

The Tree Swallow is one of the first birds I remember. Not from seeing one, no, that didn’t happen until I could go to where they actually lived. I recall it from the Niagara Falls public library, kneeling on the pumpkin orange carpet to look at illustrations in some unknown, important bird book for kids. The beautiful blue colors highlighted with green iridescence caught my 7 year old eye. It’s a while ago, I can’t say what I was exactly thinking but it was probably a combination of, “How could that bird exist? Did it really look like that? Where can I see it?”

As common and beautiful as Barn Swallows are, we may appreciate them but when they swoop low over the cut summer grass, when flocks of swallows do their aerial acrobatics high overhead, how many of us stick with them? As frequent as Tree Swallows are at the ponds and wetlands of the north, it’s not easy to stay focused on high-flying silhouettes. When tanagers are calling, when a Hook-billed Kite is soaring into view, it’s easier to take bins off of birds that are too quick to follow.

These birding factors aren’t limited to North America, they are universal simply because it’s always easier to watch birds that are easier to see. As eye-catching as the plumages of many swallow species are, it takes drive, patience and determination to truly watch them, stay with them, lose yourself in the meditation of Hirundines.

Using that official name for the family brings up a recollection of birding in Costa Rica during the 90s. A friend of mine and I were birding around Carara when we ran into a lone British birder, Steve. During our chance meeting on the famous “River Trail” in Carara National Park, the usual birding exchange took place as we attempted to wipe off the sweat that comes easy and constant at that site.

Steve worked at keeping his glasses clear with a handkerchief. “I’m sure I saw a Collared Plover, Royal Flycatcher. It was good to catch up with the Hirundines.”

“What? Hurundeines?”

“Hirundines, you know swallows.”

Finally catching up with his British pronunciation. “Ahh, of course Hirundines!”

Hirundines, because the family is more than swallows and even that name doesn’t do them justice. They are also martins and they are more aerialists than anything. Perching on wires and branches, as if eagerly waiting to once again get back up into the sky and into action, back into the performance of their lives, they chatter with anticipation.

It’a all about survival but when watching aerialists do their thing, one can’t help but wonder if they love it, if they take joy in zipping through the skies and that’s what can help with the mental focus. Contemplate the thrill, the fantastic happiness of birds in flight and it becomes easier to stick with swallows flitting around way up there near the clouds.

One of the unsung good things about swallows is that they don’t hide in the vegetation, they are up there in plain view begging to be watched. If you keep watching them, you may also see something rare, pick out the odd bird that flew a bit too far, flew out of its usual range.

A Cave Swallow from Costa Rica.

Today, that reminds me of other memories of meditative birding, finding rare birds while looking at gulls in the Niagara River. When we watch gulls from the top of the Niagara Gorge, it’s like looking at swallows except that the birds are far down below. They don’t have the jewel colors of the swallows, attributes for identification and appreciation are more subtle in nature. There are shades of pale and gray, patterns and shapes of dark in the primaries, the color of an eye. As with Hirundines, you have to study them for a time, keep watching and lose yourself in gulls. It’ usually cold, better be dressed for it!

It’s also meditative birding and today I can’t help but think of Ned. I can still see him there, bent over to prop himself on a railing at Sir Adam Beck to better study the birds down below.

“Do you see the California Gull?”

“Yes, I think I got it, slightly darker back…the black in the primaries make a trapezoid-like shape..cool, California Gull on the Niagara River!”

On that or another cold day Ned Brinkley, Alec and I drove further north to look for a supposed Curlew Sandpiper. As we expected, it turned out to be one of the hardy sandpipers, a Dunlin. But there were other birds to look at, several of which were of another family beautiful yet commonly under-appreciated; the ducks.

We had all seen scaups and Canvasbacks on many occasions, but on that bright morning, the light was hitting them just right, the iridescent colors of their heads rivaled the metallic shades of swallows, the intricate patterns on their flanks was natural calligraphy. They were birds we had seen many times but on that beautiful morning in Hamilton, Ontario, we marveled over them. It was a while ago now, I can’t recall exactly what Ned said but know that he was for sure saying a lot, talking about the unsung beauty of those birds, maybe talking about languages, laughing, enjoying life to the fullest.

