Far From the Madding Crowd? Birding in San Vito, Costa Rica

Notice the four people in the photo below. Two of them are birding and two of them are whimsically making a statement on the importance of social distancing. Which two are the closest together? CORRECT! The two that are making a point of staying a meter of two apart. The other two that are just birding? They’re already several meters apart…without even trying.

The point is…If you’re worried about social distancing, get outside and GO BIRDING! If you’re not worried about social distancing, get outside and go birding! (Feel free to replace ‘birding’ with ‘nature exploring’)

This coming dry season, we will very likely see a tsunami of foreign tourists coming to Costa Rica. Many of them have been stuck inside their homes, staring at the walls. When the travel barriers are lifted, these folks will look around and say, ‘Hmmm, I need a vacation. Where should I go on vacation? Where is a safe, healthy place to visit that doesn’t look anything like the four walls of my house? COSTA RICA!’

Tourism will return my friends…oh yes, it will return. If you are one of those wall-starers or know of any, the San Vito Bird Club and Coto Brus tourism welcome you.

(photo courtesy of Alison Olivieri)

Justa Birds?

Birders can be pretty strange people. 

(That opening sentence may be tied for ‘Most-Obvious-Statement-Ever-Made’.)

But a couple of weeks ago during the height of our Rufous-crested Coquette-mania when we were all standing along the Pintada road peering up into the Inga flowers, I actually heard someone say, ‘Ah, it’s justa White-crested Coquette.’

Prior to this Rufous-crested Coquette sighting, anyone who got a good look at a White-crested thought themselves to be highly blessed and fortunate!  So how did the White-crested Coquette descend into being a ‘justa’ bird?

I can answer that question in one word: human nature.

We are most enthralled by that which is new.  The newest iPhone that includes a digital cup-holder, we must have it.  The newest food trend where the food must be cooked underneath a magic pyramid, we must eat it.  And in case of birders, the newest bird to show up…we must see it.

I’m not being critical (except for that magic pyramid thing) but I’ve never liked calling any bird, no matter how common and plain, to be a ‘justa’ bird.  Justa Clay-colored Thrush…justa Chestnut-sided Warbler…justa Black Vulture? Hell, when I used to take people birding in north Queensland, Australia the first time they saw a Rainbow Lorikeet (see below) their heads would practically explode with glee.  But after a few weeks of seeing these same Rainbow Lorikeets, as common as city pigeons, they too became justa birds.

Ah, justa flock of Rainbow Lorikeets.’  Crikey.

I know…’human nature’ is two words.

Friends From Afar — We’ve Got Mail!

Greetings, members of the SVBC:

We wish to convey to you all our sincere thanks for the welcome that the SVBC members extended to us during our recent visit to San Vito this past March. Our little group of six was comprised of short term visitors (a few days for four of us; an additional couple of weeks for two of us). Although there was only one formal SVBC member among us, we were all treated as regulars and included in a delightful variety of birding adventures: the walk and brunch at Cecilia Sansonetti’s beautiful finca; the walks at Cántaros (with the opportunity to meet new owner, Lilly, and managers, Yei and Marylin); the tense photo competitions, the awards, the refreshments, etc.

Greg Homer took two of us on an early morning walk to Tres Rios in search of, among other birds, the albino vultures. Peter Wendell gave us a primer on using eBird. Alison Olivieri gave us perfect directions to Rio Negro. And everyone else was equally gracious. We were also impressed with the club’s industriousness—from its nascent effort to merge with the Pajareros del Sur, to the continuing inclusion of young birders, the involvement with the local schools and the Detectives de Aves education progam. You folks gave us all great memories of San Vito, its birds and its birders. Thank you! 

David and Audrey Fielding, on our own behalf and on behalf of our friends: David Rorick, Sandra Braden, John Denvir and Miriam Rokeach.

David and Audrey Fielding, members from San Francisco


PS – It must be about time to renew our membership, so for David & Audrey Fielding, our check is in the mail (via Paypal).

The SVBC responds: this is the nicest news we’ve had in forever, so thank you both for your note and your Membership Renewal.

The ‘Clean-up Crew’ Gets a Cool Drink

Good citizen and San Vito Bird Club member Tom Wilkinson noticed something the other day.

