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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Birding News, Costa Rica, September, 2020

It’s September. All of a sudden, here we are starting one of most beautiful months to visit Niagara Falls, the month when the weather is perfect, the salmon are running, and millions of birds are on the move. It seems like we got here so quickly, it also seems like it took forever. So goes the passage of time during the limbo dance of the 20202 pandemic. As always, time doesn’t stop even if our perceptions of it are affected and changed by our circumstances.

Each month has its advantages but for the birding people, September is one of those extra special times. In Costa Rica, it’s a major month of shorebirds and we mark it with annual counts and scoping through congregations of waders at such key sites as Chomes, Punta Morales, and Las Pangas. The first of the migrant passerines are also arriving (including Cerulean Warblers!) but the majority postpone the trip until October. Few if any birders will be visiting Costa Rica this September but you never know, the country is starting to reopen. I hope the following information can be of help:

Storm-Petrels from Puntarenas

Yesterday, September 1st, Marilen and I kicked off the month with a visit to the Pacific Coast. Seeing two Humpback Whales from an overlook just outside of Jaco was fantastic but even more newsworthy was the presence of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels seen from shore at Puntarenas. A small but vital port city, Puntarenas is situated on a spit of land that pokes into the Gulf of Nicoya right where the inner and outer parts of the gulf meet. As a birder might expect, that position and convergence of aquatic systems can attract some interesting things. It’s the type of place that always merits a scan at any time of day and perhaps most of all during the rainy season when an abundance of nutrients are washed into the gulf.

There are storm-petrels out there...

Yesterday’s visit paid off with immediate, close views of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. At first, I figured the small birds flying around the water would be Black Terns but no, every single one was a storm-petrel! The presence of this species in the Gulf of Nicoya is regular but I have rarely seen them from shore and never in such numbers. Typically, with a few ferry rides and maybe 10 visits to Puntarenas over the course of a year, I see one to three Wedge-rumpeds. Yesterday, I counted 28 and I suspect more were present further out. It makes me wonder what else was out there (we did notice some large, tantalizing groups of birds too far away to identify)? Why were so many present? As with some of my other sightings of Black and Least storm-petrels from the point at Puntarenas, many of the birds were foraging where the waters of the inner gulf may converge with those of the outer. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of having some form of bird monitoring and studies for the Gulf of Nicoya to better assess numbers and species that visit the waters of the gulf at which time of year.

Shorebirds

This is high time for shorebird migration in Costa Rica and it’s only going to improve over the next two or three weeks. The most exciting sighting was that of a Ruff (!) seen during the final days of August by Daniel Hernandez in the Las Pangas wetlands near Ciudad Neily. It’s fantastic to have this vagrant once again show in Costa Rica, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual and hope it will stay for the winter.

At Las Pangas, Baird’s Sandpiper has also been seen, more of this species should be present at suitable sites during the next two months. We will be checking a Central Valley site where we had it last year.

Shorebird hotspot Punta Morales has also been good, yesterday, we had large numbers of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willet, and Wilson’s Plovers among 11 other species including Surfbird, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a single Long-billed Curlew.

Cocos Island

Currently, Serge Arias of Costa Rica Birding and some other local birders are on a trip to Cocos Island. I can’t wait to see what they come back with! Will checking the photos turn up some new record for Costa Rica? That always is a possibility.

Nemesis seen

As with any nemesis, it took some time, but I eventually did catch up with the nefarious Masked Duck. We had close views, we saw both sexes, birds vocalized, we saw them doing their skulking thing, and the experience was shared in good company. I am grateful and couldn’t have asked for more! Hopefully, Mary and I will get the chance to visit that area soon and see those birds again.

Updates to Rules for Visiting Costa Rica

The same rules for visiting during the pandemic are still in place but now, folks from certain states in the USA can also visit and more are scheduled to be allowed entrance after September 15th. For more information, see the Costa Rica Tourism Board. One main issue for visiting is getting a pcr COVID-19 test done within 72 hours before travel. Hopefully, this issue will improve, at the moment, I have heard of at least one place in NYC that may do that. Maybe various other places for quick test results are also available?

‘NOTE that if you do get a COVID-19 test, it absolutely has to be a pcr test and not the serological test that checks for antibodies. Recently, two Spanish citizens were denied entrance to Costa Rica because they arrived with results the serological test.

There’s probably more to say about birding in Costa Rica in September but that’s all I can think of for now. Wishing readers the best of birding days, hope to see you sometime soon!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica, July 2020- Where I Would Prefer to be Birding

July in Costa Rica, a month marked by a respite from the rains. Birding tours take advantage of the break in the weather to come to Costa Rica and watch quetzals, Emerald Tanagers, and three dozen hummingbird species. They could just as well catch the same exciting wave of birding on trips to Costa Rica in June, September, or any other month of the year but for the visiting birder, a chance of sun beckons more than a promise of rain. Personally, I almost prefer the rain because although I may need to sit out the birding game during those occasional thunderstorms, the cloudy innings are going to be full of avian excitement. There are times when the mixed flocks just don’t stop and when a fruiting tree dishes up a constant, parading banquet of tanagers.

