Gone Birding

We have been busy birding all over Panamá for the last 2 weeks and have had very little time to share our stories on our blog but we are posting quick updates on our Facebook page. You can still see our updates on Facebook even if you do not have an account just click here.

We are headed into Darien National Park tomorrow to look for all sorts of amazing birds including Harpy Eagle, Crested Eagle, Gray and Gold Tanager, Dusky-backed Jacamar, Pirre Hummingbird, Pirre Warbler, Pirre Chlorspingus and so much more. We will post an update when we return.

Happy Birding!

Josh scanning for the Turquoise Cotinga at Los Cosingos

Josh scanning for the Turquoise Cotinga at Los Cosingos

San Vito and around (Finca Cántaros, Las Alturas, and Las Cruces/Wilson Botanical Garden)

11 – 13 June 2014

To finish out our tour of Costa Rica we needed to check out some of the birding spots on the southern Pacific slope. We headed straight to the sleepy town of San Vito, picked up some supplies and headed toward Finca Cántaros, a small private reserve between San Vito and Las Cruces that makes a great place to camp. Finca Cántaros has a great garden with tons of Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and more buzzing through the garden. The trail system there is short but it’s worth an hour or two to enjoy the garden and it’s certainly worth visiting the pond a few times to check for Masked Duck. We heard that Finca Cántaros is a great place to see Masked Duck in the dry season. Since we were there in the beginning of the wet season we struck out, but we had a nice list of birds (eBird list).

A view of San Vito taken from Finca Cántaros

A view of San Vito taken from Finca Cántaros

The facilities at Finca Cántaros are really nice and we had the place to ourselves (although there is really only room for one vehicle). We made the Finca our home base and explored the wetlands just outside of San Vito to search of the Masked Yellowthroat as well as check out the Las Cruces Biological Station, the Wilson Botanical Garden, and Las Alturas. Looking for the Masked Yellowthroat took us some time, mainly because we could not figure out how to access the wetland where the Yellowthroat is usually seen. The access described in the bird finding guide is a little outdated and we could not access the marsh as described in the book. We made our way around the wetland looking for access points and failed to turn up any good access points or the yellowthroat. Thankfully we headed up a residential road on the east side of the wetland and found some folks to ask about access to the wetland and they pointed us to someone who would let us walk through their yard to access the wetland. We were happily granted access to the wetland and headed down to the water. We scanned the wetland for yellowthroats but found none and even tried playback but to no avail. After about a half hour of scanning Josh turned up a distant Masked Yellowthroat.  We only found this one male and didn’t get the looks or the recordings we wanted, but at least we were able to find one. Whether this is truly a Masked Yellowthroat is certainly open to debate. Apparently some studies have found it more closely linked to Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, and we subsequently heard that it certainly doesn’t respond to playback of Masked Yellowthroat from South America. It looks like it probably is a distinct species, and some guidebooks have already given it species status, calling it the Chiriqui Yellowthroat. At the wetlands we also heard a Striped Cuckoo calling and the owners of the property said the wetland is a reliable place to find them. To access the wetland, take the highway (613) that heads east out of San Vito towards the airport. Shortly after the airport you will see a wetland on the left side of the road. Take the first road on the left after the wetland (8.825517, -82.950348). The road heads up to a small residential community. Stop at the second house on the left side of the road (8.826387, -82.950011) and ask permission to access the wetland. They have had birders visit their house before so they are accustomed to requests. They did not charge us to visit the wetland, but we left them a small tip. Next on our checklist was the Costa Rican Brush-Finch which is frequently found at the Las Cruces Biological Station and Wilson Botanical Garden. As is our routine, we stopped by the station the afternoon before we wanted to visit and asked if we could get in early to look for birds. No problem they said, so we paid our entry fee and headed back to camp to cook dinner. We hit the trails early the next morning. Our first stop along the trails was the observation tower where we scanned for Turquoise Cotinga (apparently hasn’t been seen there in a few years) and Bicolored Hawk (which does make appearances in the forest patch below from time to time). No luck for us that morning so we continued along the Rio Java trail that heads through older forest to look for the Costa Rican Brush-Finch. The morning was passing quickly, but no Brush-Finch; we were starting to get worried when we heard faint chattering on the ground. We scanned the forest floor and found two Orange-billed Sparrows at first, but then also two Costa Rican Brush-Finches. We tried to record the Brush-Finches but the cicadas started calling and soon the sound was overwhelming and maddening. We waited around the area for a bit for the cicadas to die down, but being quiet was not what they had on their morning agenda. Drat, we missed recording the Costa Rican Brush-Finch and never managed to turn up another one. Later down the trail we came across an excellent mixed-species flock with Russet Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Red-faced Spinetail, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and more (eBird list). Along the trail we also found a perched Charming Hummingbird singing his heart our and were able to make excellent recordings. Hummingbirds can be hard to record, so any day with an opportunity to record a hummingbird is a good day. While in the San Vito area we decided to check out Las Alturas, which is described in good detail in the Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica.

View of the forest at Las Alturas

View of the forest at Las Alturas

The species list for Las Alturas in the Bird Finding Guide is mouth-watering… Turquoise Cotinga, Bicolored Hawk, Black-and-White Hawk Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Three-wattled Bellbird, White-crested Coquette, and so many more. We headed up to Las Alturas early in the morning birding along the road as we went. Las Alturas is a private working ranch where approximately 80 families live in sort of a private community. However, much of the forest surrounding the ranch is protected and a large portion is being reforested. The birding at Las Alturas is along the roads that crisscross the ranch, but there is never any traffic and the birding is really great! We saw 104 species in what was honestly a fairly casual birding day, including some real gems; Three-wattled Bellbird, Olivaceous Piculet, Bicolored Antbird (at an ant swarm), Speckled Tanager, Black-faced Antthrush, Ruddy Woodcreeper, and more (eBird list). We also stumbled across what most likely were a pair of Black-tailed Flycatchers. We heard a soft call that was similar to the Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher in a scrubby thicket in a riparian area. There were apparently two Myiobius flycatchers in the thicket calling, and they soon gave something of a soft song that matches very well a recording that Rich Hoyer made in Brazil of Black-tailed Flycatcher (if that is even the same species there?). Here is a link to Rich’s recording of the odd little soft song –  http://www.xeno-canto.org/5479. We did not get great looks at either bird, but the combination of the habitat and the vocalizations lead us to believe they were much more likely Black-tailed Flycatcher. We didn’t see any of the mouth-watering raptors but we had a great day of birding and would certainly recommend Las Alturas, we would happily return, the birding is excellent and there are some really excellent rarities possible.