I hadn’t seen Ned in a while but we occasionally kept in touch, I had hoped to go birding with him again. In keeping with his generous and helpful nature, at one point, it’s no surprise that he was a major help in finding images for the birding apps I work on. Others, like Alvaro Jaramillo and George Armistead, have perfectly expressed how special of a person Ned was, what an incredible loss his passing is to the birding community and honestly, the world in general. So, I won’t go on about that here. But I will say that he will be dearly missed and that I will be thinking of him and the many other people whose lives were made better by knowing him as I meditate on swallows, hoping for a Violet-green. Ned would have been interested in knowing that it looks like it’s going to be a good year in Costa Rica for that beautiful bird.

Categories
Introduction

First Birds of 2020- Common Species of the Central Valley

Today, the main subject of birder talk revolves around the first species of the year. Whether checking off the first bird of a Big Year or just casually perusing the sticks in the backyard through a personal vapor trail of bird-friendly coffee, we can’t help but mention the first bird identified. Birders who count birds by ear will likely hear the call of a chickadee, House Sparrow or other backyard denizen, those who only like to watch might see a crow or Mourning Dove or White-winged Dove if you happen to be in Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the inaugural bird species of 2020 also depends on where one happens to start the birding year. For many of us local birders, we won’t begin the year in rainforest, instead we will hear the weird whistles of Great-tailed Grackles and other urban garden species of the Central Valley. However, it’s not all grackles and Great Kiskadees in the urban zone. If a birder lives near enough green space, quite a few other species are also possible. I began this morning with the calls of Rufous-naped Wrens heard outside the bedroom window followed by several other species from the front of the homestead.

The birds I saw and heard were expected and quite a few more have yet to make themselves known. I also keep looking because many other species are possible especially during the winter months. Will some uncommon wintering wood-warbler fly into view? Will a rare for Costa Rica Cooper’s Hawk stalk the riparian zone down the street? You have to keep looking, as the Urban Birder says, “Look up!”

Coming to Costa Rica? I hope so, my inaugural 2020 bird list may give an idea of what to expect when you get here:

Red-billed Pigeon
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
White-fronted Parrot
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Great Kiskadee
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Rufous-naped Wren
Cabanis’s Wren
Clay-colored Thrush
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Montezuma Oropendola
Baltimore Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Summer Tanager
Grayish Saltator

Categories
Introduction

Looking for Year Birds in the Pacific Lowlands of Costa Rica

Another year is quickly coming to an end and with it comes the planning, the possible rush to pick up those final year birds. The urge to suddenly race to a distant wetland, strain the ears for late nocturnal migrant, or trudge through mountain nights in a quest for uncooperative owls depends on how serious the year list is. For us, the endeavor has been a bit more easy going. Restrained by time and responsibilities, we haven’t gone to chase that Lovely Cotinga near Turrialba nor even the extremely cooperative Aplomado Falcon that was in San Isidro.

But, our birding year has still been marked by serious attempts to bird in the right places and along those lines, we have had some fine success. Thanks to an invitation from the San Vito Birding Club, we got the chance to see Lance-tailed Manakin and many other year birds. Thanks to guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we heard Ocellated Crakes and other key species in Durika, and also visited several other places in Costa Rica.

Since I have also done a fair bit of guiding on my own, my personal year list has more species than that of Team Tyto but even so, our team list is at the cusp of an impressive 600 species. Thanks to a recent trip to the Pacific lowlands and more chances for birding before January first, we should surpass that number by at least a few species. Some of the highlights and musings from that recent trip:

Puntarenas pays off

We would have seen more if we had taken the ferry but with no time for the boat, we had to settle on a quick 45 minute afternoon stop . This still worked out because the bird activity out in the Gulf of Nicoya was good and included several gulls and terns flapping around as well as a squadron of pelicans group diving for fish. I wonder what else was out there that day? We were pleased with our looks at Franklin’s Gulls, Elegant Terns, and our first, long overdue Black Terns of the year. It was the birdy type of day where I wish we could have stayed longer but we had other places to go.

Curlew at Punta Morales!