Emerald Tanager

Blue-and gold Tanager

Such a birding boost tends to happen more on days of cloud and rain although I will admit that a few sunny days are nice. This is why July typically brings us some very welcome groups of birders during an otherwise slow and low season and of course, that bit of July business acts as an important injection of economic activity for every aspect of the tourism industry, birding included.

In a normal July, visit Carara National Park, Monteverde, or other sites and you might run into a birding tour or two. You might feel the lifer excitement emanating from other birders as they see their first Red-capped Manakins, watch flocks of parrots fly past the overlook at Cerro Lodge, locate a speck of a hawk-eagle flying high as it calls from above.

The tower view at Cerro Lodge, an excellent spot for views and shots of flyby parrots.

Not this July but we all know that 2020 isn’t a year for much of anything typical. While trying to stay well, and survive both literally and economically, blessed are those of us who can still find time for birding. Many find more than enough time even if the birding does take place at or close to home. In doing so, in hearing the descending calls of a White-eared Ground-Sparrow, at least we can be reminded that avian diversity can occur much closer to home than expected, that many birds can thrive in a variety of settings.

It’s wonderful to have parrots, ground-sparrows, and other interesting birds near our place in Heredia, Costa Rica but even the most appreciative of birders need occasional changes to their avian scene. Out back, I look past the vine-ridden second growth of the riparian zone and urge my gaze up onto the slopes of the nearby mountains, the volcanoes that host barbets, Black-cheeked Warblers, even quetzals. Some of my wanted year birds are up there doing their thing. In a July sans pandemic, I would probably be birding up that way.

White-eared Ground-Sparrow- I hear this cool bird out back on a daily basis.

I might bird the Poas area although would more likely be checking out a road that borders the cloud forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. That less traveled way connecting Varablanca in the highlands to Socorro in the foothills offers a precious glimpse into wilderness that may host Solitary Eagle and other rare birds. Would I get lucky with antpittas and ground-cuckoos species at an antswarm? Would a forest-falcon make a sudden, stealthy appearance? When the forest is intact, when its lush, complicated body of green and moss and massive trees creeps up and down ravines for several kilometers, it feels like anything is possible.

A view along this road.

With high clearance and a four wheel drive, a birder can explore that exciting byway, bird the way down to lower elevations where glittering flocks of tanagers move through the bromeliads, where White Hawks call from the mist, where we can find hawk-eagles and other birds of the deep wild places. In fact, forget the vehicle, a trek down that road would be an exciting expedition coupled with the promise of avian adventure. The trek would provide much needed insight into raptor and cotinga populations. It might tell us if umbrellabirds still inhabit those forests, and might even reveal the presence of unicorn birds like the Gray-headed Piprites and the Black-crowned Antpitta.

It would be best to do this erstwhile expedition for at least three nights, camping along the way. Maybe four would be even better because the more time you spend in quality tropical habitat, the more you see, the better the chance of detecting a higher percentage of what is truly there. It’s like opening the window to see just a bit more, the stuff that was just outside of view, gazing longer at a complex painting to eventually find treasures hidden in plain sight.

Even with that window of focused observation, it still wouldn’t be everything because birds wander, some are in constant natural stealth mode, tropical birds play by their own complex set of rules. But, you won’t find anything if you don’t look and a trek down that road will reveal more of what’s going on than a one-day, bumpy drive. I hope I can do that mini-expedition some day, explore that road at leisure because no matter what I find, I already know that the birding will be nothing less than fantastic.

One of the best places to use as a base while exploring the Varablanca-Socorro road is Albergue Socorro. With luck, in 2021, another lodge with fantastic birding potential in this area will also be open and ready to impress. To learn more about where to look for birds in Costa Rica and to get ready for any type of birding trip to this beautiful country, please support my blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy birding!

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When to Start Planning a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

We are in the midst of a pandemic and in some countries, the number of cases are growing apace. The threats posed by this novel illness make for worrisome times indeed but does it also mean that we can’t make plans for the future? Does it mean that we have to put birding and everything else on permanent hold? First and foremost, we should of course all be very careful and take precautions to avoid being infected with this virus, and do what it takes to avoid infecting others. However, being careful and concerned doesn’t mean that we should forget about taking birding trips.

A birder should look forward to laying eyes on the Northern Emerald Toucanet.

