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The Birding in Costa Rica goes from Good to Exceptional When You see a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo!

The Neomorphus cuckoos are some of the toughest birds to see in the neotropics. Unlike their more northerly, arid-zone cousins, the roudrunners, these are secretive birds of dense rainforests and like many other birds that inhabit that exciting habitat, they are naturally rare. In other words, they have low density populations where pairs and/or individuals roam over presumably large areas of forest.

Using words like “supposed” and “presumably” is necessary when talking about Neomorphus species because we know so little about them. None of the species are what you would call common and even though we know they like to hang out with antswarms and follow herds of White-lipped Peccaries to catch the understory morsels stirred up by their activities, precious little is truly known about these mysterious rainforest roadrunners. In terms of their place on the food chain and frequency of encountering them, it’s not too far off target to say that they are apex avian understory predators (at least when it comes to lizards and large bugs).

To give an idea of how infrequent these birds are, I saw the tail of one once at the back part of the Las Palmas trail in Quebrada Gonzalez more than 10 years ago. I only saw a tail but there is nothing else with a long, rufous-greenish tail in the rainforest understory so I know that I had seen one of those big, rare, forest cuckoos. Nevertheless, I couldn’t cheat myself out of a  much better, count-worthy sighting so it stayed off the list. I should also mention that the view of that tail is the closest I came to a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo despite multiple visits to Las Heliconias and Quebrada Gonzalez, and several visits to the Amazon (including a year of near constant birding in Tambopata, Peru), until last Saturday.

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What ground-cuckoo habitat looks like.

Yes, last Saturday, while guiding two very fortunate birders, we saw the ground-cuckoo. No, we hit the jackpot with the ground-cuckoo because this was no tail nor glimpse of a tawny crest but a prolonged sighting of one that stared at us from the forest understory, popped out onto the trail for a better look, and didn’t saunter away until we got soul satisfying views.

No kidding.

Others had told me that ground-cuckoos can appear to be fearless or even curious and it certainly seemed like this bird had its curiousity piqued. I had heard Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds as we hung out deep in the forest at the back part of the Las Palmas loop and were trying to coax those birds into view when one of my clients said something along the lines of, “Hey, what is that”? I heard two distinctive clacks immediately after and realized that she must have seen a ground-cuckoo! Excitedly, I looked back into the forest and could see the head of the beast as it raised and lowered its crest! I couldn’t get the other client on the bird fast enough before it disappeared from view but I said that we might as well wait and see if it shows up again. Hopefully, the supposed antswarm back there will make it towards us and we should see it.

The antswarm must have been headed in the opposite direction because nary an Eciton showed its voracious face. Fortunately for us, that didn’t matter because the ground-cuckoo appeared as if by magic off to the right and closer! It looked at us as it quietly clacked its bill and we watched it in turn as we talked about the dark green on its wings with hushed excitement. It quickly walked to the right and one of the clients said, “It’s coming out onto the trail”!

It did, perched on a mossy stone, and here it is:

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A blurry but identifiable photo of my official lifer Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

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A picture with the dim-light setting on my camera.

It lingered for about a minute and we soaked up the views like lizards sitting in the sun after an Ice Age. It eventually walked off to the right and then crossed back over to the left side of the trail. In a strange case of birding deja vu, it actually left the path in the exact same spot where I saw that tail in 2001!

We also saw Streak-crowned Antvireo, Checker-throated Antwren, Emerald Tanager, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and had our fill of Snowcaps over at El Tapir but the ground-cuckoo, of course, took the cake on that fateful day. I’m headed back tomorrow with a friend. The ground-cuckoo is one of his top four Costa Rican target birds and we had already planned on going there to maybe chance across it along with some other choice species. I haven’t told him yet about Saturday’s sighting. I hope I can surprise him.

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It’s hard not to also include an image of one of the Snowcaps we saw.

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Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).