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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Costa Rica is a great place to see Resplendent Quetzal

It may be revered in Guatemala and grace cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, but the easiest place to see Resplendent Quetzal has got to be Costa Rica. You can definitely watch them at highland sites in Chiapas, Mexico but there aren’t too many places that are readily accessible where the birds are common. The extensive highland forests of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may hold the largest numbers of quetzals, but much of these forests are inaccessible, and only a few sites with little infrastructure can be visited. In western Panama, like Costa Rica, it’s not too difficult to see Resplendent Quetzal because of good tourist infrastructure (roads, trails, guides, information, accommodation) in excellent habitat. This is only in the westernmost part of Panama, though, whereas in Costa Rica, Resplendent Quetzals can be found in cloud forests nearly throughout the country.

Quetzals in Costa Rica even occur in the mountains that overlook the central valley although most birders see them in one of two places: 1. Monteverde, or 2. on Cerro de la Muerte.

Quetzals at Monteverde aren’t very common but there are always some around and guides for the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves usually know where some of the birds are.You might even see a quetzal or two along the road up to the Monteverde reserve but it’s always easier to see them with a guide. The reason for this is because quetzals are often found near their preferred food source of “wild avocados” and guides will know where and when these trees are in fruit, and may also know the whereabouts of a nest.

On Cerro de la Muerte, most people go to the Mirador de Quetzales or San Gerardo de Dota. The Mirador de Quetzales is located just off of the main road before reaching the turn-off to San Gerardo. Take the quetzal tour, and the owner (Eddie Serrano?) will bring you to fruiting wild avocados for typically fantastic views of one or several quetzals.

Further up the main road is the turn-off for San Gerardo de Dota, a small community in a deep valley not too far from the summit. It takes about two and a half hours to drive there from San Jose and vehicles descending into the valley may need four wheel drive to get back out during the rainy season. This may not be true but that’s the way it looked to me when I was there last month. If you stay in the valley, I’m sure your hotel will give you the best assessment of the driving situation.

Descending to San Gerardo de Dota.

This is the valley where hundreds of birders have seen their first Resplendent Quetzal while lodging at Savegre Lodge, Trogon Lodge, Dantica, or a few other hotels in the area. All of these hotels offer morning quetzal tours. You could also follow the signs for “observacion de quetzales” and pay to see quetzals, or, if you get up there early enough, you can drive along the road through the valley and just stop when you see a crowd of tourists staring at something in the trees. They will almost certainly be looking at a quetzal but you usually have to do this in the morning because if they aren’t looking at a nest, the quetzals may fly off to visit fruiting trees away from the road.

Looking at a Resplendent Quetzal.

To our extreme good fortune, on a short trip to the Dota Valley in search of quetzals a few weeks ago, there was a pair nesting very close to the road. We found the nest thanks to a couple of photographers who were lingering at one spot along the road. Upon arrival, of course the quetzal has “just left” but so what- we knew it had to come back to feed its hidden youngsters some wild avocados. I think we waited around 15 minutes when sure enough, a male quetzal gave its cackling vocalization (yes, the males cackle) and flew overhead, its long tail feathers streaming behind. About five minutes later, things got much, much better as it flew down closer to the nest and paused near the entrance before hopping inside.

Notice the green avocado in its bill. No, it doesn’t look like the avocados we are used to because its a wild one- a fruit of some Lauraceae species.

After hopping inside, its tail feathers were so long that they stuck out of the hole and waved in the breeze!

Eventually and luckily for us, the male had to have a look at us. He was apparently intrigued because he sat there for about 15 minutes and let us take a ridiculous number of  pictures. Here are a few of mine:


After leaving the hole, he then flew to a perch to show off his incredible, iridescent plumage….

and sallied close to the ground for raspberries! Here is a bad action shot as he takes off from his perch.

The female eventually showed up too but by then the battery for my camera had run out. At least I got pictures of the male though!

The places I mentioned are the easiest sites to see Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica because they are easy to get to, and there are usually some people around who know where to find these sacred birds. Keep in mind though, that they also occur in most areas of good, highland forest such as along the trails at La Georgina, other areas in the high Talamancas, up on the Irazu, Poas, and Barva volcanoes, and other sites. It might take a while to see them at those other sites though and could be tough without a guide but the birding will always be good in any case.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope common birds Introduction

Tales of Birding Costa Rica: My first Grey-necked Wood-Rail

For birders from the north, the Grey-necked Wood-Rail is an anomaly. It doesn’t skulk all day in marshes, nor does it demand that you stumble around in the dark of the night to see it. None of that wandering around and playing tapes, making clumsy imitations, or donating blood to the local mosquito population in quantities that would have earned you a plaque of distinction from the local Red Cross.

No dragging a chain through marsh grass, waltzing and swearing your way through cold, Spring sedge marshes, or engaging in other extreme birding behavior.

No, you don’t need to do any of this to see a Grey-necked Wood-Rail. They don’t even live in marshes. It seems that as long as there is a stream, pond, ditch, or wet area with woody vegetation, there is a wood-rail somewhere nearby. I will even go so far as to say that they are downright common from the lowlands up to just below cloud forest. Not only that, but THESE RAILS ARE AS BIG AS CHICKENS and are kind of fancy looking. You can be assured of the chicken-size comparison because a few weeks ago, a client and I actually saw one feeding WITH chickens around some garbage in the village of Tarcoles (which is probably a clue to why they are so common).

Although they stick to the rail motto of being furtive, I still see them just about every time I go birding. A typical sighting is of a chicken-sized bird with long, red legs running away through the undergrowth.

They are also very vocal– I hear a pair calling at dawn from a forested ravine not too far from the house. Garrigues and Dean in their excellent “Birds of Costa Rica” describe the song as “bringing to mind a group of drunken chickens”. Although I have never listened to any inebriated chickens or wild junglefowl (oh yeah, I am proud to have seen wild chickens in Thailand) that I am aware of, I am pretty sure that this is a perfect description. This song gave rise to one of the local names for this bird, “Ponay, Ponay” (pronounced like Monet or a horribly exaggerated, aristocratic version of “poney”).

