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Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.

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Benefits of Slow Birding in Costa Rica

Birding is “just” watching birds, plain and simple. As long as you are paying attention to birds, watching or listening to birds to enjoy, appreciate, identify, or study them, that’s birding. Slow birding is, as one might imagine, taking your time with birds, doing the birding thing more like a patient puffbird or heron than a fast and furious Big Day Merlin.

The Merlin might be the antithesis of slow birding.

These are some of the benefits of slow birding in Costa Rica, of practicing stillness, patience, and the general way of the Sloth as you watch the birds:

Careful Patience Pays Off in the Rainforest

Take a brisk hike through rainforest and you will see a lot of plants. Some other things, leafcutters, but mostly plants. Slow it down, even stand in place for a while and birds are eventually revealed. The same goes for other animals, insects, and countless other denizens of the tropical forest.

Be patient like a waiting heron and you will see more because everything is in hiding, including the birds. A bird can’t take any chances when they live in a place where highly camouflaged predators lurk in the leaves, where so many other animals are always looking for an easy meal. They hear you coming down the trail and may retreat or keep still until you walk on by. Wait around, though, and they might get used to you, realize that you aren’t really a threat. That’s when the birds start to become active again, begin to call and forage because although staying hidden keeps a bird alive, so does eating. Be patient and wait for birds to forage, for a tinamou to step onto the trail for tanagers to move through your field of view.

The slow birding day only gets better when a Speckled Tanager pops into mind blowing view.

Slow and Attentive Birding is Highly Productive Birding

Birding on the slow and easy doesn’t mean mindlessly standing around and looking at your phone or casually strolling down a trail as you check your photos. Productive slow birding is moving slow so you can be attentive to your surroundings. Standing still and moving slow gives you the time needed to scan every bush, check every branch, and listen for every peep.

This is especially useful in tropical forest because so many birds hide in plain sight. A suspicious rock might actually be a tinamou. There could be trogons and other frugivores lurking near fruits in the canopy. Puffbirds and other sit and wait predators might be watching you from a forest perch. Have a birding passenger pay attention while driving on the road to Poas and they might even see a quetzal silhouetted in the mist (as happened a few weeks ago!).

Slow Birding is also Easy-Going Birding

Be attentive and you will see more but if you would rather hang out back at the lodge and have a coffee or cold beer while watching chachalacas and aracaris, that’s slow birding too. If that means relaxing while casually watching the birds that fly into view, there’s nothing wrong with that. This type of birding can come with the benefits of savoring local cuisine, quality coffee, and views of toucans and trogons.

Slow Birding in Costa Rica Works With the Tropical Birding Dynamic

The dynamic nature of birding in Costa Rica always makes for exciting birding. Watch the edge of the forest over the course of a morning and new birds keep popping into view. Go back the next day and more birds show up. Walk a trail and it can go from being frustratingly still to a forest suddenly moving with tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species.

These are just a few examples of the tropical forest dynamic; a situation where most birds occur in low density populations, where many birds move in mixed flocks, and where various species concentrate at fruiting trees. When you go slow with the birding from one spot, species after species may appear as they move through your field of view. Move slow and attentive and you might have a better chance of finding that mega mixed flock or an antswarm. Take it slow and easy and you also see more than birds because of course, there’s always more than birds to birding.

To learn more about some of the tricks to seeing more birds in Costa Rica, check out How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Prepare for your birding trip to Costa Rica by making target lists and listening to sounds of more than 800 species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Some day, I hope to see you here!

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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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Orange-breasted Falcon- Does it Still Occur in Costa Rica?

In Costa Rica, we see good numbers of Peregrine Falcons, at least during migration. Hundreds pass through the country as they move thousands of miles to and from breeding and wintering areas. Some stay for the winter in Costa Rica and given their status as a feathered top tier predator of the skies, they might not have too much to worry about other than catching enough birds to eat. Watch a Peregrine on a beach or lowland tropical river in Costa Rica and you might even be tempted to feel that the bird was on vacation.

Chasing and catching sandpipers, swallows, and other avian prey is much more a matter of survival than mere fun and games but what can I say? A healthy adult Peregrine makes the chase look so easy.

