25 April – 2 May 2014
Carara National Park is a well-known birding destination in Costa Rica where we squeezed in a short day of birding. Unfortunately Carara doesn’t open until 7am (8am after May 1!), and with the sun rising at about 5:15, the best two hours of the day for birding are gone before you can even get in the park. We birded the Waterfall Rd just south of the park for an hour and a half waiting for the park to open. Nothing out of the ordinary but we had nice looks at Black-hooded Antshrike, Blue-black Grosbeak, Blue-crowned Manakin, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, White-shouldered Tanager and heard a Long-tailed Manakin as well. Once in the park, we birded the main loop trails rather than the river trail, where we had a nice mix of birds including Chestnut-backed Antbird, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Rufous-and-white Wren, Willow Flycatcher, Black-hooded Antshrike, Gray-chested Dove, Riverside Wren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Black-faced Antthrush, Red-capped Manakin, Orange-collared Manakin, Baird’s Trogon, and heard Collared Forest-Falcon and Scaly-breasted (aka Southern Nightingale) Wren.
Unfortunately the park closes at 4pm as well, so the most productive birding hours of 5-7AM and 4-6PM (given a 5:15 sunrise and 5:45 sunset), the park is closed. Lousy park hours, especially considering it is $14/person to enter. That’s more expensive than two people in a car entering Yosemite, and with far worse hours. Poot. We’ve had a little luck begging our way into other smaller or private reserves early, but the big reserves and National Parks are just bone-headed about it to be honest.
We camped (in the parking lot) at El Cerro Lodge nearby, which also looks like a nice place to get a room, and we were treated to a LOT of flyover Scarlet Macaws (I think we counted over 50 in one evening) as well as some perched in wild almond trees on the property. Yellow-naped Parrots also fly by the lodge. A bit down the road from the lodge is a farm pond/marshy field that had a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and a bunch of Purple Gallinules hanging in the marshy area when we checked it out.
After Carara we met up with Pat O’Donnell and his good friend Susan for a day of coastal birding. And what a day it was! In the mangroves near Mata Limon and Caldera we finally, finally, finally found a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail!
We had tried a few days prior at this known location for them with no luck, and this morning we got zero responses to playback but Kathi’s relentless scanning found one coming out of the mangroves a ways down from where we were. We jogged over and had great looks for a couple minutes while it foraged, unconcerned, in the open, including taking some bites of some rotting mangoes! Rufous-necked Wood-Rail feeding station? After getting that long-sought bird, we scooted up the road to the Guacalillo area to bird some coastal lagoons. The first few lagoons held few birds but we had a nice Swallow and Swift migration streaming overhead including Cliff, Bank and Barn Swallows as well as a couple of Black Swifts. A couple of lagoons later, though, we found a better concentration of birds and turned up a Baird’s Sandpiper and a Stilt Sandpiper, both birds we hadn’t seen since fall migration in Jalisco, Mexico. The Baird’s was a new bird for Costa Rica for Pat, awesome! After Guacalillo we pressed on to get to Chomes, one of the best shorebird spots in Costa Rica, at high tide. The reason to bird Chomes at high tide is that is sits right on the Gulf of Nicoya, which has massive mudflats and is a major shorebird wintering and stopover site. However, at high tide, the mud is underwater and the drying salt ponds at Chomes attract thousands of shorebirds. We spent about two hours there scanning through thousands of shorebirds. We turned up a Collared Plover and several American Golden-Plovers in the masses of Wilson’s Plovers, Semipalmated Plovers, Western, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, Whimbrels and Marbled Godwits. After about 40 minutes of scanning and picking through the birds they all flushed, but when they resettled we found a group of about five Pectoral Sandpipers. Patience and continuing to scan through the birds, however, paid off tremendously when Pat spotted a smaller, darker Godwit among the larger shorebirds. A few minutes of studying later and it was clear we were staring at a Hudsonian Godwit, one of very few (perhaps only 2-3?) ever recorded in Costa Rica. We got some bad but clearly identifiable digiscope shots and enjoyed watching this mega-rarity for nearly an hour before it casually stretched its wings, took to the sky, and made a very zippy beeline north. Next stop, Isthmus of Tehuantepec most likely, an important stopover site for this species.
Following our luck at Chomes we tried one more site, the Punto Morales saltponds, but turned up nothing much interesting there beyond a lot of sandfly bites and a few Northern Scrub Flycatchers.
