Costa Rica: Birding the Palo Verde area

Social Flycatcher

I hired a bird guide for two of our days in Costa Rica, and on Monday we spent half a day in the Palo Verde area. Olivier (pronounced Olive-YAIR, not O-liv-ee-ay) Esquivel of Natural Discovery was recommended to me by another tour guide who was unavailable for any one-day birding tours during our week, and has excellent reviews on several internet sites including Trip Advisor and Ollie, as we were told to call him, met us at the resort gate at 6:00 am, which isn’t as bad as it sounds since we were still operating on Eastern Daylight Time, which is two hours ahead. I liked him right away, as he managed to project both experienced professionalism and keen enthusiasm during our initial meeting, and his knowledge quickly became apparent during our time together.

About ten minutes after leaving the resort Ollie asked the driver to pull over onto the side of a small two-lane highway (Route 254). I could see about 20 Great Egrets standing in the fields on both sides of the road, and Ollie explained these were newly-harvested rice fields. Then Ollie pointed out two much larger white birds, a pair of 52″ storks called Jabiru. I wasn’t expecting to see these birds as there are only a small number in Costa Rica – at no. 188 on my list of target birds, they have been reported on only 1.7% of all complete eBird checklists from Guanacaste in May. Apparently Ollie wasn’t expecting them either, for he was quite excited to see them. While these rice fields are one of only two or three reliable spots to find them (and indeed have their own ebird hotspot), they can be hit-or-miss, and Ollie was pleased that we got them on the first try.


The other birds in the rice field seemed almost uninteresting in comparison. However, a Black-bellied Whistling Duck was a life bird, and a couple of Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons were standing on the long mounds of harvested rice, each of which was separated by a watery trench. Three Roseate Spoonbills, a Limpkin, and a Wood Stork were also present, and it was strange to see a pair of male Red-winged Blackbirds even though I was aware that they breed in Costa Rica. Then a kingfisher flew in and landed on a wire just like any Belted Kingfisher in Ontario, but it was entirely rusty below with no white on its belly – a Ringed Kingfisher! At 16″ it is 3″ larger than the more familiar Belted Kingfisher, though it was hard to gauge its size. The Ringed Kingfisher was slightly more common at no. 47 on my list.

Ringed Kingfisher (taken by Olivier Esquivel)

We dropped in at Filadelphia to buy some breakfast, then continued on our way south to the boat dock on the Tempisque River. We picked up a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and two Russet-naped Wood-rails along the way. The wood-rails were feeding in a wet ditch until the van scared them up the slope, but they remained in view long enough to get some photos. The Russet-naped Wood-rail wasn’t in my field guide, and I didn’t recognize the name until Ollie told me that the Gray-necked Wood-rail had been split into two species, the Russet-naped and the Black-cowled Wood-rails. The Black-cowled Wood-rail reaches its northern limit in southeastern Costa Rica while the Russet-naped Wood-rail is found from Mexico to northeastern Costa Rica. True to its name, the Russet-naped Wood-rail has a rufous patch on the back of its neck; this patch is absent or reduced in the Black-cowled Wood-rail. Because this taxonomic split occurred only a year ago, Ollie consulted an online source to try and determine which species it was we were looking at. eBird only gave me the choice between Russet-naped and Rufous-necked Wood-rail for that location, helping to narrow down the ID; despite the similar name, the Rufous-necked Wood-rail is a different bird altogether with an entirely red head and neck. The Russet-naped Wood-rail was no. 152 on my list of target species –
not an easy bird to see!

Russet-naped Wood-rail

We continued on our way to the boat dock, stopping the van when a family of White-nosed Coatis ran out in front of it. The coati (pronounced co-AT-ee) is a member of the raccoon family and is fairly common in areas where it is not hunted. Agile climbers, they are found in a variety of habitats in both low and high elevations. They are diurnal, making them one of the easier mammals to see in Costa Rica.

White-nosed Coati family

When we reached the boat dock at 7:30 my attention was drawn to the large green and black dragonflies buzzing around. Unlike the dragonflies on the resort, these ones seemed to have no aversion to perching on the ground, and when one landed I immediately took the opportunity to grab a few photos. It looked like a longer, thinner version of our Eastern Pondhawk, and eventually I confirmed its identity as a Great Pondhawk by checking the skimmer family on the online list of Costa Rican dragonflies. It was a striking dragonfly with its deep green and black colouration.

Great Pondhawk (Erythemis vesiculosa)

By the time I finished photographing the pondhawk Ollie and Doran were boarding the boat. Other than the driver, we were the only people on board. The first birds we saw were a pair of Mangrove Swallows and a Spotted Sandpiper flying low over the water. We saw no kingfishers, to my disappointment, and herons were few and far between.