I learned about the local name when I saw my first Grey-necked Wood-Rail. It was 1994 and my second trip to Costa Rica. After my first visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the birding in Costa Rica. It was exciting, it was fantastic, and it was frustrating. There were all of these birds that I didn’t see that were supposedly common; like antbirds, antpittas, and the Grey-necked Wood-Rail. I was in their habitat (or so I thought), so where were the birds? Oh, there were birds and plenty of great ones like White Hawk, White-necked Jacobin, and Great Tinamou, but I wondered why I had missed other species. I was absolutely intrigued by the wonders and complexities of neotropical birding and so as soon as the Spring semester was over, I went back to Costa Rica for a month. I paid more attention to the behaviors of birds on that second trip, tried to figure out how to find them, and learned how to see more birds in tropical forest (Several years later, I am still learn something new every time I go birding). I learned a lot on my own but there were people who helped. One of those people on that second trip was a park ranger in Braulio Carrillo named, “Santos Ezeta”.

I heard about Santos after asking the rangers at Quebrada Gonzalez about things like umbrellabirds and hawk-eagles. They told me that Santos was the guy to speak with, that he was really into birding. They also told me that I should go visit him at the “El Ceibo” ranger station on the other side of the park, that I could probably stay there, and that it was the best place to see Great Green Macaws. It was a similar elevation to Quebrada Gonzalez and so probably had similar birds, but it sounded promising, so with the hand-drawn map they had given me, I off to El Ceibo.

It would have been complicated to get there even if I would have had a four-wheel drive vehicle. Without a car, it was one of those adventurous treks that test the body and mind. The distance was maybe ten kilometers (?) from where the bus made its final stop near La Virgen de Sarapiqui. What really made it a trying experience, though, was carrying a back pack beneath the tropical sun along stony roads that crawled through shadeless cattle pastures. As I trudged along, my eyes stung with sweat while cows “mood” at me and meadowlarks sang from so much land that used to be covered in fantastic rainforest.

The area was and still is little birded. Despite the ridiculous amount of sweating I was doing and depressing deforestation, the prospect of unexplored territory made the walk an exciting one. I picked up my lifer Grey-headed Chachalaca, was serenaded by toucans that called from huge, isolated trees standing forlorn in the pastures, and saw at least a dozen Great Green Macaws. They were flying around, feeding, and (as macaws love to do) screaming their heads off.

Upon arrival at the station, I met Santos and his family. He was like many Ticos one meets in the country; lean, mustached, and friendly. He lived there with his young wife and four-year old son, had few visitors, and didn’t get the chance to speak much about birds with anyone. This was evident because when I showed up he sure had plenty to say.

We talked birds for hours and I learned about Bat Falcons sometimes seen in the trees in the pastures, about the Great Green Macaws seen during the wet season (they flew right over the station- it was incredible), about the White Hawk that hunted for Marine Toads at the forest edge, about fantastic mixed flocks that could be seen from the porch of the station, and about a strange bird he called the “Ponay Ponay”.  He said it was a ground bird with red legs, a strange call, and something he rarely saw. Until he showed me a picture of a wood-rail in the book, I had no idea what it might be. Not knowing that wood-rails can often be seen when walking near streams in the early morning or evening, and thinking that like other rails I knew, I would have to play a tape, we walked near the forest edge to call in the Ponay Ponay with my cassette player (nope, no Ipods. Heck, there wasn’t even the internet in 94).

I played the tape of its rollicking call and the results were nearly immediate. Suddenly appearing out of the dim forest understory was a nervous chicken-like bird with bright red legs. It twitched its tuft of a tail, stretched its neck and seemed to stand on its long toes as it called back at us. Although he had seen them before, Santos was just as excited as I was to see this bizarre-looking forest bird with the red legs. It was my lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail and like all of my life birds I can still see it standing at the edge of the rainforest as it looks back and forth a few times before hunching down and running back into the gloom. That mental snapshot also includes Santos. He is smiling and laughing and his eyes are shining with that shared birding moment.

I picked up other lifers those few days at El Ceibo and the birding was fantastic. We watched huge mixed flocks of tanagers and other birds troop along the forest edge near the station. We watched raptors soar over the canopy of the forest. Macaws entertained us every morning and evening. We also crossed the river on a small, cable-car contraption to explore the forest on the other side and found that a Puma was using one of the shelters along the transect trail. We didn’t see the cat but found its tracks and the remains of several Great Tinamous. I picked up several other lifers including my first Yellow-eared Toucanet (a male picking berries off some Melastome near the station) and Barred Forest-Falcon (a juvenile perched above the trail).

El Ceibo was great for birding on its own but sharing its birds with Santos made it one of he more memorable places I have birded in Costa Rica. If I ever get a four-wheel drive vehicle, I hope to get back there sometime although I know it won’t be the same. When I came back to Costa Rica a year and a half later, like always, I visited Quebrada Gonzalez on my first morning. After getting reacquainted with those beautiful woods, I asked one of the rangers about Santos, if he still worked a El Ceibo.

Sometimes when someone tells you something unexpected in a language that you are still learning, you doubt what you heard because you wonder if you misunderstood (it was like that on 9/11 when I was in Peru and we heard about the attacks over a not too clear radio deep in the jungle). Speaking with the ranger at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of those times. I apologized and had to ask him a couple of times to repeat what he had said to make sure I heard correctly because I didn’t want to believe it. Santos and his son were on their way to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui on his motorcycle. Maybe the road was wet or he was going fast. Whatever the reason, they had an accident and both died at the scene. I could only imagine how his young wife who had seemed so content and happy must have felt.

I was stunned and 16 years later still feel a bit stunned I think in part because Santos probably would have been great for local conservation efforts. He was from the Sarapiqui area, was engaging, and had a passion for birding. I am glad to have known him however briefly and can’t help but think of him during those times when I help someone get their lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail as it nervously calls from the edge of a forest stream.

The Grey-necked Wood-Rail below was seen near Arenal but looks a lot like the scene that Santos and I witnessed.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see puffbirds when birding in Costa Rica

The Bucconidae, or puffbirds, are one of the many families of birds that rank high on target lists of temperate zone birders on a birding trip to Costa Rica because they are just so darn different from birds of the north. A funny name for a funny bunch of birds, the large-headed, stout-bodied, tiny-footed puffbirds look like a cross between a Kookaburra and some odd stuffed animal won at the ring toss. Although they are probably easiest to see and most speciose in the forests of Amazonia, five puffbird species can also be encountered when birding Costa Rica. The five, feathered stars of this post are:

1. White-whiskered Puffbird

A male from the Trogon Trail near Achiote, Panama.

