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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

A Rundown of a Big Day in Costa Rica (or Getting and Missing Birds part Dos)

Last weekend came and went like a flash. Not this past weekend but the weekend before. Although I did see a bunch of high-flying Chestnut-collared Swifts foraging above the house with a light phase Short-tailed Hawk taking to the thermals beneath them, that was a muuuuch more relaxed experience than the last Saturday of March and the first Sunday of April. You see, the Big Day actually commenced on that Saturday and started several hours before it officially started. Before you feel like quoting Arnold Drummond by saying, “What you talking about Willis?!” (RIP Garry Coleman), allow me to explain.

If you want to get serious about doing a Big Day and break some birding record, you have to get crazy with the planning and preparations. I had already planned everything out at least a week prior to the Big Day but still needed to get busy with the preparations. This meant buying supplies for the day such as a large bottle of  Coca Cola (caffeine and sugar are a Big Day birders best friend), snacks galore, and making a pizza. Yes, that’s right, making a pizza and since I make the dough, that tacks on 2 hours to the equation. Homemade Pizza is my lembas (if you read Tolkien, you know what I mean) and is therefore an essential for a long day of birding. Call me a pizza snob if you will but I forgo ordering it in Costa Rica because I grew up with pizza from western New York. That’s the way I like it so that’s pretty much the way I make it. Nor do I just bake any old pizza for a Big Day. It has to be a bready, focaccia-like pizza to stand up to the rigors of the days and retain its flavor. Perhaps even more important, this way, it’s also easy to just grab and eat cold.

So, due to having to drop my daughter off for a birthday party in another town, I made the dough in the morning, baked the pizza in the afternoon, and rushed off to San Ramon to pick up team mate Juan Diego Vargas but before then, I packed the other essentials into my pack: binoculars, scope, charged camera, charged digital recorder and microphone, insect repellent, sunblock, gatorade drinks, and water. The route and bird lists were printed. I couldn’t think of any other vocalizations to brush up on. I was ready to hear a Black-billed Cuckoo chuckle from the night sky and tick it off. In other words, I was ready to rock and roll.

After coming back with Juan Diego and talking about the recent rare sighting of American Bittern in inaccessible wetlands near the Nicaraguan border, we met up with Susan Blank at my house. Susan and her husband own a couple of golf shops and set up golf tours in Costa Rica and elsewhere and they excel at that but what Susan is perhaps even better at is driving the twisty roads of Costa Rica. Growing up in the countryside of southern Pennsylvania has also given her excellent bird-spotting abilities and these would be put to the test on Sunday.

After saying goodbye to my wife and eating a few slices of good luck pizza, off we went around the block to start out Big Day at 7:15 pm.  A Common Pauraque quickly became our first species but the Tropical Screech Owls refused to play and the star-lit skies were bereft of migrants so we moved on to higher elevations. At our third stop, the air was still and that helped convince a Mottled Owl to respond to an imitation of its barking “song”. It responded with a lackluster, low key “hoot” but we caught the sound so ticked off it went for bird number two (don’t worry, I won’t do this for the other 259 species).

Further nighttime stops were a bust and we were surprised because Bare-shanked Screech Owls and Dusky Nightjars are usually pretty good at responding. Whether it was due to the time of the year or just bad luck, we didn’t get any other owls at night.

We got to El Gavilan, our spot for the night, around 9 pm and had this wonderful Caribbean lowland birding site all to ourselves. Short-tailed Nighthawk made it onto the list, we listened for a bit longer, and then hit the sack. Thanks to Rodolfo, the night watchman, we had coffee at 4:30 am shortly after waking up and got caffeinated while listening to the night sky. No migrants, no Spectacled Owl, no Green Ibis and it was time to move on. Night birding was not being productive! We drove the two kilometers to the edge of the La Selva property and listened for more owls as the multitude of Clay-colored Robins filled the air with their dawn songs. A Central American Pygmy -Owl made it onto the list (success!) but no other Strigiformes vocalized.

The very birdy yard at El Gavilan. We didn’t have time to hit this spot during the morning birding rush even though it makes for easy, excellent Caribbean lowland birding.

