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Birding Costa Rica

New Citizen Science Project in Costa Rica to Help Monitor Bird Populations

In North America and Europe, breeding bird surveys have played a huge role in estimating the population sizes and distributions of local avifauna. In providing a fairly accurate picture of the numbers and types of birds that occur in a given area, these surveys have been of tremendous importance for conservation and protection of bird species. Over time, they also show where, and the extent to which, bird populations change. That said, I realize that this is old news for most birders in North America and Europe. In fact, there’s a good chance that many people reading this have helped to generate data as a part of breeding bird surveys because most of these bird counts are carried out by citizen scientists.

Trained biologists and ornithologists also carry out many of these counts but birdwatchers from other walks of life form the backbone of breeding bird surveys. I had often wondered if the same sort of annual counting happened in Costa Rica but I haven’t found any information to indicate that was the case. Although bird counts at certain sites and for certain groups of birds (such as waterfowl and waders) are undertaken by both the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica and the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica, there didn’t appear to be anything akin to the large scale citizen science breeding bird surveys that happen in other parts of the world. Christmas counts are done at many sites and are certainly important but the country was lacking surveys done on a much broader scale. From what I have seen, the closest thing to date that has generated data about bird populations in Costa Rica has been eBird. This most wonderful of interactive websites already provides valuable information on bird sightings in Costa Rica but has yet to be fully adopted by the local birding community. Since much of the data in eBird is added by people who visit the country for a birding tour, the sites that receive the most attention are those that already happen to be  heavily visited and well known.

Hopefully, more local birders will use eBird but in the meantime, the Asociacion Ornitologia de Costa Rica (AOCR) has started up a citizen science project aimed at counting and assessing populations of resident species. In other words, Costa Rica finally has a breeding bird survey project! Although several species of birds in Costa Rica nest at various times of the year, a large percentage breed at the start of the wet season. For this reason, the counting period runs from May 15th to June 30th and follows protocols similar to other breeding bird surveys. Spearheaded by bird list coordinator Gerardo Obando, this projec encourages birdwatchers who reside in Costa Rica to get out there and do point counts in their gardens as well as along any number of routes. Participants set up their counting areas with GPS coordinates and once established, each of these is shown on a Google map to avoid overlap with other counts.

Hopefully, enough people will get involved to aid in providing a more accurate assessment of the Costa Rican avifauna. I already have a few routes in mind and will be blogging about my count experiences in June.

It will be interesting to see how many Black-capped Flycatchers turn up at high elevation sites,

if anyone does counts where Volcano Juncos live,

and how many thousands of Barred Antshrikes get reported!

Birding Costa Rica middle elevations preparing for your trip

Recent Birding at Tapanti National Park

It’s always exciting to visit Tapanti National Park because of the avian possibilities that haunt the mossy forests of this middle elevation site. Rarities that have been seen there include Red-fronted Parrotlet, Lanceolated Monklet, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Streaked Xenops, Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, and Sharpbill. Does this mean that you will any of these “quality” bird species? Absolutely not! BUT if you spend a few days intensely birding the park, I would say that you have a fair chance of seeing at least half of the bird species listed above. I wish I had the time to intensely survey Tapanti over the course of a week and hang out with rare birds, but since I simply don’t have the time, I make do with day visits.

This means that my chances of seeing rarities are diminished, but a day visit to this biodiverse park always turns up good birds anyways. Black Guan makes a regular appearance,  Black-faced Solitaires and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes provide background music, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants complain from hidden perches in the forest, Prong-billed and Red-headed Barbets hang out in fruiting trees, Green Thorntail and Black-bellied Hummingbirds are fairly common, Collared Trogon is always cool to see, Dark Pewee and Golden-bellied Flycatcher are rarely missed, and even hawk eagles will show up.

Whether guiding there, or birding with a friend, I love going to Tapanti. Well, except when the rain comes pouring down for hours on end, but if you luck out with cloudy or misty weather, the birding can be pretty darn good. This past Sunday, we had good, cloudy birding weather in the morning that was followed up by a saturating, after-lunch rain. As you may surmise, we didn’t see much in the afternoon, but the morning was OK. It would have been much better if we had run into a good mixed flock, but we just didn’t get lucky enough to cross paths with any. Nevertheless, here is a rundown of our birding day (morning):

After a drive through pouring rain and openly questioning the predictive ability of weather forecasts in Costa Rica, the skies cleared up sometime after Orosi, so we stopped in a birdy looking spot that had thick second growth on one side of the road and shade coffee on the other. A forested hillside on the opposite bank of the river also begged to be scanned for perched raptors and cotingas (one can always wish). Nothing showed up with scans of the hillside but birds on the side of the road were going nuts. They were mostly common, edge species but still fun to watch and included White-naped Brush-Finch, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Brown Jay, Montezuma Oropendola, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow-green Vireo, Slaty Spinetail, Plain Wren, Yellow-faced and Blue-black Grassquits, Variable Seedeater, Grayish, Buff-throated, and Black-headed Saltators, and Blue-gray, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, and Crimson-collared Tanagers.