The White-whiskered Puffbird is the most common and frequently seen of the family when birding Costa Rica. A fairly common resident of humid lowland and foothill forests of both slopes, the White-whiskered Puffbird likes to trick neotropical, neophyte birders into thinking that it’s some sort of owl. One really can’t blame a birder for suspecting that the puffbird is an owl because the shape and coloration are actually a lot like a pygmy owl (and it also moves its tail back and forth like one). This species loves to lurk in the shady understory and usually makes its presence known with extremely high-pitched (and easily overlooked) vocalizations. Although they sound more like a baby bird or a strange bug, if you learn their calls, this will come in handy in looking for other similar sounding Malacoptila genus puffbirds elsewhere in the neotropics. This species is found at many sites when birding Costa Rica but is probably easiest at Carara. I also see it on most visits to Quebrada Gonzalez.

2. White-necked Puffbird

A White-necked Puffbird in the canopy at Carara National Park.

This pigeon-sized, monster-headed bird is a perennial favorite and rightly so. With its oversized beak and striking black and white plumage, the White-necked Puffbird gets my vote for being one of the coolest, widespread bird species of the neotropics. Unlike the White-whiskered Puffbird, when birding Costa Rica, you will have to look high up into the canopy of tall, lowland forest to this species. Like other puffbirds, it prefers to sally out and snatch large, juicy katydids, walking sticks, and lizards from the foliage after a long, immobile wait. This behavior doesn’t make the White-necked Puffbird very easy to see but at least means that it makes for a nice photography subject when spotted. Canopy towers significantly up your chances in seeing this bird but since such wonderful birding aids are strangely absent from Costa Rica, your best bet for seeing the White-necked Puffbird in Costa Rica is to keep an eye on the tree tops and scan the canopy whenever possible (such as when hillsides in areas of lowland forest are visible). Being familiar with the rather quiet, even-pitched, prolonged  trill given by the White-necked Puffbird also helps in tracking them down. This species is widespread in tall forest of the lowlands of both slopes but might be easiest at Carara and in the Golfo Dulce area.

3. Pied Puffbird

Taken along the La Selva entrance road.

Like a miniature White-necked, the Pied Puffbird is easily overlooked when birding because of its small size and loyalty to the puffbird doctrine of lethargic meditation. Fortunately, it is more vociferous than its brethren and gives a loud, easily recognized descending series of trills which at the least make you aware of their presence. They will sometimes perch on dead branches in the open which is nice because Pied Puffbirds can be very difficult to find when calling from the canopy vegetation. The Pied Puffbird is uncommon in Costa Rica but regularly found along the La Selva entrance road. It seems to prefer the edges of lowland forests of the Caribbean Slope. Outside of Costa Rica, the best place I have seen for Pied Puffbird was in Panama around Achiote.

4. White-fronted Nunbird

A bad yet identifiable image from Bijagua.

The nunbirds are striking, strange things with their large coral-colored bills and rollicking laughter-like vocalizations. More active and easier to see than the other puffbirds, they move through the sub-canopy and take large insects and small lizards from the vegetation with frequent sallies. Nunbirds in Costa Rica and elsewhere often forage with other medium-sized birds in mixed flocks and are common in regions with extensive, lowland rain forest. They apparently need large areas of forest to survive because this formerly common species of the Caribbean lowlands has become quite rare in Costa Rica and has all but disappeared from historically reliable sites such as La Selva. It still occurs as a rare resident in lowland forests near Rara Avis, at Selva Verde, at Laguna del Lagarto, Barbilla National Park, and in the forests of the Talamancan foothills near Limon. The best place I have seen for this species when birding in Costa Rica has been at Hitoy Cerere; a little visited reserve near Limon that has the best Caribbean Slope lowland forest I have seen in Costa Rica and is one of the only accessible sites where nunbirds are still common. Other sites in Costa Rica for White-fronted Nunbird are at Bijagua, some forests in the Arenal area, probably Tortuguero, and possibly in primary forests near Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo.

5. Lanceolated Monklet

Sorry, no photo for this one! I still need this species for my Costa Rica list despite it having been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez! This fact is testament to the rarity and difficulty of connecting with this species in Costa Rica. I have often whistled like one at Quebrada Gonzalez but have never gotten a response nor have I ever heard one there so I wonder of it is still present at that site. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because its small size and firm committment to the puffbird doctrine make it very easy to overlook. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, the Lancelated Monklet is typically found near streams in mossy forest of foothill and middle elevation sites. Although you can’t really expect to get this one while birding in Costa Rica, other regular sites for this species have been VIrgen del Socorro (no longer accessible), the Tuis river near Rancho Naturalista, and Tapanti National Park. It is definitely easier to see in Ecuador (Milpe, Silanche, and Bombuscaro where I have seen several), and in Peru (the Manu Road). Listen for its vocalization to locate this tough species- a series of high-pitched, upslurred notes.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands middle elevations

How to see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird

“Cephalopterus glabricollis”. I love the official, scientific term for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. It makes it sound like some massive-headed, ominous creature from the depths of darkest outer space that uses its supreme intelligence for ominous plans so nefarious that even the strongest among us (such as E.O. Wilson, the Dalai Lama, and Alex Trebek) would swoon with despair at the merest of glimpses into those dark machinations. Someone should make a movie….

In the meantime, unfortunately for most birders visiting Costa Rica, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is so hard to see that it might as well be from outer space. One of the largest Passerines in Costa Rica, this crow-sized bird has seriously declined with deforestation. While many species need just one type of forest for survival, unfortunately for the Umbrellabird, it needs at least two types of forest; lower middle elevation rain forest and lowland rainforest. Breeding in the mossy, very wet forests between 700 and 2,000 meters, this species spends the rest of the year in the hot, humid, Caribbean lowlands. While the lowlands are still there, most of the lowland forests aren’t, and since umbrellabirds don’t hang out in banana plantations or cattle pastures, they might be in serious trouble. It’s hard to say if so few individuals of this species are seen because they occur at naturally low densities or because their populations have declined because of massive deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands. In any case, this is definitely one rare bird. The experiences of those photographers and field naturalists extraordinaire, the Fogdens, mirror mine with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. In a paper they published in the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club (supercool- all celebs should join), the Fogdens mention how this species seems to have a patchy occurrence even within suitable looking looking habitat. I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered why I don’t see the Umbrellabird in what appears to be intact forest at the right elevation. I don’t think its a question of difficulty in seeing this species either because on the few occasions I have seen a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the birds were always easy to see, stayed in the subcanopy, and weren’t particularly shy; the same impression it has had upon other birders I have spoken with. In any case, I think its apparent rarity merits surveys carried out on its breeding grounds (albeit a very difficult endeavor), and in the foothill forests and patches of lowland forests (much more feasible) of the Caribbean slope. In conjunction with surveys, at least some assessment of the fruits it utilizes should also be done to possibly help this species through propagation of its food sources. Although I suspect it needs intact forest to survive (as it also feeds on large katydids, stick insects, and small invertebrates), I think such a study would be worthwhile.

