Where We Bird: A San Vito Bird Club Guide to Our Coto Brus Hot Spots (coming soon)

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021 we’ll be presenting a series of bi-monthly articles we call ‘Where We Bird’. In each article you’ll read a brief description of a particular birding locale from our area and more importantly…you’ll see several photos of the birds frequently (or infrequently) seen at that site. Photos are taken by SVBC members and by our colleagues from the Pajareros del Sur. Here are just a few of the birding sites we’ll be sharing with you:

Las Cruces/Wilson Botanical Gardens

The Magic Road/Camino Majico

Finca Cantaros Environmental Center

Rio Negro

The Porro Road

Cerro Paraguas

Coto 47

We hope you’ll enjoy these articles and the photos!

Ask the Experts: #10

We all love a good scare, from time to time; or more precisely we all enjoy hearing about a good scare. Here are three scares that happened while guiding or birding, as reported by three of our Experts. (FYI: this will be the final Ask the Expert column for a while. Hope you enjoyed this feature.)

From SVBC member Anzu Matsuyama; Kobe, Japan.
‘What is the most frightening experience you have ever had while birding or guiding?’

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

Each day of a birding trip with customers is not easy. You always have to be attentive to any kind of circumstances that could happen. Probably the most scary one I experienced so far was the day I was with a couple in the Caño Negro Wetlands. That day we decided to go all the way up an observation tower that is in the protected area. The idea was to check for American White Pelicans that were hanging around the area. When we were at the top of the tower (almost 60 ft high), one of my clients did not see a hole that was in the floor and he  fell into it! Luckily he got stuck when half of his body was passing through the hole. After we helped him up, one of his legs was covered with blood, so we came down from the tower and started to clean his leg. At the end of the day I was so happy to think that this guy only got a scratch on his leg, and there was no greater tragedy. And lucky for us, the story has two happy endings: the next day we did find the flock of American White Pelicans!

Greg Homer: Natural History and Birding Guide–retired.

In Australia they often say, ‘Most everything down here is either poisonous, venomous or just in a bloody bad mood.’

I was escorting 20 clients on a remote stretch of beach on an even more remote island in the Great Barrier Reef for a day of snorkeling, exploring and lunch. Two of the clients were not comfortable in water so I stayed with them on the beach while another guide lead the snorkelers.

‘Hey Greg!’ I heard one of my clients shout, from about 100 meters down the beach.

‘What?’ I responded. (When you’re guiding 20 people you hear that same shouted phrase about 48 times each day…equalling twice per hour.)

‘There are some snakes on the beach!’

‘Do they have big heads or little heads?’ I replied. Knowing that there were harmless Children’s Pythons in that area and that Children’s Pythons have big wide heads, while the extremely deadly Brown Snakes (also common) have narrow little heads. No sense running the 100 meters for nothing, right?

‘Little heads!’


Sure enough, this client had stumbled into a group of about 5-8 young (but very deadly) Brown Snakes.

No harm done to anyone and I found out I could run the 100 meter dash in 11.3 seconds which is not bad in beach sand, wearing sandals.

Basil (Baz) Kirilenko: Owner and Operator of Mindo Valley Tours; Mindo, Ecuador

Without a doubt, this was the scariest experience I have had while guiding. One of my clients–an extremely enthusiastic, charming and energetic woman (in other words, the PERFECT client)–stood looking out at water birds on a beautiful lake about an hour before an apricot-colored sunset. One might say this was one of life’s perfect moments. Except…except…except, she was standing square on a fire ant mound. I don’t know how many fire ant stings she took but in a very short time, her leg swelled up to twice its normal size and her face became quite red. Clearly an allergic reaction was occurring and anaphylaxis could be next. I iced down her swollen leg and I loaded up the rest of my tourists and drove, very fortunately, only about 45 minutes to a small rural medical clinic. The staff there were quite familiar with fire ant symptoms and gave her antihistamines and some pain killers. After a night in that clinic she was fine and once again became the perfect client!

Ask the Experts: #9

In this episode our Experts are confronted with a wonderful fantasy. Let’s see how they respond.

From SVBC member Hayden Delevan; Willows, California:

Hi guys, here’s a fantasy. You stop to help out some helpless dude who has a flat tire.  The guy turns out to be multi-billionaire Bill Gates.  Mr. Gates says, ‘Hey, thank you so much.  As a reward, here’s my credit card.  I want you to go birding at three places, anywhere in the world.’  What are the three places you would go to?