Our next destination was back to the middle elevations of the Caribbean slope. There are a lot of good reserve areas ranging from the Guanacaste cordillera all the way south to the Panamanian border that protect good tracts of this awesome habitat, and it’s a good thing too as it is home to a good number of rare, hard to find birds, many of which are regional endemics. The list of possibilities when birding the Caribbean Slope is fantastic – Blue and Gold Tanager, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Lanceolated Monklet, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Brown-billed Scythebill, Solitary Eagle, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Sharpbill, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Black-crowned Antpitta, Scaled Antpitta, Great Jacamar, Violaceous Quail-Dove, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Three-wattled Bellbird, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Red-fronted Parrotlet, White-fronted Nunbird, Snowy Cotinga, Coppery-headed Emerald, White-tipped Sicklebill, Zeledon’s (formerly Immaculate) Antbird, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, Tawny-chested Flycatcher, and White-crowned Manakin. That list is about 60-70% of a “best and most sought birds of Costa Rica” list. Given this, and given how rare and hard to find most of those birds are, we have been seeking out and birding extensively the best Caribbean middle elevation sites Costa Rica has to offer. Following our amazing trip to San Gerardo (1200m elevation), we had reservations at the accompanying station, Pocosol, on the other side of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, a bit lower at about 800m elevation. Before our scheduled arrival in Pocosol, we had two days to bird more of the Caribbean slope of the Tilaran cordillera. We camped at Lands in Love (with special permission), which is a bit expensive, but is a beautiful place filled with nice people that foster animals that have been abused or abandoned. They also serve up some amazing, if also a bit expensive, vegetarian food in the restaurant.
The trail system at Lands in Love takes in some great primary and secondary forest at about 700m elevation. Unfortunately we were plagued by rain during our time there, getting rained off the trails three times, but we managed a few nice birds there amid the downpours, including the regional endemics Streak-crowned Antvireo and Rufous-winged Woodpecker as well as Black-faced Antthrush, Nightingale Wren, Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-flanked Antwren, Song Wren, Rufous Motmot, Shining Honeycreeper and White-winged Becard. The forest at Lands in Love is excellent and a lot of good birds get seen there, it is definitely a site to consider if you’re in the area!
After a stellar soaking at Lands in Love, the following morning we birded the road that leads to the University of Costa Rica’s Manuel Brenes reserve. We had better luck with the weather – a dry morning followed by on and off spitting rain that kept activity up and made for some good swift viewing for a couple of hours before it turned into a total rainout around 3pm. The morning had a lot of activity early as we started up the road, but mostly common species in the more disturbed forest nearer the highway, including Black-throated Wren, Thicket Antpitta, Dusky Antbird, Carmiol’s Tanager, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Black-faced Grosbeak and a nice Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. However, in this thick second growth we also heard a Violaceous Quail-Dove calling. Quite a rare bird in Central America, and seemingly unpredictable in where it will appear. We listened carefully for several minutes to be sure of our identification while mulling the concept of trying to get into the forest in front of us. With the forest looking particularly impenetrable, we decided to pass and never heard the Quail-Dove again (We came back the following morning to the same spot but didn’t hear the slightest peep of Quail-Dove song). The morning slowed down a bit after this but we persistently walked the road through 4 very very slow hours, with some migrant Olive-sided Flycatchers and an American Pygmy Kingfisher found chipping, stealthily perched in a bush above a trickle of water no more than 6” wide, being about all we saw. Around 11AM our diligence paid off when Kathi found a bit of activity which turned out to be a nearly silent but enormous mixed flock that we were able to stay with for at least an hour. This flock was full of Bay-headed, Silver-throated and Black-and-yellow Tanagers as well as individuals of Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Common Chlorospingus, Bananaquit, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Canada Warbler, Purple-crowned Fairy, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Speckled Tanager and one of the birds we were looking for – Rufous-browed Tyrannulet! After this excitement, it was back to being slow for a while but we birded some more open areas as clouds built, picked up a Fasciated Tiger-Heron in a gorgeous rushing stream, then crested a ridge and watched swifts at eye level for an hour or more in between squalls of rain.
Amid many Vaux’s Swifts were some likely Black Swifts as well as some more interesting mid-sized guys that were unfortunately seen very poorly. Phooey, as that is a good area for White-chinned Swift! Fearing a rain out we started making our way back. We stopped again at the bridge where we had seen the Tiger-Heron and found ourselves in the midst of another huge mixed flock. This one heldmost of the same species as the first flock we found, as well as a couple of Shining Honeycreepers and a Blackburnian Warbler. At this point it was starting to rain but the birds were everywhere around us so we stayed put and started getting wet. Good thing, too, as Kathi soon found another of our sought birds, a gorgeous Blue and Gold Tanager, though unfortunately it squirted out of view before I could find it. With a White-throated Shrike-Tanager calling incessantly(this species is something of a mixed-flock leader and calls a lot if it’s around), we decided to play White-throated Shrike-Tanager to see if we could pull the flock back towards us a bit. Fortunately this worked perfectly and within a minute or two the Blue and Gold Tanager zipped back overhead, this time a good bit wetter but perching in plain view for a couple of minutes. With the rain still coming down but the flock passing back over us we stayed with the birds and turned up one more gem before giving up due to the weather – another of our long sought birds, Brown-billed Scythebill. This crazy woodcreeper has one of the more unique and awesome bills in the bird world and finally seeing one was a fantastic cap on a fantastic day of birding.
