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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip sounds of Costa Rican birds

What do Those Costa Rican Birds Say?

I recently realized that I was far more removed from popular global culture and fads than I had ever imagined. That realization took place during a Skype video call with my parents when they asked me if I had seen the “What Does the Fox Say” thing. I responded that no, I had no idea what they were talking about. They said that they weren’t sure what it was either but that everyone was talking about it. So, nearly a week later, I finally searched for this fox thing and lo and behold it’s a crazy viral video and more than 200 million people know all about it. I also like it and it’s just the type of hilarious silly thing that certain friends of mine and I would have created had we had the time to do so. I love the fact that the popularity of this Norwegian ditty has finally topped that of Norway’s other main claim to popular music fame, A-Ha’s “Take on Me” (which is overplayed on at least once Costa Rican radio station). The silliness of the song sort of reminds me of the satirical and equally awesome Troll Hunter movie (all fans of the fantasy genre must watch!) but is far removed from the excellent, emotive, and more serious music composed by the Kings of Convenience. Most of all, though, the crazy viral fox video has inspired me to write a post about the things said by Costa Rican Birds. No, it won’t be a video because I don’t have the time nor tech know-how to produce such a damn cool thing but I hope you enjoy this post anyways.

Unlike foxes in Norway, we know what most of those Costa Rican Bird say. The Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher looks as if it’s going to say, “Yoo hoo, guess what I am! An oriole? A Tanager? Wrong again humans! I’m some high elevation berry eating thing with fine, silky feathers”.

A male Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher ready to explode after eating maybe a thousand berries.

Actually, they say very little. Check out the sound of a Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher.

What about the Wrenthrush? This is another highland weirdo. It masquerades as an out of place, Asian Tesia and says, “Ha! Try to see me now! I’m as hyperactive as a Chihuahua on Mountain Dew! Take a picture…not!”

A Wrenthrush risks it all and comes out into the open.

Now you know exactly what this bird is saying when you hear its high-pitched calls issuing from a dense patch of bamboo: Wrenthrush

How about another highland bird species? The Prong-billed Barbet has a crazy voice and it says exactly what it sounds like it’s saying, “Yodel, yodel,yodel,yodel,yodel…”.

Shall we yodel again?

Yes, this cloud forest oddity is a determined yodeler: Prong-billed Barbet Note Rufous-browed Peppershrike there as well.

Of course, not all Costa Rican birds are stranger than fiction. Some sing stirring, beautiful songs and they say, “Listen to me. Listen to these avian siren melodies that chase away the shadows of worry and compliment the subtle harmonies of water dripping from clumps of moss and the tips of orchids”.  This is some of what the Black-faced Solitaire says. A good candidate for being the most solemn, serious singer on the block, it probably has the most pleasing song in the country although it has close contenders in the form of the Nightingale Wren and Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush. Compare for yourself:

Black-faced Solitaire

Nightingale Wren song

Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush

At lower elevations, the bird song chorus becomes nearly as busy as the din of a Manhattan sidewalk. Keel-billed Toucans croak away like lost, feathered frogs, parrots rend the air with screeching sounds, Long-billed Gnatwrens give their pixie-like laugh, wrens blast the vegetation with loud, ringing melodies (check out the Black-throated), woodcreepers whistle away from the gloom of the morning forest, and Great Tinamous say, “I am the true ghost of the woods. Find me if you can but know that my kind has been evading predators for more than 15 million years”. A Great Tinamou sings from the forest interior: Great Tinamou.

A Keel-billed Toucan is kind of...well...colorful.

Keel-billed Toucan

A Black-throated Wren attempts to hide behind a branch.

Black-throated Wren

Common garden species also have plenty to say, especially the Clay-colored Thrush during the end of the dry season and beginning of the wet. Just so you know, it says, “No, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up. Never shut up, have to find a mate, defend this territory, sing non-stop, no I won’t shut up…” . And no, it really doesn’t stop singing at that time of the year.

This funky immature Clay-colored Thrush just cannot wait to fill its surroundings with song.

Clay-colored Thrush and such other birds as Tropical Screech Owl and Blue-crowned Motmot in this dawn chorus along with the requisite barking dog.

You will also hear the nagging sounds of the Boat-billed Flycatcher, “Naaaaag! Naaaag! What the hell are you looking at!”