As the sky began to lighten, we rushed over to the E Tigre fields for dawn. I picked this spot as a pre-dawn stop in the hopes of getting rare marsh birds, Green Ibis, hearing migrants, and maybe picking up an owl or two. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad choice because none of the above complied. Nevertheless, dawn came fast and furious as it always does in the tropics and this was when the true Big Day craziness commenced.

When everything starts to sing at the same time, you hardly know where to begin. You just have to put yourself into a Zen-like mindset and do one song at a time. If you know your vocalizations well, you can just call off birds as soon as they start and this is the real way to do it as it helps with the one true bane of Big Days- time. The faster you can call the birds, the more likely you will get more so the next twenty minutes went something like this:

“Great Antshrike! Got it?”



“Lineated Woodpecker”

“Laughing Falcon”

” I got a pair of kites in the distance”

“Giant Cowbird over the horizon!”

“Got it”

“Did you get the Laughing Falcon?”

“Yes, did you get the Streak-headed Woodcreeper?”

“Yes, keep looking for the Nicaraguan Seed Finch!”

Kiskadees were sounding off, the Clay-coloreds were trying to drown out other, more important species, and flock after flock of Bronzed Cowbirds made us realize just how darn common those sneaky Icterids were. It was a good thing we checked the cowbirds though because one trio of blackbirds turned out to be a group of  Shinys and we picked up a deep chested, undulating Giant. It bordered on chaos and it didn’t help that the rails refused to call but we at least got one White-throated Crake and found our Nicaraguan Seed-Finch so we departed from the break of dawn site feeling hopeful about the day.

It was a quick five minute drive over to the edge of the La Selva property where we hoped to pick up a wealth of other “dawn birds”. We needed stuff like motmots, tinamous, wrens, and as many birds to sing as possible. Although we couldn’t count on a host of understory species that have become rare at or have disappeared from La Selva, I figured that it would still be productive enough for a 15 minute stop. As is promised by the early hour, the avian action was fast and furious and we got both tityras,  two Motmots, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, White-ringed Flycatcher (our only spot for that one!), and Cinnamon Woodpecker among others. The Fasciated Antshrikes and Long-tailed Tyrants that are usually recorded there were no shows though and the tyrant ended up being one of the big misses on our Big Day.

A Long-tailed Tyrant from another day.

I got this Fasciated Antshrike a week after the count at the exact same spot where we tried for it in vain.

Next on the list of morning sites was a quick stop at the Chilamate bridge followed by a jaunt over a rocky road to a good patch of forest that was bound to yield some nice additions. The bridge was checked for kingfishers, tiger-herons, and Sunbittern but the only things we ended up pulling out of there were a Black Phoebe and Spotted Sandpiper. Oh well, it was on to the patch of forest as we listened and looked in vain for flyby Great Green Macaw and Long-tailed Tyrants. Our first Northern Jacana was sighted by a stream and we picked up birds shortly after arriving at the forest. Although Black-striped Woodcreeper and Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant were absent, we got both White-whiskered and White-necked Puffbirds, a Black-throated Trogon that came in close to stare at us, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Green Honeycreeper, Rufous Mourner, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and a few other species in just 15 minutes. In retrospect, we probably should have started the Big Day at that spot but the clock was ticking and there was no time for regrets so we drove off to Tirimbina Rainforest for a last chance at Caribbean lowland rainforest birds.

By the time we got to Tirimbina, the height of the morning action was slowing down and according to schedule, we should have already hit the road for Virgen del Socorro. With so many birds till possible though, we decided to put in an hour at Tirimbina. The walk in gave us Short-tailed Hawk, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Wood Thrush and Swainson’s Thrushes that were feeding on fruiting shrubs. After paying a resident-discounted entrance fee, we headed out over the metal bridge that crosses the Sarapiqui, stopping in the middle to look for birds. It was getting pretty quiet but the trails through the excellent rainforests atTirimbina were bound to give us some birds. Given that we were there during the mid-morning lull, we did pretty darn good. Western Slaty Antshrike found its way into the list along with Red-capped Manakin, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and two of our best birds for the day; Black Hawk Eagle and Ornate Hawk Eagle. As hawk eagles tend to do, both started calling from high in the sky and thus earned treasured spots on our list.