Long-billed Curlew is a rare but regular migrant to Costa Rica, it seems like we get 3 or so each winter in the Gulf of Nicoya. The salt ponds at Cocorocas near Punta Morales are a good site, this past visit finally paid off with one sleeping curlew way out there with the Whimbrels. Since it was a bit far off and was hiding that extra long beak, the bird didn’t stand out like a curlew should. However, with careful scoping, we could see that the tawny colored bird with the orange belly was too much bigger than the Whimbrels to be a godwit and it also had a large, prominent pale eye ring. A very good year bird and the only one at Morales but it was still fun to also see dozens of Wilson’s Plovers and two Collared Plovers among other species. There were chances at year Mangrove Cuckoo, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, and Mangrove Rail but we just didn’t have the time to find them.

Las Trancas in the morning

After staying overnight in Canas, we left early for the hour drive to one of the most accessible wetland sites near Liberia, the Las Trancas farm fields. A large, flat area used for growing sugarcane and rice, this site is an excellent hotspot that has turned up several rare birds. Winter is the best time to visit, November in particular for one of our main targets, the elusive and local Spotted Rail.

A Spotted Rail from a couple years ago at Las Trancas.

As small numbers of Dickcissels flew overhead, We checked the site, sometimes in conjunction with another local birder, Rodrigo Lopez, and eventually found our year Tricolored Munias. Scanning vegetation and skies failed to turn up hoped for Northern Harrier and White-tailed Hawk nor the Aplomado Falcon that had been recently seen but we did have nice views of Harriss’s Hawk and got a quick look at a hunting Merlin.

Try as we might for the rail, it just would not respond so we reluctantly left for a quick visit to the beach. At Playa Panama, we were entertained by schools of small fish breaching to avoid larger fish that also jumped on occasion. Brown Pelicans would then follow suit, actively flying in to see what they could scoop out of the water. At one point, an adult Brown Booby also appeared to do its diving thing.

On the way back, while driving through Las Trancas, frantic waving from Rodrigo caught our attention. Yes, he had just had the rails along with a Sora! After showing us where they had finally come to the edge of the wet rice, we had glimpses of the Sora and heard at least two Spotted Rails. Although they refused to show themselves, a heard bird is still a year bird! The final interesting sighting at this excellent site was a Great Egret that had caught a small snake.

Rincon de la Vieja

Our next destination was Rinconcito Lodge where I would be guiding a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip. We didn’t have anything on the drive there although I did see some interesting open oak savanna habitat that merits early morning bird surveys.

During our stay at Rinconcito, we birded around the lodge and visited two different areas of the national park. Although we did pick up a few year birds, overall, the birding was very slow. This may have been a result of windy and rainy weather as well as not being able to enter the park before 8 a.m.. That said, highlights included great views of Ruddy Woodcreeper, one hard only Tody Motmot, and excellent looks at Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have the time nor appropriate weather to see more of the uncommon species that live in Rincon de la Vieja.

On the drive back, we seriously tried for American Kestrel sans success. Two Pearl Kites and a male Merlin eating a Barn Swallow were consolation but additional year birds for Team Tyto will have to wait for another day.

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Introduction

Birding Niagara, Birding Costa Rica

I usually write about birding in Costa Rica; the wealth of biodiversity helps, it acts as a constant, swirling pool of ideas, stories, and images. This, week, though, I am back in Niagara Falls, New York, in the land of gulls for a short trip with my daughter to see family, visit DiCamillo’s bakery, feast on pizza from Goodfellas..you know, the important things. I’m also giving a presentation on the fantastic birding found in Costa Rica and have of course done a bit of birding in Niagara during my stay.

There aren’t as many birds in Niagara as in Costa Rica but it’s still great. I know someone from Costa Rica who would love to be here, love to see Ring-billed Gulls walk in parking lots, be thrilled by a phalanx of Double-crested Cormorants flying overhead, would be elated to see Blue Jays, cardinals, catbirds, and chickadees. Only one of the aforementioned makes it to Costa Rica and not in big numbers either. The rest would be lifers for her just as important as Bay-headed and Silver-throated and Emerald Tanagers would be for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Whether birding is “great” or not only really refers to how we want to play the game, what we want to see and how important those sightings are. Although the land bridge and corridor between Lakes Erie and Ontario is awaiting the next wave of migrants, it’s still great to be birding here, these are some of the reasons why:

Goat Island– My favorite site in these here parts, where I first watched birds, riding my bike there during May and hearing the old woods resound with dozens of wood-warblers, vireos, you name it. Even if I wasn’t birding on the island between the cataracts, it would still be a special place. The sound of the rapids and crashing water is a constant as are gulls flying above the river and sitting on the rocks. Yesterday, even outside of the November gull season, I still had three species, one of which was a Lesser Black-backed. We are still waiting for that one to make it onto the country list in Costa Rica.