Boat-billed Flycatcher That chip in the background is a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Another interpretation of a Boat-billed Flycatcher's "song": "Great Kiskadee, shmreite kiskadee. Who's got the bigger bill in the house? Yeah, thought so"!

Yes, that big-billed kiskadee creature does have issues but let’s not forget that we are mere observers. Let them chase each other around and vent their mysterious anger.

Saving the best for last, we come back to the weird and wonderful with the Three-wattled Bellbird. Yes, non-birders, snicker if you like but dammit, it describes both the bird’s appearance and its song so the joke’s on you NOB!

A male Three-wattled Bellbird.

It just says, “Creak, creak…BONK!”

Three-wattled Bellbird This is the much louder noise than the Long-tailed Manakin and cow that just had to compete for attention with a “moo”.

I have no idea what the bellbird is really saying there because I have yet to untangle the mysterious language of the cotingas.

There’s like nearly 900 other species to talk about too but in the absence of timewarp technology, I only have space to write about a handful of these Costa Rican birds. The best way to experience them is of course to come on down to Tiquicia (that’s the local vernacular for Costa Rica) and take a listen for yourself. You could also get ready for your trip by listening to my recordings of more than 350 species out of 560 plus species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, or if you don’t want to make a holiday gift of that digital field guide for yourself, you can still check out some sweet sights, sounds, and info of Costa Rican birds by downloading the free lite version.

Birding Costa Rica high elevations

An Impressive Day of Birding around Poas

Poas Volcano is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Costa Rica. Buses, cars, and even bicycles make the long, uphill trek to Poas National Park every day of the year, weekends being especially popular. Despite the lines of folks who undertake the Poas pilgrimage, very few are birders. They are there for the volcano and they walk up to the edge of the crater to peer down into its sulphury depths and feel as if they have accomplished something. I shouldn’t chide them though because looking into an active volcano is always a feat worthy of effort and mention. It’s a spectacular view on clear mornings and a surreal experience when the clouds roll in to shroud the crater from peering eyes. Definitely worth a visit and especially because it’s an easy hour’s drive from the San Jose area.

Nevertheless, after you get that look into the mouth of the volcano, it’s worth your while to bird the area for the rest of the day. Heck, it might even be worth your while to bird the area for a week! Although Poas and surroundings don’t really find their way into most birding tour itineraries, the general area is much better for birding than most people realize. Not convinced? You might be after reading about yesterday’s guiding in the area:

After picking up Lisa (she who so graciously hired me to guide her) from Casa Tias in Escazu (wonderful bed and breakfast by the way), we wound our way up the flanks of Poas until reaching the Restaurant de Volcan. The lack of shoulders on Costa Rican roads prevented us from doing any roadside birding in the coffee plantations on the way up but we still managed to get fantastic, close looks at a Coyote. Up at the restaurant, the usual set of hummingbirds were doing their thing at the feeders. In a matter of seconds, we watched Violet Sabrewings, Magnificent (Rivoli’s) Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, Green Violet-ears, Volcano Hummingbirds, and Green-crowned Brilliants as they chased each other around and guzzled sugar water.

birding Costa Rica

The wonderfully bold and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

While watching the hummingbirds, a Resplendent Quetzal began to call and before we knew it, a male flew across the road in deep bounding flight! It wasn’t all that close but the combination of beryl upperparts and red-velvet unders was evident. Shortly thereafter, we watched the following species coming to the edge of the forest in quick succession:


Prong-billed Barbet- from another day of birding at Poas and Cinchona.

birding Costa Rica

Mountain Elaenia- one of the most common species there.

birding Costa Rica

Close encounters of the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher kind!

Black-thighed Grosbeak- what a hefty, beautiful bird.

We also picked up Band-tailed Pigeon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Yellowish Flycatcher, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and heard some distant (and therefore invisible) Barred Parakeets and a Flame-colored Tanager.

After buying some sugary stuff from the restaurant and listening the owner tell us about finding Mountain Lion scat up the hill across the street, we headed over to Varablanca to look for birds on the road that leads to Cinchona (and eventually the Sarapiqui lowlands). As it began to rain, I decided that we might as well check another forested riparian zone on the route that goes past Varablanca and eventually leads down to Santa Barbara. Although the Slaty Finches that were present a few weeks ago had apparently flown the coupe, we still managed excellent looks at Ochraceous Wren and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and saw a few more Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. As it started to clear up, we left with high hopes to bird our way to Cinchona.

