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.
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 Becard, Black-throated Trogon, Red-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-Owl, White-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!