Birding from a canopy bridge at Tirimbina.

Western Slaty Antshrike from Tirimbina. This place might even be a better choice than La Selva for birding the Caribbean lowlands.

Our hoped for mixed flock never appeared and it was time to go so we jumped back into the car and traded the lowlands for the middle elevation forests of Virgen del Socorro. We got there by about 11:30 after a quick stop at a nearly birdless lagoon that nevertheless gave up Slaty Spinetail and both yellowthroats. Despite a windstorm of spishing, the White-collared Seedeaters refused to show like they did on days before and after the count. A similar thing happened with White Hawk at Virgen del Socorro but we at least picked up a bunch of other birds. Barred Hawk called as it soared above the canyon. Standard species like Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, Stripe-breasted Wren, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren,and Tufted Flycatcher quickly made their way into the list as did goodies like Nightingale Wren, Green Thorntail, Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush, Plain Xenops, and Smoky-brown Woodpecker.

The good forests on the other side  of the river also treated us well with Brown Violetear, several tanagers (including beauties like Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Emerald), Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Overall, a pretty productive stop of an hour or so. Despite no White Hawk, we left Virgen del Socorro, made a quick stop at Cinchona to pick up Coppery-headed Emerald and miss White-bellied Mountain Gem before continuing uphill. On the way, Sooty-faced Finch called, we got the promised Torrent Tyrannulet at the La Paz waterfall, and a quick stop turned up a Golden-olive Woodpecker. As we neared the top of the road at Varablanca, rain was pouring down and thus things did not bode well for highland species around there and at Poas.

There’s a Torrent Tyrannulet somewhere near that waterfall.

The rain only became worse when we stopped at the Volcan Restaurant. After ticking Volcano Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem from inside the car, we bravely stepped out into the rain to check the riparian zone there that can be great for a number of species. After a minute of soaking rain and no birds, we got back into the car and wondered if we should just write off Poas altogether. Hoping to get above the rain and knowing that most birds higher up would be new and impossible elsewhere, we drove up to the entrance of the national park. Unfortunately, the rainclouds were higher than that and the water kept on falling so we weren’t going to get as many species as we probably would have on Poas. We still got some good ones though and these included species like Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Barred Parakeet.

We just as quickly drove back downslope hoping that the rain was restricted to the highlands. As we headed through the coffee plantations, rain kept us from hearing things like Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush or Rufous-capped Warbler but it luckily stopped before reaching Alajuela. From there, we made our way to the highway that heads to the coast and were happy to see sunny conditions on the drive down. By this time though, four o’clock was fast approaching , we were an hour and a half behind schedule, and we were confronted with a painful decision. Time dictated that we had to choose between either going for more rainforest species and Carara specialties on the Bijagual road, or looking for dry forest birds and waterbirds in the estuary and mangroves at Guacalillo. We opted for the Bijagual road along with a quick visit to a dry forest spot and pretty much wrote off everything from Anhinga to Common Black Hawk and herons unless we could get lucky with aquatic species hanging out at the crocodile bridge.

As we raced to the Guacimo Road (our dry forest spot), road birding was good with a Turquoise-browed Motmot perched on a wire, calling Stripe-headed Sparrows, and a few others for the list. On the Guacimo Road, the usual Common Ground and Inca Doves were absent but we did good with Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Plain-capped Starthroat, Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, and a few other much needed species. No magpie jay and we still needed Brown Jay (!) but it was time to finish up the daylight at the Bijagual Road.

White-lored Gnatcatchers are good about coming in to pygmy owl calls.

That road passes next to the boundary of Carara National Park and is typically great birding in the late afternoon. Fortunately for us, the place worked like a charm and yielded almost every expected species like clockwork! Pygmy-owl whistling called in a Painted Bunting, Greenish Elaenia, and a few other species but we got most by their calls. One after another, we ticked off Northern Bentbill, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous and White, Rufous-breasted, Rufous-naped, and Scaly-breasted Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, Scarlet Macaw, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dusky Antbird, Gray-headed Tanager, Little Tinamou, Long-billed Gnatwren, Long-tailed Manakin, Orange-collared Manakin, and at least a few more to finish off the day including our much expected Brown Jay. It was birding at its best and probably our luckiest stop for the day.