In addition to a bit of rambling about studies I would love to do, I hope the information above gives you some idea of why you didn’t see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird on your visit to Costa Rica. However, if you have yet to visit Costa Rica for wonderful birding, butterflying, getting rained on, and eating rice and beans, don’t swoon with hopeless dismay at the prospect of not seeing a Bare-necked Umbrellabird. They do occur more regularly in some places than others and there are a few things you can do to increase your chances at connecting with this Elvis Presley of birds (don’t believe me? –take a look at its hairdo!).

During the breeding season (probably March to July), you might have more luck with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird by visiting a lek on its breeding grounds. Until other accessible leks are found, an adventurous trip only for those fit enough to hike a few hours downhill (and then back up to get out) to the San Gerardo Field Station of the Monteverde Preserve could be the most reliable way to see this species. March is the time of year to go to this field station, which, if you don’t see the Umbrellabird at least has excellent birding for other foothill species. There are one or two lekking sites near the station, which have had fewer birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Although the birds are only active at dawn and display from high up in the trees, the sight of bizarre male Umbrellabirds inflating their red throat patches while making low-pitched hooting noises will give you a birding high that might keep you awake for a few days.

If you aren’t visiting Costa Rica in March or don’t fancy a long hike to see the Umbrellabird, the other most reliable site for this mega species is at the Aerial Tram near Braulio Carrillo National Park. The Bare-necked Umbrellabird is seen most days at this site and the expert guides, most of whom are serious birders, keep up to date on sightings of this and other species. One a recent excursion to the Aerial Tram as part of a high-school trip where my wife teaches, we had good looks at one male Bare-necked Umbrellabird (my first for the year!). Although they are sometimes seen during the ride through the canopy, this one was hanging around the main buildings.

Although I don’t have photos of the Umbrellabird, here is what some of the canopy ride looks like.

The canopy ride was beautiful and our friendly guide top-notch. Although the habitat is fantastic foothill rainforest, the birding during the ride was pretty slow (as is typical during the tram ride). Birding is much better on the trails or around the main buildings. The only bad thing about this place is that you have to take an expensive tour for access. They don’t allow one to simply walk in and use the trails and have seemed pretty adamant about this which seems to be not very birder friendly in my opinion. I must stress that, however, the bad points of the Aerial Tram are associated with management working from some disassociated office and is not related in any way to the excellent, friendly, guides and staff who work on site.

The other main area to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird and where most birders have seen it is at the La Selva Biological Research Station. Visiting the forests of the station offer a fair chance at seeing Umbrellabird sometime during your stay. Taking the guided tour (compulsory for a day visit) at La Selva will increases your chances at seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at most times of the year-just make sure you tell the guide how important it is for you see this it. Once again, if you don’t stay overnight at the station, you can only access the forests on one of their guided tours which are at least more affordable than those of the Aerial Tram.

Away from La Selva, other regular sites for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird are other forests in the Sarapiqui area such as Selva Verde, the forests around Arenal such as the Hanging Bridges and trails at Arenal Obsevatory Lodge, and Heliconias Lodge at Bijagua. No matter where you go to look for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, your best bet at finding them is to watch out for mixed flocks of toucans and oropendolas. Anytime you see a group of Aracaris, and especially if you run into a large flock of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, keep your eye out for this elusive Elvis-like bird. If you think you see a crow, remember, the only crow-like bird in Costa Rica is the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica birds to know; Paltry Tyrannulet

Bird names run the gamut from the highly descriptive (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) and evocative (Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant) to the plain and simple (House Sparrow or Common Swift). In Costa Rica, one very common species even has a name that sounds downright pitiful; the Paltry Tyrannulet. Despite valiant attempts by Stiles and Skutch to change its name to Mistletoe Tyrannulet, a more upbeat, and accurate title evocative of sleighbells and frightening advances from egg-nogged partygoers, the ornithological powers that be still appear to support the repression of this little guy. I mean how many birders really want to see something whose name is synonymous with insignificance especially when it has contenders with fancy marketable titles like the smart and curious sounding Black-capped Pygmy-tyrant, the circus-like Northern Bentbill or that paparazzi magnet the Royal Flycatcher? Possibly Costa Rica’s most ignored, overlooked species, I have been witness to such shameful behavior by birders from the hot buggy lowlands all the way up to the misty highland forests of the Talamancas. It’s always the same story; the Tyrannulet calls over and over begging to be seen in just about every possible habitat BUT NOOOO it’s easier to stare at the soaring vultures, more tempting to train your binoculars on Acorn Woodpeckers, to run down the road after a Gray-necked Wood Rail (well, those do look pretty spiffy). Sure the Tyrannulet is small and hard to see in the canopy and looks like a small gray warbler-like thing but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find it, take a shot at identifying it. Sure its short monotone call doesn’t sound too inviting nor as interesting as the hauntingly beautiful songs of Solitaires, the ancient tremulous tones of Tinamous or the staccato auditory attack of the Tapaculos but that doesn’t mean we should take our cue from Simon Cowell (“I found it forgetful, boring, downright paltry”) and dismiss the P. Tyrannulet. As insignificant as it might look and sound, the behavior of this spunky little guy is far from boring and since it is one of the most common species in Costa Rica, the P. Tyrannulet should be watched for and learned. Stiles and Skutch weren’t kidding around when they proposed “Mistletoe Tyrannulet” for this flycatcher species. This flycatcher, instead of sallying out for prey like a kingbird, mostly eats mistletoe berries! Yes, a flycatcher that feeds on fruit! Not only that but the P. Tyrannulet looks like a warbler and acts like a warbler; in addition to feasting on mistletoe berries, it gleans the vegetation for arthropodic delights and cocks its tail up like a Chestnut-sided Warbler (another common species often found with the P. Tyrannulet). So, don’t be fooled by its name, the P. Tyranulet is a bird worth watching and will be found at every site you visit in Costa Rica.

Keep an eye and ear out for the P. Tyrannulet when birding in Costa Rica. Watch for a small warbler-like bird with a stubby, almost chickadee like bill and a line through the eye. Listen for the brief monotone call of the P. Tyrannulet; a typical element of the soundscape in every habitat in Costa Rica.

Here are a few photos of the not so Paltry Tyrannulet:

Although lighting can affect how color is perceived, the shape stays the same.