It might seem like this pandemic will never end but it eventually will and even before then, international travel will happen. Protocols to accept visitors are already being formulated in some places including Costa Rica and the government has even stated that the airports will open on August 1st. Yes, this means that the country will re-open (!) but before cracking open that champagne, keep in mind that it’s not a grand opening with a welcome sign visible from the peak of Chirripo Mountain. This is a limited opening for countries that have shown signs of containing the virus. For the moment, this means VIP status for such nations as New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland. By August, though, more countries might get that golden ticket for reentry and there’s a fair chance that more will make it onto the list by October and the end of the year.

As far as planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, this also means that birders should definitely start looking into a trip and if you happen to be from any of the three countries mentioned above, you could probably look into a trip for August. Birders from other countries can think about Costa Rica later in the year and especially for 2021. Since the best birding trips are planned far in advance, I would suggest starting to plan that trip now.

Plan on seeing Emerald Tanager among hundreds of other eye-catching species.

Start looking into where you would like to go, start thinking about the type of trip you would like to do, what you would like to see and when you would like to go. Keep in mind that there are many birds to see at any time of the year and Costa Rica will be ready and waiting. I would also love to help you plan your trip, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Common Birds of the Cafetal

Coffee farms or “cafetales” aren’t one of the original natural habitats of Costa Rica but since they have been here for more than 100 years, a lot of birds have become adapted to this “modern” green space. Although biodiversity on coffee farms depends on how many trees are present and degree of pesticide use, they can harbor a good number of birds and other wildlife.

The types of plants and animals housed among rows of dark green bushes with occasional trees can’t compare to the ecological latticework of moist forests and wetlands that would naturally occur in the Central Valley. That said, any vegetation is better than no vegetation and in an increasingly urban environment, cafetales act as important verdant patches in a landscape dominated by concrete, glass, and asphalt.

Do you find yourself joining the family on a coffee tour when you would rather be watching Fiery-throated Hummingbirds and quetzals on Poas? Not to fret, bring those binos because there are birds in the coffee! Some cool birds live in those wonderful, special bean producing bushes. These are ten of them:

Crested Bobwhite

If you are familar with bobwhites and hear one calling in Costa Rica, look around because it’s more than likely not a birding flashback. The Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite sounds pretty much like the ones up north. They prefer grassy, weedy fields but also occur in cafetales especially when they have a grassy understory and are adjacent to weedy fields.

Short-tailed Hawk

This small raptor is a common hawk in many parts of Costa Rica. It seems to do well in the mosaic of riparian zones, patches of forest, and agricultural lands of the Central Valley. Watch for both morphs soaring high overhead.

Blue-vented Hummingbird

This hummingbird can feed from the flowers on coffee bushes and trees that grow at the edges of and in coffee farms. It’s pretty common, listen for its distinctive double-noted, short whistled call. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is the other most common hummingbird in coffee farms.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

One of various flycatchers that occur on coffee farms, this species often reveals itself with a vocalization that sounds kind of like a scream. Watch for it feeding on berries and other small fruits.

Clay-colored Thrush

No coffee farm in Costa Rica is complete without a healthy selection of Clay-colored Thrushes. One of the most common species in the country, expect to see lots of Costa Rica’s national bird when birding coffee farm habitats.

Blue-gray Tanager

A common, beautiful bird, watching this species in coffee farms is a peaceful pleasure.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Endemic and likely made rare by a combination of reduced habitat, feral cats, pesticides, and cowbird parasitism, this colorful little towheee persists on and near coffee farms. It is a skulker though, watch for it in the early morning.

Grayish Saltator

One of the most common species of the Central Valley, this seemingly cardinal relative does very well in garden and edge habitats. Its cheerful song is a core component of the Central Valley’s auditory soundscape.

Yellow-green Vireo

Another common species of the valley but only during the wet season. Like the Red-eyed Vireo, it sings a real lot. It also occurs in just about any set of trees including ones in and near coffee.

Rufous-capped Warbler

A snappy, chat-like bird, the Rufous-capped Warbler lives in the understory of dry and moist forest, in second growth, and in coffee fields. This is one of the more common, typical species of coffee farms.

These are some of the species to watch for and expect when birding any green space in the Central Valley. Want to learn much more about about where to find birds in Costa Rica and support this blog at the same time? Purchase my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Plan for out trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, customize it and use it identify everything from motmots to flycatchers while birding in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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bird finding in Costa Rica raptors

Braking for Bat Falcons at the Socorro Canyon

Several species of falcons are resident in Costa Rica but only one of them is a classic, fast-diving, Falco. This winged bullet is the Bat Falcon and like other members of that lethal genus, this bird was born to kill.