As dusk approached, we made one last stop at the crocodile bridge to hope for waterbirds but other than picking up Lesser Nighthawk and Black-necked Stilt, that last stop was a bust. As night fell, we decided to make another last ditch effort for a few more birds (as is tradition on a Big Day) and drove past the village of Tarcoles to look for things like Boat-billed Heron and owls. Although the boat-billeds had already flown the coupe, we spotlighted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron for our final and 26oth species of the day. No owls were calling, the place felt like a furnace, exhaustion was creeping in, and it was time to go home.

The drive back up to the Central Valley was a quick one and our Big Day had come to its end. Rain, few migrants, and going off schedule had conspired to keep us from breaking any records but it was still one heck of a fantastic day for birding in Costa Rica that spanned habitats ranging from lowland rainforests on both slopes to dry forest, middle elevation cloud forests, temperate zone rain forests, fields, and coffee plantations. It’s hard to say what our best or most unexpected bird was but it might be a toss up between Barred Parakeet and Ornate Hawk-Eagle.  Biggest misses were too many waterbirds, Inca Dove (a common, easy to see species), the aforementioned tyrant, Great Tinamou (vocal and usually recorded), Barred Antshrike (almost always recorded!), and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

I now have a better strategy though and can’t wait until March 2013 for the record-breaking Big Day.

Birding Costa Rica common birds identification issues Introduction lowlands

Identifying Variable and Thick-billed Seed-Finches in Costa Rica

People on birding trips to Costa Rica usually don’t have the seedeaters and seed finches at the top of their target lists.  Now if they looked like some of those fantastic, brightly colored, and beautifully patterned finches that provoke “oohs and aahs” among birders in Africa and Australia, the story would be different. BUT, since they are mostly plain old black or brown, the majority of seedeaters and seed-finches aren’t even considered for a Costa Rican birding hit list.

And who can blame such birders when the small, dull finches have to compete with the iridescent, heavenly plumaged, breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal? Or the bizarre-looking, dove-sized, crazy-sounding (in name and in life) Three-wattled Bellbird? Or when there are a bunch of stunning tanagers and honeycreepers with glowing colors that are visiting a feeder? No, it’s easy to see why seedeaters and some finches aren’t exactly a top priority when birding Costa Rica. Nevertheless, let us not discriminate. Heck, some finches you may not even see like the Blue Seedeater, Slaty Finch, or Pink-billed (Nicaraguan) Seed-finch. Except for the Tricolored Munia and House Sparrow, all of those little seed-eating birds sharing pastures with those big introduced bovines are  native birds and lifers for first-time visitors to the neotropics. AND, when those unfriendly antpittas are refusing to show themselves, that Keel-billed Motmot is giving you the silent treatment, or any and all coquettes are out to lunch on the other side of the mountain, never fear because the seedeaters, seed-finches, and grassquits are here!

Well, they will be “here” if you are in pasture or young second growth, and are also usually pretty easy to watch. The three most common species are the Blue-black Grassquit,



the Yellow-faced Grasquit,

and the Variable Seedeater. To see how it got its name, when birding Costa Rica, check out a Pacific slope male

compared to a Caribbean slope male.

Don’t worry about looking for any “variableness” between the females because they look the same. In fact, a lot of female seedeaters look very similar (more so in South America) and present a major headache for identification not only because they look alike, but also because it’s just so hard to study female seedeaters when there are hundreds of other, more visually appealing birds flying around.

While the Yellow-faced Grasquit is pretty easy to identify, the Blue-black Grasquit, Variable Seedeaters on the Caribbean Slope, and the Thick-billed Seed-finch can be tough to separate at first glance. With a close look at the right features, though, they are actually pretty easy to identify. Instead of obsessing about the white spot in the wings, or that the bird looks mostly black, concentrate on the bill shape. The shape of the bill reflects how some of these seed-eating species can avoid competition with each other by eating different sized seeds. It’s kind of analogous to flycatcher and woodcreeper identification where the shape and/or size of the bill is often a more important field mark than plumage characteristics.