Funny sign at Las Alturas

Funny sign at Las Alturas

Buenas Aires Grasslands and the hunt for the Ocellated Crake and White-tailed Nightjar

10 June 2014 and 24 June 2014

The Ocellated Crake is another one of what we have taken to calling unicorn birds … people say they exist but no one ever sees them. That could not be a more apt description of the Ocellated Crake; they are, quite literally, nearly impossible to see. Imagine trying to find a small (6”), secretive, miniature chicken like bird in towering thickets of grass. While other crake species can be frustrating to see they will often times step out into the open only if for a brief moment, crossing a bit of open ground or wandering onto a mud flat. This appears to not be the case with the Ocellated Crake, as they stay hidden in the clumps of grass and basically will not let themselves be seen by mere mortals.

In Costa Rica, Ocellated Crakes were recently documented for the first time since 1976 when one dead individual was found. In 2012, Carlos Ureña, Jose Acuña, Warner Venegas, and Noel Areñawent to great lengths to document the existence of the Ocellated Crake in Costa Rica. They spent hours and days trying to catch a glimpse of the bird and with shear persistence Noel Areña managed to photograph and take a video of an Ocellated Crake (Read the full story here). Quite an accomplishment!

When we arrived in Alto Salitre grasslands above Buenas Aires we tried playback at the first good looking spot and to our surprise we immediately got responses from all over the place out in the grass! They are here, they are here, Ocellated Crakes everywhere! We stepped off the side of the road into the grasslands, tried to pick a good spot with thick grass that we could still see into a little bit, and pressed play again and instantly were surrounded by the calls of Ocellated Crake. We spent a good bit of time trying to see them, with crakes on all sides and apparently moving around us in circles but, of course, never coming into view. We tried several different spots throughout the grasslands on two different days but never laid eyes on a crake. For me, I am just happy to know that they are there sulking around the grasslands, and we did not want to abuse playback or harass them overly.

We also were in the area to look for White-tailed Nightjar, another fairly widely distributed species that isn’t too easy to see, though certainly nothing near the difficulty of Ocellated Crake. Our first afternoon in the grasslands we had great weather while we were not seeing crakes, but just as dusk settled in it started to rain. We tried in vain to look for nightjars, turning up only a fairly wet and put-out looking Common Pauraque. Our second visit to the grasslands, we got rained out earlier in the afternoon but it cleared wonderfully an hour or two after dark so we headed back out. Once in the good grassland habitat (White-tailed Nightjar seems to be a savannah bird) we started spotlighting and driving slowly and soon turned up eyeshine. A quick glance through the bins showed a nightjar in the road that didn’t appear to be a Common Pauraque. We hopped out of the truck and soon had great looks at a White-tailed Nightjar calmly sitting in the middle of the road. Unfortunately by the time I got the camera ready it had decided that the lights were a bit annoying and moved on. We continued up the road, soon turning up a Common Potoo on a roadside fencepost. Shortly after this, the weather started to deteriorate. We kept at it a bit as the fog moved in and it started to drizzle but it was soon a lost cause and we retreated, again, having seen the bird very well but unfortunately having missed photos and having missed a real chance at the Rufous Nightjars that are also, at least seasonally, in the area.

In addition to our target birds, this is a great place to turn up a Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Lesser Elaenia, and more (eBird list).

Antpitta quest – Tapanti National Park and Reserva El Copal

29 May – 1 June 2014

Tapanti National Park is situated in the Orosi Valley, not far from San Jose. The drive to Tapanti takes you through small towns and “shade” coffee plantations. I say shade in quotes because many of the plantations were shaded with non-native eucalyptus, a species of tree that provides little value to birds. To me it seems shameful that this type of coffee can be sold as shade grown. The coffee plantations melt away in your rearview mirror as you enter a side valley surrounded by the steep beautifully forested hillsides of Tapanti National Park.

Tapanti protects 144,000 acres of mid- and upper-elevation forest in the Talamanca Range, and the area is connected to other national parks and forests all the way to the Panama border, perhaps the largest remaining forest in Central America. With so much forest all around nearly anything is possible here, which makes for some very exciting birding.

Tapanti is a known location to find two species of Antpittas (Scaled and Ochre-breasted). With this in mind, I could hardly wait to get out on the trails and hope that we might encounter one hopping about in the pre-dawn light. It’s no secret … I love Antpittas! How could you not love a little ball of feathers that hops around on the forest floor? Aside from being, well, just cute, Antpittas also have some very interesting behaviors. Thicket, Streak-chested, and some other Antpittas fill their bellies with air and their bellies bounce like a bowl full of jelly when they sing. Ochre-breasted Antpittas, however, are a little different from their cousins and instead of spending all of their lives hopping on the forest floor, they are frequently encountered off the ground flying between low perches. Ochre-breasted Antpittas also have a habit of slowly and gently swaying their bodies back and forth. It is almost like they are doing the twist.

Having made arrangements the prior afternoon for an early entry, the first morning we started out on the Oropendola trail at sunrise and crept slowly through the dark forest understory hoping to get lucky with a Scaled Antpitta foraging in the path. We walked the loop twice and excitedly grabbed our binoculars for many Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrushes hopping in the trail, but had no luck with Scaled Antpitta. Despite ranging from southern Mexico to central Bolivia, Scaled is one of the more difficult Antpittas to see, never being terribly common and as well almost never vocalizing. We have had very fleeting looks at disappearing Scaled Antpittas three times now but have yet to actually see the bird. Despite a pitta-less morning we encountered some great mixed-species flocks both along the Oropendola trail and along the road. Highlights from our first morning included Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Green Thorntail, Spotted Barbtail, Dark Pewee, Red-headed Barbet, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Mountain-Gem, and more (eBird list).