A P. Tyrannulet nest.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands

The 2008 OTS La Selva Christmas Count

Through the grimy window of the San Jose- Puerto Viejo bus, I discerned by chance the sign for the OTS La Selva station as another passenger disembarked. I immediately hopped off the bus into the Caribbean lowland night and started up the road to the station. Night in the humid tropics is dark as subterranean velvet. The heavy humidity traps the light just as much as the heat; it’s like walking under a hot, wet blanket that jumps and creeps with life. A flashlight was essential on the pitch black entrance road- not just to see where to walk but also where not to step as I had seen Fer-de-Lance at night along this road on past occasions.

Despite my feelings of consternation blended with excitement, my 20 minute entrance walk was snake-less. I entered the cafeteria/reception area and was greeted by a buzz of activity. The count organizer/coordinator, Rodolfo, was busy with a TV camera crew and several endeavors at the same time so I waited another 20 minutes until he was able to direct me to my bunk and place me with a count group; meeting time an unrespectable 4:30 A.M. (4:30 AM will always be an unrespectable time to be awake, much less walking round). I lucked out with my count territory as it was a trail loop very close to the reception area (others had to bike through the humid darkness to get to their count territories before dawn. Although I still don’t know the name of the trail, I can tell you that it departs from the soccer field and passes through various stages of second growth before reaching the entrance road.

After the few hours of fitful sleep that I get on my first night in humid tropical lowlands, I made it to the reception at 4:30 AM along with 30 other weary-eyed birders. Half-asleep, we ate breakfast, most importantly ingested coffee and tried to figure out if that was a real-time Crested Owl we heard outside of our cabin or a taped recording of someone reeling for a response. Although it turned out to be someone “fishing” for owls, our team recorded a true, countable Crested Owl as one of our first birds. We started out with that and a few other high quality species. Our first was actually Great Potoo. Our leader, Gilberth, knew of a roost near the start of our route and briefly put the light on the bird so we could count it in a sudden glimpse of eyeshine from a large clump of feathers.

This is what it looked like during the day.

Shortly thereafter we got the Owl followed up by a Green Ibis and then started getting other more common pre-dawn birds such as Rufous Motmot and Woodcreepers. As the sun lightened things up, the fun truly started with everything else waking up to shout out their territories; Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Red-throated Ant Tanagers, Red-capped and White-collared Manakins, Broad-billed Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, various Flycatchers and so on. It was non-stop excellent birding typical of good lowland neotropical habitat all the way to noon. One of our best birds was Bare-crowned Antbird- we heard 2 and saw one of these uncommon skulkers. I wish I had a picture but my camera set-up couldn’t deal with the dark undergrowth. Other nice birds were several Slaty-tailed and Violaceous Trogons, Rufous-tailed Jacamars, good looks at Short-billed and Red-billed Pigeons (the Red-billed being a surprise and reminder of nearby deforestation), Golden-winged Warbler, Rufous Mourner, Blue and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises, Silver-throated and Bay-headed Tanagers, White-ringed Flycatcher and more.

Our most interesting non-bird sighting for me was the Collared Peccary that hid in a culvert and snapped its tusks at us. The TV crew was a pretty interesting sighting was well. They filmed Trogons, Toucans and us birders. They also attempted to interview us; a fruitless endeavor. I mean who has time to do questions and answers during a Christmas count in the tropics? Not me!- I get into my hunter-Zen mode where I allocate more brain space to finding and identifying birds.

The TV crew TV-camera scoping a Toucan through my scope.

Long-tailed Tyrants are pretty common in the Caribbean lowlands.

By noon, we made it to the entrance road and looked for raptors. The more open and higher entrance road is a good spot for soaring birds. Although we missed Black Hawk Eagle, we did alright with Grey Hawk, Double-toothed and Grey-headed Kites and Osprey. We also picked up Thick-billed Seed Finch, Yellow Tyrannulet and a beautiful male Hooded Warbler. On Costa Rica bird counts, wintering Warbler species are the birds that counters really hope for since many species are far less guaranteed than resident, if spectacular, birds such as Jacamars and Trogons.

La Selva is a great place to see Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

After our Hooded Warbler, we had the pleasure of lunching at the cafeteria instead of fending off mosquitoes on a muddy trail while attempting to eat a boxed lunch surprise. Amazingly for a bird count, we even rested in comfy chairs at the reception before doing our afternoon territory. Somewhere around this time we picked up a Green Shrike Vireo (invisibly singing from the canopy as usual), Black-faced Grosbeak, and Rufous-winged, Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers. La Selva is excellent for Woodpeckers. We SAW all 7 species that were possible.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Our afternoon territory was the Arboretum trail.

This is on the other side of the river, accesses beautiful primary forest and (like its name) is an old arboretum. Before entering the trail, we kept busy with birds around the lab buildings. This is an excellent place to bird- you could probably spend a whole day there and get 60-70 species. We had more of the same along with nice looks at..


Collared Aracari

Short-billed Pigeon

Giant Cowbird and Golden-hooded Tanager

and the main reason that La Selva should still be visited on every birding trip to Costa Rica: Great Curassow! For several years, there have been tame Great Curassows frequenting La Selva. Although they can turn up anywhere at this site, they seem to prefer open areas around the buildings! This is like a birding dream come true because this species is very difficult to find elsewhere.

Here is a close up of its head. Check out the curls!

Once inside the forest, birding was another story. Although it is typically quiet inside lowland primary forest, in much of La Selva it has become a little too quiet. Bird species that were common and easier to see here than at other sites such as Great Tinamou, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, White-fronted Nunbird and Black-faced Anthrush, have become very rare. Even Chestnut-backed Antbirds have become uncommon. Most of the understory insectivores are gone too. Nowadays you would be lucky to hear a peep out of Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, understory Flycatchers, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Olive Tanager, and Tawny-crested Tanager. While these species still occur at many other sites, you probably won’t see them at La Selva. Although nobody knows for sure what has happened, and several factors related to edge effects are probably involved, one of the prime culprits is the Collared Peccary.

The theory is that the peccaries are simply gobbling up everything in the undergrowth from ground nesters to the undergrowth itself. I don’t know if anyone has tested this theory but to me, the undergrowth definitely looked overbrowsed. Collared Peccaries have became particulary abundant at La Selva; they seem to be just about everywhere close to the lab buildings. This is not what one typically sees in tropical forest in Costa Rica. Although you run into Peccaries now and then, they are never in the numbers that occur at La Selva. Hopefully studies are being carried out to address this possibility. If there is support for this hypothesis, hopefully OTS will cull peccaries; I know that Dieter and I would be first in line to volunteer.