Plumaged sort of like a Eurasian Hobby (even more so like the Oriental Hobby), this smart-dressed mini predator is equipped with big feet to snatch from the air, swifts, parakeets, and any other small birds. Like the Merlin and other Falco species, the Bat Falcon may prefer to hunt next to rivers or other open areas where it can more easily catch potential prey that flies within range. We have seen them at any number of spots and even near San Jose but according to the account for this species at the Handbook of the Birds of the World site, the healthiest populations occur in areas of extensive tropical forest. It usually occurs in pairs and although I have seen this species hunting during the day, it hunts more often at dawn and dusk (when it also preys on bats). At the Cafe Colibri, some birders have even seen Bat Falcons catch hummingbirds (!).

Even hummingbirds like the Violet Sabrewing.

It seems that the falcons learned to perch somewhere in the canyon below the cafe and then fly up to catch unwary hummingbirds that venture too far from the safety of vegetation. These small aerial predators can hunt from a perch or fly high overhead to stoop down on their prey in flight. It no doubt uses its natural falcon radar to zero in on that swift or swallow that flies a bit slower than the rest of the flock and goes after it with typical Falco zeal.

Bat Falcon habitat.

Speaking of the Cinchona area, I often brake for a pair of Bat Falcons that hunt the canyon of the Sarapiqui River from around there to Virgen del Socorro. There might even be two pairs using that stretch of the forested canyon but whether one or two, a pair can often be found perched on any number of snags near the road. Yesterday, we had a couple of these beauties perched so nice and close, we just had to stop and admire them.

The larger female was the more obvious of the two and sat on the tip top of a snag.

Another individual was calling on occasion and with some inspection, we located it. It was a small male and might have been a young bird. It called over and over as if begging for food until eventually flying to a closer perch where it fed on the remains of an unidentified bird.

While enjoying the falcons, we also heard a pair of Laughing Falcons calling, scoped a distant White Hawk, and watched Swallow-tailed Kites wheel over distant forest. With roadside birding like that, not stopping pretty much amounts to birder blasphemy. We were happy to pay our respects, I look forward to going back to that area to do some raptor counts!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Blue Grosbeaks and Birding News from Costa Rica, June, 2020

It was hard to think of anything to write today. At least, to write anything about birds in Costa Rica because that’s not what’s on the forefront of my mind but I’m going to try anyways. I wish that I could talk about waking up to the piercing, shameless calls of Southern Lapwings, the whistles of a Spot-bellied Bobwhite, the gurgling song of a Blue Grosbeak.

I wake up to those and am grateful, especially that grosbeak. Every time I hear or see one of those deep blue birds, I am grateful because while I was growing up birding in Niagara Falls, NY, it was one of those more southern birds that were just out of reach.

The range map in the Peterson guide edged up towards us but fell short somewhere in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I eventually got my lifer during a fall visit to Cape May, a female that looked more like a female Indigo Bunting but still a much appreciated lifer! Since then, I have seen lots; deep blue birds giving warbling gurgling songs in the green riparian zone of a canyon in southeastern Colorado, Blue Grosbeaks in weedy fields while surveying birds in southern Illinois, other places and finally here in Costa Rica where I see and hear them in many sites with brushy fields.

A pair have been recently making appearances in weedy lots across the street adjacent to heavy machinery building another residential area. A common, resident species in Costa Rica but every sighting still accompanied by that tinge of excitement from wanting, hoping to see one while looking at bird books in urban Niagara Falls, New York.

That’s where I grew up and that’s where, so far, protests have been peaceful. I am so proud and relieved that people from my hometown held a peaceful protest and I think they in part did so because the police from Niagara Falls, New York took a knee with them. Officials spoke with protesters and listened to them, and before the protest was over, they shook hands with police. Maybe being a small place had something to do with it, or maybe the local police department has made efforts to make better connections with the public and say, not use illegal holds that end up killing people. I am sure that listening and communicating with people and not taking an authoritarian response that involved spraying random people in their faces and shooting others with rubber bullets (like a journalist who lost one of her eyes) and unconstitutionally suppressing free speech by arresting journalists had something to do with it too.

But instead of talking about leaders and one in particular who encourages suppression of the media and free press, someone who would rather take violent, authoritarian approaches to situations that may have been reduced or prevented by (1) recognizing a very serious problem in the first place and (2) making any bit of effort to provide solutions to said problem, I will mention two other vastly more positive things:

BlackBirdersWeek– This is an initiative created by Black birders aimed at changing the narrative regarding Black people and their connections and experiences with the outdoors. The Audubon Society sums up this virtual initiative quite nicely. I love this because the outdoors and communication with nature is a basic cherished right for every person, no one should ever have to worry about feeling threatened or deterred from partaking in nature. The more people we support in learning about and communing with our natural world and science, the better this world will be. Those who have been denied the chance to connect with nature because they felt threatened, lacked role models, or didn’t have the means of reaching wild places are the people who merit the utmost in support and acknowledgement.

I will just also mention that the support of people who would like to appreciate nature is of serious importance, particular in these overpopulated, nature-deficit times because without increased connection with and understanding how to live in balance with nature and putting that knowledge to active use by society as a whole, civilization will eventually, certainly collapse.