Tapanti is also a great location to see Black-bellied Hummingbird, which we encountered in a bunch of flowering trees along the Oropendola trail and is fairly common throughout the park. We also had a pretty good day of raptors and spotted Barred Hawk, Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-tailed Hawk, and a very distant Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

We again made arrangements for an early entrance and arrived at 5:00 am expecting the gates to be open. Unfortunately the ranger we had spoken with apparently forgot to relay the message. We did not get into the park until 5:30 and were a bit anxious because we were missing the best pitta hours. As soon as the gate opened we quickly headed to the Sendero Arboles Caidos (Fallen Trees trail) to search for more Antpittas and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes who like steep mid-elevation hillsides and are known to hang out on this trail. We started up the steep trail and, not surprisingly, it was fairly quiet in thick primary forest on a steep hillside in the dark. We didn’t get any birds in the path, but soon enough Josh heard what he thought was the call of an Ochre-breasted Antpitta! The call is very similar to the far, far more common Paltry Tyrannulet but this sounded pretty good. I was ecstatic! Ochre-brested Antipitta! Yahoo! We briefly played the call of the Antpitta and got a quick response. Within just a minute or two an Ochre-breasted Antpitta was spotted flitting around in the understory. It perched briefly and started swaying side to side while we tried to record and take photos of the half-pint sized pitta doing the twist. Seeing the Ochre-breasted Antpitta was just plain awesome! I wish we could have taken some videos but hand holding a 400 mm lens is pretty challenging and the light was still very dim inside the forest.

After we recovered from our excitement we continued up the steep and slippery trail. We had not gone more than another 200 meters when we heard another Ochre-breasted Antpitta, this time much closer! I started looking in the direction of the sound and instantly found an Ochre-breasted Antpitta with a piece of fern in its mouth less than 5 m from me. Even with the fern in her mouth it was twisting side to side and calling. Soon we heard another Ochre-breasted Antpitta calling from just across the trail. I tried to follow the Antpitta to the nest site but lost it along the way. Either way, it was exciting to encounter a pair and awesome to know that they are nesting nearby. Josh got some amazing photos … simply amazing!

Ochre-breasted Antpitta

Ochre-breasted Antpitta

Later on down the trail we heard a Rufous-breasted Antthrush and with patience found it strutting its fairly chicken-like stuff across the forest floor. The Antthrush eluded the photographer, but we still got great looks. Near the top of the trail we encountered an excellent mixed-species flock that was unfortunately uphill and doing a good job of staying obscured, but we did pull out a pair of Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaners, a rather rare species in Costa Rica. What an amazing day! Not one, not two, but THREE Ochre-breasted Antipittas, a Rufous-breasted Antthrush, AND a pair of Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaners. Tapanti is a spectacular birding destination and should not be missed. A bit higher up the canyon, near the waterfall, are some excellent vantage points and we had great looks at swifts, including Chestnut-collared and White-collared, though there is probably a great chance for White-chinned or Spot-fronted here and swifts at eye-level should always be studied closely! Check out our eBird list to see what other species we saw (eBird list).

Directions for Tapanti are described in the Costa Rican bird finding guide and Tapanti is easily birded with a 2-wheel drive car. If you are looking to bird Tapanti on the cheap and get into the park before it opens at 8 am, we recommend staying at Finca Los Maestros (9.76727, -83.78986) only 800 meters or so from the park entrance. Look for a small sign on the left side of the road that goes up a steep drive just after a turn in the road before the park entrance. Finca Los Maestros rents out a few basic rooms with cold water showers and also allows camping (1500 Colones/US $3 per person). They also have a small restaurant (soda) and a trout farm if you are looking for food. The owners are incredibly friendly and this is a great place if you aren’t looking for luxury. To gain access to the park before it opens, stop by the park entrance the day before and ask permission to bird the trails at sunrise. Permission was freely given for us to enter at 5 am two days in a row, but be sure to arrive before 4 pm, when the park closes, to ask permission.

The next to last Caribbean slope birding destination for us was Reserva El Copal. We head read about El Copal in the bird finding guide and several people recommended that we visit El Copal. We could hardly wait to get there. It sounded so amazing and indeed it was absolutely amazing! El Copal is located on the Caribbean slope east of Tapanti National Park. The area was originally purchased by a group of people from the small community, Humo, who were interested in farming the land. However, after they purchased the land they realized that the land was much too steep and not at all suitable for farming so they decided to preserve the land and create a small-scale ecotourism business. El Copal has very comfortable rooms with hot showers, electricity¸ internet, and is set amongst some of the best mid-elevation Caribbean slope forest Costa Rica has to offer. The lodge is basic but comfortable and the food is some of the best we had in all of Costa Rica. Patricia and Don Beto are super friendly and you get the feeling of family when they sit down to eat every meal with you.

Still on the hunt for a reasonable look at Scaled Antpitta we woke up at 4:00 am to be out on the trails before sunrise, when Antpittas can, with luck, be seen hopping on the trails. The trails at El Copal are a bit wider and are well maintained, but with still a bit of vegetation here and there in the trail and lots of leaf litter, making for great visibility and a real chance for seeing a rare bird in the path. The dawn chorus was a cacophony of sounds, making it difficult to discern who was who as we snuck around trail corners, peering up the dim trail. The early morning quickly faded to late morning and no pittas crossed our path but we had absolutely amazing mixed-species flocks all morning long (and lots of rain all afternoon). The mixed-species flocks at El Copal are pretty good and the hold the possibility of seeing many rare birds including Gray-headed Piprites, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Sharpbill and more. To give an idea of the potential, Beto has even seen Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at an antswarm. The first day we had three fantastic flocks with Speckled Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Bay-headed Tanager, and Black-and-Yellow Tanager foraging in the trees above (eBird list). After lunch the rain started pouring down so we caught up on some much needed sleep and headed out the next morning pre-dawn to once again search for Antpittas. Another pitta-less morning passed us by but the mixed-species flocks were even better than the day before. Along the Mariposa trail we had a giant mixed-species flock and heard the sharp rising song of the Sharpbill high in the canopy. We craned our necks scanning everything that moved for the Sharpbill but could not pull it out of the flock and then the flock was gone. We tried again after lunch to see if the flock would come back, but no luck with the Sharpbill. We did, however, find Tawny-chested Flycatcher, all of the expected Tanagers, Russet Antshrike, Slaty Antwren, Plain Antvireo, Olive-striped Flycatcher, and our best looks yet at a Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Along the loop trail we also came across Ocellated Antbird, Dull-mantled Antbird, tons of Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants, White-throated Spadebill, and more (eBird list).