Despite the birdless understory, we saw some canopy birds and picked up a White-Necked Puffbird customarily perched high up on a snag. We finished the count around 5 P.M., ate dinner and went over the bird list. Best birds of the day were mostly seen by other groups such as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (La Selva still a good site for this tough species), Sungrebe, Snowy Cotinga, Great Green Macaw (we got these too), and best of all; Solitary Eagle! Although this last one is rare and tough to ID, the description sounded very convincing.

One of the best things about the count is that you have access to the grounds the following morning! I birded for a few hours and got more shots of the Curassow, got nice looks at Semiplumbeous Hawk, more of the same from the previous day and excellent looks at Yellow-tailed Oriole singing from a tree top next to the HQ. We missed this rare species in our territory during the count as well as some others (Great Antshrike and Slaty Spinetail) that have become rarer as the forest has grown up along the entrance road. Nevertheless, the entrance road is still great birding and I kept seeing so many birds on my way out that I almost missed my 11 AM bus back to San Jose.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

The Carara Christmas Count, Costa Rica

Like most bird counts, Christmas counts included, Dieter Holdt and I started the day so darn early that it was the middle of the night. This strange behavior is fairly typical of birders on count days. Be it a Big Day, Bird Race or Christmas Count, the more gung-ho (read psycho) birders take advantage of the midnight start time to listen for Nightjars, Owls, Rails and maybe disturb some poor sleeping bird with a bright light and excited whispers. In our case, we weren’t even looking for birds; we had to meet other Carara Christmas Counters at 4:30 A.M. Since we both live in the Central Valley, this meant a 2 hour drive down to the Pacific coast. At least night driving in Costa Rica is maybe 1,000 times better than during the day. Although drunk drivers might be a significant factor (and we saw one), traffic is more or less non-existent. This is in extreme contrast to day driving when the roads are clogged with honking cars, motorcycles zipping by and slow, behemoth trucks that reduce your average speed to about 20 miles per hour.

On the night of the count, driving was particularly nice with a full moon lighting up the roadways and painting the jade vegetation silver as we twisted and turned past the towns of Atenas and San Mateo. At one point we actually did look for a bird. This was in Orotina where a resident pair of Black and White Owls amazingly resides in the central plaza. During our plaza drive-by, though, Owls were replaced by a few drunken night people. Continuing on, before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination an hour before the meeting time- on a side note, if you drive at night in Costa Rica, you can probably cut off at least a third of your driving time.

We rested in the car for close to an hour until fellow counters arrived. After meeting up with the two other members of our group and getting our boxed (plastic bagged) lunches, we drove to our morning territory; the river or Vigilancia Trail. This trail/road/rainy-season mud-bath, accesses gallery forest, second growth, an oxbow lake before eventually reaching upland, primary rain forest. The variety of habitats combined with accessibility and ease of walking make it one of the best birding spots in Central America. It is one of those places where the birding seems to always be good and our day was no exception.

Our first species were typical of the pre-dawn lowland rain forest chorus; Pauraque from a nearby clearing, a mournful Collared Forest Forest-Falcon and Woodcreepers trilling and whistling into the dusky air. As we slowly made our way to our first and principal stop on the trail, other species were added to the list one after another, all by their vocalizations; Great and Little Tinamous, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Pale-billed Woodpeckers double-knocking, Mealy Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets overhead, Spectacled Antpitta, Black-faced Anthrush, Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, several Flycatchers, Grey-headed Tanagers and so on.

Dieter, Maria and Nestor looking for birds.

Our main stop was the best Christmas tree a birder could ask for;  an immense fig tree in fruit.  Adorned with palatable ornaments of its own device, it was busy with over 20 species of birds.  The umbrella-like crown of the tree was so high up that we found birds by scanning with our binoculars. You could look with bins at almost any part of the tree and pick out at least one bird perched or feeding. Watching this incredible tree was surreal; three Trogon species looked as if they were in a feeding frenzy as they flew back and forth beneath the umbrella-like canopy, Kiskadees called and sallied for figs, even a few Long-tailed Manakins appeared now and then to snatch a fig. The strangest bird of all was a Band-tailed Pigeon, a species typically found at much higher elevations. Although we did not see the Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas we had hoped for, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two had shown up and we just missed them because the tree was so big.

Looking up into the amazing fig; I am the one styling with boots with shorts.

After a couple of hours at the fig we noticed fewer fruits and fewer birds and so continued on down the trail trying to keep track of the birds we were constantly hearing and seeing. We picked up Ruddy Quail Dove (always a good spot for this terrestrial species), Gray-fronted Dove, flyby Wood Storks and a Great Blue Heron, Blue-throated Goldentail, Purple-crowned Fairy, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and so on. Some of the more common species were Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Orange-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, and several Wren species. Carara is a great example of Wren diversity by the way. We saw 7 species along that trail, most common being Black-bellied, Rufous and White and Riverside.

Eventually we reached the oxbow lake. This was the perfect spot for a mid-morning rest.

We watched  a few crocodiles

and counted various widespread waterbirds including 4 Black-necked Stilts and several Boat-billed Herons that roosted in nearby trees. We also picked up Prothonotary Warbler and Ringed and Green Kingfishers. A bit further on was beautiful upland primary forest. We heard a few Rufous Pihas there and saw more of the same. Being midday, it was pretty quiet in the upland forest. If you are there at dawn, I am sure it is a whole other matter.

At that time, we made our way back up the trail, hanging out at the fig tree to get better looks at Long-tailed Manakin and hope for Cotingas. Although no Cotingas showed, we picked up one of our target birds along the way; Royal Flycatcher. This trail is a very reliable spot for this species.

We munched our bagged lunches of bread, cheese, fruit and crackers and wished we had slept longer the night before even though that would have broken the big day and Christmas count traditions of feeling exhausted most of the time. Since one of our count group forgot his bagged lunch, we drove to the nearby Guacimo soda so he could refuel. This was about 5 minutes from the Tarcol bridge, on the right side of the highway heading towards San Jose. The change in habitats is amazing; as soon as you cross the bridge, you enter into drier habitat which holds many species not found in the humid forests of Carara. The Guacimo had a nice overlook and we picked up a few new birds here.

Guacimo overlook.

From the soda, we continued up the highway towards San Jose taking a right at the next intersection for our afternoon territory. This area is called Sandillal and accesses much drier, grassy fields, and good moist forest before reaching the Tarcol river. We continued to get new species along this road. Best were Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendolas (both uncommon birds around Carara) and Gray-headed Kite. We also had excellent Hummingbird activity at flowering Ingas. Dozens of Hummingbirds of 8 species were buzzing around these trees. The most common Hummingbird species on the dry side of the bridge were Steely-vented, Green-breasted Mango, Ruby-throated and Rufous-tailed. Our best Hummingbird species were White-necked Jacobin and Plain-capped Starthroat.