A couple of his local vultures (aka: The Clean-up Crew) were walking about his property, gazing forlornly into his near empty rain barrel.  Recognizing how dry and dusty it has been lately, Tom surmised that the Crew members might be a little dry!  Keeping the countryside clean, as vultures do, probably works up quite a thirst, thought Tom.

So being a good citizen, Tom put a couple of bowls of fresh, clean, pure water out for them.  At first, noticed Tom, the Clean-up Crew members were were suspicious of the water bowls.  And being normal vultures, it’s possible they were not familiar with anything fresh, clean and pure.  But little by little they approached the water bowls; after a short while the two crew members drank the bowls dry!  Tom refilled them.

Well done Tom!  Good deeds, good fellowship and keeping a close eye on the creatures around you should be recognized and shared.

What is most amazing from this tale?  That Tom was able to recognize a ‘forlorn look’ on the face of a vulture.

SVBC members; please share your unique bird observations with us.  Click on the links below to send an email to Greg, Alison or Peter.

Greg Homer

Alison Olivieri

Peter Wendell

(photo courtesy of Tom Wilkinson)

Vultures thirsty

The ‘Unmistakable Landmark’ Technique: Better Than “In that green tree over there.”

Birdwatching is usually best (and the most fun) when conducted as a collaborative effort.  Solo birding can be jolly good fun but birding with others is oh so much more efficient.  Two, three, four, five pairs of eyes are capable of seeing so much more than just a single pair of eyes.  But here’s the rub; what if birder #3 has very sharp eyes but is not very skilled in sharing the location of what he/she sees with his/her fellow birders?

We’ve all experienced this.

Birder #3: ‘I’ve got a Collared Forest-Falcon?’

Birder #1: ‘Where is it?’

Birder #3: ‘It’s right up in that green tree over there.’

Birders 1,2,4,5 all look up at an immense forest of ‘green trees’ and all the trees are ‘right over there’.  Next, there invariably follows a protracted and semi-comical routine of pointing, jockeying for position and further veiled descriptions of location such as:

‘It’s at 10 o’clock.’

‘It’s near those dark green leaves.’

‘See that shrub?  Go to the top of that shrub and you’ll see another shrub to the left but this one has some bare branches.  Well, from the top of the second or third highest of the bare branches you’ll see a green tree and…’

Often, by this time the Collared Forest-falcon has flown to a beach resort in Guanacaste.

And so, how can we improve in our ability to share a bird’s clandestine and often distant location to a group of fellow birders?

  1. Position your fellow birders behind you, if at all possible.
  2. Instruct them to use their eyes and not their binoculars, at first.
  3. Pick out an UNMISTAKABLE landmark as your starting point. Descriptors such as ‘over there’,  ‘green tree’, ‘dark leaves’ ‘straight trunk’ ‘thick foliage’ usually are not specific enough as a starting landmark.  This unmistakable landmark does not even need to be very close to where the bird actually is; but it must be unmistakable…unique!  In  photo #1 (below), you might select clouds as your unmistakable landmark. You might tell your colleagues, ‘See those two little lonely clouds poking their heads up between the bigger clouds?’

Photo #1

spotting 1

Once you’ve got them focused on the little clouds you can lead to the next most unmistakable landmark, and the next and the next, each one closer to the location.

Of course there are times when you’re trying to share the location of a bird at fairly close range.  The same principle applies; pick an unmistakable landmark!  In photo #2 (below) you might say; ‘See that bright red flower?  Start from that red flower and go about 3 meters to the right.’  Etc, etc.

Photo #2

spotting 2

Is this method foolproof?  Hell no.  But I do believe that using the unmistakable landmark technique as your starting point to share a bird location will give you and your fellow birders a much better chance of seeing more birds…quicker.

And don’t forget; If birding was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.


Windows vs. Birds: some observations and possible solutions

NOTE: This is a re-post, combining two earlier posts on this subject into one.

Why, At Times, We Hate Our Windows/Porque, A Veces, Odiamos Nuestras Ventanas

Sigue en espanol

Windows kill birds; there is no doubt about that. In a popular book called Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, Daniel Klem, a professor of biology at Muhlenberg College in Muhlenberg, PA, estimates the number of birds killed by striking sheet glass per year at between 100 million and one billion birds in North America alone. Dr. Klem has studied this hazard for more than 25 years.

We did not come to Costa Rica to kill birds; however, in our rush to build a house with a view, we have done just exactly that. Every time we hear the sound of a bird hitting a window in full flight, our hearts sink.