Our time at El Copal felt cut short because of the afternoon rains, but in the end we had 100 species without birding the garden or scrubby edges, and thoroughly enjoyed our time both in the lodge and in the forest!

El Copal, although not entirely off-the-beaten track, is a little less known and a little harder to get to. 4WD isn’t necessary unless it has rained a huge amount, and high clearance isn’t necessary, but it is a good ways on dirt roads and there are a couple of steep bits. This is absolutely some of the best birding on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica and definitely warrants a visit. The modest prices, comfy accommodation, terrific food and really nice trails make it very worth the drive. To arrange a visit to El Copal, contact Actuar.Keep the silence


1 Year on the road

1 year ago we left San Diego, CA
19,176 miles
7 countries
1,123 species of birds
506 eBird lists
249 recordings made
uncountable mosquito, sand fly and no-see-um bites
more chiggers than is fair

Here are a few shots of us in action as well as some of our favorite places


The Cordillera Talamanca – Rancho Naturalista, Aravar, and the Vereh Valley

25 – 27 May 2014

The Tawny-chested Flycatcher is endemic to foothill forests on the Caribbean slopes of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In Costa Rica the best place to see this endemic is none other than Rancho Naturalista, a top-notch birding lodge located near Turrialba in the Cordillera Talamanca. Rancho Naturalista is a great place to see many of the Caribbean foothill specialties like White-crowned Manakin, Snowcap, Tawny-chested Flycatcher, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, and perhaps even the Gray-headed Piprites. Rancho Naturalista protects 125 acres and maintains excellent well-groomed trails that lead you through secondary and primary forest. You can also spot a number of different hummingbird species that buzz the feeders all day long. I have never seen so many White-necked Jacobins in my life. The feeders there are full of White-necked Jacobins jockeying for position with Crowned Woodnymphs, Green-crowned Brilliants, Brown Violetears, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. The flowers around the lodge also provide great opportunities to see the more elusive Snowcap.

Our first mourning at the lodge we headed out early and quickly found the Tawny-chested Flycatcher right near the cabins where we were told it would be hanging out … check! And we even saw the Tawny-chested Flycatcher feeding a fledgling. After taking in the flycatcher we headed to the trails and passed the forest hummingbird feeders that were alive with White-necked Jacobins. Later down the trail we encountered White-crowned Manakin, Scale-crested Pgymy-Tyrant, Zeledon’s Antbird, White-ruffed Manakin, Bay-headed Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Golden-hooded Tanager, Plain Antvireo, and 55 more species (eBird list). The birding at Rancho Naturalista is fantastic! Rancho is also great place to stay to explore additional birding locations nearby. The staff at Rancho Naturalista are super kind and very accommodating and aim to make your stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. They also know where to find all the birds and have excellent guides on staff. Thank you Rancho for making our stay so wonderful! We enjoyed every moment.

While in the area we also had the fortune to spend some time with Herman Venegas, a local guide, to talk about all things bird. Herman is super passionate about birds and birding and we loved chatting away the afternoon with him. Herman was kind enough to give us the inside scoop on birding in the area as well. Still on the lookout for the Gray-headed Piprites, Herman told us to check out the Vereh Valley, a place where he has most frequently encountered the Piprites. Not only did he tell us about where to look for the Piprites, Herman gave us some fantastic tips for trying to find the elusive bird. Herman said that the Piprites almost never comes to playback and if you hear it you better be ready to chase it through the forest. Armed with loads of information, Josh and I headed to Vereh Valley and started the hike up to the forest patch that Herman described. After a little bit of meandering through the fields, we finally made it to the forest and paced back and forth listening intently for the pip pip pip of the Piprites.

We came upon a mixed flock of Tawny-capped Euphonias and Slaty Antwrens in the understory and Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, Lesser Greenlets, Emerald, Golden-hooded, and Bay-headed Tanagers in the canopy when we heard a faint pip pip pip. We stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other in amazement! Where was the pip pip pip coming from? The call was very faint and hard to localize but we knew without a doubt that we just heard a Gray-headed Piprites. We scanned every bird in the flock hoping to find the Piprites, but found none, only a few Ashy-throated Chlorospingus that made us take a second look. Whenever we are on the look-out for one bird I am always reminded of an old tootsie roll commercial from my childhood. Because every time you spot a bird you think … that’s it, but really … “whatever it is I think I see becomes a Gray-headed Piprites to me” (sung to the tune of the tootsie roll commercial). The flock disappeared quickly with the canopy birds heading one way and the understory birds heading the other direction and we never heard the Piprites again. We spent about 4 hours searching for the Piprites but never heard another pip. The Vereh Valley, however, is stunning and the birding is great. We had a number of mixed-species flocks composed of a several tanager species including White-shouldered, Silver-throated, Bay-headed, Emerald, Black-and-Yellow, and Speckled Tanagers. To get to the Vereh Valley we recommend that you contact Herman or the folks at Rancho and be guided to the area. The trail to the forest is not very easy to find and passes through indigenous lands so it is always nice to have a local with you.