A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean– Not exactly a field guide but a celebration of birds from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean by way of a ten track album. The songs feature vocalizations of birds and any purchase will help with bird conservation in the Caribbean.

Costa Rica setting protocols for tourism– The borders might still be closed but local tourism ventures are opening with strict health restrictions in place. Paraiso de Quetzales is one of those special places, recently, friends of mine had a great visit and reported on the protocols and experience in the Howler Magazine. I hope this and other local lodges and businesses can get enough visitors to keep going until borders reopen because at the moment, tourism in Costa Rica is near zero and as with so many other places, a heck of a lot of people have become recently unemployed.

Despite these challenging sad times, I will end by saying that it’s not too early to start planning for a trip to Costa Rica. Right now might be the best time to look into itineraries, tours, and other ideas for an eventual escape to a place that beckons with the promise of beauty and fantastic birding in a safe and welcome setting for all. You can start planning your trip of a lifetime and support this blog by getting my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Red-legged Honeycreepers will be waiting! This picture was taken by Eugene L. Pierce, a photographer from Buffalo, New York.
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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Streak-chested Antpitta in Costa Rica- One or Two Species?

During these apprehensive times of self quarantine, social distancing and much of life on pause, I often do what millions of other Earthlings tend to be doing; visually engage with the screen of a computer, a tablet, or a phone. Since I can’t stand messaging by phone or using it as a mini computer (I guess because I’m still stuck with this antiquated idea that phones are (were) for talking with other people), I find myself moving between the tablet and the laptop. I even use both at the same time but still try to remember to be productive, still try to make use of this time to work towards goals, digitally step my way to any number of future finish lines.

But it’s not all robot time, once in a while I do get up to look out the back balcony to see birds like this one.

While attempting to use time in a productive manner, I also find myself veering off the path, musing about things I would love to study but for which I shouldn’t really invest as many hours. Sometimes, the errant thoughts gain hold, pull me into an inviting whirlpool that promises knowledge. But, as with any species of maelstrom, it can be a challenge to find the exit door, to leave. We all have our personal Hotel Californias; some are merely time consuming, others can be dangerous. Fortunately, one of the mental realms that magnetizes my attention involves nothing more than learning about birds and last night, the rabbit hole took the form of antpitta vocalizations. Not just any antpittas either but Hylopezus species. In non-birding vernacular, that means a smallish, brownish feathered ball with legs that calls over and over unseen and teasing from dense vegetation.

This Thicket Antpitta from Lands in Love is one of them. Formerly known as the Fulvous-bellied Antpitta, I used to tell people that to avoid unwanted conversations on trains and planes, just start talking randomly about “Fulvous-bellied Antpittas”. I tried it once on a train route from Washington state to Buffalo, New York but it backfired, the guy actually became interested in what I was saying.

Having access to the Birds of the World doesn’t make it easy to extract myself from exploring the depths of avian information but then again, it’s a great place to mentally lounge. When one can explore birds by genus and family, it’s just too easy to roll with the avian taxonomy, look at their similarities, their subtle differences, and see where they occur. It’s fantastic to have the chance to look at images of those birds, even watch video footage, hear what they sound like. Having an inclination for the auditory side of existence, I find access to this latter aspect of bird knowledge particularly tempting.

I love to listen to what all of those birds sound like, my only complaint is that I can’t choose and listen to several at once for a direct, real time comparison (at least on the same device). Listening to some birds also sometimes reminds me of things I wanted to look into, one of those being the differences in songs shown by the Streak-chested Antpitta.

A Streak-chested Antpitta from Carara National Park, one of the best places to see this species.

In Costa Rica, the Streak-chested Antpitta is an uncommon species of interior lowland and foothill rainforest on both slopes. Since it seems to be absent from various areas of rainforest habitat, it is likely subject to edge effects and probably has a preference for certain microhabitats inside forest such as flat or level areas.

I have known about the differences shown between birds on the Carribean and Pacific slopes of Costa Rica for some time but have never tried any playback experiments nor do I have the capacity or time to adequately measure and study the vocal differences found within that species. But, I can mention it here with the hope that others will be able to carry out molecular and extensive vocal studies to determine whether or not two or more species are involved when talking about Hylopezus perspicillatus.

Last night, my interest in this bird was renewed after listening to differences in vocalizations shown by two recently described species in the Spotted Antpitta complex from South America. Formerly lumped with Spotted Antpitta, both Alta Florest Antpitta and Snethlage’s Antpitta were split from that species based on a combination of morphological, molecular, and vocal differences. Most of the emphasis for splitting was placed on the differences in loudsongs between those taxa and since they still sounded fairly close, I figured I would take another look at Streak-chested Antpitta. Could I see differences between Streak-chested Antpitta songs using the same or similar parameters? Would that be even possible by comparing sonograms and would there be enough differences to argue for the occurrence of two species?

