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Birding Costa Rica at the Edge of La Selva- Looking for Lowland Specialties

“La Selva” means “the jungle”. It’s a term for forest that is strictly tropical in composition and appearance, a humid green landscape punctuated by palms, pale trunks mottled with fungi and foliaged with unfamiliar leaves. It’s a place where the trees grow tall and branch out high above, heavy wooden arms decorated with bunches of bromeliads, orchids, and other “air plants”.

Down below, the ground is typically muddy and it sticks to your boots (and is why rubber boots are the norm for jungle footwear). Birds hoot and whistle from the forest, most unseen. Wait long enough though, look in the right places and they eventually appear. Lowland rainforest birding is extra patient birding but it has its rewards. Keep on birding and the species keep showing especially if you can mix more than one habitat into the blend.

That mix of microhabitats is one of the reasons why birding the edge of La Selva is so much fun. The constant parade of species makes for gratifying, satisfying birding. The constant chance at something rare makes for exciting birding. Add easy, good birding from roads to the mix and we can see why the edge of La Selva is a major, classic Costa Rica birding hotspot.

Birding inside the La Selva station is even more exciting but since access is only possible for guests and folks who pay for one of their tours, sometimes, you just have to be happy with birding the edge. Fortunately, given the reliable good birding, happiness comes easy when birding the edge of La Selva.

The experience is a fine combination of forest and edge species, many of them common, some of them less common. With so many birds sounding off and flying into sight, guiding at the edge of La Selva tends to be busy birding. Which bird to look at now? Which to point out, focus on, or try to see? Your best bet is to go with the flow and identify them as they appear but, as with most sites, some birds are easier to see near La Selva than other places. Some species only live in the hot, flat lowlands. These are the birds that take precedence because you might not see the during the rest of your trip:

Slaty-breasted Tinamou

The low whistled calls of this tinamou are often heard at La Selva. Although they are much more reliably seen on trails in the reserve, I have also seen them by peering into the forests along the entrance roads (with lots of patience!).

Semiplumbeous Hawk

This smallish, smart-looking rainforest raptor is regular in the forests of La Selva, including forests at the edge of the reserve.

Gray-rumped Swift

It won’t take long to see some of these small lowland aerialists twittering just above the canopy. It’s worth noting that the population in Central America is a pretty good future split from birds in many parts of South America (except for maybe Ecuador and Colombia).

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Rufous-taileds are the most common species but Blue-chesteds also occur, especially at flowering bushes. Keep watching the flowers, keep checking for a dull hummingbird with a dark grayish tail.

Rufous Motmot

Despite its size, this big, eye-catching species tends to stay out of sight. Listen for its hooting calls in the early morning and keep watching for it; it’s more common at La Selva than some other places.

Pied Puffbird

Make a careful check all small birds perched on high branches. They might not all be Blue-gray Tanagers, one of them might be a Pied Puffbird. This small puffbird seems to be fairly common around the edge of La Selva.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

One of several possible woodpecker species at La Selva, this bronze crested beauty is fairly common around La Selva. It’s also restricted to the lowlands.

Great Green Macaw

La Selva continues to be a classic site for this critically endangered bird. Wait long enough at the edge of La Selva and a pair will eventually fly past.

Black-crowned Antshrike

This common forest antshrike of the Caribbean lowlands is frequently heard and usually eventually seen. The same goes for the zebra-patterned Fasciated Antshrike.

Snowy Cotinga

Sarapiqui is a good area for this special bird, especially on roads at the edge of La Selva. Even so, it’s still easy to miss it. All you can do is keep checking the tops of trees and watch for one doing its distinctive butterfly-like flight.

Plain-colored Tanager

This small, uncharacteristic tanager is a bird of the lowlands and fairly common at the edge of La Selva. If you see a small group of pale birds with high pitched calls fly into a fruiting tree, there’s a fair chance that they are Plain-colored Tanagers.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch

This cool, large-beaked bird isn’t always present but it does show up from time to time. It’s worth listening and looking for it in the brushy, grassy field adjacent to the reserve. I saw one there last week.