Rio Tempisque

Rio Tempisque

I was happy to get Bare-faced Tiger Heron for my life list when Ollie spotted two of them sitting on nests over the water. Unlike the large, open stick nests that Great Blue Herons build on the tops of dead or dying trees, these were well-camouflaged nests on large tree branches in the middle of the trees. This was another species I thought would be an easy lifer – it was no. 19 on my list, having been reported on 13% of all complete checklists. The Bare-throated Tiger-Heron is named for the patch of bare yellow skin on the throat, and otherwise more resembles a bittern than one of the North American herons. Though I was disappointed that I didn’t get a view of the full bird, I was thrilled to see both individuals sitting on nests – something I don’t often see even in Ottawa.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron

Other heron species included one Cattle Egret (plus one dead one hanging upside down in a tree), three Black-crowned Night herons, and two Green Herons. I was really hoping to get my lifer Boat-billed Heron here since I had missed it in Mexico, but we weren’t able to find any. Ollie thought that was strange, too, though both he and the boat driver kept peering into every nook and cranny along the shoreline.

Two American Crocodiles drifted by in the water, and Ollie told us that out of every 100 persons attempting to swim across the Rio Tempisque, only one might make it – because of the crocodiles. This was the same species we had seen in Mexico.

American Crocodile

Three Black-bellied Whistling Ducks flew over, as did a bird Ollied identified as a Muscovy Duck (I didn’t get a good enough look to ID it myself). We saw several Groove-billed Anis in the vegetation along the shore – they appear to be as numerous along the Tempisque as Red-wings are along the Rideau, and after pointing them out to Ollie he was unable to stop seeing them everywhere along the shore. Other birds seen include Social Flycatcher, Great Kiskadees, a lifer Boat-Billed Flycatcher that Ollie tracked down when he heard its call, an Orange-fronted Parakeet, and two Rose-throated Becards.

Social Flycatcher

The Rose-throated Becards in Costa Rica do not have rose-coloured throats like the ones we saw in Mexico, and are quite drab in comparison. Ollie also pointed out the elaborate nests that the Rose-throated Becards build out over the water.

Rose-throated Becard nest

The best bird we found along the water wasn’t a water bird, but a trio of Pacific Screech owls dozing in the vegetation along the shore. Ollie had known where they were roosting and fortunately they were still there. I could barely see them through the lush green leaves, but their startled yellow eyes staring at me made me smile. It is the less common of the two most-easily seen owls in Guanacaste; it is no. 84 on my list, while Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is no. 79.

Pacific Screech owl

Ollie also pointed out a couple of colonies of long-nosed bats sleeping on tree trunks angling out over the water, two American Crocodiles, a family of Howler Monkeys, and a White-faced Capuchin Monkey which seemed as interested in watching us as we were in watching it.

Long-nosed Bat

White-faced Capuchin Monkey

White-faced Capuchin Monkey

A Great Pondhawk flew in and out of our boat – only the top was covered – and eventually landed on the side of the boat. I wished that all of the dragonflies in Costa Rica were so accommodating.

Great Pondhawk

Eventually we had to turn around and return the way we came. The trip back seemed much shorter, perhaps because we had scoured the area so thoroughly on our way out that there wasn’t much to look for on our way back. We did see a beautiful Green Heron perching out in the open on the main channel of the river, and at one point it fluffed itself up and then shook itself out.

Green Heron

Right near the boat launch Ollie pointed out two large iguanas sunning themselves on the river bank. The Green Iguana was huge, and looked like a prehistoric lizard that would be right at home with the Pterodactyls and Velociraptors and giant dragonflies of the Jurassic era. The Green Iguana is the longest iguana in Costa Rica, with an adult length of between 5 and 7 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) from nose to tail. It ranges from dull to bright green, with a black-banded tail, although males turn a bright orange during mating season in November/December. The Green Iguana has the more varied diet of the two iguana species, feeding on mainly on fruits and vegetables, though they may also feed on insects, small animals and carrion.

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

The Black Spiny-tailed Iguana, also known as the Ctenosaur, is smaller, growing only up to 1 meter long. Young Spiny-Tailed Iguanas are also bright green, but this color fades to a dark brown-to-gray or black as they grow to adulthood. The tail is ringed with specialized spiny scales which help defend against predators trying to enter burrows in the ground or tree cavities being used by the iguana. While Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas have spines on their back, they lack the peculiar head spines and crest of the Green Iguana. Like the Green Iguana, the Black Spiny-tailed Iguana is chiefly a herbivore.

Black Spiny-tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura similis)

By the time we returned to the boat launch we had seen a total of 21 bird species, only three of which were new for me, and a fantastic variety of wildlife. Although I was thrilled with the day – and the guide! – so far, the outing wasn’t over yet, however; Ollie still planned to take us for a walk down a nearby road, before doing some car birding in the open spaces north of Bolsón.

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