There was also a  calling Barred Antshrike,

Costa Rica birding

The Barred Antshrike may be widespread, but it’s always cool to see a bird that looks like kind of like a zebra.

Costa Rica birding

White-tipped Dove,

Costa Rica birding

and the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Costa Rica birding

Further on, the colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas just across the bridge was still active.

Sulphur-bellied and Piratic Flycatchers, and Yellow-bellied Elaenias were hanging out in this area, as was one of our best (if dullest) birds for the day; a White-throated Flycatcher. Costa Rica’s only breeding Empid. is most easily seen in the remnant sedge marsh in front of the Lankester Gardens but it can also be found in the Orosi valley and a few other sites.

At the park entrance, we were welcomed by the squeeky calls of Golden-bellied Flycatchers, Tropical Parula, Brown-capped Vireo, Common Bush-Tanagers, and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and Spotted Wood-Quail were also heard in the distance.

Costa Rica birding

Golden-bellied Flycatcher.

Up the road through the park, Black-bellied Hummingbird and Green Thorntail made appearances and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush refused to show itself.

Costa Rica birding

Male Green Thorntail vainly attempting to blend in with a twiggy tree.

Hoping to see Ochre-breasted Antpitta and other uncommon species, we walked about a kilometer up the “Arboles Caidos” trail. The name of this trail means “fallen trees” but a more accurate title would be something like “climb the mountain” or just “damn steep trail”. It could also be an allegory to just falling back down the hill instead of attempting to mountain goat it back down to the road. Improvements have made walking this trail better than in the past (you no longer need to grasp muddy tree roots to pull yourself along), but it’s still a challenge.

Costa Rica birding

The Arboles Caidos trail- gateway to rare middle elevation species and, if you aren’t careful, an acute case of shin splints.

We defy gravity on the Arboles Caidos trail not because we want to climb Chirripo Mountain or train for a triathalon, but because birders have encountered things like Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, and Black-banded Woodcreeper (only place I have seen it in Costa Rica). We didn’t see any of these on Sunday, but we did hear White-throated Spadebill and Chiriqui Quail-Dove as consolation prizes. One day, I am going to spend most of a day on this trail to see what shows up and get recordings of that miniscule antpitta illustrated on the back cover of Garrigues and Dean (it’s Robert’s favorite bird). You don’t have to walk the entire time and it’s a beautiful place to hang out in any case.

We were severely impressed by this red flower on the Arboles Caidos.

Costa Rica birding

We also saw that feisty little creature known as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant.

The rest of the day was dedicated to finding mixed flocks along the main road through the park. Our strategy involved slowing driving along while listening for Slaty-capped Flycatcher and Spotted Woodcreeper with the windows down and sun-roof open. We found a few more species for the day such as Tufted Flycatcher, Spotted Barbtail, and White-throated Thrush, but no luck with mixed flocks. The strategy was a good one until it started to rain and the open sun roof became an ambassador for falling water. Not much else happened after that although I did run into birding guide Steven Easley (we had some nice conversation about Prevost’s Ground-Sparrows), and managed to get pics of Collared Trogon.

Costa Rica birding

I soooo like birds that let me take their picture.

The drive back to the Central Valley was like a ride through a monsoon on steroids. Well, I guess not that crazy but I will say that it was raining so hard that it was more like “jaguars and wolves” than “cats and dogs”. Yep, the rainy season is here but birding Costa Rica is as great as ever (as long as you go birding in the morning).

Birding Costa Rica Introduction mangroves

Birding Tambor Beach(not Barcelo) and the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry

During our recent first family trip to Tambor (see previous post for all logistics) I also got in a good amount of birding. To be accurate, it was “digiscoping”, not birding. Although the two endeavors are similar, they are not the same.