A few stops in places with the necessary combination of a spot to park the car and roadside forest resulted in a couple of small mixed flocks with highlights being Barred Becard, Dark Pewee, and Yellow-winged Vireo. Near the Peace Lodge, we also got more, ridiculously close looks at Slate-throated Redstarts, Paltry Tyrannulet, and the most confiding Ruddy Pigeon of my birding career.

birding Costa Rica

This Ruddy Pigeon even had the decency to vocalize and reveal its name!

Down at the La Paz waterfall, we made a brief stop to check for Torrent Tyrannulet. As I scanned the boulders in the rushing water, Lisa asked, “What’s this bird over here in the garbage?” Sure enough, there was our tyrannulet playing around in some random piece of plastic trash. We ticked the “trashy” tyrannulet and moved on. After being unsuccessful in our attempt to see a singing Olive-crowned Yellowthroat (but picking up Yellow-bellied Elaenia in the process), we drove on past the Cinchona Cafe de Colibries to check out a birdy area between there and Virgen del Socorro.

This turned out to be a fateful decision.

I parked across the street from the Eucalyptus patch that frequently turns up good birds and sure enough, as soon as I exited the vehicle, a Tufted Flycatcher called and a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang from down in the woods. As I pulled out my playback device to see if we could entice that beautiful orange-eye-ringed bird to show itself, another bird in flight caught my eye and I automatically raised my bins to check it out. Although my first impression was of a Blue-gray Tanager or maybe Clay-colored Thrush that was flying away from me against a white, cloudy background, I stayed on the bird because I wasn’t entirely sure of its identification. As soon as it flew against a backdrop of green vegetation, it transformed into a flying chunk of turquoise and as it swooped up to the top of a tree, I heard myself saying, “Cotinga! Lovely Cotinga!” I think this was followed up by “Do you see it? This is a very rare bird!” After hearing Lisa say that she was on it, I sprinted back to the car for my scope (this of course being the only time I left it in the car). Just after getting the scope out, I then heard Lisa say, “It flew” so, there will be no photo of Lovely Cotinga on the blog today. So close..so close..

Nevertheless, I was pretty happy to see the bird and even happier that Lisa got to see this rarity. In case you are wondering how rare Lovely Cotinga is in Costa Rica, this was only the second time I have ever seen this species, the first being a female at Las Heliconias in April, 2001.  Even that was one of the few times it has been seen at that excellent site and I know one top CR birder who didn’t see his first Lovely Cotinga until birding in the country for maybe 20 years (?) and he spends most of his time in the field.

Elated by our good if brief sighting of Lovely Cotinga, we then watched beautiful Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers in the same area along with a much duller female Hepatic Tanager and an electric Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. By the time we saw the dacnis, lunch was calling so we headed back to the Colibri Cafe and enjoyed sumptuous home-cooked food while being entertained by several hummingbirds, including two new ones for the day: Coppery-headed Emerald and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

birding Costa Rica

The dacnis…it’s electric! -Think of that the next time you are forced to do the Electric Slide at a wedding.

birding in Costa Rica

The uncommon White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Since it started to rain, we hung out there for a while and picked up Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Palm Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch before braving the downpour to head back uphill over a horribly pot-holed and rain-channeled road that we shared with other cars, buses, and hefty trucks. On a side note, sadly, I don’t think that I will be taking that road again until it gets fixed. It’s really gotten that bad!

Although the rain showed no sign of abating, we headed way uphill to the national park entrance in the hope that it would be maybe sprinkling as opposed to pouring. The rain was actually somewhere in between so we looked a bit around there before giving up and slowly driving back down through the temperate rainforests. As the rain lightened, the birds made themselves known and it wasn’t long before we were shielding bins from falling water while looking at a  Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

birding Costa Rica

The oriolish, beautiful Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

Further downhill, to our great fortune, the rain came close to stopping at a roadside spot that often yields good stuff. Sure enough, we picked up Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, Mountain Thrush, and Fiery-throated Hummingbird. While peering into the depths of a fruiting avocado, we then managed to see a Black Guan!  Before long, a Resplendent Quetzal also started to call! Although it sounded far off at first, we quickly realizes that it was quite close and in a matter of minutes, we were watching our second male Resplendent Quetzal of the day! Much better looks at this one as it sang from its perch. Although it had already molted its long tail feathers, the rest of the bird was still much appreciated.