In searching for a mitigation device, we’ve visited many websites by Googling “Window Kills Birds” and, as you might expect, this troubling problem has generated many sources of information.

ABC Translucent Window Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

ABC Translucent Window Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

Recently, we purchased translucent tape in two sizes from the American Bird Conservancy and have applied the thin strip type to one of our kitchen windows. For more than a month this window has been bird-collision-free. Click here for more information on this product and other ways to reduce collisions suggested by the ABC.

Continuing this experiment, Roni Chernin, a ‘Detectives de Pajaros’ teacher and birding companion, has just decorated her large windows with the wide kind of ABC Translucent Tape. We will wait to hear about the success of her efforts.  If you’d like to try putting this tape on one or some of your windows, please CONTACT US . We would be more than happy to lend you our tape and will be buying more on our next trip north.

Thick ABC Translucent Window Tape to prevent bird strikes. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Thick ABC Translucent Window Tape to prevent bird strikes. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Creative solutions continue to arise, addressing this issue. For new construction projects, we found a product called Ornilux Bird Protection Glass. Manufactured by a company called Arnold Glas in Germany, it is patterned with a UV reflective coating that birds can see but, apparently, humans cannot. Lisa Welch who works in the Ventura, CA office of Arnold Glas told us recently there is no Costa Rican distributor but it is available to be shipped here. If you or anyone you know wants to try to reduce window kills, contact her at: lisa.welch@arnold-glas.de for more info.

Please let us know if you find ways to prevent this problem that we have not, as we’d like to be in the business of protecting birds, not killing them!

Aqui en espanol

Las ventanas matan aves; no hay duda de eso. En un libro popular llamado Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, Daniel Klem, un profesor de biología en Muhlenberg College en Muhlenberg, PA, ha estimado el número de muertes por estrellarse con una ventana entre 100 millones a un billón de aves por año en norte America solamente después de estudiar este fenómeno por más de 25 años.

No hemos venido a Costa Rica a matar aves; sin embargo en nuestro apuro por construir nuestra casa con una vista, hemos hecho exactamente eso. Cada vez que escuchamos el sonido de un pájaro chocando con nuestra ventana en pleno vuelo, nos da mucho desconsuelo en nuestros corazones.

En busca de un dispositivo que mitigue estos accidentes, hemos visitado muchos sitios web a través de google buscando con palabra clave ’’Ventanas que matan las aves’’ y como ud podría suponer, este tipo de problema ha generado muchas fuentes de información.

Thin ABC Translucent Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

Thin ABC Translucent Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

Recientemente, compramos cajas de cinta translucida en dos tamaños de la entidad American Bird Conservancy y hemos aplicado una delgada tira en una de las ventanas de nuestra cocina.

Por más de un mes esta ventana ha sido una ventana libre de colisiones. Presione aquí para obtener más información de este producto y también otras formas o sugerencias para reducir las colisiones en las ventanas hechas por la ABC. Roni Chernin, una “Detectives de pájaros’’ profesora y aficionada a las aves, ha decorado sus ventanas más grandes con la misma cinta translucida pero esta vez la versión más ancha promocionada también por la ABC. Esperamos pronto escuchar noticias del éxito de sus esfuerzos.

Thick ABC Translucent Tape on large windows. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Thick ABC Translucent Tape on large windows. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Si le gustaría a alguno de Uds. poner esta cinta en alguna de sus ventanas, por favor CONTACTENOS. Estaré más que feliz en prestarle un poco de nuestra cinta y estaré comprando más en nuestro próximo viaje al norte.

Nuevas y creativas soluciones están surgiendo para solucionar esta problemática. Para nuestro proyectos nuevos de construcción, encontramos un producto llamado Ornilux Vidrio Protector de Aves. Manufacturado por una compañía llamada Vidrio de Arnold en Alemania, esta patentado con una cubierta reflectiva Ultra violeta (UV) que aparentemente las aves pueden ver, pero que los humanos no pueden. Lisa Welch quien trabaja en Ventura, CA oficina de Arnold Glas nos dijo recientemente que no hay un distribuidor Costarricense pero que podría mandarse sin problemas. Si Ud. o alguien que conoce quiere tratar de reducir este tipo de muertes, contáctenla a lisa.welch@arnold-glas.de para más información.