Herman also gave us tips on where to look for the Rufous-rumped Antwren another hard to find Costa Rican bird. The Rufous-rumped Antwren, although not endemic to Costa Rica has a very spotty distribution throughout Central and South America and does not seem to be too common in any location. In Costa Rica, Rufous-rumped Antwren is only at mid-elevations along the Caribbean Slope and is hard to come by. A reliable place to see Rufous-rumped Antwren is along the road that leads to Silent Mountain at reserve owned by a lumber milled called Aravar. To access this area permission will need to be obtained from Aravar or you will need to hire Herman to take you up to the reserve. The hike up to the forest patch is very steep and the paths that lead through the forest are not maintained and difficult to follow, so heading up to Aravar is not for everyone.  When we were there Aravar was for sale, so who knows what will happen to this place in the future, but the owners of Aravar where keen to know that a rare bird hangs out in their reserve. Perhaps in the future they will develop a bit of birding tourism, who knows. In addition to the antwren, Aravar is also a great place to look for the Red-fronted Parrotlet. Josh got a very fleeting look at a Red-fronted Parrotlet as it streaked through the sky but I missed it completely. There is a large fig tree up on the ridge that when it is fruiting is a fairly reliable place to see the Red-fronted Parrotlet. We were a little luckier with the Rufous-rumped Antwren however. We came upon a mixed flock of Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, Lesser Greenlets, Tawny-capped Euphonias, Russet Antshrike, and more. High in the canopy we could hear the parts of the song of the Rufous-rumped Antwren but the song was jumbled with all of the other birds flitting in the canopy. We worked the flock for about a half an hour and found a little bird moving quickly and foraging like a warbler high in the canopy. Finally we both managed to get on the bird and stay on it long enough to see a dark cap and a pale lemon belly; two field marks (although not the most distinctive) for the Rufous-rumped Antwren. We tried and tried to get better looks at the Rufous-rumped Antwren but that was all we got. Rufous-rumped Antwrens are quick and always at the top of the canopy so getting good looks can be challenging. Although the trails are over-grown and difficult to follow we had a fair number of good birds at Aravar (eBird list).

To visit the Vereh Valley or Aravar contact Herman Venegas (506 8893-4847) or inquire at Rancho Naturalist.

Just where the heck is El Plastico anyways, and I want to see the car that can get there.

21-23 May 2014

Ever in pursuit of the rarest of Costa Rica’s birds, we were still looking for the best Caribbean slope sites to bird. With Rara Avis sort of closed (apparently only open to large groups/students) and a bit expensive, but still wanting to bird the area, we did a bit of research and found some great looking eBird records and heard a few tempting tales. Going off these little bits of information regarding a mythical “El Plastico” we basically plugged some coordinates into the GPS and started driving. We knew the road would be bad but a local source told us we could drive to El Plastico, so off we went.

El Plastico is named for an old penal colony where the prisoners had plastic roofs. Today the area is a private reserve called Selva Tica which has a small research station on site called El Plastico. Selva Tica and the El Plastico Station are located on the road that leads up from Horquetas to Rara Avis, and share a lot of trails with Rara Avis through fantastic mid elevation primary rainforest (500-700 meters).

El Plastico

El Plastico

Our adventure began when we crossed a suspension bridge that had about 4 hand painted signs attached to it that said things like “CAUTION BRIDGE IN POOR REPAIR,” “ONE CAR AT A TIME,” and “MAXIMUM TWO TONS.” Our truck weighs, oh, about 2 tons, and you can see the issues with the bridge readily – several of the support cables that hang the bridge from the main spanning cables are missing on one side. We asked some locals and got a classic Latin America response “Si, claro, el puente aguanta” – basically “oh, yeah, the bridge will hold.” I asked if trucks cross the bridge still and they said every day. Sounded good to me, but Kathi got out and walked, figuring I could die on my own. I drove the truck across and we were on our way again.

A good dirt road leads several miles through cut-over forest, cattle ranches and the like, eventually turning into a mediocre dirt road where a bit of clearance is helpful that heads through patches of promising looking second growth forest. This mediocre dirt road crosses something of a swamp, with about 50 meters of mud-bogging. I sped up a bit, completely splattered the truck in mud, and hoped that it didn’t rain too much while we were up there, because if it got much wetter, getting out would be, oh, not much fun at all. After the mudbogging, the road goes completely to shit and it becomes a matter of 4WD low gear and careful driving. After perhaps a mile or so of this we came to a gated entrance to a private reserve on the left. The signs advertised “Reserva Ecologica YATAMA” and said things about lodging, food, biological station, etc. We didn’t know this place was going to be up here, and there was a caretaker working around the gate just as we rolled up. He looked fairly (very) surprised to see a couple gringos with goofy grins just drive up the road like that. I asked him how much further this (to us still mythical) El Plastico was and was told it was about 2k further. I then asked him how the road was and he said “You might be able to drive 500m further but there is no way you can get to El Plastico.” Hrm. A bit of conversation ensued and it looked like this was basically the end of the road for us. He also said that there are problems with poaching in the area and some cars have been broken into so he offered to let us park our car next to or even inside YATAMA such that they could look after it, rather than get a window smashed by a naer-do-well. Given that it was clear we couldn’t drive much further anyways, we asked if we could just camp there and pay them a bit for the use of the restrooms. We walked up into the reserve with him, met the owner, had a really nice conversation, and ended up camping in the parking lot for 3 nights for about $6/night. The facilities are basic but nice and we had very refreshing showers, a place to try to dry our drenched clothing (more on that later), and awesome dinner conversation with the caretaker, Juan, and his son, Juan, both of whom are very interested in and knowledgeable about the local birds.

