Costa Rica birding

Slaty Flowerpiercer. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Costa Rica birds amaze Wyoming birders

By Barb Gorges

            “Rufous Motmot, Collared Aracari, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Yellow-throated Toucan, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, White-collared Manakin”—these were some of the names that rolled off our tongues as my husband, Mark, and I spotted birds in Costa Rica on a trip in early November.

            I saw two species endemic to Costa Rica found nowhere else (remember, it’s only 20 percent the size of Wyoming): Coppery-headed Emerald, a hummingbird, and Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, on the edge of a new clearing for an apartment building.

            We saw 32 regional endemics, often meaning the species is found only in Costa Rica and neighboring Panama. My favorite, the Slaty Flowerpiercer, cleverly pierces the base of large flowers to extract nectar. Later, hummingbirds come by and get nectar too.

Snowcap, a type of hummingbird, is a regional endemic, ranging from southern Honduras to western Panama, including Costa Rica. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            We drove up Cerro de la Muerte (Mountain of Death), to 11,400 feet where all the communications towers are, to find the Volcano Junco. It’s another regional endemic, cousin of the juncos under our feeders in winter. It obligingly hopped around in front of us.

            Of the 234 species I saw in seven straight days of birding, 187 were life birds. The others, mostly migrants, I’d seen in North America previously.

            The top six bird groups I saw were hummingbirds (27 species), flycatchers (23), warblers (17), tanagers (12), woodpeckers (10) and wrens (9). Mario Cordoba H., our guide, explained Costa Rica has a lot of bird diversity (922 species), but not a lot of any one species—no big flocks.

Silvery-throated Tanager. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            Mario, a native of Costa Rica, has been in the guiding business more than 20 years. Bird Watcher’s Digest contracted with his company, Crescentia Expeditions, to plan and guide the trip. Mario included a variety of habitats and alternated hikes in the forest to see elusive birds like Streak-headed Woodcreepers with stops for nectar feeder stations where bright-colored birds like the Fiery-throated Hummingbird were the target of everyone’s cameras.

Mario Cordoba, Crescentia Expeditions owner/guide. Photo by Barb Gorges.

            Feeding stations filled with fruit at one ecolodge attracted the turkey-sized, prehistoric-looking Great Curassow. A frequent feeder visitor everywhere was the Blue-gray Tanager. It reminded me of our Mountain Bluebird. I even saw it buzzing around our bus, checking out the sideview mirrors and roof, the way the bluebirds do in spring.

Yellow-throated Toucan. Photo by Mark Gorges.

            There are many aspects to travelling in Central America beyond birding. For instance, lodging. Our first and last nights we stayed at two different boutique hotels. Hotel Bougainvillea is the one with 10 acres of bird-filled gardens.

            The three ecolodges in between were in rural areas and a little more rustic: Arenal Observatory Lodge, Selva Verde and Paraiso Quetzal. Mario picked these for their proximity to bird diversity. There are more independently owned lodges scattered across the country.

            For lunch and dinner, we often had “Typical Plate” – rice, beans, vegetables and meat (chicken, beef, pork). Up in the mountains, trout was an option because people farm trout there.

            Some of our travelling companions tired of beans and rice, and tired of the rain—we were maybe a little early anticipating the dry season—but otherwise, we were a congenial group of 12, plus Mario, Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest’s managing editor, and Ricardo, our fearless bus driver. He was also great at spotting birds and taking photos through the spotting scope with our smart phones without an adaptor. I’m going to have to learn that art. There were no bird snobs. Everyone wanted to help everyone see birds.

            Costa Rica has been a leader in eco-tourism. Its map shows a large percentage of land in national parks and preserves.

            Mountain farmers have been encouraged to hang on to their wild avocado trees, providing the favorite food and habitat of the resplendent quetzal. It is the green bird with the nearly 3-foot-long tail feathers revered by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans. In return, the Costa Rica Wildlife Foundation’s quetzal project brings birdwatchers out to see them, paying the farmer $5 a head—not a small sum in the local economy.

            We saw dangerous animals. In the dim light along the trail at La Selva Biological Station there was a bright yellow Eyelash Pit Viper arranged on the side of a log. The Mantled Howler Monkeys overhead were watching visitors as much as being watched. Mosquitoes, however, were nearly non-existent. Mark and I wore our permethrin-treated field clothes anyway.