Por favor, déjenos saber si encuentra o ha encontrado alguna forma de prevenir este problema que no hayamos ya encontrado ya que nos gustaría estar en el negocio de protección de las aves, no matarlas.

Another Way to Bird-proof Windows

In response to the post above about the dangers of windows to birds (Why, At Times, We Hate Our Windows), we’d like to pass on a simple and relatively inexpensive solution that Karen Arras has developed for her home near El Roble de Heredia in Costa Rica using plastic netting hung from eaves in front of windows.

A screen made of plastic netting or mesh hung in front of a window to protect birds. Photo: Harry Hull.
A screen made of plastic netting or mesh hung in front of a window to protect birds.

As Karen explains:

Have you noticed that birds never hit windows with screens? For windows that don’t have screens, I use plastic netting or mesh as thin as possible with squares of about 1/2 inch to make what in essence are hanging screens. To make a hanging screen, measure your window, cut the plastic netting to a size that covers it, and staple this to two thin strips of wood on top and bottom. Add two eyelets to the top piece of wood, one near each end, and hang the entire screen with nylon cord or thin wire from your eaves. If the window opens outward, hang the screen far enough away from the window to allow you to open it easily. Otherwise, hang the screen a minimum of 6 inches away from your window. Hanging screen

Avoid using a heavy material for the top and bottom of the screen; otherwise, a constant wind might set the whole screen swinging enough to hit and damage the window. If the window is wider and taller than the width of the netting, use two or more pieces of netting  to protect the window.

Hanging screen detail

This system has been very effective and low maintenance. We’ve never had a bird get caught in the screen, so I think the mesh of the screens is large enough not to snag birds.

A special thanks to Karen and Rob Arras for sharing this great idea.

All photos by Harry Hull.

Another example of a hanging screen
Another example of a screen of plastic netting hung in front of a window to prevent birds from hitting the window.

Kids Learning to Use Binoculars!

Few things inspire greater optimism for a healthy future than observing excited school kids learn how to use binoculars (see below).

The San Vito Bird Club along with our Detectives de Aves (Bird Sleuth) crew of educators are asking for your financial support.

As our education programs expand across the southern zone of Costa Rica we need more binoculars for the kids to use during their Detectives de Aves lessons; two lessons in particular.  One lesson is dedicated to proper use of binoculars in the field and the last (and most popular) lesson with binoculars is a half-day field trip into a rain forest full of birds!

Click the link below if you’re able to send us a donation.


Or contact us via email if PayPal is not your thing.

vp@sanvitobirdclub.org or president@sanvitobirdclub.org

Bino Kids.jpg

Bino kids 2.jpg



Thank You for Your Support!/Gracias por su ayuda!

Many, many thanks to those of you who chose send a financial gift to the San Vito Bird Club in 2017.

Thanks to your generous donations our Detectives de Aves (Bird Sleuth) education program can continue in 2018!  We can continue bringing this wonderful Cornell University curriculum to 5th grade students in the San Vito area.  Click the link below for more info.


If have not yet donated and are able to do so…please do.  We are regularly adding new schools and hope in 2018 to bring another teacher on board.  Click on the link below to send your gift.


This program does some real good, brings joy and pride to a lot of local kids and parents, and who knows…maybe one of our graduates will become the next Alexander Skutch.


Costa Rica birding applications revisited

by Harry Hull

Birding apps for Costa Rica have now been around for several years, and this post revisits the birding applications (“apps”) dedicated to Costa Rica’s rich bird life that I reviewed in March 2013: Costa Rica Birds Field Guide and BirdSounds Costa Rica. Both apps are now available for Android devices as well as Apple mobile devices—iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Another app, BirdsEye Costa Rica, has also become available since my first review.

costaricabirds-appCosta Rica Birds Field Guide, published by Birding Field Guides. $14.99 for full version, $2.99 for Basic version  for Apple iOS 8.0 or later for iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. $9.99 for full version, $2.99 for Basic version for Android 2.3.3 and later. Size: 405 MB (full version); 206 MB (Basic). This app became available in January of 2012 in the iTunes Store, and is now also available on Google Play. It has steadily been improved as the publishers continue to add species, photos, and sounds. It considers itself the first digital field guide completely focused on birds that are seen in Costa Rica. (The publisher also has an app for the birds of Panama.) Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, expects this app to make it easier for eco-tourists and birders of all levels of experience to identify and learn about Costa Rican birds with images, range maps, and text for more than 890 species. Vocalizations of more than 660 bird species are also included along with a search filter and other features. The latest full version now seems appropriate for serious birders as well as more casual bird enthusiast visitors to Costa Rica.