It was still just mid-afternoon so we decided to do a recon walk up the road to get to El Plastico and try to figure out where the trails start and the like. This “road” has since been described to us as an 8’ deep rut (with which I would agree) and as a dry river (I would suggest it’s not so much a dry river as just plain being a river). Access to Rara Avis and El Plastico is exclusively by horse or tractor, and the tractor has dug massive ruts, 2’+ deep, on either side of the “road”. As well there are huge muddy stretches, water several feet deep in places, boulders everywhere in the road, and basically no way in hell anything without 5’ tall tires is making it up there. Just walking up this “road” is pretty unenjoyable. It’s never impassable or dangerous, but you basically have to look at your footing the entire way, and rubber boots are mandatory. We walked an hour and a half up the road and saw no sign of El Plastico, so we turned around to get back before dark. We did, however, hear several Slaty-breasted Tinamous on the walk and saw two Semiplumbeous Hawks as well as hearing a third! Great Green Macaws are fairly common in the area, we saw several groups each day and heard many more, and there is an abundance of Mealy, Red-lored and White-crowned Parrots about. On our return we talked to Juan about where we had gotten to and he said we’d made it most of the way. (It turns out El Plastico is about 4km from YATAMA, not 2km). We made dinner, ran out of gas halfway through cooking, begged the use of Juan’s stove, and as a result had the first of several great conversations about birds with Juan. What cool people.

View from El Plastico

View from El Plastico

With an alarm set for 3AM and no idea what we’d find at El Plastico, we turned in. The next morning saw us finally getting to El Plastico and seeing the trail signs that head into the forest around 6AM. We spent a bit of time trying to turn someone up at the station without success. It looked like the place was well maintained and there were chickens in a coop and laundry hanging, but in two days we didn’t cross paths with the caretaker. We walked the road up towards Rara Avis a bit, connecting with the trail that more or less parallels the road and would take you up to Rara Avis as well. We birded this for most of the morning, and the forest and the birding are amazing. The big excitement for us came when we heard a large mixed flock and upon drawing near, twice heard the distinctive soft song of a Gray-headed Piprites. This bird is pretty much our holy grail in Costa Rica, one of the very hardest Central American endemics and a bird that we had been seeking for a solid month by now! Unfortunately, two soft songs was all we could find of the bird, not spotting anything that resembled this little unassuming guy. However, we did turn up a number of other good birds, including more Slaty-breasted Tinamous, Gray-rumped Swift, Nightingale Wren, Uniform Crake, Great Curassow, Northern-barred Woodcreeper, Checker-throated Antwren, Ocellated Antbird, Coppery-headed Emerald, Thicket Antpitta, Fasciated Antshrike, Russet Antshrike, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner and White-vented Euphonia. It also started to rain, as it usually does, around mid-day. We were probably 6km from the car when it started to rain. We pondered, for about 5 minutes, whether we should keep birding or head back. If it was going to really rain, there was nothing to do but get soaked, so we birded a few more minutes and, sure enough, it was soon pissing rain. The hike back took about 2 hours, basically like walking down a stream bed, as the road was largely invisible under the muddy torrent of water flowing down it. We were soaked within a few minutes, and had to stop every 10 minutes or so to pour a pint of water out of each boot. Fun fun! Luckily it stopped raining just as we got back to the truck (awesome timing). Figuring that our clothes could not get any wetter in the shower, but could certainly get less muddy, in they went with us. A bit chilled by the cold shower, and looking pruney from head to foot, we were at least kind of dry and into dry clothes which was fantastic. We wrung our clothes and hung them out to not dry for two days, then had another fantastic dinner sitting around and talking with Juan and his son. Perhaps it was fortuitous that we had run out of gas after all!

An even earlier start saw us wallowing back up the road in the dark, this time arriving a bit earlier, letting us get into the primary forest just at first light. Hoping for another chance at the Piprites or an encounter with an Olive-backed or Violaceous Quail-Dove, we proceeded up the Tigre trail into absolutely gorgeous primary foothill forest, some of the most gorgeous forest we’ve seen on the entire trip. This trail eventually climbs about ½ way to Rara Avis and comes to a trail junction, a left puts you on the Levi trail which takes you back to the road down, a right would take you up to the lodge. We spent the entire morning and into early afternoon on this trail. Not too far into the forest we finally found a Lattice-tailed Trogon, a bird that we had long been seeking and that we had managed to miss in two days at Braulio Carillo and a day at El Tapir, which are normally by far the best sites for this species. This gorgeous Trogon is endemic to the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica, barely making it into Panamá in the foothills above Bocas del Toro. It is also quite a looker and we soaked up the great looks for at least 20 minutes, this was a bird we were starting to worry we might miss! Though we didn’t hear or have any other signs of a Piprites, we did flush a Quail-Dove or two that will remain mystery birds (phooey). We also found another huge mix of awesome forest species, many the same as the day prior, but also including Rufous Mourner, Song Wren, Black-faced Antthrush, White-ruffed Manakin, Streaked Woodhaunter, Tawny-faced Gnatwren and Spotted Antbird. We also got another first class soaking on the hike back to the truck, which afforded us the opportunity to double the amount of soaking wet clothes that were hung up to not dry.

We were way too tired and worn out for a third hike up to El Plastico, and we had thought about birding YATAMA on our third morning (a nice trail does a ~1km loop through secondary and primary forest, and it looks good), but we were just plain exhausted so we slept in and made a huge breakfast and broke camp slowly. We said our goodbyes to our new friends and headed back down the road.

The past two days of heavy rain had kept the muddy section of the road firmly in my mind, and when we arrived to the swampy bit, I was pretty worried. The mud pit had grown quite a bit in length and the standing water and mud had worsened considerably. I made a first attempt at trying to get across with wheels up on the ridges between the ruts. This quickly saw me slide into the ruts. Our tires started slipping so I stopped and carefully backed out while I still could! The next plan was to try to drive the grassy flooded area to the right of the road. We made it further this time, but it became clear that there was no way we could get all the way through, so a slightly more worrisome backing up session ensued. At this point we had only been able to drive about 30% of the way across the mud and I was pondering how much food we had if we needed to spend a few nights waiting for the road to improve. The only problem was, it wasn’t going to dry out until December, and it was probably only going to get worse from here. Hrmm. On went the rubber boots for a good walk through the mud to see if there was a path. A bit of careful walking around, sinking in a few times, nearly losing a boot here or there did, however, reveal a good path through. Driving with two wheels basically in the thicket like shrubs on the shoulder and the other two on one of the ridges between ruts did give us enough traction to not slip into the ruts again. A tricky spot where the left shoulder turned into a ditch/culvert was the crux, then we were able to bounce back into the main ruts which had rocks and wood buried under the mud that gave us sufficient traction to make it out of the worst bit. This proved to be a good enough strategy and soon we were through the mud, much to our relief, and on our way back to civilization. The dilapidated bridge even held up for our second crossing, and Kathi was either confidant enough or tired enough to go along for the ride this time, though I’m not sure which!