In brief, after reviewing recordings of this species from Honduras to Ecuador on Xeno-Canto and eBird, two main songs are evident; one pertaining to birds that occur from Honduras to western Panama on the Caribbean slope (the intermedius subspecies), and another to all other subspecies ranging from southern Costa Rica on the Pacific slope and the Canal Zone of Panama to Colombia and western Ecuador.

In looking at photos, the higher degree of rufous on the flanks described for this subspecies is evident (although it’s hard to see in this photo).

Although I didn’t measure vocal differences between both vocal groups, a cursory look at sonograms and listening to each type of song from several individuals appears to point at differences in frequency and structure or pattern of the song. There may also be differences in note structure, especially between the first note but off hand, note structure looks quite similar overall.

For example, in intermedius, the song seems to be mostly above 2 kilohertz in frequency and starts with a distinctive highest pitched note of the song, goes lower for the second note, goes up a bit in frequency for the third note and stays at that frequency for the next two notes before descending in frequency for the last three or four notes. In other words, the song starts high, goes low, then up and level before descending.

In the other subspecies, including birds from southern Costa Rica, the song seems to be mostly below 2 kilohertz and starts on a lower note, slightly ascends in frequency for two or three notes and then descends in frequency with the final note possibly at the same frequency as the starting note. In other words, the song goes slightly up and then back down.

Both types of songs seem to slow down in pace at the end and may also have the same number of notes. Although they may or may not significantly differ in pace, they do seem to differ in other ways. Would these differences be enough to argue for species status? To answer that question, we probably need a measured and adequate statistical analyses of these two song types backed by playback experiments. The results of that study alone might even be enough to make an argument for splitting this species but studies that also use morphological and molecular characters would be even better. If any grad student out there is looking for a project, this might be a good one…

On that note, the same can be said about the Thicket Antpitta (Hylopezus dives). While checking out vocalizations of the Streak-chested Antpitta, I was reminded that the Thicket also has disjunct populations from Central and South America and guess what? Their songs also differ.

This is a song of a bird from Costa Rica that is typical of populations from western Panama north to Honduras:

This is a song of a bird from Colombia typical for birds from the Darien and South America (although there might be some differences between birds from the Choco and eastern Colombia):

The differences are notable for pace, number of notes, and what seems to be note structure. With that in mind, it seems that these two main groups of Thicket Antpitta also merit further study. I wonder when I can start with playback experiments?

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birds to watch for in Costa Rica

The Situation with Yellow-Green Vireos and Related Species in Costa Rica

Vireos are, more or less, these small warblerish, deliberate birds with miniature shrike-like bills. The Vireonidae family also includes the tiny, active greenlets of Central and South America, the small chattering vireos of scrubby habitats (such as the White-eyed and Bell’s Vireos), and the big and hefty shrike-vireos with equally impressive hooked beaks. Lest we leave them out of the Vireo picture, this family also has some colorful representatives in montane zones of southern Asia; the aptly named “shrike-babblers“.

However, the vireos that seem to capture the heart and soul of this avian family are the ones that take it easy, that take their sweet time to forage in the foliage of trees and bushes, constantly singing as they do so. On account of that repeated carefree song, these are the vireos that tend to engender familiarity among birders of all stripes, the leader of the bunch probably being the Red-eyed Vireo.

When spring gets truly warm up north, go birding, take a walk, or just listen in a park in almost any wooded area from eastern Texas and Florida north to the Great Slave Lake and you will probably hear Red-eyed Vireos. Be as patient as the bird you are looking for, watch for the slightest movement in the leafy scene above and you will eventually espy one, a bird with white underparts, olive above, and a white eyebrow separated from a svelte gray crown by a fine line of black. That’s the Red-eyed Vireo, a plain yet clean-cut bird with a sweet June song. Always one of the first migrants I would come across as I rode my bike to experience May migration on Goat Island, I would hear them throughout the day for for the next two months.

In Costa Rica, although thousands, more likely millions, of Red-eyed Vireos that migrate through this part of Central America on a biannual basis, “our” most familiar of the Red-eyed bunch is actually the Yellow-green Vireo. The Red-eyeds don’t sing around here, they barely even act like the summer birds of the north. In Costa Rica, they don’t have any time for that happy, lazy attitude because they have a vital appointment arranged by the imperative of instinct. The destination isn’t exactly just around the corner. To reach the leafy woods of western New York, the forests of Ontario, at just the right time, these small birds have to fuel up fast and in Costa Rica, this is why we see flocks of them busily picking bugs and larvae from the leaves, eating small berries to bulk up so they can take that personal bird express to the north.

They are only here for the eating business, just passing on through until they can get back to regular vireo business, that of casually foraging while singing all day long. In Costa Rica, that vireo job, living “la dolce vireo vita” is held by the Yellow-greens.