Another drive back up to the park entrance in search of Sooty Robin and Large-footed Finch didn’t bag those birds but we did get nice looks at Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. That would have been our final bird of the day if it weren’t for a Gray-headed Chachalaca that planed over the car while heading back down into the Central Valley. We got more than 80 species for the day, one that will surely be a memorable one for Lisa. Since she is headed to Bosque del Rio Tigre today, she’s in for some pretty memorable times there too!

Birding Costa Rica weather

Go Birding in Costa Rica and Escape the Summer Heat

It’s not exactly cold in Costa Rica but it’s never as deathly hot as the summer heat tsunami hitting much of the United States. Honestly, if you flew from that “heat dome” to the tropical latitudes of Costa Rica, you wouldn’t feel as roasted no matter which part of the country you visited. Up in Guanacaste, temps would get up into the 90s, but it wouldn’t be as humid and you might see a large-eyed, Double-striped Thick-Knee or get a chance to study Nutting’s Flycatchers.

birding Costa Rica

Double-striped Thick-Knee.

birding Costa Rica

Nutting’s Flycatcher.

Further south on the Pacific coast, it’s definitely hot and humid but the mercury still doesn’t rise more than 92 degrees. Cloudy weather also tends to make it a bit cooler and you will note nicer temps inside heavily shaded primary forest as well. Over in the Caribbean lowlands, the birding takes place in humid, 80 something degree weather but that’s never as bad as a the 100 degree, outdoor humid sauna taking place in the USA.

birding Costa Rica

On the south Pacific slope, you could run into Fiery-billed Aracaris (above),and then watch their Caribbean slope counterparts Collared Aracari (below) on the other side of the mountains.

birding Costa Rica

If your desire to escape the heat is enough to forgo birding in the lowlands altogether, then head up into the subtropical zone where temperatures are a pleasant 70 something degrees. Higher still, you can watch the Talamancan endemics and pretend that its Autumn with 65 degree days and 50 degree nights.

birding Costa Rica

Regionally endemic Prong-billed Barbets are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica cloud forests.

birding Costa Rica

Volcano Hummingbirds are abundant in high elevation habitats.

Weather in the Central Valley is s bit like that of cloud forest but drier. For example, as I write this post, it’s about 78 degrees outside with moderate humidity. Yes, quite close to most people’s idea of “perfect”. Despite it being the rainy season, we are also getting beautiful, sunny weather so don’t think for a second that you can only visit during the dry season, or that Costa Rica is too hot any time of the year. The outdoors are pretty much like this year round with varying amounts of rain. Oh, and the birding is pretty good too! I’m hoping to get out this weekend to look for bellbirds or fruiting trees that may hold uncommon post-breeding frugivores. I might also head over to Cachi Lake and try for my long-awaited Masked Duck. Whatever I end up doing, the birding is guaranteed to be exciting.

Birding Costa Rica central valley middle elevations preparing for your trip

Tapanti National Park is always worth a visit when birding Costa Rica

With so many excellent possibilities to choose from when birding Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide upon an itinerary. “Classic” sites like Sarapiqui, Monteverde, the Dota Valley, and Carara tempt with easy access, good infrastructure, and mouth watering trip reports. The biologically hyperactive Osa Peninsula, tall forests of Tortuguero, and monkey rich Santa Rosa National Park beckon to birders looking for a wilderness experience. Adventurous birders and naturephiles will be impressed with the fantastic birding and high diversity at sites located off the radar such as Heliconias Lodge, Hitoy Cerere, and Manzanillo.

No matter where you decide to focus birding time and energy when visiting Costa Rica, make room in the schedule for Tapanti National Park. At least a day but two or three would be even better. My reasons for getting excited about birding Tapanti and surroundings are probably why most birding tour companies include a visit to the lush forests of this middle elevation site:

  1. There are few other places in Costa Rica where you have a fair chance at seeing the likes of: White-bellied      Mountain-Gem, Green-fronted Lancebill, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Scaled Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (good candidate for splitting from South American taxa), Black-banded Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Streaked Xenops, Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Lesser Elaenia, White-fronted Tyrannulet, Dark Pewee, Sharpbill, and White-winged Tanager.
  2. You also have a fair chance of seeing target species such as: Black Guan, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Violet Sabrewing, Green Thorntail, Red-headed Barbet, Prong-billed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Brown-capped Vireo, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, American Dipper, Azure-hooded Jay, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager,  Ochraceous Wren, and Elegant Euphonia.
  3. The park is easily accessible and there are various options for lodging within a twenty minute drive.
  4. Most of the birds can be seen along a wide, easily walked road through the park or along an easy, loop trail.
  5. Situated 2 kilometers from the park entrance, Kiri Lodge is a good place for lunch and has excellent bird feeding tables.

