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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills preparing for your trip

Preparations for the 2015 Arenal Christmas Count

December has kicked off with am imaginary “bang!” and Christmas count season is nigh in Costa Rica. Most counts take place two weeks from now, but one key, counting bonanza happens in a few days and I will indeed partake in the challenge. Since the count season overlaps with the family events season, this will probably be the only count I can do. Having been stuck indoors for too many days, I am more than ready to merge back into the tropical forest and focus on the bio-surroundings. I’m still not entirely sure where I will stay for the count (counts in Costa Rica are usually a multi-day event), but one of the coordinators is doing his best to help me and a couple friends figure that out. In the meantime, these are some suggested preparations for keeping things on the ball during count day:

  • Meditate: Meditation results in more birds. It does! Work to clear the mind and there is less mental clutter to keeps one from noticing birds. You see, a lot of these tropical birds are highly evolved to escape detection. The more concentrated on seeing and hearing birds one is, the more you find. Oh, and meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on the floor with your eyes closed. It can also take the form of Tai Chi, Yoga, watching birds on your own, trying to focus on and discern distant flying specks, tight-rope walking or other endeavors that help to calm the mind. If you deal feel like repeating one or a few words over and over, I suggest, “Rufous…vented….Ground….Cuckoo…”.
  • Learning to use hand signals to shush people in silence: After visualizing ground-cuckoos, this idea came to mind. Serious business requires serious silence. I wish we had those throat microphones used by special forces soldiers in movies (a night scope would also be nice) but we don’t, so hand signals will have to suffice. We will have to establish talking rules before the count, as well as which hand signals mean “Bird ahead”, “Did you hear that?”, or “Ground-cuckoo ahead!”. That latter signal could also be substituted for “Shut the ….. up!!” Heck, if we develop those gesticulations further, we’ll be just like a gender neutral Bene Gesserit of birding!
    Birds like to hide in this stuff..

    ...birds like Keel-billed Motmot.
  • Gearing up: A gear check is needed before any major birding endeavor because we can’t afford to have something go wrong, especially when we have to note every bird that chirps, flies, or scampers into our collective field of view. Not to mention, it’s cool to check out optics, mobile devices with bird calls, and an espresso machine any time of day. Ok, so, we aren’t bringing the espresso machine, but only because it’s too much of a pain to carry through the jungle.
  • Rain: There is only one day for the count and that day is not weather dependent. If it rains,(and it often does), the count goes on! As many past bird counts in Costa Rica have demonstrated, you still find a surprising number of birds. This is because it doesn’t usually rain the whole time,, and wherever you have a bunch of birders counting, them birds are found. So, we get ready for the rain by bringing a functioning umbrella, other rain gear, like 2o Ziplock bags, and a mindset that expects precipitation.
  • Snacks, coffee, and the like: We will probably get a bag lunch (most counts in Costa Rica do this) but a count is always better when you can reward yourself with quality chocolate, brownies, and/or other goodies. This also helps us celebrate the count. The coffee is of course necessary (or tea, or some other caffeinated stuff).

    On the way to Arenal, we will probably stop at the Loveats cafe for Cookies.
  • Flexibility to chase birds: So, this could mean literal flexibility if we have to climb a muddy slope and leap across some chasm to see the Great Jacamar or ground-cuckoo calling on the other side of the mountain, or being flexible with time the following day to chase the rare birds found and reported by others during the count.

I may or may not be following my own suggestions but I know that if I do, I will see more birds. Happy counting!

birding lodges Christmas Counts Osa Peninsula Pacific slope

The 2010 Osa Christmas Count at the Bosque del Rio Tigre

I took a second class bus from the bowels of San Jose up and over Cerro de la Muerte (” mountain of death”) to the frontier-like southwestern lowlands of Costa Rica to get to my destination. It was ten hours on the bus, two of which involved slamming our way over a section of remote road that was seriously afflicted with potholes, but I finally reached my rendezvous with birding friend Dorothy MacKinnon just before nightfall. It was slightly too late to watch birds except for the Common Pauraques that flew off the road at our approach but still early enough to comfortably ford the river that runs just in front of our final waypoint, the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge.

Inside the lodge.

