Life in the Costa Rica Highlands

Note: After a computer failure while away from the US, I am now back in Colorado and resuming posts that will cover my remaining time in Costa Rica, as well as Colombia.

2 February 2018

For the past three months, Steve Dougill and I have primarily been stationed at Madre Selva where we band birds for Costa Rica Bird Observatories (CRBO). While I have posted three other blogs for our time banding in Costa Rica (Back to the Tropics: Banding in Costa Rica, The Land of Turtles, and Ringing in the New Year), I present you with a final post for the Costa Rica Highlands.

In this cloud forest landscape rich with regional endemics, Steve and I unfurl nets at first light and work well into the afternoon on a near daily basis. On the rare day off, we go birding and sometimes venture off on short excursions. One morning, we make it to the páramo, 25 kilometers up the highway. Here, we see our first Volcano Juncos and Timberline Wrens, both species only found in this unique sub-alpine habitat of Costa Rica and western Panama.

Volcano Junco (Junco vulcani), endemic to the Talamanca Páramo. As CRBO has done research here in the past, a few of the juncos are banded.
The habitat of the regional endemic Volcano Junco and Timberline Wren.

From our house and headquarters at Madre Selva, I often explore the surrounding forests. While the process of banding birds naturally allows for the up-close and detailed study of individual birds, observing them in their natural habitat is incredibly rewarding and valuable in itself.

Black-capped Flycatcher (Empidonax atriceps), a regional endemic.
Collared Trogon (Trogon collaris)
Talamanca Hummingbird (Eugenes spectabilis), a regional endemic.
Lesser Violetear (Colibri cyanotus)
Fiery-throated Hummingbird (Panterpe insignis), a regional endemic.
A favorite hike leads to a few scenic waterfalls.

Below are a few last images of banding at Madre Selva . . .

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher (Ptiliogonys caudatus), a regional endemic.
Scaled Antpitta (Grallaria guatimalensis)
Yellow-winged Vireo (Vireo carmioli), a regional endemic.
Large-footed Finch (Pezopetes capitalis), a regional endemic.
The eye of Costa Rica’s national bird, Clay-colored Thrush (Turdus grayi).

Ringing in the New Year

The full moon illuminates a mountainous landscape of forest and cow pastures. Wind whistles through the treetops and cold air cuts through our jackets. It is 11:50 PM on New Year’s Eve and our eyes lock onto the eye-shine of a Dusky Nightjar. In ten minutes, we hope to call this species our first bird of 2018. As the clock strikes 11:59, the eye-shine abruptly vanishes into the darkness. We cry out in disappointment, but are determined to re-find the bird. With an early morning of work ahead of us, we desperately search for the bird so we can snag both our first bird of the year and a few hours of sleep. My partner in this mission is fellow bird bander and Coloradan, Holly Garrod, who is visiting the Madre Selva banding station here in the highlands of Costa Rica. After ten minutes of scouring the landscape, we finally relocate the endemic nightjar hawking for insects in the top of a swaying tree. With a sigh of relief, we turn in for the night.

Before the first rays of sunlight, I emerge from beneath my warm blankets. Accompanied by Holly, and my coworker, Steve Dougill, we pull on rubber boots and head out to set mist nets in the cloud forest behind the house. On behalf of Costa Rica Bird Observatories and their avian monitoring efforts, we are literally preparing to ring in the New Year. As the nets unfurl, birds begin vocalizing. First, I hear the ascending whistle of a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. Next, a pair of Black-cheeked Warblers flit across the trail. In quick succession, I hear the calls and songs of a Mountain Thrush, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Ochraceous Wren, Large-footed Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, Lesser Violetear, Collared Redstart, Barred Forest-Falcon, and Spotted Wood-Quails. This strong predawn chorus is a good predictor that our morning of mist netting will be productive.

Across six hours, we capture and process 31 individuals with 20 represented species. For Steve and me, this is one of our best days of ringing in Costa Rica yet, and we are both immensely grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the research on the many regional endemics, as well as all the other spectacular residents and migrants of Madre Selva.

Today was certainly an excellent way to kick off 2018. Happy New Year everyone!!!

Spangle-cheeked Tanager (Tangara dowii), a regional endemic.
Black-and-yellow Silky-flycatcher (Phainoptila melanoxantha), a regional endemic.
Slaty Flowerpiercer (Diglossa plumbea), a regional endemic.
Flame-throated Warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis), a regional endemic.
Yellowish Flycatcher (Empidonax flavescens)
Red-faced Spinetail (Cranioleuca erythrops)
Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla), a common North American migrant found along the creeks of this region.
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), another North American migrant spending its winter in the Costa Rica Highlands.

The Land of Turtles

While our current position with Costa Rica Bird Observatories is primarily based out of the highlands, Steve and I also have the privilege of working on the Caribbean Coast for several days each month. Compared to the cold, wet, and windy highlands, the Caribbean’s warm weather is a nice change, even though tropical rainstorms are prevalent. Even more so, the birds of this region are entirely different. From Madre Selva (our highlands base near San Isidro), we descend the mountain towards the Caribbean coast. After a series of bus rides and a boat trip, we arrive in Tortuguero, a small beach town only accessible by river.

During the two hour boat ride, one can see crocodiles, caimans, iguanas, and Green Ibis.

Tortuguero means “The Land of Turtles” in Spanish, and the beach here is the Western Hemisphere’s most important nesting site for the endangered Green Turtle. During our first visit to Tortuguero, we were lucky to catch the tail end of turtle nesting season, which ends in November.

A Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) hatchling entering the ocean for the first time. If it reaches adulthood, this tiny turtle could live more than 80 years and reach a weight of over 400 lbs (180 kg).

We are here specifically to band birds, so we get to work. Over the course of five days, we band at five different locations. Our sites consist of both primary and secondary forests, some near the beach and some along rivers. During this banding cycle at Tortuguero, we capture a nice variety of birds. For the resident birds, we capture Bronzy Hermit, Stripe-throated Hermit, Long-billed Hermit, Green-breasted Mango, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Boat-billed Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Red-capped Manakin, White-collared Manakin, Checker-throated Antwren, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Clay-colored Thrush, White-breasted Wood-Wren, and Olive-backed Euphonia. As well, we capture some overwintering migrants from North America. These include, Wood Thrush, Swainson’s Thrush, Gray Catbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Prothonotary Warbler, and Northern Waterthrush.

Chestnut-backed Antbird (Poliocrania exsul)
Checker-throated Antwren (Epinecrophylla fulviventris)
Mantled Howler Monkey (Alouatta palliata)

Great Green Macaws (Ara ambiguus)


Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)