We can thank the vast majority of our Peregrine sightings to banning DDT (thank you Rachel Carson!) and years of conservation efforts (here’s to the Peregrine Fund and the many biologists and organizations that helped make this happen). Myself and other birders who were wielding binos in the 70s and 80s recall the days when you hoped to get lucky at the hawk watch by seeing at least one Peregrine over the course of several visits. We reveled in the many falcons that flew past Cape May because so many of us weren’t going to see them elsewhere.

Thanks to science, dedication, and hard work, in Costa Rica, as with many places, we can admire the fast flying power punch of a Peregrine Falcon. Us local birders are grateful for Peregrines but we sure wouldn’t mind seeing another , similar-sized home-grown Falco do its deadly thing. That special bird is the Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus), this is its story in Costa Rica. But first, a little bit about the natural history of this coveted species.

A Rainforest Peregrine or an Oversized Bat Falcon?

Orange-breasted Falcon taken by P E Hart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Maybe a bit of both. Slightly smaller than a Peregrine, the Orange-breasted Falcon seems to occupy a similar bird-eating niche but in humid tropical forests. Historically, it occurred from the rainforests of southern Mexico south through Central America and into South America all the way to northern Argentina. Like the Peregrine, it flies fast to catch pigeons, parakeets, and other birds (some biologists suspect that the Orange-breasted Falcon may even fly faster than the Peregrine!).

Also like the Peregrine, Orange-breasteds often nest on cliffs although they have also been recorded nesting in trees in the Amazon rainforest and other parts of their range.

Physically, this rainforest falcon looks a lot more like the smaller and much more common Bat Falcon, especially Bat Falcon subspecies and individuals that have orange coloration on the neck. This similarity has undoubtedly led to many erroneous reports of Orange-breasted Falcons, Costa Rica included. Good ways to recognize an Orange-breasted Falcon include:

  • White throat bordered by orange on the side of the neck and on the breast (although Bat Falcons can show a similar pattern, there’s not usually as much contrast between the white throat and orange on the neck and breast).
  • Large, heavy looking bill that makes the overall shape of the head a bit more like that of a Collared Forest-falcon (at least compared to the shape of the head of a Bat Falcon).
  • No contrast between the blackish color of the head and the back.
  • Coarse, more wavy, orange and white barring on the breast.
  • Size and shape in flight more like a Peregrine compared to the rather Hobby-like shape of a Bat Falcon.
  • Over-sized, strong feet and talons.

The characteristics can be subtle, especially size of the bird. For the best take on separating these two similar looking falcons, check out this classic article by Steve Howell and Andrew Whittaker published in The Cotinga, the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club.

The following birds are Bat Falcons.

Always Rare in Costa Rica

Unlike the Peregrine and Bat Falcon, the Orange-breasted seems to have always been local and rare and especially so in Costa Rica. For Costa Rica, there are no records documented with photo or specimen, and in The Birds of Costa Rica : Distribution and Ecology by Slud, he only mentions two old records along with a pair of his own sightings. Given the difficulty in separating it from the Bat Falcon, and the lack of detailed information about separating them at that time, it’s worth mentioning the possibility of misidentification. At the same time, since a lot more habitat was present when those reports took place, they can’t be entirely discounted either.

In Costa Rica and elsewhere, for unknown reasons, in modern times at least, it seems to be absent from many areas with what one would guess is suitable habitat. Although the species was assumed to occur in various remote parts of Central America, searches carried out during a Peregrine Fun study only found a few birds in eastern Panama and several in the known population of Belize and adjacent Guatemala.

The methods used during their searches included aerial surveys of possible nesting sites on cliffs as well as surveys from the ground. Not finding birds doesn’t mean that they aren’t somewhere out there in other parts of Central America but I daresay it does mean that, if still extant, the species must be pretty rare.

Modern Sightings in Costa Rica?

There have never been any validated sightings of this species from Costa Rica, nor are there any possible sightings reported in eBird. However, there is an intriguing publication of a possible sighting of Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica from 1990. The authors mention seeing what they took to be an Orange-breasted Falcon perched in a snag near Las Brisas de Pacuarito, a site in the Caribbean lowlands just north of Barbilla National Park. Their description of a medium sized falcon with a white throat and orange on the breast and sides of the neck is certainly intriguing. It’s a shame that bird photography wasn’t as easy then as nowadays but isn’t that always the case.

