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.