            I think how neat it would be if Wyoming too, had a cadre of trained naturalist guides and ecolodges in the vicinity of more of our interesting wildlife—not just the elk and wolves.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

2018-09-GREAT GREEN MACAW Mario Córdoba

Great Green Macaw, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

How to prepare for international birdwatching adventures

Published September 23, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

The back-to-school sales reminded me that I have some studying to do. In a few months, Mark and I are going to Costa Rica on our first international birding trip. We are going with Bird Watcher’s Digest with whom we’ve birded before in Florida and Texas.

Our friend Chuck Seniawski has been to Costa Rica five times and recommended, as did BWD, The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. It shows 903 species in a country 20 percent the size of Wyoming, which has only 445 species. About 200 I’ve seen before because they migrate up here for the summer or their year round range includes parts of both North and Central America.

2018-09-LONG-TAILED SILKY-FLYCATCHER Mario Córdoba

Long-tailed Silky-flycatcher, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

I asked local birder Greg Johnson, veteran of many international birding trips, how he learns the birds before heading to a new destination.

Greg said he starts with the country’s field guide, “I start reviewing it almost daily beginning several weeks or even months before the trip. For most trips, the tour company should be able to provide you trip reports from previous trips with the same itinerary. The trip reports should have a list of all birds they saw or heard. I then check those birds with a pencil mark in the book to focus only on those I am likely to see and ignore the rest. For example, if your trip to Costa Rica only includes the highlands and Caribbean slope, you can ignore those birds which only occur on the Pacific slope.”

Mario Córdoba of Crescentia Expeditions, trip leader, has provided a list of target bird species based on our travel route including several ecolodges we’ll stay at near national parks. No Pacific slope.

2018-09-RESPLENDENT QUETZAL (2) Mario Córdoba

Resplendent Quetzal, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

Greg’s email continued, “If you spend enough time studying the birds you are most likely to see, you’ll surprise yourself at how easy it is to ID birds you have never seen before at first sight. There are always some groups that are still hard to ID without help from a guide [bird expert] because differences between species are very subtle. In Costa Rica these would include woodcreepers, some of the antbirds, elanias, tyrannulets, other flycatchers, etc.”

There are recognizable genera in Costa Rica: hummingbird, woodpecker, wren, warbler. But then the others seem straight from Alice in Wonderland: potoo, motmot, puffbird.

Mark and I also went to eBird and looked at the bird lists for the hotspots we will be visiting and filtered them for the month we are there. Of 421 species we found, 338 will be unfamiliar birds.

2018-09-FIERY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD Mario Córdoba

Fiery-throated Hummingbird, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

There is an alternative to thumbing through the field guide to study the birds. Our daughter-in-law, Jessie Gorges, with a degree in marine biology from the University of Hawaii, got a job one summer surveying birds across the Great Plains. She had a couple months to learn to recognize a few hundred birds by sight and sound.

Her solution is a free program called ANKI, https://apps.ankiweb.net. She created her own deck of digital flashcards with photos and birdsong recordings. It’s like a game and Jessie is the queen of complicated board and card games. The program prepares a daily quiz based on how much review and repetition it thinks you need.

But of course, even to make bird flashcards like I did 20 years ago for kids for Audubon Wyoming, printable from a CD, I need to find photographs. Finding them online or scanning pages of the field guide can help me study.

I take for granted the decades of familiarity I have with bird species in the U.S. There are groups in which I still can’t distinguish individual species well, for instance, flycatchers. But at least I know they are flycatchers. On this trip I’ll be leaving behind most of the birds I know.

2018-09-RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER Mario Córdoba

Red-legged Honeycreeper, courtesy Mario Córdoba.

But Greg assured me, “Once you go on an international birding trip, you’ll likely get hooked and won’t be able to stop. There are so many great birds that don’t occur in the U.S. I’ll never forget seeing my first keel-billed toucans in Belize or African penguins in South Africa.”

Preparing for this trip will make me appreciate the birds I do know when I meet their tropical cousins. I never thought about our northern rough-winged swallow having a counterpart, the southern rough-winged swallow. We could see both in Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, excuse me while I begin studying in ornithological order: “Great Tinamou, Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Black Guan, Crested Guan, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Least Grebe, Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Green Ibis, Southern Lapwing, Northern Jacana, White-throated Crake, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, Gray-headed Kite, Tiny Hawk….”

2018-09-SCARLET MACAW Mario Córdoba

Scarlet Macaws, courtesy Mario Córdoba.