Can It Still Occur in Costa Rica? If so, Where to Look?

This is of course assuming that it even occurred in Costa Rica at all but given the amount of rainforest that cloaked much of the country, I would bet on it. However, it probably occurred in small numbers, perhaps limited by nesting sites and other factors. In modern times, given the total lack of records in Costa Rica since at least 1990, it doesn’t seem likely that the bird still occurs as a breeding species. If it did, I think we would at least see a juvenile now and then looking for territory. Also, if the Orange-breasted Falcon still hunted in Costa Rica, given the growing number of birders roaming the country, it seems like someone would eventually see one.

Based on that information and the closest population perhaps occurring in central Panama, it doesn’t sound like we can expect seeing this super cool falcon in Costa Rica anytime soon. However, I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t still look for it, that we shouldn’t be careful about checking Bat Falcons. I think we should because of the following:

  • If a few still occur in the somewhat underbirded forests of the Caribbean slope of the Panamanian Talamancas, they could disperse into Costa Rica.
  • The areas where that could happen, the foothills of Talamancas near the border with Panama, see very little birding coverage and have extensive primary forests, much of which is difficult to access.
  • There are other remote and underbirded areas also worth checking including Barbilla National Park, parts of Hitoy Cerere, and even remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
The Talamancas near Yorkin.

I suppose it also goes without saying that if a young bird or even an adult does manage to make its way to Costa Rica, we will never know its there unless birders are out there looking in the places where they could turn up. Since the birding in Costa Rica is always exciting, it’s always worth birding those remote, underbirded sites. I mean, you’re going to see a lot of cool birds anyways and will probably find something rare even if you don’t happen to hit the mega birding Orange-breasted Falcon powerball.

If you do bird some of those remote sites, please eBird the results and share your best sightings in the comments. I promise to do the same.

Want to know where to go birding in Costa Rica while supporting this blog? Learn about birding sites in Costa Rica and how to look for and identify birds in Costa Rica with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. I hope to see you here in Costa Rica!

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The Rocky River Heron

Joan Jett of Blackhearts and The Runaways fame first sang, “I love rock and roll so put another dime in the jukebox baby!” Weird Al’s twist on that classic 80s rock tune says, “I love rocky road! So weren’t you gonna buy half a gallon baby?”

When visiting California Gulch or some roads in Costa Rica or so many other off beat places we go for birds, the song gets changed to, “I love rocky roads so put another wrench in the toolbox baby!” However, if the Fasciated Tiger-Heron could croon, if that rocky river loving bird could put words to the tune, it might say, “I love rocky flows so put another fish in the eddy baby!”

If you ever wondered what the Fasciated Tiger-Heron does, that lyric just about sums up how it spends most of its time. Unlike so many other herons, this species doesn’t visit marshes, doesn’t wade in estuaries or fly along any ocean shore. It doesn’t even stalk the shallows of slow, steady-flowing tropical lowland rivers. In the nations where our rocky river bittern ranges, those habitats are used by the related Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and the Rufescent Tiger-Heron. At some period in evolutionary history, we can only assume that in occupying and become more adapted to rocky forested rivers, the ancestor of the Fasciated became the bird that it is today.

Like other Trigrisoma herons (the tiger-herons), the Fasciated is a fair-sized bird with a thick, and powerful neck, sharp beak, and medium-length legs. In other birding words, its more or less shaped like a bittern, like a compact, modern dinosaur. However, unlike bitterns, the Fasciated and other tiger-herons don’t bother to hide themselves in the grass, don’t make any noises that sound like a water pump.

No, these birds are too rough and tough characters for any of that quaint country stuff. More in keeping with their dino ancestors, tiger-herons stalk where they wish, make growling noises that sound like some scary predator of the night, and eat baby crocodiles. At least the Bare-throated and Rufescent eat young crocs. The Fasciated doesn’t but I bet that’s only because saurians don’t inhabit the bird’s cold, rocky river habitats.