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

First, I need to finish seeing and visiting my own country and some places I haven’t been to. Second, I would go to South America and see at least Brazil and Colombia. Third, visit any country with the most birds of paradise, whether it is Papua or Sulawesi or Indonesia or all three. That’s what Billy G will sponsor me to go to!

Uzvaldo Franzinni: Monthly contributor to the Zanti Journal of Ornithology.

I have always been fascinated and irresistibly drawn to the remote islands of the world. There is something so alluring about the biogeography of islands; they are often home to unusual endemic bird species. And we, as naturalists, are just goofy for endemic species, in case you didn’t know.

And so first of all I would say, ‘Thank you Mr. Gates but rewarding me for helping out another human being is not necessary. But since you are Bill Gates and perhaps it is money that you have and peace that you have not, I will accept your most generous gift. And be assured Mr. Gates, I will send you an email with a photo from each of my three destinations (using a Microsoft product).’

My three desinations:

  1. Easter Island; WAAAY off the coast of Chile. I might even find time to look at those weird stone monuments.
  2. Bruny Island; an island off of an island off of an island. Bruny Island is south of the island of Tasmania, which is south of Australia.
  3. Your very own Cocos Island.

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

I think every single birder would love to experience a fantasy like this one. The three places I would choose are: 

  1. Papua New Guinea: It is well-known that most naturalists have the thought of going to this side of the world. With all the stunning feathered and non-feathered creatures, this island is a place I always keep in my mind to go one day.
  2. Colombia, the country with the most species of birds reported: I am still waiting to go to this side of the tropics and enjoy all the habitats this nation offers, from sea level, up to the Andes and the Amazonian forest.
  3. Australia: the name of this country brings up a lot of wonderful memories from my childhood watching Blue Planet. This massive piece of land definitely is a place I would love to go one day to experience all the stunning wild life in real life.

I just hope Mr. Gates will soon pass near Finca Cántaros.

(ps, from Greg Homer: The San Vito Poker Club would also welcome Mr. Gates along with Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos to our next poker game.)

Book Club Members Discuss a B.A.O. (big-ass owl)

Shown below, San Vito Bird Club members discussing their most recent book club selection ‘Owls of the Eastern Ice, A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl’.

(Row 1: top left–Charles and Sara Beeson-Jones, Lydia Vogt. Row 2: Helen LeVasseur, Jennifer Talbot, Julie Girard. Row 3: Alison Olivieri, Jean Schroeder)

The world’s biggest owl; from the book.

Ask the Experts: #8

Do bird song playback devices do any harm? Let’s ask our experts.

From SVBC member Elizabeth Van Pelt from Devon PA:

Hello San Vito Bird Club Experts!

As a long-time birder and believer in ‘going with guides’, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with too much guide-generated playback to attract birds’ attention and get them closer to the group. It seems to me this practice forces birds to use energy to check the source of the calls/songs, fight off ‘intruders’ and otherwise engage in extra, unnecessary behaviors. How do you, as professional guides, suggest I handle this?

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

Playback has always been a topic of division between both bird guides and birders. On one hand we have the birder that travels thousands of kilometers to see as much as possible in two weeks and on the other hand you have the guide that wants you to be happy and satisfied with his/her sightings. However, there is an ethical paradox because most of your success as a guide for that particular customer or in general as a guide that wants to give a good tour, will depend on playback in order to produce and materialize as many and as exciting bird species as possible.What I do in that regard is to evaluate the situation and know my birds. If someone asks me to find a Bran-coloured Flycatcher in January, is very likely that I will wait to hear the call and walk in that direction instead of playing it back since I know that they are nesting and I won’t under any circumstances, do it myself or allow anybody in my group to do it cause I have the moral authority and the ethical obligation to do so. When a bird is not in a nesting season and I’m playing it back and it doesn’t react after hearing the first couple of calls, it’s also a very clear sign that it’s not interested and I won’t play it any longer. So there are some times when we don’t use it:Nesting, feeding and mating season,and when we don’t have a reaction from the bird. For the rest, I could play it a couple of times for the bird to come out from behind a tree and move a couple of feet to the side so we can see it. If it stays long enough for the picture, that’s a bonus but seeing it should be enough.

Omar Sidebe: Turacao Tours owner and guide, Loango National Park, Gabon (Africa)

Oh my goodness, as to the use of bird song playback devices it is a question of degree. Just as with ice cream bars…to much is not good but once in a while is most pleasant.

Birds are quite robust and generally not the frail creatures some think. Birds are perfectly capable of handling a bit of added stress now and again; it may even strengthen and embolden them. Playback devices do, indeed, cause them added stress. But we must also remember, stress that comes when these same birds see a group of massive upright bipedal primates walking through their neighborhoods…’pishing and pishing and pishing’.