Down at the river we picked up a Snowy Egret and Gray Hawk but not much else so we sped over to the Tarcol river bridge hoping for flyovers of something new.

The Tarcol bridge.

We saw a few Macaws in the distance but very little flying over the bridge itself. Nevertheless, we managed to scope a distant Common Black Hawk, get our Spotted Sandpiper, and our only Cherries Tanagers and Grayish Saltators. By this time, it was 5 PM and we were more than exhausted enough to call it a day. We headed back to our lodging (dormitories in the park) and rested up before driving over to dinner provided by the Crocodile tour. This is another nice thing about some of these Costa Rican Christmas counts; the organizers do an excellent job of not only planning out routes but also getting local businesses involved to the point of providing food and a tee-shirt.

At dinner we caught up with other counters and found out that our team probably got the highest species total with 151 species. This is also the most I have recorded in one day in Costa Rica; a total I hope to soundly top with a Big Day possibly in 2009. Although our Yellow-billed Cotinga never showed at the amazing fruiting fig, another team got one female in the mangroves. The mangrove team also got the best bird; Nashville Warbler! A common species further north, this is a very rare vagrant in Costa Rica. Although the photos weren’t the best, they looked pretty convincing as were their descriptions. I think its no wonder this bird showed up in mangroves since a migrant at the periphery of its range is likely to be a juvenile that ends up using substandard habitat; mangroves being substandard for many Warbler species. I am still waiting for the final total for all teams but expect it to get close to or top 300 species as several shorebirds were recorded and a variety of cloud forest species from higher elevations that fell into the count circle.

After a night of much needed rest, Dieter and I birded the primary forest of Carara. This forest is just fantastic; giant trees that soar above a thin understory making it easy to see understory birds, clear streams, and of course lots of good birding. Over the course of an hour on the trails, some of the better species we saw (and typical of Carara)  were: a few Crested Guans, Scarlet Macaws, White-necked Puffbird, Spectacled Antpitta (possibly the easiest spot to see this species), Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a likely lump with Spot-throated Woodcreeper), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Rufous Piha.

After excellent forest birding, we drove to Tarcoles in search of wetlands and associated bird species. Along the road into Tarcoles, we had close looks at a pair of Yellow-naped Parrots and eventually found our waterbirds somewhere between Tarcol village and the Crocodile tour. The birds were in the flooded portion of someone’s backyard and this temporary pond must have been filled with aquatic goodies because there were..

at least a dozen White Ibis,

Wood Storks,

Great Egrets,

and Bare-throated Tiger Herons.

Further on, we took a left near the crocodile tour to head towards the beach. This section of road passes through more wetlands and mangroves before reaching the beach. We saw little in the wetlands and mangroves but had several new species on the beach such as hunting Ospreys, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, and many Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There were also a good number of birds perched on sandbars at the mouth of the Tarcol river. Unfortunately, we couldn’t check them out because it was time for us to head back to San Jose and we still wanted to stop in Orotina.

The beach near Tarcoles.

At Orotina, we walked through the plaza checking the trees for the local Black and White Owls. As per usual, the plaza was busy with all sorts of people and as on other occasions, I could not find the Owls until the local ice cream vendor pointed them out. On this day, we only saw one of the Owls and it was roosting in a fairly open tree at the edge of the park. If the ice-cream guy isn’t there, check for white-wash as there was plenty under the owl’s perch on that day.

With Black and White Owl under our belts and 168 other species in just a bit more than  one day of birding, we felt more than satisfied as we drove back up to the White-winged Doves and Tropical Kingbirds of the central valley. As always, I can’t wait to get back to Carara.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Arenal Observatory Lodge

This past weekend I co-guided the Bird Club of Costa Rica (BCCR) once again; this time at a lodge that sits at the foot of the most active volcano in Costa Rica- Volcan Arenal. Smoking and grumbling in the Caribbean slope foothills, Arenal is about 2 hours from Monteverde, nearly four hours drive from San Jose. On Saturday morning I did the drive with fellow BCCR members Johan and Ineke. It was one of those beautiful Saturday mornings when the beauty of the green mountains framed by blue skies makes you wish more than ever that you could fly just so you could get up there as quick as possible. Flying would leave out the narrow curvy roads too but since we never evolved wings, up we went twisting and turning through coffee plantations in a small burnt-orange Chevrolet. Traffic was light and the air scented by cloud forest remnants- a pleasant drive up and over the ridge of the Cordillera Central to descend once again past the La Paz waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.

This is a truly beautiful route and one that should be birded more (one of these days, I’m going to bird the forest remnants and tangled bamboo near Varablanca and post about it). We passed fruit stalls with golden pineapples and football-sized papayas, gardens glowing with purple bougainvilla and shining red Heliconias. When we turned left at San Miguel, the Caribbean lowland plain streched out below; all the way to forested hills on the Nicaraguan border. We drove through far too many cow pastures; lands at one time shaded by immense rain forest trees with 400 species of birds. Now, the pasture grasses and thick spiny growth support a handfull of species; Anis, Seedeaters and Red-winged Blackbirds in place of Antbirds, Forest Falcons and Umbrellabirds. On the way to Ciudad Quesada, I was gladdened to see some intact forest in hilly areas-probably a watershed. Hopefully I will continue to see it, maybe even bird it some day.

In Ciudad Quesada we stopped for a coffee at a small bakery called Pan de Leon. The true pizza aficionado I am, I tried their pizza- like most pizza here, it was strange but ok and nothing close to New York pizza (yes, I miss it!). We made it to La Fortuna not long after, softly cruising along smooth roads. This incredible lack of potholes was a pleasant and welcome surprise; potholes and broken pavement are standard aspects of central valley roads- some are so lunar that locals stick tires or trees in the deeper “calle” chasms. Eager to get to our destination, we buzzed through touristy La Fortuna. This place is over done with hotels and “cabinas”, most of which also over charge. We pondered over how strong the recession will hit local businesses, how many will have to close their doors and put up a closed indefinitely sign instead of one that reads no vacancy.