In fact, the Fasciated is so adapted to rocky streams and rivers, it just can’t seem to live anywhere else. Ranging from Costa Rica through much of the tropical Andes, the Fasciated Tiger-Heron uses rocky streams and rivers that flow through forested landcapes. As one might gather, this special heron also has a morphological feature or two that help it survive in its rushing river home. A bit stockier than other herons, like a feathered goat, it has shorter legs that may help it find better balance on slick river rocks. Its slightly blunter bill might help it catch more crayfish or other prey items peculiar to its cold, splashing home.

Although it’s far from being the only heron that patiently waits in place to eventually catch unwary prey, the Fasciated T. seems to be especially adept at practicing stillness. This river bird stands in place for so long, it can seem more like a garden statue, just another rock in the river than an actual living bird. With water constantly rushing and splashing past it, the heron seems to be making some natural Zen statement. Compared to herons of lowland tropical places, keeping still for long periods of time might be a necessary adaptation to catch enough food in places with fewer prey items. Being “Zen” also probably helps to avoid predators as does another of its characteristic features; its cryptic plumage.

Check a stream for this heron species and you might need to do a double take. Look carefully at the river with binoculars and don’t be surprised if one of those many “rocks” turns into a bird that was hiding in plain sight. Coupled with its art of being still behavior, the mottled gray plumage of the adult helps it blend in remarkably well with the surrounding river rocks and rushing water. The orange and black plumage of the juvenile is another story and raises the question of why the adult seems to be more camouflaged than young birds; a situation typically the other way around.

If you feel like pondering such questions while birding Costa Rica, come visit and scan rocky rivers and streams in rainforest for Fasciated Tiger-Herons. On account of the bird’s natural stealth and likely low density populations, it might take a while to find one. But don’t give up! Think like the heron, check the river with care because you can bet that the birds are somewhere on that waterway. They might be standing just around the bend, or keeping still on the other side of a big river rock, being Zen, hiding in plain sight.

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Twitching Blackpoll Warbler and Cedar Waxwings in Costa Rica

“One birder’s twitch is another birder’s trash.” At least that’s what some members of the birding realm say. In non birding vernacular, that would mean that the bird species yearned for by some are so common as to be ignored by others. Examples include local birders in Ohio rushing outside and letting that screen door bang shut as they race to see a Ruff. Birders from Kansas driving 6 long desperate hours to meet with a seriously lost Spotted Redshank before it keeps on moving. Birders from Toronto skipping on over to Toronto Island to lay eyes on a Variegated Flycatcher (I was one of those lucky birders). All prioritize and move into birding action because those lost birds were brought into twitching range by the same evolutionary dead end wanderlust that could, just as quickly, urge the birds to destinations unknown.

When chasing birds that are common in other places, one of the rather obvious questions that might be asked is, “why not travel to the places where those birds are common?” These days, the answer to just about any question pertaining to travel is obvious (it starts with a C and ends with 9) but during other, easier times, well, it’s always a heck of a lot easier to see a bird near home or in one’s own country than flying to another part of the world. Yes, there are more new birds waaaay over there but…easier said than done. Not to mention, there’s also that country or county or province list thing going on, the urge to collect stuff for a certain area, to maintain and add to a list for some sense of achievement.

Twitches of course don’t just happen in North America, major twitching goes on in Europe especially in the British Isles as well as most other parts of the globe. From the other side of the Atlantic, a twitch might include calling in sick to pilgrimage your way to a Lesser Yellowlegs, or dropping everything for a once in a lifetime meeting with a Gray Catbird (Eurasian soil at least). In Costa Rica, as with every place, we have our own set of “twitch birds” and although rare and local birds are on that list (note the major RVG Cuckoo twitch), most of the wanted species are migrants. In other parts of their range, most are also a dime a dozen.

But it doesn’t matter how common a bird is elsewhere, it only matters how rare that bird is where one happens to be birding. This is why I recently spent precious time driving up a muddy track and walking through tropical pastures to look for…Cedar Waxwings. It’s why we followed that morning jaunt with a drive to a hotel where a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen.