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We were there to participate in the Bosque del Rio Tigre sector of the Osa CBC organized by Karen Leavelle of the Friends of the Osa. Our gracious hosts were Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo, owners of one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica, the Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge. They were as welcoming as always and eager to discuss count logistics. With just 11 participants, it was going to be impossible to cover the count circle to the extent of other Costa Rican counts such as La Selva or Carara but we would do our best with two small teams covering major habitats as well as one person staying back at the house to maintain the yard and feeder count.

I had heard a lot about the excellent cuisine of Bosque del Rio Tigre and the tuna steaks and garlic potatoes for dinner on the evening before the count certainly surpassed my expectations. As I savored that perfect meal, I thought that if the birds didn’t cooperate, at least dinner was probably worth the long bus ride!

As with all nights before a CBC in the tropics, I went to bed before nine to essentially get up in the night. Sure, 4:30 a.m. is only thirty minutes or so before the light of dawn begins to faintly illuminate the surroundings but it’s still nighttime in my book. Because it is pitch black outside, I always have this strong notion that I should be sleeping as opposed to feeling disoriented as I fumble around with my flashlight. 

Fortunately, I am able to make it to the washroom without knocking anything over or walking into a wall and fully wake myself up with cold water splashed on the face. Since I wisely prepared my gear the night before, I am ready to rock and roll in five minutes and head downstairs for coffee and banana bread.  As others come to the table, Liz apologizes for the fact that we aren’t having a proper breakfast and points out a variety of healthy snacks to keep us going until an early lunch. As we finish coffee and get ready to head off to our respective territories, the first birds of the day start to call. Someone heard Black and white Owl the night before so that is technically bird numero uno but the first for me is a Collared Forest-Falcon vocalizing from somewhere on the other side of the river. Getting a forest falcon at that crepuscular hour is pretty typical as is hearing woodcreepers and shortly thereafter sure enough, our next birds are a couple of dawn yodeling Cocoa and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. Another of our first calling birds is regular at the lodge but a new year bird for me- the tiny Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet.

Starting the count. Check out our slick, green 2010 Osa CBC tee-shirts.

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Just as everything seems to be starting to wake up and the light of day steadily grows, Liz, Dorothy, and I head up into the primary forest on the hillside behind the lodge on our way to an open area that overlooks a mix of pasture and forest. We quickly tick off forest species such as Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Scaly-throated Leaftosser (regular at the lodge), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager. Dot-winged Antwren, Red-capped Manakin and Blue-black Grosbeak also get counted and just as we reach the horse trail that will take us to the open area, Gray-headed Kite calls from the canopy. In addition to its typical vocalization of steady, repeated notes, it also gives a strange rising call that momentarily tricks us because of its similarity to the calls of a young Spectacled Owl.

On up into the open area, we keep hearing new birds and actually see a few too now that it’s light out. The day is thankfully overcast but not so much to pour down rain and so we thankfully avoid getting roasted under the blazing, lowland sun. As we scan the treetops, Liz remarks how heavier rains than usual appear to have resulted in less fruit being available in the forest and so a number of frugivorous birds seem to have moved to lower lying areas in search of arboreal vittles. She says that because of this it’s kind of slow even though we have recorded 70 species by this time.

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While scanning the forest canopy, I find one of our best birds of the day perched in a tall, bare emergent. It’s not very close but the light colored underparts and dark head tells me this is something good and when it turns its head to reveal a raptor profile, yep(!) it’s a Tiny Hawk! My first for 2010 and always a good bird, the thrush-sized little forest raptor lets us watch it for a few minutes before flying across of field of view. In flight it looks a lot like a small Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We leave the open area after that and count more forest birds as we make our way down to the Crake Trail and eventually to edge habitats near the river. The Crake Trails gets its name from the Uniform Crakes that are regular there. We look for them but despite neither seeing nor hearing any, keep moving because we just can’t dedicate the whole day to seeing that elusive denizen of wet thickets. It’s around this time that we also hear a strange bird calling. I know it’s a parakeet species but nothing I am familiar with and so guess that it could be a Brown-throated Parakeet. I can barely believe my eyes when I then briefly spot a long-tailed parakeet hanging out with a much shorter-tailed and expected Orange-chinned Parakeet perched at the top of a riverside tree. The only other long-tailed parakeet species in the area is Crimson-fronted Parakeet but this bird was most definitely NOT one of those! They fly off before I can get more than a one second look and it’s not enough to clinch an ID but amazingly, we hear it calling again and are thrilled to see it fly right into perfect light and perch in full view for 5 or so seconds. The pale eye ring accompanied by brown cheeks and throat show that yes it is most certainly a Brown-throated Parakeet and we can hardly believe our luck at getting this new species for the lodge on the same day as the CBC.