Not long after the Tabacon hot springs we saw the turn off for our lodge and traded the asphalt of the highway for the rocky, dusty road that led straight towards the volcano. Luckily we had good, dry weather because during heavy rains that road is probably a slick, muddy mess. It first passed through old orchards, then just after the entrance to the national park was flanked by old second growth. We stopped  a few times and had several wintering warblers (Blue-winged being the best) along with different Wrens, Lesser Greenlet, Dusky Antbird, Great Antshrike and others- not bad for sunny midday weather. This road is probably very good in the early morning and late afternoon as the old second growth is connected to large areas of intact forest. Its probably good for night-birding too.

We stopped at a bridge with volcano in view and got nice looks at several species here such as Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Thick billed Seed Finch (female below).

We were also entertained by Southern Rough-wing Swallows.

Further on we saw the “famous” Tucanes trail that we had never heard of. Apparently its good for seeing “the red hot lava”.

Opting for birds intead of glowing lava, we passed through the lodge checkpoint and headed up the hill to our destination.

The Arenal Observatory Lodge is not only aptly named with its perfect views of the volcano, but is also an excellent spot for birding.  This was the view from our window. Although the top of the volcano is typically shrouded in clouds, some glowing red hot areas are usually visible at night and rocks are frequently heard tumbling down the mountainside.  We saw lots of good birds from the balcony; Robert Dean, the illustrator for the latest Costa Rica field guide, saw Black Hawk Eagle from here before we arrived.

One of the best birds was Black-crested Coquette. This is the easiest site to see this species possibly anywhere- several females and occasional males were always in view feeding in the Verbena or Porterweed.

We also had nice looks at Violet-headed Hummingbird and this infrequent hummingbird species; a female Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

One of the friendliest birds was this Broad-winged Hawk-Costa Rica’s most common winter raptor.

We got good looks at other common species such as Melodious Blackbird.

and uncommon species such as Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- here a female.

The deck by the restaurant was ok but could have been better if they had put out more fruit for the birds. Nevertheless, it still attracted a few species and had awesome views of the volcano.

Speaking of restaurants, I can’t say I recommend that of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The buffet breakfast was good but the rest was over-priced, boring dishes. Really, you are better off dining somewhere near Fortuna. That way, you can also bird the entrance road in the afternoon and look for night birds on the way back.

Although much of the vegetation at the lodge is non-native Eucalyptus and Caribbean pine, their trails mostly access native vegetation. The concrete trail behind our balconies looked promising; Robert has seen Thicket Antpitta here. The best trail might be the waterfall trail though. This trail accesses some beautiful middle elevation forest and has a bridge offering some canopy birding. After crossing the bridge, one reaches an open area with views of forested hills; the perfect situation to scan for Lovely Cotinga in the morning (which we didn’t see but does occur). Although we had a fairly quiet time along this trail, its probably worth a whole day as it likely holds middle elevation rarities such as Sharpbill, Black-headed Anthrush and much more. Some of the notable species we had were Crested Guan, Song Wren, Spotted Antbird and Olive-striped Flycatcher. At the entrance to the trail we had a brief flyby of a Yellow-eared Toucanet that was hanging out with a large group of Aracaris which was followed up by an even briefer flyby of what was almost certainly two Red-Shouldered Parrotlets!!

One of the coolest sightings was not a bird. See if you can find the Tigrillo or Oncilla that had been hanging around the waterfall trail. Raised by people and released here, it is far from afraid. In fact, you have to be careful it doesn’t jump on you! It was amazing to see one of these running around; very few people have seen this secretive species in the wild. Editor’s note- turns out that this cat was a Margay.

I would certainly recommend staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge whether you bird or not. For birders, the cabins sans volcano view are just as good, if not better (at least for birding) because they are closer to good habitat with a beautiful overlook that should be good for raptors and scanning the canopy for Cotingas, etc. Although the restaurant offerings need serious help, the trails are also good birding as is the entrance road (check the rivers for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron); birding both areas should turn up a good variety of lowland and middle elevation species. This is a great place to bring non-birding family and friends too but make reservations at this justly popular spot. If you aren’t staying here, you can still bird the entrance road for free and can pay $4 to bird the trails at the lodge, which in my opinion is very much worth it.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica common birds #1: city birds

Costa Rica really is a birding paradise. At least five distinct bioregions and/or major habitat types are found within 2-3 hours drive of San Jose; all with fairly different sets of birds. It’s a good thing they are close to San Jose too because unfortunately, there’s not a huge number of species around here! Around here means where I live; Tibas. Tibas is like much of the central valley- urbanized, asphalted and missing the exuberant vegetation that used to be here. Lack of green space in the central valley is a topic I hope to cover on another day though because this post is the first of several about the common birds of Costa Rica.

The bird species in Tibas represent many of the first birds I saw in Costa Rica back in 1992 and will probably be some of the first species you see as well. Essentially garden and backyard birds of the central valley, they have adapted to living within a human dominated landscape. Although surely a far cry from the variety and types of species that inhabited the marshes and moist forest of pre-settlement times, there’s still some nice birds around. The common sparrow here is Rufous-collared Sparrow.

My first bird book was the Audubon guide to birds; Eastern Region. The fact that photos were used made amazing things such as Cerulean Warbler, Cedar Waxwing and Rails more credible. I first learned about Blue-Grey Tanagers on the glossy plates of that book; learned that in the U.S. they only occurred as an exotic escape in Florida. Here in Costa Rica, these natives are one of the most common bird species.

Possibly occupying a niche similar to that of Northern Cardinals, Greyish Saltators sing every morning from backyards throughout San Jose.

Doves are especially common. Although Rock Pigeons occur, White-winged and Inca Doves are the most common species.

Red-billed Pigeons can also be seen.

One of the coolest common species is Crimson-fronted Parakeet. Noisy flocks roost in the palms near our place and are often seen in flight within the city.

One of the most abundant birds is Great-tailed Grackle. They make a tremendous amount of noise in town plazas where they go to roost.

Conspicuous Flycatchers are always around such as

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

and Tropical Kingbird. If there is a neotropical trash bird, the TK is it.

Clay-colored Robin (the national bird of Costa Rica) is very common.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is pretty much the de-facto Hummingbird of urban areas.

Some of the other bird species common in urban areas of the central valley for which I still lack images are: Black and Turkey Vultures- always up there soaring around.

Tropical Screech Owl- hope to get shots of the pair that roosts at the nearby Bougainvilla Hotel.

White-colloared and Vaux’s Swifts

Hoffman’s Woodpecker- very common

Yellow-belied Elaenia

Blue and white Swallow- one of the most birds in San Jose

Brown Jay- seems to have declined with urbanized growth.

House Wren

Wintering birds such as Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Tennessee Warbler

and Bronzed Cowbird.