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The Northern Wetlands with the Costa Rica Birding Club

Wetlands happen wherever the water flows, meets, and finds itself. Tiny drips, unobtrusive ditches, laughing streams, and expansive lakes; wetlands take various forms. When the water overflows and extends itself to form lagoons and marshes in Costa Rica and other tropical places, we have rich and dynamic habitats brimming with life. In Costa Rica, there are three principal, large, flat areas that collect rain to create tropical lagoons and a myriad of marsh habitats.

These places are (1) the Tempisque River Basin, a big floodplain that includes Palo Verde National Park, rice growing areas, and some wildlife refuges, (2) the human-made but very important wetlands south of Ciudad Neily, and (2), the wetlands in northern Costa Rica associated with Lake Nicaragua. These latter marshes are some of the most extensive wetlands in Costa Rica; slow meandering waterways and flooded areas that harbor a fantastic wealth of birds and wildlife.

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This past weekend, Maryllen and I visited those northern wetlands with a group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica. These were some of the highlights and observations from those memorable days.

Medio Queso Delivers

Medio Queso is a tributary of the San Juan River that flows through and feeds a large freshwater marsh near Los Chiles. The name translates to “half cheese” but when you take a boat ride there with Chambita, you get the full cheese wheel and some!

Boat trips at this site are typically wonderful. During our afternoon on the river, we had views of several Pinnated Bitterns (arguably the best site for this local species in Costa Rica), lovely Least Bitterns, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, a Yellow-breasted Crake bringing food to hidden young, Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kites, Limpkins, and more.

Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters were fairly common, we inspected the pink tones on the big bill of a Nicaraguan Seed-Finch at close range, saw a distant Jabiru feeding in the marsh, and had our fill of Nicaraguan Grackles.

It’s hard to beat all of these birding highlights and more on a leisurely boat ride through a tropical marsh.

Cano Negro can be Really Hot in April

The following day, we did another boat ride with Chambita in Cano Negro. Low water levels limited access to some spots but we still saw a lot. The only problem was the heat. I suppose because of the time of year, and because the low water levels kept the boat floating below the breeze, we were feeling those temperatures. It was a bit of a challenge to try and stay cool enough to function, and that was without moving a muscle.

This was somewhat surprising because, on other occasions, I have worn a light jacket during boat trips at Cano Negro. In any case, we still saw good numbers of birds, especially where they were concentrated in shallow lagoons.

We had close looks at a Sungrebe, saw another Black-collared Hawk, and watched two dozen Jabirus lord over dozens of Great Egrets and other waterbirds feasting on fish trapped in the shallow, diminishing waters.

There be Good Birding in Los Chiles

Los Chiles isn’t the best place to go birding in Costa Rica but, there is some habitat, mostly down at the river. As birds move from one area to the next, you might see more than you expect. Our unexpected bird was a Dickcissel that flew in to promptly land in a bush, right in front of us. The other side of the same bush hosted an American Pygmy Kigfisher, and we saw another Sungrebe on the other side of the river!

Mind you, while watching these and other birds, there were a few people fishing, one person loudly imitating Howler Monkeys, and a few others drinking beers while seated at grungy picnic tables at 7 in the morning.

None of this activity distracted the birds, nor us from seeing them including two other specialties of Cano Negro; the Gray-headed Dove, and the Spot-breasted Wren. Flocks of Barn, Bank, and Cliff Swallows also flew from south to north, Amazon, Ringed, and Green Kingfishers rattled and entertained, a pair of Green Ibis flew over, and parrot and parakeets were always in view.

Los Chiles is Not a Destination for Gourmands (or Foodies)

There might be more birds in Los Chiles than you think but the restaurant scene is another story. The few options have the same menus typically found at most small, average restaurants in Costa Rica, and wait times can be a while. The first night, we ate at Heliconias and I enjoyed the ceviche. The waiter was also good and attentive. Best of all, he set up and turned on a large fan to make us feel like we were sitting in a breeze.

Gaspar’s had the advantage of an actual, natural breeze blowing through the open air, second story dining and drinking area. This was very good. The pleasant feelings generated by brushes of air in hot lowland weather alleviated the sonic assault made by some of the worst music ever created, at just enough volume to make you cringe. Ok, so who knows if it was the worst, after all, there is the horrendous stuff played on the ferry from Paquera to Punatarenas but I daresay the sonic bombardment was memorable, and not in the best of ways.