I doubt El Plastico will be on the list of likely destinations for most birders coming to Costa Rica. However, the forest up there is simply amazing and it hosts many of the rarest species in the country. Logistics of getting to Rara Avis (if they are open or not and then the tractor ride up that is widely described as “not worth it”), or El Plastico (we have no idea if you can stay there as birders) are not easy. YATAMA is certainly a great option for lodging. In the dry season, if you have a solid 4WD with good clearance and the will to walk the road 90-120 minutes each way to get to the trail system at El Plastico, staying at Yatama is a good option. Yatama has quaint cabins, serves food, and has a system of trails that look worth exploring as well. More information about Yatama can be found here. It’s a long hike from Yatama to El Plastico, but we did it twice and it was worth it for us, although we love adventure and suffering! Honestly I think the best option is probably trying to stay at Rara Avis or El Plastico, but I would recommend trying to get there on horseback rather than in the tractor.

Little critters and more

We have seen some amazing things on our trip and not just birds. Here are a few photos of other critters we have seen recently. Unfortunately there was not enough room in the truck to bring more field guides so many of our critters have gone un-identified. Test your identification skills and help us identify some critters.

More Caribbean lowlands – Biological Field Station El Zota, Costa Rica

19 – 20 May 2014

While we certainly visited some of the best-known birding locations in Costa Rica, we also went off the beaten track many times. Biological Field Station El Zota is not really too far off the beaten track, but it is not terribly well-known (although it should be!). Located near Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge, not far from the Nicaraguan border (gps coordinates for the station are 10.557280, -83.736280), it is in the Caribbean lowlands and sort of at the agricultural frontier. Driving approximately 1 hour north from Guapiles you head through pineapples and cows until you start to see forest patches and then ribbons of forest away from the road. Arriving at El Zota, you are in an area that is perhaps ½ cutover and ½ still forested, with the forest tongues and patches fairly well connected all the way to Indio Maiz Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua. El Zota protects approximately 1,000 hectares of lowland tropical rainforest of which about 400 hectares is primary tropical forest and the balance is regenerating forest of varying ages. Still wanting to look for the Gray-headed Piprites, Olive-backed Quail-Dove and other Caribbean lowland rarities, and knowing that these birds have been reported there in the past (as well as Red-throated Caracara!), we were very keen to visit.

The primary forest at El Zota is approximately 3 km from the main research station and the road to the primary forest is quite muddy and, on our visit, not even passable with a tractor, so we woke at 3:30 am, put on our favorite pair of shoes (that’s a joke; rubber boots are our least favorite), and hit the trails to reach the primary forest before dawn.

Muddy trails at el Zota

Muddy trails at el Zota

Our pre-dawn hike was amazing though. We saw over a dozen Common Paraques along the road. In some of the taller secondary forest we heard a Common Potoo calling and were able to see it fly overhead a few times. The song of the Common Potoo is something else and always makes us smile; it is such a silly sound, but wow, what a cool bird. In Costa Rica they call Potoos “stick birds (Pajaro estaca)” because they perch motionless at the end of a branch with their head held high and well… they look just like a stick. While enjoying the pre-dawn Potoo serenade, we also heard the deep whirring call of a Crested Owl. Not a bad way to start the day.

As the sun started to rise we started compiling a really good list of birds (see our eBird list) along the road that leads to the primary forest. The road starts in younger secondary forest, passes a couple of fields then enters older secondary forest and eventually primary forest. This habitat transition makes for a great diversity of birds. If you were to just bird this road instead of lurking only in the primary forest it should be easy to tally 130-150 species in a day. Despite walking quickly, we had many great birds including Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Bronzy Hermit, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Great Green Macaw, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, White-winged BecardBlack-throated TrogonRed-capped Manakin, and more. The trail in the primary forest was actually less productive than the road, but then again primary forest is nearly always quieter and slower than disturbed areas. However the quality of birds in primary forest can make up for that if you can find them! Unfortunately we were unlucky and didn’t connect with a single mixed species flock. Birding rainforest can definitely be hit or miss and the time we spent in the primary forest was incredibly slow. However, the birding overall there is still fantastic. Despite spending both of our mornings in the primary forest seeing almost nothing, we accumulated 112 species just walking the road and hanging around in the garden.

Some other more interesting species we recorded were Central-American Pygmy-OwlWhite-necked Puffbird, Green Ibis (heard flying over), Slaty-breasted Tinamou (heard), Rufescent Tiger-Heron, and White-ringed Flycatcher (eBird list for our first day).  El Zota is definitely a great destination for Caribbean slope lowland rainforest birding. Because El Zota is connected to larger preserved areas, there are many possibilities for rarities and who knows perhaps even the Gray-headed Piprites will show up again some day.

The other thing that makes El Zota such an appealing visit is a combination of excellent (though not luxurious) accommodation, awesome people, and very low rates. For those wanting to visit El Zota, you should contact the station. They have cabins and bunks, provide all meals, and are just as accommodating of birders as they are of researchers (of note, this would be a wonderful location for a research project, providing easy access to a variety of ages of forest and having great facilities and people with little bureaucracy. The road to El Zota is passable with a regular car (at least during the time of year we visited), but be sure to bring rubber boots as you will definitely need them.

Finally we want to extend a massive thank you to the owners and staff at El Zota for being so accommodating and allowing us to visit!