Although they also migrate through, large numbers fly in from habitats in the Amazon to stay and breed. As with their Red-eyed cousins of the north, Yellow-green Vireos likewise come to breeding grounds to take advantage of a sudden wealth of invertebrates, in their case, brought on by the onset of the wet season. Like the Red-eyeds, their constant singing is an essential part of the summer birding scene in the Central Valley and the dry forests of the Pacific slope. Unlike the Red-eyeds, they share their breeding surroundings with the likes of Masked Tityras and Clay-colored Thrushes and have to avoid the nest depredation antics of toucans.

They act and look quite similar but with a good view, these two vireo species are pretty easy to identify. Some of the ways in which they differ:

Red-eyed Vireo

-Daintier grayer bill.

-Mostly white underparts.

-Hint of pale brown on face.

Yellow-green Vireo

-Can have somewhat diffuse face pattern.

-Largish, mostly pale bill.

-Lots of yellow below, mostly on vent and flanks.

Although these are two of the most common Vireo genus species in Costa Rica, they aren’t the only similar Red-eyed type vireos to keep in mind. Granted, the following two are very rare and one has yet to be documented for Costa Rica but they are possible. The Black-whiskered occurs as a rare vagrant and is likely overlooked among the large numbers of very similar Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos. Although a birder still needs a close, definitive look at the head, a Black-whiskered can also reveal its true identify when it sings its distinctive, double-noted phrases. These can be reminiscent of a House Sparrow, the only problem is that it probably keeps quiet in Costa Rica.

While watching for vireos with a black line on the lower part of the face, we can also challenge ourselves (or drive ourselves crazy) by looking for the Chivi Vireo. Although its name might make you wonder if I’m joking, save the laughs for when you see how ridiculous it would be to find one of these pseudo Red-eyed Vireos, a species that would also be a first for Costa Rica. The Chivi Vireo breeds in South America and because it looks so similar to the Red-eyed, was formerly considered to be that species. Some are resident in northern South America, others migrate from places like Brazil and Argentina to the Amazon and ever since genetic studies showed that they are more closely related to Black-whiskered Vireo than the Red-eyed, Chivi Vireos have been recognized as a distinct species.

BUT, since they look just like Red-eyed Vireos, how on Earth would we even recognize one that just happened to overfly its usual destination? In all likelihood, we wouldn’t, but given the right circumstances, finding one in Costa Rica is possible, this is what we would need:

Look for a Red-eyed Vireo from June to August, this is when a Chivi would mostly likely occur.

Take a close look at the undertail coverts. If it looks like too much yellow for a Red-eyed Vireo, the bird might be a Chivi.

Take a close look at the color of the eye– if it looks pretty dark and without the slightest hint of red, it might be a Chivi.

If it sings, record that song! Both main groups of Chivi Vireos sound different from the Red-eyed Vireo. To my ears, the migrant ones we are most likely to get have a sort of warbled or trilled note.

To sum things up, if you see a bird in Costa Rica between June and August that sort of looks like a hybrid between a Red-eyed Vireo and a Yellow-green Vireo and happens to be a singing a song with a trilled phrase, there’s a fair chance it’s a seriously lost bird new for the Costa Rica list. In the meantime, if birding up north, enjoy the cheerful summer phrasing of the Red-eyed Vireos. Birding in Costa Rica? Be happy with the rainy season songs of Yellow-green Vireos but keep listening and watching for something different, you never know what you might find even when birding from home.

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Hummingbirds

The Corso Lecheria Hummingbird Stop

Hummingbirds are an essential component of Costa Rica. At least one species is found at just about every birding stop and many times, more than one. In Costa Rica, these miniature jeweled pollinators range from the humid rainforests of the lowlands to the cold brushy paramos on the highest peaks, and occur everywhere in between, especially in cloud forest and other middle elevation habitats. Although most species are resident, many make short migrations or movements to track various plants in flower at lower and higher elevations or to other parts of the country. Where and when hummingbirds go in Costa Rica is not as well known as it could be, and any additional data will further our understanding of these special birds and therefore also help conserve them.

Documenting where and when they are seen is part of the hummingbird conservation equation in Costa Rica and gives us that much more reason to spend time with these feathered jewels. Fortunately, they are always fun to watch, one of the newer places to check them out being the Corso Lecheria. Rather new on the Costa Rica birding scene, this dairy farm features a healthy bunch of Porterweed hedgerows that provide food for a number of hummingbirds.

Located on the saddle road between Poas and Barva volcanoes, around 2 kilometers east of the junction at Poasito, Corso makes for an easy and typically productive stop. After entering the parking area, just watch for the hedgerows with purple flowers on the left and wait for the birds to show.