The food at Gaspar’s was surely better than the music selection (it had to be because if it were worse, we would have self-combusted at the first bite) but I wouldn’t say it was wonderful. Or, it might be Ok and that I’m just not super keen on extra fried food or burnt stuff. To be honest, I’m probably exaggerating there, I mean I did see some of the other plates and they didn’t look that bad. If you stay in Cano Negro, I wholeheartedly vouch for the excellent cuisine and service (and lodging) at Hotel de Campo but when staying in Los Chiles, keep the expectations on the down low.

C and C Cabins in Los Chiles Gets a Thumbs Up

Not looking for anything fancy, our group stayed at CyC Hotel in Los Chiles. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I left the place with a smile and a big thumbs up! It was cheap yet the rooms were fine, clean, quiet, had hot water, and air conditioning. There is also a secure parking lot, and the couple who own the place were very accommodating. We requested early coffee and they made it for us, no problem. We had breakfast there and it was also good. The guy was always smiling, accommodating, and, told us that he used to say hello to an owl (suspected potoo) that visited the place nightly for several years (sadly, it hasn’t been present for some time).

His partner was also just as accommodating, told me about the night bird that visited them and how she hopes it comes back, and was rocking some cool gold bling. If you are looking for a low-price option for a stay in Los Chiles, these are good people to support. Another friendly place we have used on other trips that I also recommend is Felicia’s Cabins. Other options also exist in Los Chiles but I haven’t stayed at them.

Night Birds at Cano Negro

Speaking of nocturnal avian visitors, the general area around Los Chiles and Cano Negro is pretty good for the birds of the night. Since we had already had Great Potoo and Pacific Screech-Owls on day roosts during a long, hot day of birding, we didn’t look too much more on the 20 kilometer plus drive from Cano Negro to Los Chiles. However, we still ended up seeing a family of young Barn Owls screeching into the dark, tropical night.

With more time, you can find Striped Owl (and other owl species), and maybe even locate the rare Ocellated Poorwill.

It’s a Long and Bumpy Drive to Cano Negro

The road to Cano Negro has always been a challenge. Lately, it seems even less fun. Expect a very bumpy road marked by an abundant diversity of holes and indentations (maybe sort of like driving on the moon?). The road texture makes for a long and uncomfortable drive but if you rent the right vehicle, well then, I suppose it’s not as much of an issue. Not to mention, you can and should watch for birds en-route in any case.

The birding club trip to the northern wetlands was fun and productive as the birding typically is in that area. If you plan on going, I hope this blog helps. If looking to stay in Cano Negro for birding, I suggest Hotel de Campo for the birdy grounds, home-made, authentic Italian pasta, and more. Get psyched for your trip by checking out my eBird trip report, and please support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a complete birding site guide for Costa Rica, and tool for planning birding trips to Costa Rica. I hope to see you here, until then, I wish you some sweet May birding!

Most images in this post were taken by Heather Fabro Angell.

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Medio Queso, Costa Rica: Tough Birds Made Easy

What is it about a place that makes it a birding hotspot? Flocks of parakeets and constant birding action? Mixed flock action that leaves you with a bewildered, automatic multi-lifer smile? A place that doesn’t have many species but is reliable for choice, rare birds? Or just a place that has consistently good birding, a place where one can visit and just lose his or herself with birds in a beautiful natural setting?

Or, as with the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Initiative, a multitude of sites that collectively provide access to most bird species on the Costa Rica list?
No matter how one defines it, a birding hotspot is always worth a visit because a birder will always see something, and sometimes, many species that are tough to encounter elsewhere.

Bay-headed Tanager- in Costa Rica, easy but always nice to see.

That’s how it is at Medio Queso, Costa Rica. When I think of a birding hotspot, man does this site fit the bill. This northern wetland made it onto the national birding RADAR nearly ten years ago when local birder and biologist Daniel Martinez found Pinnated Bitterns and an uber rare for Costa Rica, American Bittern during bird surveys at the site.

Since then, subsequent visits have resulted in sightings of one challenging species after another. Some years ago, during my first visit to Medio Queso, while watching a Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Pinnated Bittern, Robert Dean and I wondered how good the birding might be on that river that passes through the middle of the marsh.