Although the Blue-black Grasquit is also pretty easy to identify by plumage (no white in the wings, blue-black coloration in the male, the female sparrow-like with dull streaks on the breast), notice how its bill is straighter and more sharply pointed. Sure it eats seeds, but this little finch (or tanager, emberezid, or 9-primaried oscine) is not a vegetarian by any means. With that bill shape, it’s probably bulking up on protein meals of grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects of the grass. And taking into account the number of times males do their little jumping display (hundreds each day during the breeding season), it needs a lot of protein!

Separating the Variable Seedeater and the Thick-billed Seed-finch is trickier. Although the seed-finch is bigger, don’t fall into the trap of using size as a field mark. Stick to the bill shape. The Seed-finch isn’t called “thick-billed” for nothing. Their bills are noticeably larger and more angular as opposed to the small, rounded bill of the Variable Seedeater. It might look challenging when studying the book, but if you get a good look, you won’t have any doubt in your mind about which species it is. The female Seed-finch is actually even easier to identify because she not only has that big, black bill, but also has more ruddy brown plumage than the olive-brown plumage of the female Variable.

Male Thick-billed Seed-finch. Compared to the dainty seedeater, this bird looks downright tough. It’s like he’s saying, “You talking to me..?” , or “Did you say something about my bill?!”

whereas the male Variable Seedeater is more along the lines of, “Would you ummm, maybe like to buy some Girl Scout cookies”?

This female seed-finch is like, “Yeah, that’s right. This is MY stream! Don’t make me use my hefty bill!

whereas this female Variable Seedeater is saying, “Oh how I enjoy nibbling on flower buds and itsy, bitsy seeds”!

On the Pacific slope, you won’t have to worry about copycat male Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-finches because the Variable of the west has a white belly, rump, and collar. It does look kind of like a White-collared Seedeater though. The White-collared, however, has a larger white collar, is more buff on the belly and rump, and most of all, has two white wing bars. The female White-collared also has this handy field mark.

Check out the white wings bars on this male White-collared.

As for other seedeater species, the Ruddy-breasted is pretty distinctive and always has a light speculum in the wing, the Blue looks a lot like a Blue-black grassquit but has a different shape (more sparrow-like), and skulks in cloud forest bamboo and edge, and the Pink-billed Seed-finch really does have a massive pinkish bill that would frighten even the toughest of Thick-billed Seed-finches!

In conclusion, although I completely understand why you may not want to put the more common seedeaters, grassquits, and the like on your target list for birding in Costa Rica, they can still be fun birds to watch (especially if you make up personalities for them).

big year Birding Costa Rica

End of a BIG YEAR and birding highlights for Costa Rica in 2009

2009 is officially coming to a close and so is my BIG YEAR. Since I didn’t do the usual things one does during a BIG YEAR such as travel long distances on short notice, stumble around in the dark of the night while hooting like an owl, or risk my life, I feel a bit apprehensive about using caps for my BIG YEAR. Nevertheless, there aren’t any stipulations or rules for doing a BIG YEAR stating that reckless behavior is required so I won’t feel too bad about keeping the Caps Lock on. I did what I could with the handicaps of new family, young daughter, work, and no private vehicle for most of the time. This means that I couldn’t spend too many nights away from home (nor too many days for that matter), and that my birding time was very limited overall. In fact, a lot of the birds for my BIG YEAR were identified while guiding as opposed to birding on my own. That was perfectly fine with me because no matter what someone else’s birding level might be, I would much rather share birding with others- something that probably has a lot to do with mostly birding alone from the age of 7 to 12 and wondering where the other birders were. In any case, whether out alone, guiding, or birding with friends (especially Janet Peterson), my final total for 2009 for all species seen or heard in Costa Rica is: 510.