Semipalmated Plover– On the Third Sister Island, on a small wet rock that inched its way into a fierce roaring river, we saw a young Semipalmated Plover. I told my daughter, “That bird is from the Arctic!” She didn’t say much, was too busy looking for ancient pre-dino time fossils in the rocks. I hope it joins thousands of its kind that are already in Costa Rica right now, feeding on tropical mud flats, watching the skies for deadly falcons.

Waxwings– It’s always nice to see waxwings, especially when they are such rare choice migrants in Costa Rica. In Niagara, I see them every time I venture outside to look for birds. There they are, many are juveniles, whispering from the tops of trees before flying off in search of berries.

Cooper’s Hawk– Another common bird in Niagara but one that is always a challenge for the Costa Rica year list. I point them out to my daughter. She says, “Cool!” I say that they eat pigeons and squirrels, she says, “Aww, poor squirrels” but she doesn’t feel too bad, she knows that the hawks have to eat too. We have some that make it all the way south every winter but there can’t be a lot. I wonder how many are in Costa Rica every winter season? Maybe less than ten?

Eastern Screech Owl– We went to a campground with cousins, there was a fire, smores, we even carved jack-o-lanterns and I also saw a few birds. A few I also only heard including the screech-owls giving their “winny” call in the otherwise quiet dead of the night. I think I also heard bobolinks as they migrated overhead.

No kiskadees, no flocks of colorful birds, no vultures, no screeching parakeets– Such regular aspects of birding Costa Rica are absent in these here parts right now but I’ll be back to experience them again soon enough. In the meantime, I relish the waxwings, gulls, nuthatches, and even the starlings before returning to a small country with more than 920 species on the official list.

Crowned Woodnymph- yet another common, colorful bird in Costa Rica.

Want to learn about the best sites for finding birds in Costa Rica and how to identify them? Support this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

March, 2015 Birding News for Costa Rica

It’s March and this being the high season for birding in Costa Rica, I thought that some birding news, tips, and reminders would be pertinent:

  • The main road to Cerro de la Muerte is now open: Yes, it was closed for most of February because part of the road fell away. Yep, it collapsed after heavy rains but according to the news, they have fixed enough of it to not have to detour through the mountains south of San Jose.
  • Good birds in southern Costa Rica: According to eBird (a fantastic resource, please help by contributing your sightings), Savannah Hawk, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and Brown-throated Parakeet have all been seen near La Gamba and in wetlands south of Ciudad Neily.
  • Carara is kind of dry: It’s been way too dry around Carara and that’s not so good for birds that are adapted to humid forest. All of the species are still there but you might have to work harder for them than in the past. The park still opens at 7 at this time of year.

Royal Flycatchers are still reliable.

  • Lanceolated Monklet at the La Fortuna Waterfall: A number of local birders have connected with this rare species at the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Perhaps it’s more vocal at this time of year? Despite the parade of tourists and loud leaf blowing in the parking lot before it opens, the trail can also be good for White-whiskered Puffbird, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, tanager flocks, and other species.
  • Prevost’s (Cabanis’) Ground-Sparrow: It was wonderful to see an article on this endemic ain the local newspaper. This species requires a lot more attention than it has been given and is very likely Endangered. Local ornithologist, Luis Sandoval, and other researchers at the Univeristy of Windsor Mennill Lab have published a study arguing for species status and propose White-faced Ground Sparrow as a new name for this country endemic. It’s a relief to see this much needed study, I hope it spurs much needed conservation efforts for this species. Thank you Luis and the Mennill Lab! On another note, the ground-sparrow has also been reliable in a riparian zone next to the big WalMart near the airport to Alajuela. BUT, the security situation looks a bit sketchy so if possible, it would be best to watch from inside the fenced off parking lot. I haven’t heard of any incidents but it looks like a spot where a mugging could happen.
  • There are at least two birding boat tours on the Tarcoles River: There are two and I have heard that some of the crocodile tours are also good for birds. The two birding focused ones are the Mangrove Birding Tour, and the Fantastic Birding Tour. Although I haven’t checked out the “fantastic”, I suspect it’s similar because they both go to the same places. Lately, tours on the river have been good for the thick-knee, Collared Plover, and Southern Lapwing. The pygmy-kingfisher can also show on any boat trip, as can Mangrove Hummingbird (beware confusion with Scaly-breasted). The wood-rail can appear too but it’s always tough.