The Caribbean Coast – Manzanillo and Hitoy Cerere 

May 13-18, 2014

After a lot of rain, no showers, and a lot of early mornings, we were long overdue for some beach time, relaxation, and unfortunately some waterproofing work on the truck. We headed for Cahuita, south of Limon, and a fantastic little waterfront campground with cabins called Camping Maria (just north of Cahuita in Playa Negra, actually 9.74577, -82.85494). Camping Maria is fantastic with great amenities, a very welcoming (and industrious!) hostess, and a beautiful setting. We birded the neighborhood which is a mixture of gardens and forest patches, Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, and the “RECOPE” Rd. We also spent some time working on the truck for a couple of days and enjoying the amazing beach at Punta Uva.

Just birding around Playa Negra proved to be very birdy and actually turned up some pretty nice birds. We went for casual 1-2 hour walks on the north side of the little neighborhood on 3 different mornings, birding a variety of gardens, overgrown lots and forest patches. We managed to turn up some really nice birds including Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-whiskered Puffbird, Great Antshrike, Common Black-Hawk, Blue-headed, Red-lored and Mealy Parrots, Crimson-fronted, Olive-throated and Orange-fronted Parakeets, Amazon Kingfisher, Green-breasted Mango, Long-billed Gnatwren, Bay Wren, Black-cowled Oriole, and quite a bit more.

We also birded the Refugio Nacional del Vida Silvestre Gandoca-Manzanillo, namely via the main trail which starts at the end of the beach road in the town of Manzanillo, immediately crosses a tiny creek, then wanders along the beach, coastal bluffs, and through forest that varies from cleared understory to a few good forest patches. The birding was not spectacular but it was fun to watch Gray-breasted Martins nesting in seacliffs and hawking insects at eye level over the ocean, and we did find a few noteworthy birds, such as Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Amazon Kingfisher, Great Curassow, Northern Barred Woodcreeper (a family group that included what was at first a very confusing juvenile with a bill that was still a bit short and without much of a tail, and an adult carrying an anole in his beak!), Cinnamon Woodpecker, Dusky-faced Tanager, White-shouldered Tanager, Black-faced Antthrush, Black-crowned Tityra, and a couple of tardy migrants – a Northern Waterthrush and a Peregrine Falcon. It’s a beautiful hike but it is not terribly birdy and if you’re looking for really interesting birds, it may not be the best destination as it goes through a lot of altered habitat, cleared understory, cacao plantations and the like.

Much better, birdwise, is the so-called RECOPE Rd. Located a couple of kms north of the town of Manzanillo, this road features a sign on the highway announcing a recreation center for RECOPE employees and thus has become known as the RECOPE Rd among birders. The road goes through very birdy gardens and large yards for 500-800 meters, passes the RECOPE recration facility, then enters great forest and continues through great forest for a km or more, before passing a couple of areas of cleared understory, then going through some more good forest, before petering out in front of a small finca (agricultural plot) about 3-4 km from the highway. We birded the better forest at dawn and the gardens after and easily came up with about 80 species, including a lot of less common birds. Among the highlights were Semiplumbeous Hawk, Pied Puffbird, White-necked Puffbird, Great Green Macaw (a group of 8 flying over), Double-toothed Kite, Purple-throated Fruitcrow (at least 6), Black-faced Antthrush, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Blue Dacnis, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Brown-capped Tyrannulet and Great Antshrike. 

By this point we have seen almost all of the birds that we were looking for in the Caribbean lowlands, with three exceptions – Snowy Cotinga (which normally shouldn’t be that hard but was still eluding us), Olive-backed Quail-Dove (pretty difficult), and Gray-headed Piprites (pretty much a unicorn, people say they’ve seen them but we’re beginning to doubt). Looking for the Piprites is difficult, all you can do is spent a lot of time in good lowland and foothill rainforest habitat and cross your fingers. It is small, easy to overlook, doesn’t vocalize much, and if you use playback, it tends to get quiet or outright leave the area. But, with the aim of looking for some of these harder birds, we wanted to hit a few more places with really good habitat on the Caribbean slope, so our next destination was Reserva Biologica Hitoy Cerere. Hitoy Cerere protects about 10,000 Hectares of primary rainforest that is contiguous with Parque Internacional La Amistad, making it part of the largest protected forest complex in Costa Rica. There are good driving directions in the Costa Rica birdfinding guide (which are necessary), but no phone number supplied. We birded the road up to the reserve starting at first light and showed up at the reserve itself around 6AM where we managed to wake up the ranger and beg an early entrance (normally the reserve opens at 8AM). The trail system is a bit disappointing, consisting of one trail of just a couple hundred meters through second growth down to the river, and one trail of perhaps 1 km through scrubby forest that is supposedly primary but appears to have been selectively logged and has a lot of dense newer growth. We didn’t have much luck birding this loop trail, nor the river trail. We found no mixed flocks and nothing terribly interesting. However, we did bird a trail that leaves the loop trail that isn’t an “official park trail” but rather follows a water pipe a good ways up into the hills to where their water source is. Following this narrower trail takes you through better, moister, more intact forest, but there is a bit of bushwhacking involved. In this area we did turn up some nice birds, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-faced Antthrush, Red-capped Manakin, Checker-throated Antwren, Blue-black Grosbeak, Fasciated Antshrike and Northern Barred-Woodcreeper. Our best birds, however, were turned up when we followed a little creek bed further up into good forest, where we turned up a Sunbittern and then, while marveling at the Sunbittern, we heard a Black-crowned Antpitta calling not too far off. A bit of detective work and sneaking up the creek later, we were rewarded with great looks at a very vocal Black-crowned Antpitta, awesome! We also headed back out the entrance road mid-morning, where there are some nice vantage points of the surrounding hillsides and were finally rewarded with a Snowy Cotinga that actually flew right into view while I was looking through the scope. So, despite the mediocre trail available, there are good birds for sure in the forest at Hitoy Cerere for those who don’t mind a bit of adventure.

Snowy Cotinga (digiscope). We eventually got much better views but never managed a better photo

Snowy Cotinga (digiscope). We eventually got much better views but never managed a better photo