On a day trip to the park last weekend, my birder friend Susan and I didn’t come close to getting all of the above but we still had a great day of birding in beautiful surroundings. Here is a quick run-down of our day:

Susan picks me up in Santa Barbara de Heredia at 5 a.m. and off we go through the streets of the Central Valley on our way to Tapanti! Light traffic at dawn is a serious boon but twisting, winding roads and occasional lights and signs that tell us to stop make it an hour and a half drive. We both agree that we should have left at 4.

Scenery doesn’t become truly beckoning or beautiful until we decend into the Orosi Valley, take in huge draughts of fresh, country air, and listen to the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Clay-colored Robins, Black Phoebes, Brown Jays, Plain Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Yellow-faced Grasquits, and other birds that chip, sing, and call from surrounding coffee plantations.

Nearing the park, we stop at an inviting spot along the road with a brushy field on one side and a lush forest on the other.

birding Costa Rica

Hoping for migrants, I start up with the spishing as soon as I step out of the car and a few birds show up- three Chestnut-sided Warblers, two Wilsons Warblers, a couple of Tennessees, and one smart looking male Golden-winged Warbler. They are just as likely to have have arrived for the winter as they are migrants stopping for a “coffee break” on their way to more southerly haunts.

I was hoping that the brushy field would turn up a Lesser Elaenia or White-throated Flycatcher but Black Phoebe, Yellow-faced Grasquit, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat were the only birds that made an appearance. Nevertheless, it was a perfect place to just stand still, watch the sun begin to chase away the shadows, and listen to the dawn chorus. Birds in Costa Rica don’t sing as much during October but I still heard Bright-rumped Atilla, Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Brown Jays, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Immaculate Antbird, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush.

birding Costa Rica

This is the latter half of a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat.

We continue past non-birdy sun coffee and stop just outside the park entrance where forest finally greets us on both sides of the road. This area is always productive and Saturday was no exception with Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers trooping through the treetops, Black-faced Solitaire and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush popping into view, and Tawny-capped Euphonias feeding on a branch that hung over the road.

birding Costa Rica

At 8 a.m. (opening time for the park), we went to the park entrance and the friendly ranger urged us to check out their exhibit of road killed animals. I stress “road killed animals” as opposed to “road kill” because the animals were stuffed and on display as opposed to being shown in sad, squashed, and mangled positions (although they had some gruesome pictures of this too). In their hope to educate visitors about biodiversity in the area and the hazards local fauna face on the roads, they showed a Tapir

birding Costa Rica

a Puma,

birding Costa Rica

and an Ocelot!

birding Costa Rica

Cases of ridiculous looking insects were also on display.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Just outside the ranger station, we ran into a nice flock of birds and got close looks at Red-headed and Prong-billed Barbets, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Brown-capped Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-crowned, Rufous-capped, Black and White, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Elegant Euphonia, and more Common Bush Tanagers. Not with the flock but in the same area were Stripe-throated Hermit, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied Hummingbird.

I was also hearing Golden-bellied Flycatcher and Dark Pewee at this time but they stayed out of sight.

As we were on a mild-mannered mission to see antpittas, we drove up the road to the oddly named Oropendola Trail (because you don’t usually see them there) and crept down towards the river with the hopes that a Scaled Antpitta would bound into view. Just as we made a silent, ninja-like approach  to a suitable, wet-looking spot that looked like home for an antpitta, a park worker came happily bounding down the trail instead and foiled our plan. Ahh, but a trick was up our sleeve (actually in my backpack) and it came in the form of a Scaled Antpitta recording. I played the odd bubbling sound of this skulking king but despite our careful scanning of the undergrowth absolutely nothing was seen so we conceded defeat and moved on. The rest of the Oropendola Trail was quiet but we managed to pick up Slaty Antwren and got nice looks at Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant (it wasn’t nice enough to keep still for a photo).