This Mangrove Hummingbird is actually from Mata de Limon.

  • Raptors, Quetzals, and Cave Swallows: Raptors are scarce as always but the Arenal forests seem good for hawk-eagles, quetzals are nesting at the usual sites and I have seen several on the road to Poas Volcano, including right at the Restaurant Volacan. As for Cave Swallows, myself and a couple friends saw at least 20 along the road to Chomes. New country bird for me, it makes you wonder where they are coming from and how many more are around.

This quetzal is from the Poas area.

  • Migrants: We are starting to see reports of migrants coming through. Please report whatever you see on eBird even if it happens to be a common bird like Least Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Warbling Vireo because those “common” birds are rare vagrants in Costa Rica.
  • Big Day this weekend: Not really news, but I am doing one this weekend with Robert and Susan. It’s going to be good birding no matter how many species we get. Wish us luck!
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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

What’s the Deal with Yellow-billed Cotinga at Cerro Lodge

If you have birded the Carara area during the past seven years, are birding it some time soon, or would love to raise the bins in that birdy place at some treasured future time, then you have probably heard about Cerro Lodge. Read any recent birding trip reports from Costa Rica and there’s a fair chance that Cerro Lodge gets a mention. This is because it’s one of the only ecolodges within close striking distance of the national park, Black and white Owls sometimes hang out with you during dinner (not as regular as the past but they still show up from time to time), and the birding is pretty dang good.

You might see a Red-lored Parrot feeding next to the lodge.

One of the most special of bird species possible at Cerro Lodge is the Yellow-billed Cotinga. This peace dove looking bird from avian dreams is an endangered species (and may be close to being critically so), and only lives from the delta of the Tarcoles River south to around David, Panama. If that range wasn’t small enough, the bird also lives in a very specific and limited ecotone, that of mangroves and rainforest. Nope the picky species just can’t have one or the other. It needs both and they need to be close to each other.

A male Yellow-billed Cotinga from Rincon de Osa, the most reliable spot in the world for this species.

At Cerro Lodge, you can actually see a male just about every morning as it displays on a distant bare tree in the mangroves. Although us birders are accustomed to focusing our eyes and bins on distant objects, in this case, the “distance” is kind of extreme. I’m not sure how far away that tree is, but the bird looks like an honest to goodness speck. If it weren’t snow gleaming white, we wouldn’t be able to see it all but luckilly (I guess), that bright light plumage lets us tick it off our lists albeit with a big fat BVD next to the sighting (no, not as in underwear; “better view desired”). It helps when the bird swoops from one branch to the next because then we know that we are looking at a bird and not some lost snowflake or trick of the eye.

The spot to look for the cotinga is just to the left of this image.

So, the big question is, “Where does that bird go?” It doesn’t stay in the mangroves all day and probably moves to and from the park. At least that’s the theory since it has to go find food somewhere. Although it probably passes right through Cerro Lodge at some time or another, it seems that at least one male shows up around 200 meters down the road from the Cerro Lodge entrance from time to time.

This one showed up down the road from the lodge last week.

This species is quite the expert at putting a branch in between you and the camera.

and off it goes...

The other main question is “How many live in the area?” Although the answer to that one is unknown, unfortunately, it’s probably “very few”. When Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre fame  carried out surveys for Yellow-billed Cotinga, they estimated that there might be a dozen or less in the Carara area and that the population was, likely, slowly declining. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that this doesn’t add up to a happy future for this species at Carara. Take into account the increasingly dry climate around Cerro Lodge and the national park, and the future for this species around Carara isn’t nearly as bright as the cotinga’s plumage.

