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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Good Mixed Flocks during Recent Birding at Quebrada Gonzalez

The trails at Quebrada Gonzalez march through beautiful primary rainforests. It’s quality habitat for sure but that doesn’t make it easy to see birds. In fact, the sky high canopy and dense riot of foliage make the birding pretty darn challenging. Nevertheless, if it weren’t for the quality of the forest, Quebrada Gonzalez wouldn’t offer the chance of seeing birds like Tiny Hawk, all three hawk-eagles, Barred Forest-Falcon, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Black-crowned Antpitta, and a colorful host of tanagers.

I wish I could say that I saw all of these birds on every visit but the quirks of birding in tropical forest make that an impossibility. I bet I would have a fair chance of seeing all of the above and much more during a week of intensive birding (and I would love to try just that), but even one morning is bound to turn up species that are tough to see elsewhere in Costa Rica. For example, here is a run down of what the birding was like during a recent morning of guiding in the wet, foothill forests of Quebrada Gonzalez:

Arrived at 6 a.m. to meet with clients. Went on in to OK our early visit with the rangers (you must contact them in advance to enter before 8). A quick check around the parking lot turned up close looks at Dusky-faced Tanagers. Scanned the forest canopy and distant trees but nothing perched up on them today (Tiny Hawk can sometimes be found this way). A fair amount of birdsong though- Carmiol’s Tanagers, Bay and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, Buff-rumped Warbler, Striped Woodhaunter, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Orange-billed Sparrow to name those that I recall.

We entered the forest but despite carefully watching and listening, saw rather few birds at first. At least we got the chance to watch more Dusky-faced Tanagers, Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers, Orange-billed Sparrow, and a cooperative Spectacled Antpitta! I heard at least 3 different Spectacled Antpittas over the course of the morning and this one popped into view because I whistled like one where we good view into the undergrowth. Always a good bird to see, and especially so for the clients because the antpittas at Carara had refused to show themselves.

Further on, we came across activity in the canopy that eventually turned into a full fledged mixed flock! It was just as I had hoped, and especially so when White-throated Shrike-Tanager began to call and then perched for prolonged views. We were kept busy for more than an hour as tanagers and other small birds flitted through the tall canopy. Views were tough but we managed to glimpse a good number of species. The one that we didn’t see, however, caused us some painful frustration. This anguishing heard only bird was a Sharpbill that just wouldn’t reveal itself despite singing on three occasions. The experience mirrors other encounters I have had with this weird species at Quebrada Gonzalez and thus makes me suspect that the bird (or birds) keep still as they sing from some hidden perch way high up in the canopy.

So, no Sharpbill seen, but we still had a pretty good tally for the flock:

Striped Woodhaunter

Plain Xenops

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Spotted Woodcreeper

Russet Antshrike

Rufous Mourner

Paltry Tyrannulet

Yellow-margined Flycatcher

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Lesser Greenlet

Red-eyed Vireo

Canada Warbler

Tropical Parula


Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager

Carmiol’s Tanager

Tawny-crested Tanager

White-throated Shrike-Tanager

White-shouldered Tanager

Speckled Tanager

Emerald Tanager

Silver-throated Tanager

Black and yellow Tanager

Blue and gold Tanager

Bay-headed Tanager

Rufous-winged Tanager

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis

Green Honeycreeper

Tawny-capped Euponia

White-vented Euphonia

Black-faced Grosbeak

Thirty-two species (if counting the Sharpbill) and I am sure that we missed a few birds! While we were scanning the vaulted roof of the forest to identify the birds in the flock, we also had a separate, understory mixed flock move through the area that included Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Checker-throated Antwren, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Other bird species identified (most by their vocalizations) during the flock activity and shortly thereafter were:

Great Tinamou

Lattice-tailed Trogon

Black-throated Trogon

Rufous Motmot

Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner

Green Shrike Vireo

White-ruffed Manakin

Scarlet-rumped Cacique

Brown-hooded Parrot

Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

White-necked Jacobin

Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Dull-mantled Antbird

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Gray-rumped and Chimney Swifts

Short-billed Pigeom

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove

American Swallow-tailed Kite

We exited the forest by 9:30 a.m. and by then, things were typically quiet. Scanning the skies for around 15 minutes revealed a few swifts, brief American Swallow-tailed Kite, and high-flying Black Vultures, but no hoped for King or Black Hawk-Eagle. We probably would have gotten more raptors if we had looked for an hour or so but since we only had until 11, we did the trail once more to improve our chances of running into Sharpbill, Yellow-eared Toucanet, or some other rarity. Our mid-morning walk turned up a blank on those and other birds but at least we gave it a try!

Soon after, we parted ways and the rain began to fall. As I crossed the bridge over the Rio Sucio, I noticed my last bird for the day- a Bat Falcon perched high up on a snag overlooking the river. I wished I could have stayed there and watched the forested hillsides like that falcon was doing, but it was time to go back home on the other side of the mountains.

Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction preparing for your trip

Updates on birding at the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station, Costa Rica

I had the fortune of birding Quebrada Gonzalez for two consecutive Saturdays after a three or four month hiatus.

birding Costa Rica

The entrance to Quebrada Gonzalez.

It was good to be back, especially so because it wasn’t pouring down monstrous sheets of rain. Yes, the area does get its fair share of precipitation. The heavy load of epiphytes and moss growing on everything from metal railings to understory leaves hints at the 6 or meters (18 feet) of rain that soaks the area on an annual basis. What’s even crazier is that locals claim that the northern Caribbean lowlands and foothills used to be deluged with even more falling water in the past.