Yes, Cedar Waxwings. They might have been a common bird of parks in western New York, a regular old lazy whispering bird of the northern summer, but in Costa Rica, the sleek crested berry eater is one of the most wanted species on the block. Think of it as our Pine Grosbeak, as an irruptive winter finch that rarely shows, and hardly ever in big numbers. It’s a bird that doesn’t favor Costa Rica, one that occasionally appears at fruiting figs and maybe it’s just me but just to make them a bit harder to find, it doesn’t seem like they call as much in Costa Rica either. But then again, I’ve only seen them here a few times.

They might be common up north but I completely get why local birders strive and drive to see waxwings. It was a while ago some time in the late 70s but I still remember my excitement at seeing my first Cedar Waxwings, can vaguely picture them in the willows by a creek in Pennsylvania. My aunt Chris recalls it too, last time I saw her, she told me she remembered me saying, “Cedar Waxwings!”, being excited about those waxwings by the creek. I sure was, there were a few hundred, they looked amazing, and they were incredible lifers. A golden day for an 8 year old birder.

With that same sense of excitement, Marylen, Samantha, and I went looking for a group of waxwings just a half hour drive from where we live. They had been seen for a few days before then, had been seen the day before but would they still be there? Since they had been feeding on huge figs full of fruit, I figured we had an excellent chance but as with any twitch, who knows? Waxwings are migrants, they could leave at any moment, get too much of an urge to head north, just vanish and leave a twitcher staring into empty trees.

However, as with any twitch, you never know unless you try and if you stay home and someone else sees that bird, you run a big chance of being hit with a big fat sour lemon pie of regret. Since the regret option sucks (and because our chances seemed good), we went for the waxwings. After going to the wrong spot first, thanks to friend and fellow birder Diego Quesada, we got back on track, made our way to the right spot and walked up a muddy track past the songs of White-eared Ground-Sparrows and Rufous-capped Warblers.

Migrants were also around and included the likes of Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Olive-sided Flycatchers. An excellent area of green space, of coffee farms with huge figs, it didn’t take long before a flock of waxwings appeared! They flew into view, lisped a couple of times and quickly dropped out of sight. We couldn’t say we didn’t see them but better views would be a lot nicer. Trudging up and down pastured hills couldn’t refind them but fortunately, just as we were about to leave, we ran into Diego and fellow birding guide, Jheudy Carballo. They had the birds and even had them in the scope!

As you can see, they weren’t exactly perched in full easy view.

After getting our fill of scoped waxwings in Costa Rica, we triumphantly returned to the car (because how else do you return to a vehicle after a successful twitch?), made our way to the house and got right back in the vehicle for the drive to bird number dos- le Blackpoll Warbler.

This second twitch of the day was about as easy as you can get (and is just how we like it!). We entered the Buena Vista Hotel, the receptionist welcomed us and upon seeing our binocs, pointed us to the trails where the bird was being seen. Thanks to directions from Diego, we made our way to the spot, and thanks to a local birder who was watching it, saw the bird with seconds.

In typical warbler fashion, the male Blackpoll didn’t exactly sit still. Getting ready to migrate, it didn’t have any time to rest. It might have come from Alaska, might have lived in Quebec. Both places are pretty far, both require a lot of flying fuel. It was getting those resources for its personal, perilous flight from a fruiting fig, eating insects, maybe even even some fruit.

The good thing is that it was fueling up right in front of us, was favoring this one fig tree only a bit above eye level. Even better, it was an adult male in breeding plumage. Since we rarely get Blackpolls in Costa Rica, the views, the experience, was a rare treat. It’s one of those birds that probably winter here and there in Costa Rica, that pass through on occasion but in numbers small enough to seriously limit chances of finding them and so when one is found, you might just want to go see it.

A successful twitch is always a good day, success with a double twitch that includes good looks at the target birds is fantastic. I wonder what the next twitch in Costa Rica will be? A Gray Gull would be pretty nice…

As with every twitch, they wouldn’t happen without birders finding and sharing the gen. Many thanks go to local birder Alex Molinas Arias for the waxwings and Diego and Jheudy of Birding Experiences for helping us see them, and to the author of The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues, for finding that Blackpoll!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.

Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.

They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.

Its why Nicaraguan Grackles are reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.

Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.

Medio Queso, a fantastic wetland site in northern Costa Rica and a good place to go when you wonder where to go birding in Costa Rica.

Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.

Pretty Similar

Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.

If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.

Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.

Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.

What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?

In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.

If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.

It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!

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Birding Costa Rica

Why Now Might be a Good Time to go Birding in Costa Rica

In normal years, times just a year ago and before then, this would be the high season. There would be a good number of people birding in Costa Rica, quite a few birders visiting for their first quetzal, to watch toucans in the treetops, and soak up the spectacle of tropical birds.

We do have some birders here now but as with every place, out of country visitors are the exception. I don’t blame anyone, I wouldn’t be traveling either because why take the chance? Why not wait for a vaccination and travel then? However, given the safety of airline ventilation systems, protection from double masks, and follow careful protocols, now might actually be a great time to visit Costa Rica.

And see birds like a Violet Sabrewing.

I know, right, are you crazy? But hear me out, this is why right now really is a good time to go birding in Costa Rica, at least for the following reasons:

Air travel is pretty safe

Despite the worries of sharing an enclosed space on a plane, modern ventilation and air filtration systems keep the air very clean. With everyone on board also wearing a mask, the risk of transmission should be pretty low. I would be more worried about the airports but even there, if everyone is masked and you are careful, chances of catching someone should be minimized.

Health protocols in Costa Rica

But what about Costa Rica, what about mask wearing? Well, although you may have seen some places requiring masks and others not so much, in Costa Rica, health protocol are very much enforced. Mask wearing is required for most or all enclosed places, and from what I have seen, hotels have been especially careful about social distancing in their restaurants, mask wearing, hand washing, and so on. Supermarkets and other places also count and limit the number of people in the store. They have to because if they get caught breaking protocols, they get shut down.

You of course still have to and should be careful but it certainly helps when most people you interact with are seem to be doing the same.

Plane ticket prices

Get this, there are some pretty cheap flights to Costa Rica! Especially if you are coming from the USA. I have never seen them so cheap (like $300 or even less for round trip from NYC) and there are of course obvious reasons for that but it’s still worth mentioning it.

You still need to buy certain health insurance and then get the pcr test in Costa Rica before returning home but those might be worth it if you can fly at half the normal price.

Plenty of space in hotels and plenty of space for birding

With fewer people, there is lots of rooms at every hotel and lodge and more than enough elbow room for birding too.

You might see a Yellow-eared Toucanet.

High quality birding

Not to mention, as always, the birding in Costa Rica is a top notch world experience replete with Resplendent Quetzals, dozens of glittering hummingbirds, mixed flocks, and so much more.

Local birders are taking selfies with a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Even better, right now, local birders have been getting close look at super cooperative Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos (!). A few days ago, a few were spotted at an Army Ant swarm at the Pocosol Station in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Luckily, this ground-cuckoo family has stayed around to continue foraging at the swarm and several local birders have enjoyed some super rare moments with this rare and unpredictable species.

It’s a bird that’s always out there and at various sites but the main word here is “unpredictable”. That and “sneaky”. Based on years of looking for them, reading about them, hearing about reports, and my limited experiences seeing and listening them, I think I’m correct is saying that they are somewhat like cats. If ground-cuckoo don’t want to be seen, you aren’t going to see it! After seeing a ground-cuckoo quickly move through the understory without moving a single leaf, I figured that likely happens much more than we realize.

It seems that they can be a bit more tame in a family setting, and perhaps just because the juvenile is so much less experienced. In any case, there are some being seen at Pocosol, I wonder how long they will stay? On another note, two very experienced birders also recently saw this mega species at Rincon de la Vieja. Their account gives an idea of the challenges and strategies that can be used to find and see one.

If you go visit Costa Rica for birding these days, I’m not sure if the ground-cuckoos at Pocosol will still be around but it wouldn’t hurt to try. There are plenty of other birds to watch there too and in so many other parts of this beautiful, warm, tropical nation.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley

Beginning 2021 with Backyard Birding in Costa Rica

It was sometime post midnight when I heard the call of a pauraque. Common in many places but only when the places have enough green space with a healthy supply of insects. The local matrix of cement, somewhat poisoned coffee farms and second growth make this bird decidedly uncommon up in this neighborhood.