There are a fair number of gaps in this list due to not birding Guanacaste, not getting up to Monteverde nor down into La Selva, and doing almost no shorebirding. Therefore, things like Great Currasow, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Elegant Trogon, Streak-backed Oriole, and a whole flock of shorebird species didn’t make it onto my 2009 list. Nor did pelagic species but due to the long standing disagreeent between myself and bouncing up and down on the open ocean, pelagic species hardly exist for me as possibilities in any case. My first species was a TK while my last was Blue-headed Parrot. The TK was heard singing its dawn song from our apartment while the parrot was heard flying overhead as I awoke in a hotel in the border town of Paso Canoas on December 18th. 

Although it is still 2009 as I write this, I won’t be seeing anything in Costa Rica until 2010 because I traded the warm, tropical latitudes on December 22nd for the freezing, boreal, treeless landscape of western New York to spend the holiday with family and friends. There are some birds around here but my BIG YEAR is restricted to Costa Rica so I won’t be adding Ring-billed Gull or Eurasian Starling to the list. Here are some of my birding highlights from 2009 in taxonomic order:

King Vulture or the one and only KV or Big K: Although expected, a mostly white vulture that is not a BV or TV is always a highlight. Saw these on just about every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez and at such sites as Pocosol and a new birding site near San Ramon that I hope to blog about sometime soon.

Plumbeous Kite: Easy elsewhere but uncommon in Costa Rica, I had one gracing the skies above the Arenal hanging bridges in March.

Tiny Hawk: Just a glimpse along the La Selva entrance road but enough to identify this reclusive little raptor.

Crane Hawk: Regular around Carara, I had three birds this year. I put it as a highlight because this species was my neotropical nemesis for several years. I finally caught up with it at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru in 2001. My current neotropical nemesis bird is Masked Duck (which I hope to get in 2010!).

Black-eared Wood-Quail: Very good to see this tough species at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Olive-backed Quail-dove: A pretty uncommon bird anywhere, I was excited to see one at Quebrada Gonzalez where they are rare residents.

Great Green Macaw: A few heard at Termales del Bosque near La Selva, and near Braulio Carrillo. Always a highlight and especially so because there are fewer around with every passing year. Although the trees this species needs for food have protected status and are planted in northern Costa Rica, it will be a long time before we see any population increase due to their low reproductive rate and the lack of cavities for possible nest sites.

Yellow-naped Parrot: Another parrot that had declined but is still seen in small numbers in the northwest and around Carara. Had great views of a few at Cerro Lodge.

Lesser Ground Cuckoo: It was nice to pick up this species by call in the western Central Valley because I didn’t get a chance to make it to Guanacaste where it is pretty common.

Costa Rican Pygy-Owl: A lone bird being harrassed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird in the wonderful forests of La Georgina was one of my favorite highlights of 2009.

Short-tailed Nighthawk: One of the last birds on our Big Day, Johan, Ineke, Dieter, and I had fun watching one hawk bugs at the La Selva entrance road.

Chuck-will’s Widow: One seen perched over the trail at Quebrada Gonzalez was only my second ever.

Spot-fronted Swift: A few seen well enough to note the white spots on the face were flying around the La Selva entrance road. I think this was my only lifer for the year!

Snowcap: A male buzzing around the canopy at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of my first birds of the year.

Green and Rufous Kingfisher: A brief look at a female in Manzanillo was my first for Costa Rica. Robert Dean very accurately illustrates the distinctive bill shape of this species.

American Pygmy Kingfisher: After always being on the lookout for this species in the right places sans success, I finally caught up with it in Manzanillo.

Yellow-eared Toucanet: Several nice looks at this fancy bird at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Black-headed Antthrush: Much easier in Ecuador, I heard one at Pocosol.

Black-crowned Antpitta: A few heard and seen at one of the only accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica-Quebrada Gonzalez.

Lesser Elaenia: A local species in Costa Rica, I was happy to get brief looks as one at Kiri Lodge. 

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: I couldn’t believe that they didn’t come in to my imitation but I did hear them at Manzanillo. This is a species that has become quite uncommon with deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: Nice looks at birds at the Aerial Tram and at Rara Avis. Never guaranteed and always a highlight!

Sharpbill: Close looks at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Cerulean Warbler: My first for Costa Rica in the forests of Rara Avis!

Wrenthrush: Expected but the ridiculously close looks I got at La Georgina deserve mention.

Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager: A few seen at Quebrada Gonzalez and possibly elsewhere. Always uncommon and good to see.

Blue and Gold Tanager: Uncommon, local, but expected at Quebrada Gonzalez, Rara Avis, and Pocosol. Like a Euphonia on steroids, these are great birds.

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager: Uncommon in Costa Rica. The U of Paz is a good place for them.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch: Seen at the La Tigra wetlands near La Selva, this massive-billed little bird always deserves a mention.

Shiny Cowbird: One at Manzanillo was a new Costa Rican bird for me. 

And now for the low points, misses, and musings:

Slaty-breasted Tinamou: Didn’t spend enough time near La Selva to get this one. A bird that appears to have declined with deforestation in Costa Rica.

Fasciated Tiger-Heron: Just didn’t get around to hanging out at the stake outs for this tough species.

Black-crowned Night-Heron: Saw a few Yellow-crowns but none of this uncommon species.

Green Ibis: Not enough evenings spent in the Sarapiqui region.

Great Black Hawk: I haven’t seen this species for some time in Costa Rica whereas I used to see it regularly in Braulio Carrillo (during the 90s).

Sunbittern: Just didn’t spend enough time at stakeouts.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: This diminutive parrot eludes me for yet another year! I probably caught a glimpse of a pair at Arenal in 2008, and almost certainly had a brief flyby of a small flock near Quebrada Gonzalez (seen for a second while washing my hands and not relocated), but still need lifer views!

No Potoos!- Always tough, didn’t find any, nor spent enough time at night in their haunts.

Brown Violetear- Thought I’d get it at Tapanti but no such luck. More difficult in Costa Rica after Cinchona was destroyed by the earthquake.

Lanceolated Monklet: Still no monklet in Costa Rica despite my many attempts at whistling them in.

Ocellated Antbird: I was suprised to not get this one although probably because I ran into very few antswarms in 2009.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher: No sign of this rare bird at El Gavilan. Rancho Naturalista has become one of the only sites for this species.

Ovenbird: I was pretty surprised to not get one of these.

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Still need this local, little known species for a lifer!!

Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: Didn’t spend enough time birding coffee plantations in the Central Valley- would be good to study this species as it has lost (and continues to lose) a lot of habitat.

Giant Cowbird: No Giant Cowbird this year. A pretty uncommon bird in Costa Rica.

Good birding in 2010 and hope to see you in Costa Rica!


Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What to study for a birding trip to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an easy place to visit and see a large number of bird species, many of which are spectacular. With airline tickets still pretty cheap from North America (especially from New York), there’s almost no excuse not to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Ever since my first trip here in 1992, I have always told people what I discovered- that Costa Rica is much easier to visit than you think and that you should go! From North America, it’s pretty close, infastructure is better than a lot of places in the region, the country is small enough to conceivably bird in a wide variety of habitats, and although prices have gone up, it can still be done in an affordable manner. The birding is challenging but always exciting and you can start getting prepared by studying either or both of the bird books for Costa Rica. Whether you take a tour or do it on your own, studying the birds beforehand will seriously enhance your trip and leave more time for birding instead of pouring through the book during your time in Costa Rica.

The two bird books for Costa Rica are, “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch, and “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Garrigues and Dean. Whether you get the classic, “old school” Stiles and Skutch, or the updated, modernized Garrigues and Dean, I don’t think you can really go wrong with either one.

Here are some ups and downs about each:

While Stiles and Skutch has more information overall and makes for a great reference book, this also makes it rather large in size for the field. The size of the book is also just big enough to take up a fair amount of packing space. Because of its size, for me, it’s more of a book to keep back at the hotel or at home rather than one for the field. Although some of the illustrations could be improved, overall they are pretty good, are for the most part useful for identification, and the text always makes for good reading. Being several years old, it also needs to be updated. This is especially true for the sort of dynamic factors that every field guide needs to keep up on such as bird distribution and occurrence, classification, and advances in our knowledge of identification.