Both feeling fit enough to scale the steep trail known as the “Arboles Caidos” (means “Fallen Trees” but should be called “Personas Caidos” (Fallen People) because of its gradient), we slowly walked up and into the old growth, crazily mossed cloud forests found along this trail. Our target here was the Ochre-breasted Antpitta. It has been seen on both trails at Tapanti but is espied more often on the Arboles Caidos. Lots of other good birds are also possible but the going sure is tough! Fortunately, you are more likely to see Black-banded Woodcreeper, antpittas, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush if you move along at a slow pace and do lots of sitting around and waiting (nearly required anyways if you haven’t been training for triathalons).

birding Costa Rica

A rough trail through the best of habitats.

I managed to get photos of Sooty-faced Finch but we saw few other birds (including of course the other antpitta) although I shouldn’t be surprised because in being there during the mid-morning, we were absurdly looking for birds at the quietest time of the day AND only spent an hour at most on the trail.

birding Costa Rica

Sooty-faced Finch- a regional endemic you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Back down to the car, we made our way to Kiri Lodge just outside of the park and ate fried chicken while watching the awesome action on their feeding table. Check my other post about that avian eye candy experience!

Still hoping for a hefty mixed flock, after lunch, we headed back into the park and stopped whenever we heard birds. A female Collared Trogon was turned up, more looks at Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush that were feeding with tiny Labidus sp. army ants, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and yes, we got a couple of mixed flocks.

The action was fast and furious (and who knows what was missed) but we got onto some good ones such as Streak-breasted Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Spotted Woodcreeper, Barred Becard, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and Streaked Xenops.

Not long after, it began to rain and we started the trek back up into the concrete, paucity of trees, and “civilization” of the Central Valley after a much needed breath of fresh air and birds at Tapanti National Park.

Bird list from our day trip on October 23rd, 2010

Black Vulturea few
Turkey Vulturea few
Osprey (they like to hang out at the Kiri Lodge trout ponds)2
Broad-winged Hawk1
American Kestrel (my first for the year!)1
Spotted Sandpiper1
Red-billed Pigeonseveral
Crimson-fronted Parakeet6
Brown-hooded Parrot4
Green Hermit4
Stripe-throated Hermit1
Purple-crowned Fairy1
White-bellied Mountain-Gemseveral
Black-bellied Hummingbirdseveral
Green-crowned Brilliant1
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird1
White-collared Swiftseveral
Red-headed Barbet4 inside the park, 2 at the Kiri tables
Prong-billed Barbet4 inside the park
Collared Trogon1
Smoky-brown Woodpecker1 heard
Wedge-billed Woodcreeperseveral
Spotted Woodcreeper1
Tawny-throated Leaftosser1 heard
Streak-breasted Treehunter1
Lineated Foliage-gleaner1
Spotted Barbtailseveral
Red-faced Spinetailseveral
Rufous-breasted Antthrush1 heard
Immaculate Antbird2 heard
Slaty Antwren2
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo1 heard
Golden-bellied Flycatcher2 heard
Boat-billed Flycatcher1 heard
Dark Pewee1 heard
Black Phoebe4
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrantseveral
Slaty-capped Flycatcher3
White-ruffed Manakina few Heard
Barred Becard1
Blue and white Swallowseveral
Black-faced Solitaireseveral
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushseveral
Swainsons Thrushseveral
Clay-colored Thrushseveral
Black and yellow Silky Flycatcherseveral
Brown-capped Vireo1
Brown Jay5
House Wren2
Ochraceous Wren3
Band-backed Wren1
White-breasted Wood Wren1 heard
Gray-breasted Wood Wrenseveral Heard
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat2
Rufous-capped Warbler6
Three-striped Warbler4
Golden-crowned Warblerseveral
Black and white Warbler4
Black-throated Green Warbler1
Tennesee Warbler4
Chestnut-sided Warblerseveral
Golden-winged Warbler1
Common Bush Tanagerseveral
Blue gray Tanager2
Palm Tanager2
Spangle-cheeked Tanagerseveral
Silver-throated Tanagerseveral
Golden-hooded Tanager1
Summer Tanager1
Sooty-faced Finch1
Chestnut-capped Brush Finch1 heard
Yellow-faced Grasquitseveral
Tawny-capped Euphoniaseveral
Golden-browed Chlorophoniaseveral
Elegant Euphonia4
Baltimore Oriole4
Black-cowled Oriole1
Melodious Blackbird2
Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