Nevertheless, a few persist and that call in the night marked my first bird of 2021. Common Pauraque being first on the year list was in line with it typically being the first bird on Big Days. I’ll take it! Subsequent days have brought more birds including a hundred plus species during a day of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. In general though, my 2021 birds of Costa Rica have been “backyard” birds. “Backyard” because we really don’t have one but birding from the balcony looks onto a perfect scene for these parts; a bird oasis riparian zone.

That line of trees and bushes is a fine way to begin any day in Costa Rica, at least if you have to sling the bins in an urban zone. Lately, with windy, sunny weather keeping the local birds quiet and sheltering in the vegetation, you also have to get out there early. It’s worth it, a fine variety of species can show and they change from day to day.

Yesterday morning was one of the better days. For whatever reason, the birds were more active and showing in some bare branches out back. They paraded through one by one and even the skulking Barred Antshrikes and Carolinish Cabanis’s Wrens made brief appearances.

As I scanned the treeline out back, Brown Jays and a Gray Hawk called in the background, Red-billed Pigeons made display flights and a few White-winged Doves zipped through sky space (I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks).

A pair of Ringed Kingfishers gave their steady, grackle-like smacking call as they flew over the urban creek and as usual, I wondered how they manage to persist in this mostly urban area. Equally interesting was the group of 7 Giant Cowbirds that undulated out from a nearby cattle farm. Where do they go for the day? How far do they travel?

I scanned the swallows but so far, no rare Violet-greens (it’s a good year for them in Costa Rica), only the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows. A few Vaux’s Swifts joined them and a screaming flock of 70 plus Crimson-fronted Parakeets demanded attention.

I also saw a few distant White-fronted Parrots, yes, they range into the Central Valley along with similarly named but quite different White-crowned Parrots. Down in the bushes, I was pleased to see a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!

Where did they spend the summer? Could they have warbled from the forest patches of Niagara County? Called from the beautiful woods of Pennsylvania? The same could have been wondered about the 6 Baltimore Orioles that moved through, one bright adult male, the remaining birds females.

As if on cue, other migrants also appeared; a Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo that could have shared woods with the grosbeaks and orioles. More borealy-inclined Tennessee Warblers came through and a pair of Blue Grosbeaks perched in view. The Blue Grosbeaks aren’t migrants but the next bird was, a multicolored male Painted Bunting! That one is possible here in the winter but not as expected as in lower elevations.

Always a pleasure to check out the colors on that beautiful little bird, it reminded me of first learning about it from some sort of cards or maybe a cereal box as a kid. I still recall standing in the kitchen in the house on Augustus Place sometime 1977 and seeing a picture of that bunting. Knowing about that bird was incredible then and it’s still marvelous to look at one so many years later.

A bird from a year ago at Raptor Ridge.

Down in the bushes, the local Rufous-capped Warblers and White-eared Ground-Sparrows called and Grayish Saltators appeared. A Squirrel Cuckoo swooped into view, Common Tody-Flycatchers vocalized out back and as usual, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees tried to take the spotlight. Finish the morning activity off with a few Blue-gray Tanagers and nervous Clay-colored Thrushes and that was a typical wrap for a brief morning of birding in Costa Rica.

Many more birds are possible, I’m surely forgetting some from yesterday. It will be interesting to see what the coming days bring in 2021.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app

Costa Rica Birds in Waiting, Guanacaste- 7 Species to Look for Not on the List

How many birds are on the Costa Rica list? Although some sources mention somewhere around 870 or so species, the official list of birds for Costa Rica has 923 species. Why the discrepancy? I’m not entirely sure but part of the difference is surely related to bird species having been steadily confirmed and added to the country list.

While most are vagrants, given changes in habitat, distribution, and populations of various species, it’s not out of the question that there could be more of certain vagrants, and that some “new” species could establish breeding populations.