They eventually will, Volcano Hummingbird might be the first one you see. This tiny bird seems to be the most common species at this site although there are usually a few Scintillants around as well!

Female Volcano Hummingbird.
Male Scintillant Hummingbird.

Lesser Violetears are also usually present.

Other hummingbirds regular at Corso also include Stripe-tailed,

Magenta-throated Woodstar,

and Purple-throated Mountain-gem.

Since this is an important source of nectar, who knows what else might show? Since it looks like a prime site for such rarities as coquettes or other species, visiting birders should carefully document any hummingbird that looks different or goes unidentified. Since the hummingbird viewing is also free, it would also be good for visiting birders to frequent their ice cream store. That shouldn’t be too much trouble, I mean isn’t hummingbird viewing best followed by ice cream tasting?

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Pacific slope

More Birds in Guanacaste

Mary and I began the birding year in the dry and moist forests of the southern Nicoya Peninsula, many of the birds coming from the Tambor bird count and beautiful Raptor Ridge. That hot, dry birding was so nice, we followed it up with a quick two day birding jaunt to the Pacific coast. Since we didn’t have much time to bird the Cerro Lodge and Jaco area, (we were visiting for other reasons, I know, incredible but true), it was more like one day of birding but the trip was still worth the drive to those sun-smashed windy lowlands. That said, thanks to Jose’s Crocodile Tours, we were still able to see some birds on the Tarcoles River during a fun, two hour tour.

The winter months are the best time of the year to visit sites from Tarcoles to Nicaragua, especially for local birders because this is when we might find rare migrants from the north like American Wigeon and other ducks, Violet-green Swallow, various wood-warblers, sparrows, and who knows what else. Being rare, they are naturally difficult to find but because every bit of birding counts, we took advantage of the chance to drive north and see what we could find.

Luckily, the drive coincided with a high tide visit to shorebird hotspot Punta Morales. There could have been more terns and other birds but we still did well with seeing the Long-billed Curlew that has been using that site along with various other expected shorebird species. No ducks but we still had more chances further up the road.

Not knowing where to stay in Liberia, we opted for spending the night at a budget priced hotel in Canas and then making the early hour drive in the morning to our main destination, the Lakeside Catfish Farms. These farms might now be used more for cattle but in any case, they still have ponds that act as a hotspot for waterbirds and other species. Since this is a private farm, you should call this number to make arrangements to enter- 2667 0022. Keep in mind that the person you will talk with probably won’t speak English and they charge $6 entrance fee that can be paid to them if/when they arrive to open the gate. This would be the first yellow gate on the way to Playas del Coco.

We arrived around 7 in the morning and started seeing birds right away. Orchard Orioles, Morelet’s Seedeaters, and other bird species were flying from roosting sites in the reeds, small groups of Dickcissels were calling and flitting from bush to bush, a Blue Grosbeak perched on a bush next to an Indigo Bunting for a perfect comparison, and other species of the dry forest called from the surrounding trees.

A tree with Dickcissels.

We had to search a bit to find the ducks, all of which were flighty and a reminder that they are hunted at various spots during migration and probably right at the Catfish Farms from time to time. We had to move around a bit to find the best vantage point but eventually had good looks at at a few hundred Blue-winged Teals, some American Coots, and one Northern Shoveler. No wigeon nor Masked Duck for us, we just didn’t have enough time to continue looking for those or other birds. Nor did Spotted Rail respond to playback, I wish we could have had more time and access for a thorough survey of that site because various choice birds are indeed hiding out there in the reeds and other scrubby vegetation around the ponds. Hopefully on another day!

Next on the list was a stop at Playa Panama, a scenic beach with calm waters where a Brown Booby fished close to shore. One Short-tailed Hawk and a Common Black-Hawk also flew over at some point but we didn’t see too much else. After that, we passed through Las Trancas but because the fields were so dry, we just kept going. Instead, we stopped for lunch at the small Italian bakery of Amadulce in the Papagayo Plaza. Good pizza, pastries, macaroons- recommended!

After enjoying quality pizza, we made our way back to Canas to check the Sandillal Reservoir.

This spot is one of Costa Rica’s best duck hotspots. During the winter months, it acts as a very important site for Blue-winged Teal and other species in search of water as the surrounding countryside dries up. During our visit, there were at least 3,000 teal, probably more like 4,000. We also found several Lesser Scaup but despite as much scanning as possible, just couldn’t find anything else. I still can’t help but feel that a few rarities were out there somewhere hiding among the hordes of teal. It was also a challenge to see most of them well so I left the site wondering what else may have been present. It will be interesting if someone else finds a rarity or two at Sandillal during the next few weeks.

With a long drive ahead of us on roads shared with slow going trucks, that ended up being our final stop for the trip. Although I always want to do more birding, you just gotta make do with what you can. The trip was still a good one in any case and with several nice year birds. I wonder which birds I will see next?