Reforestation in the much needed corridor seems unlikely (not impossible but those cows do need their pasture after all…) but the species probably wouldn’t survive in a drier climate in any case. Nevertheless, since I don’t have the time to do it myself, I hope that others can somehow keep this species going in the area because when we stop seeing a male or two displaying from that distant tree, Yellow-billed Cotingas at Carara will always be lost in the haze.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction

More Good Luck with Lowland Birding in Costa Rica

Last week, I started out a day of guiding at El Tapir. We arrived just after dawn, the sky was overcast, and the old butterfly garden was jumping with birds. A group of Black-faced Grosbeaks fed on fruits in a low tree, Silver-throated Tanagers were flying back and forth, and Black and Yellow Tanagers (our only looks for the day) came to the edge of the canopy. Several Black-mandibled Toucans moved through the trees along with flock after flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.

Down in the flowers, in contrast to a visit just a week before, we had several species of hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Plumeleteer. The Rufous-taileds were still there but may have come out later in the day, and although the coquette was elsewhere, we did get a few Snowcaps! I don’t know where they had gone on other days, but on Friday, they were back, hopefully for good.

This Green Thorntail was still around.

We ventured into the dark morning woods and heard a few birds but it was quieter than other days. Maybe they knew something we didn’t because not long after, it started to rain…and never stopped. We birded for a couple of hours from the shelter of the main building and did pick up a few other species during brief respites but the rain wasn’t going to stop. So, instead of hanging out in the same rain at Quebrada Gonzalez, we decided to head into the lowlands. My client still needed Keel-billed Toucan and maybe the weather would be better?

That turned out to be a lucky choice because, yes, we managed to escape the rain, got a couple of Keel-billeds at our first stop, and had serendipitous birding for the rest of the day. After seeing the toucans, we checked out the entrance road to La Selva around 10:30 am. It was extremely quiet but I had a hunch that would change. We eventually got some birds near the second entrance gate, the first being a Laughing Falcon perched over the road.

Not long after, we watched a Rufous-tailed Jacamar and a Long-tailed Tyrant and then bird activity exploded like a feather bomb. It wasn’t just the mixed flock I had hoped for but flyby parrots as well, the highlight being a pair of Great Green Macaws that perched in a nearby tree! We had been hearing the macaws as they slowly approached us and I hoped to see them fly past. Instead, they stopped and let us admire them as other species showed up in the surrounding trees.

I don't get to see these perched that often.

As with a typical mixed flock experience, almost everything shows at once. Luckily, the birds weren’t streaming through the canopy, so we got good looks at most of them. I forget which bird started off the madness but things went something like this:

“There’s the jacamar”.

“Oh, here’s a Bright-rumped Attila! Got it? Band-backed Wren? Got it?”

“What’s that on the wire?”

“Gartered Trogon!”

“Here’s a Fasciated Antshrike. White-collared Manakin. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Cocoa Woodcreeper calling. Yellow-billed Cacique in the open! Squirrel Cuckoo. Rufous-winged and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. Plain Xenops. Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Nice looks at Cinnamon Becard. Lesser Greenlet. Bay Wren in the open. Golden-winged Warbler. Never mind (the name we gave to Passerini’s Tanager). Buff-throated Saltator.”

We also managed to scope a few birds in the distance including Scarlet-rumped Cacique, before leaving for lunch. Regarding lunch, I thought that Rancho Magellanes would be a good choice. It’s a 10 minute drive from La Selva, not long after Selva Verde, and can turn up some good birds on the river. The forest canopy can also be scoped from the restaurant and they serve good food for good prices. Although we didn’t see any birds while eating, we were surprised by a Summer Tanager that flew down right next to us (one or two feet away). After it flew to a nearby perch, I put a french fry (chip) on the table and it immediately came down to snatch it.  That was a first for me.

That's a french fry.

After lunch, we heard but did not see an Olive-backed Euphonia. However, that miss was quickly made up for by a male Snowy Cotinga perched right where it should be- at the top of a huge bare tree!

Can you see the cotinga?

A good day so far and it wasn’t over yet. We went back to the entrance road and although the activity didn’t approximate that of the morning, we still saw quite a bit with several species coming to a fruiting fig (including euphonias we had missed), good looks at Gray-headed Kite and both tityras, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and heard all three tinamous. Yes, a good day indeed. I woud love to see how many species I could detect by birding along the entrance road and edge of La Selva at dawn.

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biodiversity birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction

A Monklet Says Hello in Costa Rica

Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.

This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.

It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.

We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:

It even caught a bug!

The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!