The official list has grown but believe it or not, there’s room for more! In fact, much more than I had expected. After having looked into the most likely additions for Costa Rica, quite a few more species came to mind than I had imagined (and I never even thought about Orinoco Goose but that’s another story). This post is the first in a series discussing birds that may eventually find themselves on the list and is in conjunction with a separate post written by fellow local birder, Diego Ramirez (aka “Mr. Birder”). He wrote a good post about this theme in Spanish, check out, Las Potenciales Nuevas Especies de Aves para Costa Rica.

Although the occurrence of any of these species would be an occasion of extreme rarity, for various reasons discussed below, all of them are possible. While none of these can be really expected when birding Costa Rica, I feel like it’s better to know about what might occur, to have that information available, than potentially overlooking a country first because a Long-toed Stint was assumed to just be a funny looking Least Sandpiper, or that the Black-headed Gull was a weird Bonaparte’s with a red bill.

This is also why the latest free update for the Costa Rica Birds field guide app includes 68 species that aren’t on the list but could occur (photos used in this post are screenshots from this latest update to the app). Despite such a high number of potential species, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had left out at least 3additional species. Expect those on the next update! Without further ado, the following are some birds to keep an eye out for when birding in Guanacaste (expect shorebirds in a future post!):

Gadwall

Photo by Tony Leukering.
If you think you see a female Mallard in Costa Rica, take a closer look. Photo by Stanley Jones.

Yep, the good old Gadwall. A familiar, svelte species for many birders of North America and the Palearctic, it has yet to fly south to Costa Rica. Given its large population and strong possibility of migrating with other ducks, I believe this species is one of the strongest contenders for being the next addition to the list. The marshes of Palo Verde and nearby sites, the Sandillal Reservoir, and the catfish ponds of Sardinal would all be good places to check.

Spot-tailed Nightjar

Spot-tailed Nightjar by Hector Bottai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What? Yes and Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean one may have actually seen one in 2003. The Spot-tailed Nightjar is a small nightjar of savannas and other open habitats that has migratory populations in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Where do they go for the winter? No one really knows and it would be very easy for s small, nocturnal bird to go unnoticed during migration, especially if it is silent. Heck, if a few of these inconspicuous nightbirds wintered in Guanacaste, they could also easily go unnoticed.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

No, I’m not making this up, this is one of the names given to a mystery hummingbird known from one old specimen and referred to as, “Amazilia alfaroensis“. Searches have been carried out yet have failed to refind it. Nevertheless, maybe it’s still out there? If you are birding around the Miravalles Volcano or other sites in northern Guanacaste, keep an eye out for any odd-looking Blue-vented Hummingbirds, especially ones that have blue on the crown. Take pictures, if you find one, you will have refound a critically endangered “lost species”.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo provded by Alan Schmierer.

This small woodpecker of open habitats could certainly occur at some point in the Upala area. There are sightings of this species from sites near there, just across the border in Nicaragua. If you think you ehar a Downy Woodpecker in that area, it’s very likely a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Pacific Parakeet

Given the propensity for parakeets to wander, group up with other parakeets, and possible sightings in Nicaragua close to the northwestern border with Costa Rica, this species should be looked for. If I get the chance to bird up that way, I would look for flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets and carefully check them for birds with green fronts. Flowering trees might be a good food source, and in the southern esge of its range, the Pacific Parakeet might be partial to mangroves.

Cassin’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird by GregTheBusker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This one is a long shot but since one was found in Panama, it could certainly occur in Cost Rica as a very rare migrant vagrant. In other parts of its range, this typical kingbird uses a variety of open habitats, often in grasslands with tall trees. With that in mind, a vagrant Cassin’s Kingbird could show up anywhere in Guanacaste and be easily overlooked as a Tropical Kingbird. I would not be at all surprised if a few have made it to Costa Rica now and then.

Altamira Oriole

Photo provided by John C. Sterling.

This beautiful bird is just waiting to be found. It occurs in Nicaragua fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and lives in a variety of scrubby and dry forest habitats. It could also be very easily overlooked as a Streak-backed or Spot-breasted Oriole. Watch for it at flowering trees near the border, look for orioles that have a small patch of gray on the base of a stout bill and no spots on the breast.

Other possible additions could occur in Guanacaste such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and Virginia’s Warbler. It’s a reminder to take a close look and listen at every bird, you really never know what you might find.