When “birding”, I concentrate on looking for, identifying and studying all birds in a given area.

When “digiscoping”, I also concentrate on looking for and identifying birds, but focus on certain species and lighting situations likely to result in better photos.

On this trip, I decided to focus entirely on digiscoping, even leaving my binos at home. Although the binos would have been far better for the ferry (where digiscoping was impossible but the birding good), I still did OK looking for birds with my scope.

On the 5 AM ferry to Paquera, we saw very few birds as it was too early. Even at the Guayaba island sea stack, there were few birds flying around while in the day they are quite active with Mag. Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies for the most part. It’s probably worth scoping this sea stack for rarities.

The ferry on the way back was when I missed my binos! Birds were fairly active under overcast skies that eventually spat down rain halfway through the trip. A scattering of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were present as we left the Paquera dock. The further out we went, I started seeing more and more Black Terns. Groups of  6 or so flew by the boat again and again until they turned into feeding flocks of dozens and dozens. It was at this point when I began to see a few other species too. A few Common terns were with them while an occasional Brown Booby flapped by. I managed to scope a Sooty Shearwater sharing a  driftwood perch with a smaller Black Tern. My best bird was my only lifer of the trip and one I had hoped for; While scoping through the flocks of Black Terns, I got onto an all dark bird flying low over the water. I immediately knew that I had a Storm Petrel! The two most likely species in the Nicoya gulf are Black and Least. Although I couldn’t see the shape of the tail, this bird was smaller than the nearby Black Terns and flew with quick, snappy wing beats. Since Black SP is about about the same size as the Terns, I got my lifer LEAST STORM PETREL! -On a side note, lifers will from now on be given capital letter status.

A brief 5 second look of a small, all dark bird zipping by and no one on that ferry had any idea of what I had just personally accomplished- lifer number 2527 caught on the fly because I kept scoping the waves despite spitting rain and pitching boat. The bird had accomplished quite a feat too; migrating from a cluster of rocks off of southern California to Costa Rica, avoiding 1000s of voracious Gulls, Jaegers and who knows what else along the way. The Skutch and Stiles guide says that Least Storm Petrel is common in the Nicoya gulf. Well, maybe they are further out, but that is the only one I have ever seen after several ferry crossings.

At Tambor itself, (the village, not the big Barcelo resort), we stayed at Cabinas Bosque. Birding around the Cabinas was fair with good looks at Green-breasted Mangos. The Nicoya Peninsula is probably the best area for this species in CR. Most were staying high up, hawking for insects. Luckily, my wife spotted this juvenile which favored a low perch.

immature Green-breasted Mango

A Common Black Hawk hung out in the backyard.

As did the most common Woodpecker in CR; Hoffman’s. Yes, looks and sounds a lot like a Golden-fronted.

Spishing often brings in wintering Warblers. Northern Waterthrush is very common in wet lowland thickets and mangroves. Prothonotary Warblers are also very common in mangroves but I only got shots of this Waterthrush.

A good birding road and path is at the first right after the Cabinas Bosque, heading towards Paquera.  Staying straight on the road will take you to a path that leads through mangroves and to the beach. I spent most of my time along this road with good results.

Beautiful Orange-fronted Parakeets were pretty common.

So were White-fronted Parrots like the one below although I couldn’t get a shot of one in good light. I also had Orange-chinned Parakeets, Red-lored Parrots and even heard Scarlet Macaw near the mangroves!

Dove diversity was especially high with 7 species recorded. Here is a pair of Common Ground Doves.

This was a good area to see common, second growth species such as Barred Antshrike.

Rufous-naped Wren,

White-tipped Dove quick stepping it across a road,

And witch-like Groove-billed Anis showing off.

Near the mangroves, I was surprised to get excellent looks at Mangrove Cuckoo!

and Northern Scrub Flycatcher- note the stubby bill.

Got nice looks at Green Kingfisher too.

At the lagoon near the beach, there were a few Herons such as this Little Blue.

Always nice to see Whimbrel; a common wintering shorebird in CR.

Other species recorded around Tambor were: Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Black and Turkey Vultures, Crested Caracara, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged, Ruddy-ground and Mourning Doves, Pauraque, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-headed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Fly., Common Tody Fly., Wood Peewee sp., Scissor-tailed Fly., Great-crested and Dusky-capped Flys., Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flys., Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Barn Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Banded and House Wrens, Clay-colored Robin (not so common here!), Tenn., Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-grey, Palm and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Euphonia.