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A Fine Morning of Birding in Costa Rica- the Road to Manuel Brenes

The best places for birding in Costa Rica don’t have to be the most visited places, they just need to be the places with the best habitat. Then again, “best places” are subjective, they depend on the birder doing the talking, what someone prefers to see, or how a person prefers to go birding.

“Best birding” for birders who would much rather scan for shorebirds might not include a walk in rainforest. There are birders who would rather watch migrating raptors than study the subtleties of flycatcher plumages, and many people prefer the nice looks that come from easy-going edge birding rather than catching glimpses of occasional rare birds in places shaded by towering trees.

For me, I suppose the best places for birding depend on what I want to see, the number of birds present, and the variety of birds available. Based on those factors, I tend to lean towards sites with extensive forested habitats. Such places host the highest avian diversity and even though dense vegetation, tall trees, and low light conditions present challenges, patient watching still yields results. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that forest also lends itself to earbirding; something I do just as much or even more than sight birding.

Although I find all natural habitats interesting, I have also, always been partial to forest. As a young person, that’s where I took the wild things to be. In my pre-teen mind, the forests of the Southern Tier of New York state, Pennsylvania, and Algonquin were where the birds lived. I would gaze at maps and look for the wild places, the areas with the most amount of forest and imagine what lived therein and how much more area used to be covered with extensive stands of massive, ancient trees.

These days, we can look at satellite maps, see where the remaining forests occur, note where to focus reforestation efforts, and where we might find the best sites for birding, at least for birding in rainforest. In Costa Rica, one of those better, little birded sites is the road that leads to the Manuel Brenes Reserve. Like other country roads, it’s not paved and a combination of mud and rocks doesn’t make it very suitable for a small vehicle with two wheel drive. However, it is flanked by good-sized areas of intact foothill rainforest and that’s why the birding is simply excellent.

Yesterday, my partner and I paid a visit to that site, one that was long overdue. During a morning of birding, we identified 90 species, these were some highlights:

Three-wattled Bellbirds

Male Three-wattled Bellbird.

Quite often, birding at this site is accompanied by the loud calls of bellbirds. Start birding near the entrance and you might hear one or two of these cool cotingas calling from somewhere in your auditory surroundings. Venture further on the road and you get much closer. With luck, you might see one perched high above but just as often, they are in trees just out of sight, just out of reach.

Mixed Flocks with Tanagers and More

This particular site can have fantastic mixed flocks. Some of the best I have ever seen in Costa Rica have happened on this road; dizzying flocks with too many birds to look at. Yesterday morning, compared to past visits, mixed flock activity was a bit subdued but we still managed to come across a few that yielded close looks at Emerald, Speckled, and Black-and-yellow Tanagers along with less colorful birds like Russet Antshrike and Eye-ringed Flatbill.

Russet Antshrike from another day and place.

Northern Schiffornis

This plain brown bird doesn’t look like much and can be tough to see in its dim understory home but what it may lack in looks, it makes up for with its intriguing whistled song. We heard at last two of these special rainforest birds and also enjoyed listening to other songs of the foothill rainforest; the complex song of the Nightingale Wren and the simple phrases of Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes.

Quality Species Heard

Other uncommon species we heard included Lattice-tailed Trogon (at least 5!), Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds, and Streak-crowned Antvireo.

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The road to Manuel Brenes isn’t regularly visited on tours and its not in the best of shape but the birding is always good. I would love to spend a few days exploring that road and also visiting at night. Including the small marsh at the beginning of the road, it already has a 400 plus species list, I wonder what else uses those beautiful, mossy forests?

To learn more about where to watch birds in Costa Rica, support this blog and buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

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Good Birding on the Manuel Brenes Road- It’s All About the Habitat

Birding tours in Costa Rica tend to visit the best sites, especially when the tour is organized local experts. However, no matter how good a site is, it might not make it onto a tour because of factors related to logistics. For example, even if a Great Jacamar was living in those woods, visiting the area may require too much of a detour from the tour route. Or, the site with the hawk-eagles and parrotlets is just too difficult to bird with a group. This is why most tours don’t make it to Rara Avis, El Copal, or sites south of Limon. Some do, but most don’t and it’s also why most birding tours in Costa Rica don’t check out the excellent sites along the San Ramon-La Fortuna road. Although that route is a good and paved road and easy to visit, it’s just hard to fit into most of the classic Costa Rica birding itineraries.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that a birder can’t visit on his or her own and possibly see Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Three-wattled Bellbird. Go to the right places and you might see those megas and much more! I was reminded of the quality birding in this area during a recent morning on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve.

Although I never actually make it to the excellent cloud forests of the university owned reserve, high quality birding on the road there is par for the course and with good reason. As with so many other great birding sites, it’s all about the habitat and since this road passes through an extensive area of mature foothill/middle elevation rainforest, the species count is typically high and punctuated with the uncommon.

Some highlights and tidbits from a recent morning:

Three-wattled Bellbird

Although it is likely seasonal, this mega cotinga is regularly heard and seen in the area of the Manuel Brenes Reserve. The one on Monday was a female that appeared in the mist, a dove-sized bird perched on an exposed branch of a roadside Cecropia. She let us watch her for a good spell before swooping off her perch and into the misty green of the forest.

Mixed mega flock

White-throated Shrike-Tanager

Mixed flocks can be composed of a handful of birds, ten species, or many birds of many species racing through the trees for some frenzied over stimulation of the avian kind. Usually, the better the habitat, the more likely a birder will encounter such a memorable experience. We had one of these the other morning, although I couldn’t get on all of the birds, we had nice looks at White-throated Shrike-Tanager along with various other tanagers, woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, flycatchers and so on.

Umbrellabird or Toucanet?

Just before we saw the mixed flock, I glimpsed what appeared to be a large black bird fly over the card. The view was the briefest of brief but I swear it was black underneath and was fairly large. Unfortunately, although I tried, I just couldn’t find where it had flown, maybe it went too far in to see. Based on what I saw, I suspect that it was either an umbrellabird or a Yellow-eared Toucanet. Both are possible at this site, I wonder which of those choice species it was!

Tawny-chested Flycatcher!

I have had this local near endemic just down the road at Lands in Love but never at the Manuel Brenes road. It was nice to find one, I hope it sticks around!

No monklet, Lattice-tailed Trogon, or quail-doves

I just mention that we did not find these species to emphasize that one doesn’t usually see every possible bird on every visit, no matter how nice the habitat is. Maybe we would have found that Lattice-tailed Trogon in the afternoon? I wasn’t surprised about the monklet but it’s always worth it to listen and look for this miniscule puffbird in the right places. The more you visit a site with high quality habitat, the better because every time you bird that same forest, the laws of probability make it more likely to find that Sharpbill or even an RVG Cuckoo.

State of the road

Four wheel drive can be required in a few spots. You might make it with a small car but if it has been raining for several days before the visit, you might also get stuck!

Most of all, I was reminded that the best places to see more birds in Costa Rica are the places with the best high quality forest. To learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!