As the sun comes out, we get several more raptors- King Vulture, White Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Black Hawk Eagle. With 14 raptor species recorded for the day, I am pretty sure it’s my best day for raptors in Costa Rica! After sightings of Great Antshrike, two becard species, and picking up more key birds of the low, thick stuff such as our only Black-bellied Wren of the day and Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, we swing by a lagoon to get Neotropical Cormorant, Green Kingfisher, and Boat-billed and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and get killer close looks at beautiful Marbled Wood-Quail before finally making it back to the lodge for lunch. After trudging around all morning in the uncomfortable yet requisite rubber boots, it’s a fantastic feeling to take that trying footwear off and sit down to yet another excellent meal. 

Me looking serious (probably dazed by the humidity) and Dorothy enjoying an apple.

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During lunch and some post lunch relaxation, the parakeet shows up again, this time with a brown-throated friend, and they amazingly perch in full view on a distant tree. As we watch those, it’s hard to decide where to look as a much prettier Turquoise Cotinga makes an appearance in the same tree and Little Tinamou and Blue Ground-Doves show up near the kitchen to eat rice thrown to the ground. Fruit feeders also attract quality bird species such as…

 the Costa Rican endemic, Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager,

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the mostly Costa Rican endemic Fiery-billed Aracari (they barely reach Panama),

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and two other mostly Costa Rican endemics, the Spot-crowned Euphonia, and

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birding Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker!

Although I kind of feel like just birding from a hammock for the rest of the day, as it would be blasphemous to shirk responsibilities on a CBC, I join the group in fording the river to walk through the village and hike up the Pizote River to make sure we don’t miss White-tipped Sicklebill. Birding is good (surprise, surprise) along the way and we record a bunch of usual edge and second growth suspects as well as Green Heron, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, and White-throated Crake in roadside marshy spots.

The river walk is made challenging because we can’t see wear to put our feet in water made murky by the activities of gold miners (illegal) upriver. The sound of the rushing stream cancels out any and all bird calls which makes this segment of the CBC the least productive. There was gold at the end of the muddy rainbow however, as Abraham led us to roosting White-tipped Sicklebills! Another new one for the year, I hadn’t seen one of these crazy looking hummingbirds since I don’t know when so I guess the fear of slipping and drowning my camera in the brown stream was worth it!

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White-tipped Sicklebill thanks to Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge.

A fitting way to end a fantastic day of birding, we counted up results before yet another perfect dinner and came up with 205 bird species! Our team alone wracked up 144 for the day and still saw a dozen or more species the following morning. It will be interesting to see how many I get on the Carara count two weeks from now.

We couldn’t count wooden birds but we got the real ones anyways (Turquoise Cotinga, Barird’s Trogon, and Orange-collared Manakin).

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Our team list for the day:

Little Tinamou
Neotropical Cormorant
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Boat-billed Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture
White Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Collared Forest-Falcon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Gray -headed Kite
Tiny Hawk
Black Hawk-Eagle
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Double-toothed Kite
American Swallow-tailed Kite
Marbled Wood-Quail
White-throated Crake
Purple Gallinule
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
Northern Jacana
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Blue Ground Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Gray-chested Dove
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Brown-throated Parakeet
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Brown-hooded Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Mealy Parrot
Red-lored Parrot
Scarlet Macaw
Squirrel Cuckoo
White-collared Swift
Costa-Rican Swift
Bronzy Hermit
Long-billed Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
White-tipped Sicklebill
White-necked Jacobin
Blue-throated Goldentail
Charming Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Baird’s Trogon
Violaceous Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
Blue-crowned Motmot
Green Kingfisher
White-necked Puffbird
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Fiery-billed Aracari
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Olivaceous Piculet
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Slaty Spinetail
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
Plain Xenops
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Northern Barred Woodcreeper
Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Black-hooded Antshrike
Great Antshrike
Chestnut-backed Antbird
Dot-winged Antwren
Black-faced Antthrush
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet
Southern Beardless Tyrannulet
Yellow Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Northern Bentbill
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Wood pewee sp.
Tropical Pewee
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Bright-rumped Attila
Rufous Piha
Rose-throated Becard
White-winged Becard
Masked Tityra
Black-crowned Tityra
Orange-collared Manakin
Red-capped Mankin
Turquoise Cotinga
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Lesser Greenlet
Gray-breasted Martin
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Mangrove Swallow
Black-bellied Wren
Riverside Wren
House Wren
Scaly-breasted Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Clay-colored Robin
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cherries´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Blue Dacnis
Blue-black Grasquit
Variable Seedeater
Thick-billed Seed-Finch
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Yellow-billed Cacique
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Christmas Bird Counts in Costa Rica for 2010-2011