Playback devices? Limit the frequency and duration of the playback; the birds will be fine. And limit your ice cream bar intake too!

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

As guides, this is one of the most interesting and important aspects that we have to deal with. Using playback to attract birds works most of the time. Nevertheless, those aspects you are concerned about, in terms of what we are really doing to the birds, is still unknown. Based on my experience, using playback to attract one specific species is sometimes the best tool I can use. There are customers who really like birds and like to get at least a glimpse of one target, but in some situations these people cannot go right into the place where the bird is found. I think at times it is better to attract the bird to us, instead of going deep into the bushes with the risk of being bitten by a venomous snake. I know people who say: “You don’t need to do that, go and look for some other species.” But we all (as birders) know the joy we have when we can find that nemesis we have been chasing forever.

I have to be very clear about this, because I know there are always people who just want to find a bird, no matter the way. Those guides/customers are the ones who sometimes show less respect for Nature. Nowadays there are different ways to use a song or a call of a bird, so my recommendation is if you want to use them, remember we don’t know exactly how the playback is affecting the species we want to attract, so be careful to use playback for short periods of time and not close to the nesting areas. And always keep in mind that no matter how careful you are, you are still affecting the routine of the species you would like to find.

(Black-chested Jay responding to a playback recording; courtesy of Helen LeVasseur)

Bernie and Seidy: A Farewell

The San Vito Bird Club wishes to express our extreme sadness at the untimely and unexpected passing of our two wonderful neighbors and friends…Bernie (Bernard León La Duke) and Seidy (Seidy Sánchez Chaves). They will be sadly missed.

We will miss Bernie; a man of infinite energy, business acumen, generosity and good cheer. And on a personal note, I (Greg), will miss his glorious sense of fashion and style.

We will miss Seidy. Seidy of the laughing eyes. No one who ever visited Seidy’s Magic Garden of Teacup Chihuahuas ever left without an uplifted spirit and a wide smile!

Our most sincere regards and sympathy go out to their daughter Alicia. Alicia, please reach out to us as needed.

(If you are viewing this posting on Facebook, please leave a comment, memory or photo.)

(photos courtesy of Donna Goodwin)

Ask the Experts: #7

Ever thought about buying a spotting scope? Our Experts have some advice for you.

Question: From SVBC Member Calvert Byles in Swansea in Wales. “I am fairly new to birding and would like to know about spotting scopes.  Should I invest in one?  What should I look for in a spotting scope?  Thank you.”

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

A few ecosystems demand the use of a telescope which are reduced to coastlines and shallow extensions of water. This is because the primary species tend to be scattered in these vast areas visited by shy birds thus making identification very difficult with just a pair of binoculars since you can’t get too close or because the access is not fitted for humans. Sometimes in the forest there is a weird-shaped bird sitting on a branch on a top of a hill where access is also limited and here is where a telescope can come in very handy. Europe and some of the east coast of the USA have a large coastline visited by migratory shorebirds that also justify the use of a telescope. In practical cases, you will always need one for sure when you didn’t bring it! If you don’t want to expend extra buying a camera, a telescope can also play a good part in digiscoping: the art of taking photos with your phone through a scope. Today you can find all kinds of adapters that can cost $10 or less and be able to take very good videos and photos of not moving or very slow birds. So it all comes back to what could be the primary reason behind the purchase and where will it be used the most.

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

If you are a new birder, I don´t think it is very necessary to buy a spotting scope. It is true that spotting scopes help us a lot to be able to identify species, but for a beginner, my recommendation is to buy a pair of good binoculars and enjoy watching birds with them.In case you just really want to buy a spotting scope to have it, my advice is to buy a good one, and when I say that it means to buy one that is not cheap. I know people who buy cheap ones and after a year or so they need to buy a new one, so at the end of the day in five years you will spend almost the same amount of money as if you made the decision to buy an expensive one.To give you an idea, I already have used the same scope for five years, it is a Swarovski ATX 65 mm HD. This model comes in pieces, so you have to buy the objective lens, the eyepiece, and the tripod with the head. For me, this was a great investment because besides being a bird nerd, I am a tour guide and in many cases, my clients don´t have binoculars, so the spotting scope is like my machete that I use to show them the species of birds we find.But like I said, if you just want to buy one to have with you, it would be a good tool to go birding, especially if you go out looking for shorebirds or if you are going to stay in one place where you don’t have to move.