Garrigues and Dean attempted to correct these disadvantages with their book and I think it has worked out nicely. It is the perfect size for the field without having to seriously reduce the size of the illustrations. They were able to accomplish this by leaving out several of the seabirds that most birders visiting Costa Rica aren’t likely to encounter and in reducing the text to the bare minimum needed for identification (pointing out important field marks with notes on habitat, behavior, and abundance). Instead of having plates with the name of the bird on the opposite page and then a reference to the page with the appropriate text, Garrigues and Dean put all of this right with the bird and include maps! Even though Costa Rica is a pretty small country with fairly well defined life zones, distribution maps still come in handy. I also like the illustrations better in Garrigues and Dean. They are more accurate because of their detail, do not overcrowd the pages, and are just simply nice to look at. To point out one or two things that could be improved, regarding identification of Black and white Hawk-Eagle, the white leading edge to the wing is not mentioned as a field mark (and is an excellent one), nor is anything said about Ocellated Poorwhill possibly being Choco Poorwhill (the vocalization of which differs from that of Ocellated Poorwhil- the only one described in the book). Overall though, the book is great and better for field identification.

That said, although I think you should bring at least one of these books with you to Costa Rica, you don’t really have to bring it into the field (nor should you in my opinion). What? Not bring a book into the steaming jungle or misty cloud forest? Yes, exactly. Leave that book back at the hotel and figure out what you saw during or after dinner. Otherwise, you will miss birds during the time it takes to get the book out of your pack and leafing through the pages until you find the possible contenders. It’s quicker to do this with Garrigues and Dean but I think you will still see more if you take notes on field marks or try to remember what you saw and don’t even think about taking that book out during the hectic frenzy of a mixed flock!

The thing to keep in mind with tropical birding is that there are lots of species that are possible but most of them are naturally rare. Forest species in particular seem to have large territories and might be encountered just once or twice during your trip. Many are also much shyer than temperate zone species, are masters at camouflage and staying hidden to avoid the myriad of predators they face, and often specialize on certain fruits or microhabitats. This all basically means that in the field, you have to be ready and quick at all times with your binoculars because for many species, you might just have one or two chances to see it and when you do, the looks might not be all that long. Studying the field marks from your bird book will aid you in knowing what to look for, especially with the looks one gets while watching a mixed flock.

If you aren’t familiar with what a mixed flock is, imagine wondering where all the birds have been for the past two hours while you have been carefully walking through primary rain forest when all of a sudden, the vegetation all around you seems to be twitching and shaking with birds but most of them still seem to be hidden! As various chirps and chip notes give away their location and others tantalize you with their songs, you manage to get onto a woodcreeper but can’t see its head (which is what you need to see to identify it), aren’t quick enough to focus on some small flycatcher in the canopy, but then get great looks at one, two, no, four different tanagers! Just as you are getting better looks at more of the birds in the flock, they seem to have moved too far into the forest to watch. Left feeling exhilirated and a bit frustrated, at least studying the books paid off in identifying some of the birds and you would have missed a lot if you had tried to look up birds in the book during all of that excitement.

Even with dozens of evenings spent with your Costa Rican bird book before the trip, it will never make up for learning in a field setting because birds just love to show themselves so differently from the way they are illustrated. Here are some examples of the usual looks we get:

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Spectacled Foliage-gleaner

Believe it or not, a Northern Scrub Flycatcher!

A Bright-rumped Atilla (why oh why did it have to turn its head away)

See if you can find the Olive Tanager!

Or how about this Emerald Tanager!

This is where a qualified, knowledgable guide comes in handy although no matter how well a guide can identify birds by sight, he or she still won’t up to par unless they can also identify birds by their vocalizations. Yet another way to prepare for a birding trip to Costa Rica instead of say working or doing the dishes, becoming familiar with bird vocalizations will also enhance your trip. There are a few cds available but I don’t believe that there is a comprehensive country wide dvd or set of cds as of yet. David Ross offers a few cds that cover most areas of the country, and vocalizations can also be listened to at Xeno Canto. Dan Mennil has a website with some dry forest birds, and Doug Von Gausig also has a nice selection of bird species to listen to. I hope to post songs on this blog eventually although it might be a few months before that happens. Keep posted though for that and other surprises that will help you have a better birding trip to Costa Rica.