Costa Rica: Birding around the Resort

Great Kiskadee

Costa Rica operates on Central Standard Time. Being so close to the equator, however, it receives roughly 12 hours of daylight throughout the year; as such, it has no need for Daylight Saving Time, and doesn’t reset its clocks twice a year. This is quite unlike Ottawa, which fluctuates from about 8 hours of daylight at the December solstice to just under 16 hours at the June solstice. It was light enough to go birding around 5:30 am, and started getting dark around 6:30 pm. Costa Rica was two hours behind Ottawa time during our trip, and as a result of the time change, we were up earlier than usual. This made time seem to slow down, for the days seemed much longer, with plenty of hours to fill.

With my sleep issues I still woke up at my usual time each day, which meant I was wide awake by 3:30 or 4:00 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. As soon as it got light I went birding, sneaking out around 5:30 or 6:00 am almost every day we didn’t have any activities planned. We spent our first full day in Costa Rica on the resort, and almost right away I discovered a great birding spot right near our building.

The cliff overlooking the Gulf of Papagayo slopes upward at the south end of the property, and there is a wide lawn here outside another guest building. A couple of huge trees with red flowers provided shade, and three palm trees sat in the sun. The red-flowering trees caught my attention when I saw several butterflies fluttering around the crown. I hadn’t been able to visit this area the day before, as the rain had started only a few hours after we arrived, but I was curious to check out the view.

Occidental Papagayo

Along the way I saw a Rufous-naped Wren flitting in the trees close to the ground. It was gathering nesting material, and when I saw it fly to the fork of palm tree I followed, though I didn’t see a nest there. These birds are very vocal, and by the end of the week I was able to recognize not only their Whip-poor-will-like whistle, but also some of the other strange noises they make.

Rufous-naped Wren

A little further along I spotted a larger bird sitting in the bare branches of a tree, and I was surprised to identify it as a Turquoise-browed Motmot. It was sitting in the shadow where the sun’s rays couldn’t reach, its long, racket-tipped tail hanging still in the humid morning. When I had prepared my list of target species I had only included birds I hadn’t yet seen; as I had seen this species in Mexico, it had been left off my list. When I re-checked my list of target species for birds I needed for the province of Guanacaste, it showed up as no. 8 on the list, appearing in 33% of all complete checklists. After my experience with this bird in Mexico, it wasn’t a species I had expected to find easily, let alone a two-minute walk outside my front door! It later flew into the red-flowering tree where I was able to get a decent photo of it.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

The first bird I noticed in the area below the red-flowering trees was a Great Kiskadee. It was sitting in the red-flowering tree at first, then flew over to a palm tree when I walked right beneath it. That was when I noticed that it had a nest in the palm tree.

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee nest

The Great Kiskadee is a member of the flycatcher family, and is the most frequently encountered bird in Guanacaste, appearing on 45% of all complete checklists. They are found throughout most of Central and South America, inhabiting a variety of habitats including forest edges, grasslands, and busy residential areas where they are oftenn seen hawking insects from an open perch or dropping to the ground to catch insects and small reptiles. This species has benefited from the clear-cutting of forests, having increased in both range and abundance in recent times. Like other members of the flycatcher family, it is not afraid to chase other birds away from its nest, and I witnessed one chasing a White-winged Dove out of the tree.

Great Kiskadee

White-winged Doves are another common bird in Guanacaste, appearing in 29% of all complete checklists. They call frequently, and by the end of the week I was familiar with their choo-choo train-like tones calling “hip-hip-hooray” throughout the grounds.

White-winged Dove

Butterflies weren’t the only ones nectaring on the flowers. I saw a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower before landing on a branch beneath the leaves. The black-tipped red bill and reddish colouring below identified it as a Cinnamon Hummingbird, not a bird I needed for my life list, but one I was hoping to see! At no. 33 on the list of birds I hadn’t seen in Guanacaste, I wasn’t sure it I would be able to see one. I was thrilled with the views here as I had only had a brief glimpse of one in Mexico.

Cinnamon Hummingbird

Hummingbirds are very territorial, and I wasn’t surprised when it darted out after another hummingbird. The two fought a mid-air battle that lasted a couple of minutes, even descending to the ground before they eventually separated. Not long after, I took the photo below, and originally identified the bird as a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, the most commonly seen hummingbird in Guanacaste. However I wasn’t able to get a look at the front of the bird, and later realized that both Cinnamon Hummingbirds and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds have a green back with a red tail, so I am leaving this as unidentified for now. I never did see a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird on the resort, either, which also leads me to think that it is another Cinnamon Hummingbird.

Hummingbird sp.

I spent about half an hour in the area before heading back to our room to see if Doran was up and ready for breakfast. Along the way I spotted the White-throated Magpie Jay in a tree and managed to snap a photo before it flew off.

White-throated Magpie Jay

After breakfast we headed down to the beach to check it out. There is a large clump of trees along the path to the stairs leading down to the beach, and we noticed quite a few birds moving high in the branches. Doran pointed out one with a yellow belly that turned out to be a trogon – it wasn’t until after I took the picture that I identified it as a Black-headed Trogon, the most common trogon species in Guanacaste. There are only two other yellow-bellied trogons in Costa Rica, the Gartered Trogon (which has a yellow eye-ring) and the Black-throated Trogon, which has a green head and a black throat, and is not found in the dry tropical forest. The females of all three species have brown heads.

Black-throated Trogon

I was able to return to the red-flowering trees later in the day, stopping when a staff member pointed out a pair of Black Vultures perching in a tree at eye level along the way.