Basil (Baz) Kirilenko: Owner and Operator of Mindo Valley Tours; Mindo, Ecuador

If you’re fit and strong and fit enough to tote a spotting scope around (or can hire someone to carry it for you), I say…It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Ask the Experts: #6

Welcome back friends. Question #6 for our Ask the Experts feature comes from SVBC member Kyler Pham, who lives in beautiful Prescott Valley, Arizona.

I’m thinking about becoming a birding guide and would like your advice.  When you are leading a group on a bird walk, what are some of the do’s and don’ts?  What can I do to maximize the birding experience for the people I am guiding?

Now please enjoy the responses from our three Experts:

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

When practicing the craft of guiding, it does not matter if you know all bird sounds or can recognize each species by its nest shape, first you have to identify the capabilities of the participants and determine how far they can go physically and measure their interest in birds in order to select a course and look for species that will be enjoyable for everyone. Right then you can relax and start showing your knowledge off!

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

To become a bird guide you need to have special skills. Sometimes people may think that bird guides are just having fun traveling around a place, country, region, continent or worldwide. It is true bird guides have the chance to know a lot of places, but they also need to study—study a lot! For example, they need to learn: the songs, calls and chips of residents and non-residents species; the different plumages and colors to identify a male or a female; the immature plumage and adult plumage; how birds behave; the best time to go to look for a specific target species; and about the habitat. Of course, you also need to learn about the culture of the places where you are thinking about going birding, to connect with the communities in a way that you can explain why it is so important to protect the forest habitat to keep species of birds. In other words, as you see, it is all about practice and experience, but the most important thing is to go out to the forest as much as you can, thus all those skills will start to appear soon or later. 

In terms of how to deal with groups, it is very variable, because as a bird guide you will be in touch with completely different points of view, so probably the most important thing to have is patience. There will be always situations when you have to say a bird name 20 times in a single day, due to the fact that your clients are just learning that name. If you can make the clients feel de-stressed, even when they can’t find a target species, you are doing well. How can you create that feeling? You have to go into the woods with the feeling that you are entering a holy place and show respect for every single creature; after that, the feeling you have will start to transmit to the people with whom you are sharing that moment. And remember it is always better when you go that extra mile to create the best experience for your client!

Uzvaldo Franzinni: Monthly contributor to the Zanti Journal of Ornithology.

I use the word TANAGER…it always reminds me of my birding do’s and don’ts when leading a group:

Take time to get to know the folks on your walk. Beginning birders? Advanced birders? Plus, you are responsible for the safety of each person you are guiding. Unless everyone can safely cross that stream…don’t cross that stream.

Ask questions.of your group. The birding experience will be a lot more fun and memorable if you engage your group with questions (.’Can you describe shape of the bill?’) rather than just saying ‘That is a Brown-billed Scythebill.’

Never bluff! If you’re not sure what a bird is…tell them you’re not sure.

Assistance; always give it when needed . When a bird is being secretive, assist everyone to a good vantage point. Use the unmistakeable landmark technique. (see below)

Gracious. Listen to everyone and respect what they say. I guarantee you’ll get a lot of comments like, ‘Well, back in Idaho we have a bird that looks a lot like that one. I remember one time……….’.

Expertise. Have it…do your homework.

Review. Following every walk (time permitting) go over and review what you saw on the walk. eBird is a great way to do that.

Best of luck, Kyler.

(photo courtesy of Helen LeVasseur)

Ask the Experts: #5

Please join me in welcoming back our three birding Experts as they once again answer a birding question as submitted by our most excellent San Vito Bird Club members.

Jim Zook: Professional ornithologist, bird population specialist for Stanford University and co-author of ‘The Wildlife of Costa Rica‘. https://www.amazon.com/Wildlife-Costa-Rica-Tropical-Publications/dp/0801476100/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&qid=1595426723&refinements=p_27%3AJim+Zook&s=books&sr=1-1&text=Jim+Zook

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

QUESTION #5: From SVBC member Vincent Albright; Hall’s Gap, Victoria in Australia.
‘On my previous two visits to Costa Rica I’ve been fascinated by the diversity of your Flycatchers.  There are SO many different species!  Can you provide some tips on how I can best learn to identify them?’

Pepe: If you were looking for the most diverse family of birds of America, stop. You found it. Flycatchers are fascinating birds that range from very local to long distance migrants. All of them eat insects, except for the ones who don’t! (bad joke). Despite their name, many had been the pressures that have split these birds in over 400 species across America, going from bright scarlet, to dull gray/brown, long crests and tails to tiny pigmy tyrants, true insect catchers to berry eaters. 

So how can you ID them? 