Therefore, I always appreciate sunny weather at Quebrada Gonzalez despite the fact that it tends to make the forest quieter than the steps of a dormouse ninja.  While I relish the fact that my  umbrella (a poncho is too hot) can remain rolled up and tucked out of sight in my day pack, I wonder why the darn birds can’t also enjoy the absence of rain by becoming more active. Maybe they’re sun bathing up in the canopy? Whatever the antbirds, tanagers, toucans, and trogons are up to, they sure don’t shake the foliage and sing to their hearts content like they do on cloudy days.

So things were pretty quiet on Saturday but as with every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez, we still saw birds, including several species that are tough to see elsewhere in Costa Rica. One of our best sightings was Dull-mantled Antbird. This ravine-inhabiting, understory bird is regular at Quebrada (and at most Caribbean slope foothill sites) but it’s always a pleasure to watch them sing and show off the white patch on their backs.

Where we saw the Dull-mantled Antbirds.

Other bird species from the morning included a Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher flitting around the undergrowth, Emerald and Black and Yellow Tanagers feeding on berries in the subcanopy, and Buff-rumped Warblers hanging out on the trails.

Buff-rumped Warbler birding Costa Rica

A blurry, Buff-rumped Warbler that was foraging in the parking lot on different, rainy day.

With the hope that the sunny weather would encourage raptors such as Barred Hawk and hawk-eagles to show themselves, we made our way back to the parking lot by 10 am.

Where we watched the skies for raptors.

It took awhile for anything to show itself but eventually we were rewarded with 2 King Vultures. We also saw the other two commonly occurring vultures but no other raptors whatsoever! This was rather surprising to me because I usually see one or two other species of soaring raptor from the parking lot on every visit. Did they take to the air earlier than expected? Were they pretending to be antbirds? We will never know but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that one of our group was hoping to see his first hawk-eagle. No doubt, all three hawk-eagles showed up on Sunday or as soon as we left the area.

Still hoping for soaring raptors, we took the trail on the other side of the road to an overlook with a broad view of a forested ridge. We watched and watched and heard some Dusky-faced Tanagers in the nearby undergrowth and scoped a nearby Broad-billed Motmot but saw nary a vulture! Out on a river island, however, we noticed over 100 Band-tailed Pigeons hanging out in the crowns of a few trees!

birding Costa Rica

The gray things are distant Band-tailed Pigeons.

I have seen these elevational migrants on several occasions at Quebrada Gonzalez but never at this time of year and never in such large numbers. This sort of unpredictable occurrence is one of the reasons why I always love birding at this site- no matter how often I visit, I never really know what I am going to see. There are several species that I encounter on a regular basis but the vagaries of fruiting trees and other not so obvious factors that influence bird distribution in tropical forests always keeps me wondering what will turn up as I walk down the trail.

The trail of surprises.

The solitaires and White-crowned Manakins of the previous week had mostly returned upslope to their usual middle elevation haunts but we still managed to get looks at one female White-crowned Manakin. Hyperactivity on the manakin’s part conspired with vines and leaves to keep us from getting a clear look at her head (and thus identifying her) but perseverance eventually paid off with prolonged views of two diagnostic field marks- a mostly gray noggin and reddish eyes.

Around this time, the vocalizations of one or two Bicolored Antbirds had nearly convinced me that an antswarm was in the works but neither ants nor antbirds showed themselves. However, at least some of us got looks at a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush and Pale-vented Thrush before we headed back to the parking area for lunch.

short billed pigeon birding costa rica

We watched the antics of these three Short-billed Pigeons during lunch.

In the afternoon, back into the forest we went and a mere ten minutes later I heard the telltale signs of a mixed flock as  a White-throated Shrike-Tanager called. We barely had time to prepare ourselves before we were overrun by a horde of small birds that flitted, crept, and hopped through the surrounding vegetation. As is typical of mixed flocks at Quebrada, Olive (now Carmiol’s) Tanagers were the most abundant member of the flock and their chunky, green forms manifested again and again in our binoculars. Other birds showed up too including Emerald Tanagers, Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, Russet Antshrike, a sneaky Plain Xenops that refused to give an encore, Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and the flock leader, a nice oriole-like White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

Aside from a beautiful, male White-ruffed Manakin that briefly displayed on a mossy log, that mixed flock was our last hurrah for birding on Saturday before the rains came back to push us out of the forest.

Back out in the parking lot, I met the new manager of the station, Rodolfo Tenorio. Jovial, upbeat, and friendly, Rodolfo seemed eager to support birding at the site. We will probably set up a sightings log so visiting birders will know where Bare-necked Umbrellabirds have been seen, where antswarms have terrorized communities of arthropods, or where the Tiny Hawk has been perching. He also wanted me to get the word out about rules for visiting the place before 8am:

Although the station doesn’t officially open until 8am, birders can enter as early as they want as long as they let him know in advance. He asks to be contacted at rtenorio45@hotmail.com or and can also be reached at 8823-7678.

Since he can’t check his email on a daily basis, make sure to email him at least a week before your visit to tell Rodolfo the date and time of your visit.

This is excellent news because it leaves open the possibility of looking for owls at the station-something I will certainly be doing sometime soon!