Robert eventually arranged a boat trip at Medio Queso and I will never forget his reaction. In brief, it went something like, “Was it good? It was bloody fantastic! Least Bittern, Sungrebe, Jabiru, Pinnated Bitterns, and then we had an Aplomado Falcon fly overhead.”

He actually saw more than that, and there have been several excellent boat trips since then that have produced views of Spotted Rail, Yellow-breasted Crake, and other crakes all on the same trip. Although the boat ride is best, quite a lot can also be seen from the dike. Not having enough time for a boat trip, that’s what Marilen and I did a few days ago and as hoped, Medio Queso showed why this wetland is such a reliable birding hotspot.

After spending Friday night in Los Chiles, we opted for a pre-dawn visit to Medio Queso to see if we could get lucky with Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and who knows, maybe Ocellated Poorwill? We could have left in the middle of the night to invest in more nocturnal birding time but since that eliminates sleep from the equation and most nocturnal birds are active during the hour before dawn, we didn’t leave Cabinas Felicia until 4 a.m.

Medio Queso being a short drive from Los Chiles, mere minutes later, we were looking for eye shine and listening for night birds. As is typical with night birding in Costa Rica and many parts of the Neotropical region, Common Pauraques flushed from the gravel road. Striped Owl ended up giving us the slip but we should catch up with that at some point, hopefully at or near the homestead. No luck with the poorwill (that bird might not even be present at that site), but we did connect with our year Common Potoo! We got our Costa Rica potoo sweep in the form of at least two calling birds, one from a dense tree plantation next to the road. As a bonus, we also heard Pacific Screech-Owl and a Collared Forest-Falcon.

As dawn broke at the marsh, Green Ibises gave their guttural, rollicking calls. Two eventually flew nearby, as usual, looking a lot like long-billed Black Vultures in the process. We also saw a couple of Pinnated Bitterns, Tricolored Heron, and a few other expected species. The bitterns were easy to find in areas of the marsh with short grass; odd pale spots that morphed into straw-colored, stripey herons when viewed with binoculars.

We also had Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Purple Gallinules, Green-breasted Mangos, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and other nice species. It was fun seeing them but these weren’t our main targets, we had already enjoyed them on our January visit to Medio Queso. We were at this hotspot in May because a very rare for Costa Rica Striated Heron had been repeatedly seen there for at least a month. Would it be there for us? Would we also see Black-collared Hawk? The only way to find out is by going birding, thankfully, we had our chance and whether we found those birds or not, a morning of birds in a beautiful natural setting is never a waste of time.

By the river, we found our hawk! Looking a bit like a Brahminy Kite, the Black-collared Hawk is like a sluggish tropical Osprey. Unlike the Osprey, it almost only occurs in areas with extensive freshwater wetlands and slow-going, lowland rivers and lakes. In Costa Rica, it is very local, one of the better places for seeing it being the Cano Negro and Los Chiles area. Our year bird was a beautiful chestnut and black adult with a white head hanging out on the river near the dock.

We searched for the heron by scanning the river and marsh over and over but kept coming up with Green Herons and other regular species. Nevertheless, persistence paid off, we did eventually find the bird! It wasn’t until our way out just after 7 but there it was, perched above the marsh. The small pale gray heron with a black cap stood out from the fresh green marsh grass and reminded me of a miniature Great Blue or Gray Heron. While glassing this choice species, before we knew it, a Green Heron chased it from its perch and it flew further away. Even at a distance, the pale coloration still made it easy to see out there in the green of the marsh.

On the drive back to Los Chiles, hoping to spot a potoo, I scanned the trees for any suspicious chunks of wood and wished for a Mangrove or Yellow-billed Cuckoo to appear. We left without views of those species but we weren’t complaining. We had added several year birds to the 2019 Team Tyto list during a fine morning of birding, looking forward to more!

Hope to see this one at some point in 2019!

Although we didn’t have time to visit Cano Negro, most visiting birders include this with Medio Queso and with good reason. The birding only gets better and a lot can be seen right on the grounds of the best place to stay in Cano Negro, Hotel de Campo. This hotel has also helped with reforestation and conservation in Cano Negro and is developing packages for birders. Contact me to learn more.