Insect eaters are very acrobatic and like to jump up in the air in pursuit of a fly. So they mostly perch on a bare branch or a place with visual advantage. Easier to spot since most of them have a yellow belly-breast and are dull brown or gray on the back. Great Kiskadees or Social Flycatchers are great example. Their color patterns and their blatant nature helps them find themselves or confirm if a perch is free or taken. Fruit eaters are more passive. Their prey is not going anywhere so you can find them among the foliage of fruiting trees like ficus, melastomes, rubiaceae family or berry bushes. A couple fruit eaters have long crests and tails like the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher or the Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Their colors are also very subtle. Most blend with the foliage. The deeper you go in the forest, the harder it will get to find and ID them for they turn almost invisible to the inexperienced eye and their colors get dark green, gray, rusty and their size gets smaller and so their physical appearance also varies a lot. So you can have super specialized birds like the Bentbills, or the Todies. All insect eaters but filling a different niche and found at various levels of the forest. 

Field guides and apps like Merlin are good companions to have but a local expert will be ideal to help you pick them out by call, habits or even bill shapes.

Below, a couple of extreme bill size differences between a Boat-billed Flycatcher and a Black-capped Flycatcher.

(photos courtesy of Pepe Castiblanco)

Jim: Yes, there are a bunch of flycatchers in Costa Rica. The Tyrannidae, or Tyrant Flycatchers (to distinguish them from Old World Flycatchers) is represented in Costa Rica by 81 species (mas o menos). Some of those are very rare species that have only been seen a few times here, others are migrants that are present only during the northern hemisphere winter or during migration, but at any one birding spot in the country one can expect to encounter regularly 10 to 20 different species – more if you include the rarer possibilities. One key is to know what the common species are in any given area, and learn to identify them well first. Then you’ll have a base for comparison and if you see something odd you can ask yourself “why isn’t this one of the common species?” Less common species are often associated with specific micro-habitats, so knowing what a species prefers is also important as in “that looks like a Yellow Tyrannulet, but those are only found in short, scrubby vegetation and we are in dense forest, so we can rule that out”. If you have to focus on one physical trait I’d say pay close attention to the bill – It’s length and width, color, and if bicolored the pattern, shape of bill tip (hooked or not), etc. But probably the best trick is to learn the vocalizations as that will be the key for separating those little green and gray birds that all look the same.

David: You’re right about the flycatchers diversity, in fact it is the most diverse family. It’s a new world family, which means that it is distributed only in the Americas. My recommendation is to observe the behavior; for example, flycatchers fly to try and catch an insect and then return to the same perch, making a loop. You can also learn the song and the call. When you’re fed up you catch them and analyze their features up close, because you when you catch them you can observe special characteristics on the primary and secondary feathers (I am talking about the Empidonax genus). You will understand that sometimes it is so difficult to identify them that you just give up and go to look for some other birds.


Reminder: Do you have a birding question you’d like to ask our Experts? Send it to…


Ask the Experts: Question #4

Welcome to Question #4 of our Ask the Experts feature where each week we pose one of your questions to our birding experts and then see their responses.

Please welcome this week’s two birding experts:

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide. https://www.casabotania.com/en-gb

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica. https://www.facebook.com/david.rodriguezarias

Question #4: (from SVBC member Janelle Boyett-Hinds from Winnipeg, Canada) ‘I was visiting San Vito (and other parts of Costa Rica) I noticed some bird species could be found all over the place.  In particular, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Scarlet-rumped Tanager and the Clay-colored Thrush.  Why are these species so successful?’

Pepe: Just as there are many species that don’t tolerate habitats with human impact, there are also species that won’t survive in primary forests. At some point in the evolutionary race, many saw the potential and wide range of food opportunities in the urban areas and adapted to them. Birds exist longer than humans and topographic and/or climatological changes were back then the trigger that would push a species to split into two or several more species. When humans also took part in that game by building cities, roads and plantations, birds did what they had been doing already for millions of years: they continued adapting. Our Thrushes and dear Grackles are no exception to that. Many others couldn’t find a quick way to adapt and disappeared as fast as new species replaced them filling the empty niches. Humans did that too until the Homo sapiens took over.

David: Surely there are others reasons in addition to what I am going to say, but in my opinion, these species of birds evolved in a such an interesting way that allows them to be adapted to live in different habitats. No doubt diet is one of the main reasons they can live in different places. There is a variety of things they can eat: worms, pollen, nectar, fruits, insects, seeds, spiders… The fitness of these species is definitely way stronger than the fitness of some other species that need a specific habitat, or elevation in order to nest and survive.

The best part of all this is that they all are special, one with amazing flight adaptation, one with a beautiful combination of colours on its feathers, and finally, one with a lovely melody.