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Joyous Christmas Counts! It’s that most wonderful time of year again and if Santa is a birder (and I bet he is), we better hope that he has the will power and determination of a stalking bittern or lists will be misplaced and gifts left unwrapped if he gives in to the temptation and casts his gift giving expedition aside to participate in all 11 of the Costa Rican Christmas Bird Counts.

A few are held on the same dates which of course means that those of us who don’t have a stable of ultra-dimensional, time-traveling reindeer won’t be able to appear in more than one place at the same time. So, you can’t do them all but there are still a bunch to choose from and even if you can only manage one, it is guaranteed to be one heck of a jolly time. Instead of examining the pine groves for owls and hoping to hear a lisp or two of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, how does counting kiskadees and searching for antbirds sound? Instead of marching across frozen, crunchy ground and wondering if you are experiencing frostbite while looking for that elusive flock of longspurs, you will be relishing the warm tropical weather and rehydrating with your drink of choice as Crimson-fronted Parakeets screech overhead. A bunch of those summer breeding birds from the north will be also hear to greet you and you will see so many Baltimore Orioles that might be tempted to (gasp!) think of them as trash birds.

It won’t be a white Christmas in Costa Rica but we certainly have an abundance of mistletoe and with luck, it will be fruiting and decorated with foraging Euphonias, Chlorophonias, and sparkling-plumaged tanagers.

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Decoration number one: Scrub Euphonia

Decoration number two: Golden-browed Cholorphonia

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Decoration number three: Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Christmas counts in Costa Rica are especially fun not only because the birding is downright heavenly, but also because they tend to be well organized, there are lots of local participants, you usually get a cool, birding tee-shirt at the end of the day, and most of all, you get the chance to bird some areas that would have been tough to access otherwise.

Family duties will keep me from participating in most of the counts, but I plan on making my way down to the Osa for the Bosque del Rio Tigre count (if I do, expect a post!), will probably do the Carara count, might get lucky enough to do the Veragua count, and especially hope to make it to the Maquenque count.

As far as I know, anyone can participate in the counts but you have to contact the respective count organizer to inquire about signing up (the following information can also be found at the website for the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica):

December 5th: Valle de Orosi/Tapantí: Contact: Marco Torres [email protected] Tel: 8347-6098

December 8th: Veragua. Contact: Daniel Torres [email protected]

December 17th: CATIE. Contact: Alejandra Martínez [email protected]

December 17th-19th: La Selva. Contact: Rodolfo Alvarado [email protected];

Orlando Vargas [email protected];

Joel Alvarado  [email protected]

December 21st: Teleféricos Atlántico (Rainforest Aerial Tram) Contact: cbc.cr@rainforestadventure.com Tel: 2257 5961, Ext 214

December 28th: Teleféricos Pacifico (Ranforest Aerial Tram Pacific) Contact: cbc.cr@rainforestadventure.com Tel: 2257 5961, Ext 214

December 28th: Carara: Contact: Johan Fernández [email protected]

December 28th: Parque Nacional Santa Rosa Contact Frank Joyce [email protected]; María Marta Chavarría
[email protected]

30th: Volcán Cacao Contact: Frank Joyce [email protected]; María Marta Chavarría [email protected]

January 8th: Maquenque. Contact: Dan Schneider [email protected]

Note: some of these counts are associated with the Audubon Society and some aren’t but all follow the same rules for counting and count circle dimensions. Hope to see you at one or two of these!