Cloud forest birding in Costa Rica: birds in the mist

In the wet lowlands, it’s always humid and the rain can arrive as a steady misting sprinkle or as (most often) as a sudden downpour with billions of huge drops that pound the zinc roofs with sodden fury. It’s so wet that if you don’t make an effort to dry out the clothes in your closet, your wardrobe will be supporting its very own ecosystem of molds and fungi (I once had mushrooms growing on my backpack in Amazonian Ecuador). If you visit the rainy, lower elevations of Costa Rica, especially on the Caribbean Slope where 6 meters per year can fall (that’s about 18 feet for us metric illiterate Americans), you can expect to get wet even with an umbrella or poncho but you probably won’t have to worry about fog.

For that, you have to head upslope into the cloud forest. Just as humid as the rainforests of the lowlands but with cooler temperatures, this is where the clouds that water the lowlands  like to hang out. With a blanket of thick moisture blocking the sun and providing a constant aerial mist that waters an amazing abundance of plants, living is this life zone is probably like residing in a rather cool, shaded greenhouse. It would be challenging to deal with the constant moisture but you could cultivate orchids instead of roses would also have a heck of an interesting yard list. At least this is how my birding friend Janet Peterson and I felt while birding the Varablanca area last week.

Inspired by Skutch’s accounts of studying Lovely Cotinga and Three-wattled Bellbirds in the same area, we searched for fruiting Lauraceae tree species that might attract these fancy, uncommon birds. Although we didn’t get lucky in finding a single fruiting Lauraceae, nor did we hear a single bellbird, it was still a beautiful day of birding in Costa Rica.

Deforestation since Skutch’s time equates to fewer bellbirds and cotingas but a lot more meadowlarks.

The views up there were stunning.

One of our best spots was at a site along the road between Poas and Varablanca not too far from the Poas Volcano Lodge. While the smells of home-cooked food and the usual sounds of rural Costa Rica (chickens clucking, roosters crowing, a dog or two barking, someone hammering, a bit of music) reached our ears from nearby houses, we watched a fair variety of cloud forest species in trees that grew out of a ravine next to the road. This meant that we could look straight into the canopy of these trees but because we were in the cloud forest life zone, we mostly watched birds through a shifting veil of mist.

Band-tailed Pigeons were common. We could hear them flapping their way around but they rarely landed within view. Maybe this one felt safe because it thought it was blending into its cloudy surroundings.

There were also a few Dark Pewees around.

Other birds were building nests nearby such as the Mountain Elaenia. This has to be one of the most common highland flycatchers. They thrive in edge habitats and sometimes seem to outnumber Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Our favorite sighting, though, was of a pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias that were building a nest in a bromeliad on a nearby tree. You almost always hear this little gem before you see it and when birding in dense forest often don’t see it at all. They make a soft, short whistled call that is easy to imitate and often brings them in close. Due to their cloud forest habitat, their brilliant emerald, powder blue, and bright yellow plumage often looks as muted as their call until the mist lifts and they suddenly shine like some incredible forest jewel.

A female in the mist.

And a male in the mist.

The male Chlorophonia trying to blend in with a bromeliad.

And then as the mist lifted a bit, the male’s colors became more bright.

Other birds in the vicinity were Wilson’s Warbler (a common winter resident of the highlands),

Slate-throated Redstart,

and Flame-colored Tanager.

Mountain Robins provided a background soundtrack throughout the morning. To me, they sound more like some type of yellowthroat than a thrush. Click the following link to listen to one that singing at the ravine:  mountainrobin1

Past the ravine, we ventured down the Cinchona road a bit. The road is good up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens but beyond that is officially closed because of the threat of landslides. Despite a large, obvious sign that warned of the danger, a number of cars and motorcycles just drove right on past on their way to the lowlands. I suspect that one could drive the road all the way to Sarapiqui, but why risk your life? Stick to birding the upper part like we did and you should see a good number of species in any case. Some of the other good birds we saw were:

Resplendent Quetzal- one heard and a female seen as it flew across the road near Carrizal,

Blue-throated (Emerald) Toucanet- several of these beautiful birds,

Prong-billed Barbet,

Green Violetear and Coppery-headed Emerald at flowering Inga species,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper,

Red-faced Spinetail,

Tufted Flycatcher,

and Spangle-cheeked Tanager,

Although we didn’t see any cotingas, I bet they are still up there somewhere. Hopefully I will figure out where the fruiting Lauraceae are on my next visit to the area.