Next up was one of our most anticipated destinations in Costa Rica – the Pocosol Field Station, in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. After spending a couple of amazing days at the San Gerardo Field Station (elevation about 1200m), our hopes were really high for its sister station, Pocosol, located a bit downslope around 800m. Unlike the muddy hike into San Gerardo, Pocosol is reached via a very manageable dirt road. We had read stories making it sound like the road was very rough and required 4WD, though it turned out to be no big deal with no high clearance required, the only hard bit for a 2WD would be a couple of good steep sections that should still be manageable in a 2WD with a bit of effort. The last ½ km or so of the road as well as the station clearing itself is quite birdy with the expected mix of Tanagers, Saltators, Honeycreepers and the like, though we also had a Great Black-Hawk here, several Thicket Antpittas, Rufous-tailed Jacamars, Dusky Antbirds, Black-faced Grosbeaks, White-throated Crake and a Slaty Spinetail and were told that Rufous-winged Tanager comes to the fruiting trees in the clearing. There is a magnificent view over the canopy in the large, broad valley beneath the station that is definitely worth checking for perched birds and there is also a great view for raptors. We unfortunately had a lot of rain while we were at the station, but in between getting thoroughly soaked a few times we also had some great birding. There are a good handful of trails at the station that pass through both primary and secondary forest as well as making a loop around a good sized pond which has Least Grebes as well as a few other aquatic birds. Along the uppermost trail, called either Zamia or Fumaroles depending on which end you enter from, you pass through amazing primary forest, where we had a couple of Tawny-throated Leaftossers, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Nightingale Wren, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Black-headed Antthrush, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Pale-vented Thrush, Checker-throated Antwren and had several each Purplish-backed and Ruddy Quail-Doves, including two Purplish-backed and one Ruddy in one binocular view in an absolute downpour, followed by a pair of Ruddies in the same spot a day later, also in the rain! On the lowest trail, Sendero Miradores, you pass through even more amazing primary forest and the potential for rare and interesting birds is very high. We had Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, Streak-crowned Antvireos, Rufous Mourners, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Striped Woodhaunter, Brown-billed Scythebill, Rufous Motmot, White-ruffed Manakin, Dull-mantled Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Nightingale Wren, Great Curassow, Barred Forest-Falcon, Barred Hawk, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Song Wren, Northern Schiffornis, and a lot more. We probably would have seen more as well if we hadn’t been rained out both times we birded the trail!
Our final (unless we go back to the area a third time, which is unlikely at this point!) stop in the Tilaran Cordillera was the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Pat O’Donnell had mentioned that Lanceolated Monklet was recently seen there and that it was good habitat, if a short trail. Combine that with a gorgeous waterfall and swimming hole and it sounded like it was worth checking out. The Waterfall Trail is $10 per person and normally opens at 8AM. We swung by in the afternoon and begged our way in early the following morning successfully, prepaying the day before and saying hi to the security guard so he would recognize us to let us in in the morning. That strategy worked out brilliantly as we entered at 6AM and casually birded for an hour or so down to the falls. We didn’t find the Monklet on the way down but did have Black-crowned Antshrike (the bird formerly known as Western Slaty Antshrike), Bay Wren, Checker-throated Antwren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Broad-billed Motmot, Shining Honeycreeper, and about 250 White-collared Swifts that were roosting behind the waterfall and streamed out around 7AM. Entering at 8 you would never know they roosted there but we were treated to them swirling around our heads and then streaming out of the falls and down the canyon, a very cool experience! We also took advantage of the solitude of the morning to have a swim in the pool at the base of the falls, which was fantastic! By about 8:10 the first few of the days visitors were streaming by us on the trail, wondered how we were already wet and hiking out. Just as the crowds really started to pour in (this site is very popular!), I distinctly heard a Lanceolated Monklet sing way downhill beneath us on the slope. What followed was a good 40 minutes of trying, in vain, to peer way down the slope beneath us and detect the movement or sign of a 5” long brown lump that perches, mostly silently, and mostly motionless. Needless to say we had zero luck, so we continued up the trail a bit disappointed. About two flights of stairs higher up we came upon some Honeycreepers and Euphonias that we stopped to take a look at. While I was admiring a Shining Honeycreeper and Tawny-capped Euphonia together in one binocular view a Lanceolated Monklet flew smack dab into the middle of my binocular view and perched in plain sight! Soon joined by a second Monklet, we had terrific looks and got pretty fair photos of pair of these very rare micro-puffbirds perched in the open for a good 20 minutes as hoards of screaming kids ran up and down the trail beside us. Incredible and an amazing cap to all the fantastic birding we had in the Tilaran!