Black Vultures

When I reached the lawn I stood beneath the trees, hoping that the hummingbirds would perch out in the open again. Movement of a larger bird in the trees at the edge of the cliff caught my attention, and I was thrilled to see two Squirrel Cuckoos moving through the branches! This was a bird I had wanted to see in Mexico, not only because of its soft rust and gray colours and long, spectacular tail, but also because of the way it is said to hop among branches in a squirrel-like manner in search of caterpillars. Unfortunately it was moving fairly quickly through the tree, and I only managed to get one photo of it in-focus – and it doesn’t even show how beautiful a bird it is. These were the only two Squirrel Cuckoos I got a good look at during our trip – a third flew out in front of our van on an outing, and I had no chance to photograph it.

Squirrel Cuckoo

The two Squirrel Cuckoos followed the shrubs along the face of the cliff, then disappeared down toward the beach. I resumed my hummingbird watch, and was finally rewarded with one sitting out in the open. This one had a white belly instead of a cinnamon-coloured belly, which meant I had sometime different. Fortunately it was a bird I recognized, with the red throat patch, green head, and white line behind the supercilium – a Plain-capped Starthroat. It was a life bird for me, and one I wasn’t sure I would see – at no. 120 on my target list, it is found on only 2.5% of all complete checklists for the month of May. I was really happy to find it so easily on the resort, especially as it seemed to be a resident – I found it on three different visits to the red-flowering trees.

Plain-capped Starthroat

A couple of Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers were also quite visible in the area; I heard a couple of them calling back and forth, though I wasn’t able to photograph any. They sound just like the Red-bellied Woodpeckers of Ontario and belong to the same genus (Melanerpes). They even look similar to the Red-bellied Woodpecker, except they don’t have a red belly, and the male has a yellow patch above the bill and a yellow stripe on the nape of its neck just below the red crown. Females are similar but lack the red crown.

A little later I noticed two black birds in the shrubs next to the road and took a closer look at them. They weren’t grackles, as I had guessed, but Groove-billed Anis! My delight at seeing them helped soothe my disappointment over not being able to get a good photo of the Squirrel Cuckoo – although I first saw this species in Mexico, it was such a brief look at such a great distance that I never felt satisfied with it. These two anis were more cooperative, though when I took a couple of steps toward them they flew to the fence at the edge of the cliff. One spread its wings, as though it were sun-bathing.

Groove-billed Ani

I had another chance to photograph the magpie jay later in the afternoon when one landed at the top of a column on the building housing the snack bar. I’m not sure if it was looking for insects up there, but it spent several minutes up there looking around.

White-throated Magpie Jay

Clouds moved in later that afternoon, and we had a brief spell of rain. Afterward I went out for another walk, and was captivated by several birds hanging out in the bare trees near the pool. There were a couple of Great-tailed Grackles and Orange-fronted Parakeets, and as I watched, more parakeets flew in! They were quite noisy, chattering away as they flitted from tree to tree. Then I noticed an orangey-yellow bird in the tree and identified it as an oriole. Two species are common in Guanacaste, the Spot-breasted Oriole and the Streak-backed Oriole. When the bird turned its back to me I could see the streaks on its back that identified it as the Streak-backed Oriole.

Streak-backed Oriole

This was bird no. 11 on my list of target species for Guanacaste, and another easy lifer for my list. Spot-breasted Oriole, at no. 95, is much harder, and one I expected to have a better chance seeing on one of our two planned birding excursions rather than hanging around the resort.

I finally got lucky and found a couple of dragonflies perching, too. I saw one land in the small hedge just outside our room and went to take a look. It was relatively plain, though the red colour near the tip of the abdomen made me wonder if it had originally been more colourful in its teneral stage, or if it would change into something more colourful as it aged.

Reddish Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax famula)

Unfortunately the wildlife guide I had bought – The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid et al., published by Cornell University Press – only has one odonate in it, the spectacular long-winged Helicopter Damselfly. I didn’t have any other field guides, so after I got home I set about some online sleuthing in order to identify the handful of dragonflies I ended up photographing. First I found a reasonably comprehensive online list of Costa Rican dragonflies, then I checked each one by doing Google image searches to search for likely candidates. Fortunately I was able to narrow them all down to the skimmer family, which reduced the number of species I had to check. I managed to identify all of the five species I photographed this way – it’s a tedious way to ID a dragonfly when you don’t have a field guide for the appropriate area, but sometimes persistence pays off!

I believe this one is a female Reddish Dragonlet, based on the faint yellowish tint at the base of the hindwings and the long yellow stripe which runs all the way up the thorax and into the back of the head. The males are bright red and are much more spectacular.

Reddish Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax famula)

This one was perching on the cliff on the other side of the fence. It was easier to identify given the wide black wing patches – the only other similar dragonfly, the Band-winged Dragonlet, has a much narrower black band which does not reach the base of the wings.

Black-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax funerea)

By the end of our first full day in Costa Rica I’d seen quite a few butterflies and dragonflies, lizards, and 19 birds species on the resort, 10 of which were life birds. It was paradise compared to the place we’d stayed at in Cozumel, with so much more habitat for birds and other wildlife and so much more to photograph. The heat and humidity made it difficult to stay out for very long before having to retreat to our air-conditioned room or dining room for our meals, though eventually the cold air got to me and I had to go outside to warm back up. Still, I expected that the more I explored the resort, the more species I would turn up – definitely an interesting project for the week ahead!

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