These species can also be found in other lowland sites and some also occur in foothill habitats but if La Selva is the only lowland area visited on your trip, it’s worth it to try and see them there. Use the filter for Region and Major Habitats on the Costa Rica Birds app to study and mark them as targets. Learn more about birding in the La Selva area and dozens of other birding sites with this birding companion for Costa Rica. Most of all, start studying for that birding trip to Costa Rica today, it will be here before you know it!

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Birding Forest Fragments of the Caribbean Lowlands

In the not very distant past of Costa Rica, all of the other side of the mountains was cloaked in dense forest. The cloud forests of the highlands merged into eternally wet and mossy foothill forest and then became majestic lowland rainforest that swept across the rolling ground all the way to the coast. The lowlands might be flatter than the naturally broken highlands but it was never parking lot flat. The waterways still managed to break the ground and produce a mosaic of hills and low lying areas where rivers still run, streams flow, and swamps do their aquatic ruminating thing. These factors in turn produce a greater array of microhabitats where Northern Bentbills buzz from the vine-tangled gaps, where motmots make their burrow nests on steep slopes above the creeks, and where Agami Herons creep around the low, wet places.

Now, it’s very different. Well, at least what grows on the land is vastly different from what was there for thousands of years. The form of the land is still pretty much the same but many of the trees (especially the big old ones) have been cut down and the flattest places now host sugar cane, pineapples, bananas, or cattle. The biodiversity is drastically less, who knows which plants and insects have gone extinct or are close to becoming effectively doomed because remnant trees can’t be pollinated or produce seedlings that grow enough to produce their own offspring. That said, the northern lowlands of Costa Rica aren’t entirely shorn of trees. There are still quite a few growing in pastures and along riparian zones, and there are a few patches of forest here and there. Things grow with a quickness in the wet tropics, there’s still hope for reforestation, to reconnect and grow at least some patches of forest.

I was birding in one of those remnant forested spots this past weekend during a visit to the San Carlos area of Costa Rica. At a small comunal reserve known as “Juanilama”, Marilen and I had a taste of what can still occur in forest fragments in Costa Rica. Some observations:

A good number of birds

During a brief two hour visit, we had more than 80 species including standouts like a pair of Great Green Macaws, Pied Puffbird, and Royal Flycatcher.

But not like the complex array of life that is a larger area of mature forest

Juanilama did have some nice big trees here and there but just not enough habitat to support more specialized frugivores like Snowy Cotinga and Purple-throated Fruitcrow. Nor was there enough habitat for most of the understory insectivores or raptors. Basically, this is because those birds are more adapted to larger areas of mature forest, they are acting players, working parts in the mature forest ecosystem. They just aren’t a part of, can’t play a role in other forest community games.

Some migrants

The main reason we birded Juanilama was twofold; the place is close to where Mary’s family lives, and it being migration season, I figured we had a chance at Veery and some other nice year birds. Although that wasn’t the case on Sunday morning, we still managed to see a couple warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, and Scarlet Tanager.

More birding outside the reserve

I found the surrounding countryside especially interesting in that more trees were present than I had expected. We didn’t see too much but still had a fair number of species including White-winged Becard, Laughing Falcon, and toucans. Although these were the expected species that can survive in some edge situations, we still had birds we could watch.

Some questions

While birding that morning, I wondered about a thing or two, things that could act as research projects. Like, how important is a forest patch like Juanilama for migrants? Are there more than in riparian zones and other nearby edge habitats? Is there more or less competition with resident species in edge habitats? Does Middle American Screech-owl occur? How about other owls and do those owls limit the occurrence of the screech-owl? Did Harpy Eagles prefer to nest on some of the hill tops near there? How about Orange-breasted Falcon (along with the eternal question of why populations of this Neotropic raptor are so limited and localized)? These are the sort of things that can run through your head when the bird activity drops and is replaced by the snoring of cicadas and buzzing of mosquitoes.

No Mississippi Kite nor other year birds on Sunday but at least we did connect with our 2019 Baird’s Sandpiper the previous morning. There were a few in a nearby temporary mudflat. They were feeding a bit like dowitchers, we had great looks, it was and is cool to contemplate the Arctic-Costa Rica-South American connections made by this amazing migrant. Still hoping for cuckoos near the homestead or an Upland to call at night. I wonder what will be next for the year list of TeamTyto?