Birding Costa Rica feeders Introduction

Costa Rica Feeder Birds

Feeders; what a great way to bring the birds to YOU, to see them up close from your nest instead of searching for theirs. Place that cornucopia of bird food strategically and you can watch the birds eat breakfast while you eat breakfast. When you get home from work, you can tune into the feeder instead of zoning out to the TV. Heck, it’s your home; if you feel like it, dress in tweed and pretend to be Sherlock Holmes, invite a friend to be Watson and solve bird ID quandaries; “No, you haven’t seen an Ivory-billed at the feeder; that is a Pileated my dear Watson” (you could also do this on field trips but unless it’s Halloween or you despise networking I wouldn’t advise it).

Watch your trusty feeder to get inspiration from Cardinals, Goldfinches, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, and Mourning Doves (yes this species CAN generate inspiration…although mostly when they get wacked by Cooper’s Hawks). I admit some feeders have a hard time at being inspirational; I know this from personal experience. I watched our family feeder as a kid in downtown Niagara Falls and to risk being called close-minded, it pretty much sucked. The few highlights at our feeder were rare visits by Downy Woodpecker and Song Sparrow. I wondered where all the Goldfinches, Grosbeaks, Redpolls and other cool birds were and eventually learned two main things from my first bird-feeder:

1.) That my backyard had an unholy affinity for Pigeons, Starlings and House Sparrows and 2.) I had to search for the “cool” birds elsewhere. I eventually found those “cool” birds and ended up in a country with a huge variety of very cool birds; Costa Rica. Here, I never have to be concerned about a trio of invasives being the only stars in the backyard bird show. Exotic bird families show up and species differ by location, elevation and feeder food offered. For the most part, fruit is used instead of seeds; papayas, ripe plantains and bananas. In fact, with feeders in Costa Rica, you almost want to go out there and feed with the birds. Birds like….

that most versatile of flycatchers, the Great Kiskadee.

These guys will eat just about anything and are far from shy; kind of like the “Blue Jay” of Costa Rican feeder birds. This one is choking down a lizard.

Blue Gray Tanagers are standard. Locals called them “Viudas” which means “Widows”. This is a true Tico entymological mystery because Tica widows don’t wear blue. One would have expected Groove-billed Anis to have this monniker but they are called “Tijos” after their call.

Instead of House Sparrows (which seem to be restricted to gas stations and MacDonalds, go figure), we’ve got Rufous-collared Sparrows. This one was at one of the only seed feeders I have seen in Costa Rica; at the Noche Buena restaurant high up on Irazu Volcano.

The common backyard finch in much of Costa Rica is the Grayish Saltator. Their finchy song can be heard all over town but they can be kind of skulky.

Clay-colored Robins, the national bird of Costa Rica are faithful feeder visitors.

Summer Tanager shows up at fruit feeders all over Costa Rica. This species has to be one of the most common wintering birds.

Another very common wintering species that loves the fruit is Baltimore Oriole.

One of the only warblers that will visit a fruit feeder is the Tennessee Warbler.

In the Caribbean lowlands, the resident oriole species is the Black-cowled. It also takes advantage of fruit feeders.

As do striking Passerini’s Tanagers

Feeders near cloud forest attract some seriously mind blowing birds. Some of the best feeders were located in Cinchona; a town tragically destroyed by the January 8, 2009 earthquake. The following images of some downright clownlike birds were taken there.

Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet,

Red-headed Barbet – check out the blue cheeks on this female

Prong-billed Barbet

Silver-throated Tanager

And Crimson-collared Tanager

The hummingbird feeders in Costa Rica are also  fantastic; so fantastic though, that I think they merit their own, separate post.

Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Day trip to Virgen del Socorro

This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.

Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.

Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia.  The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.

After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.

White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the  turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.

The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.

And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.

Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.

At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and

watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.

We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!

Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.

We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.

After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!

After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.

This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.

And this is the male.

Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.

Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.

and Baltimore Oioles are back.

See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.

Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with

Purple-throated Mountain Gem

and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.

Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.