Basic features of the full version:

  • All Costa Rica bird species are listed. (The Basic version covers 360 of “the most spectacular and commonly encountered bird species”, appropriate for more casual birders.)
  • Photographs for more than 890 species.
  • Range map for each bird.
  • Description, including field marks and habitat for each bird.
  • Bird sounds for around 660 species.
  • Extensive search options, including searching by name, by “Group” (for example, “Barbets & Toucans”), by Family (for example, “Accipitridae”), and detailed search filters (for example, “Region” and “Stratum”; “Color[s] (2)” and “Size”, “Head Pattern”, etc.). [“Stratum” indicates whether the bird frequents the “Understory”, “Mid Canopy”, “High Canopy”, “Ground”, “Sky” or “Water”.]
  • New “Similar Species” feature allows quick comparison of field sightings.
  • Place for personal notes, recording GPS position, and ability to email notes.
  • Ability to access device’s camera and photos from within the app.

My take: Based on my use of the app on my iPhone, I find the data included in the app quite well organized and easy to navigate, with the search functions comprehensive and pretty intuitive; and the latest version of the app is very comprehensive, enough to be a digital substitute for a paper guide, especially if you’re only a visitor to Costa Rica.

birdsounds-costa-rica-appBirdSounds Costa Rica, published by Bernard Geling/BirdingApps (they don’t yet have a new website up and running as of this writing). $19.99 for full version, free for Lite version; requires Apple iOS 5.1 or later for iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. The same price for the full  version (and free for Lite) on Android 2.3.3 and later. Size: 1.02 GB for the full version, slightly less for Android version; 69.5 MB for the Lite version. This app became available in January of 2013 in the iTunes Store, and is now also available for Android devices on Google Play. This app is dedicated exclusively to an extensive collection of bird sound recordings: there are no bird photos, range maps, or other data about the birds covered. According to the publisher, BirdSounds of Costa Rica is “the perfect complement to your paper field guide to the birds of Costa Rica;” however, the most recent version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app reviewed above has bird sounds for about 660 species, so some might not feel this is as essential as it once was. All of the sounds are included in the app, so there is no need to connect to the internet to access sounds or other content. This is why the full version of the app is in the hefty 1 GB range.

Basic features of the full version:

  • More than 2000 recordings for 764 species of birds found in Costa Rica, a pretty high percentage of the species found here, leaving about 80-90 species unrecorded. (The Lite version covers 133 recordings for only 30 species, clearly a teaser version.) There are multiple recordings for most birds.
  • Several playback modes, including ability to automatically repeat a single track or all of the tracks for a species. There are no annoying voice-overs identifying the bird or track number.
  • Extensive search options, including browsing by Group (for example, Tinamous, Pigeons & Doves; Parrots & Parakeets), by first or last name of the bird, or by typing in any part of a bird or species name.
  • A customizable list of favorite species for quick access.
  • A list of the 20 most recently accessed species.
  • Information behind most of the recordings, including where and when the recording was made and by whom.

My take: I’ve found the bird sounds included in the app of good quality, quite comprehensive and easy to access. The automatic repeat playback mode is really handy if you’re in the field and want to play the bird sound several times in succession without having to resort to the controls. While there are still about 10% of Costa Rica’s bird species not yet included, this is an app worth considering as an audio complement to your bird guidebook; however, now that the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app reviewed above has bird sounds for about 660 species, this app might be less compelling.

birdeye-costarica-appBirdsEye Costa Rica, published by Birds in The Hand. $9.99 for Apple iOS 7.0 or later; Size: 13.4 MB. This app became available in May 2014, after my initial review of Costa Rica birding apps, and I hasten to add at the outset that I have not yet used this app for reasons I’ll mention below. A “free” app for Android 4.1 and later–BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide–purports to do much the same thing but to also cover birding “around the world”; but “in-app purchases” ranging from $0.99 to $79.99 mean the actual cost for Costa Rica use isn’t clear.

This app is somewhat of a hybrid in that it requires an active internet connection in order to access images and bird sounds “for the first time”. (A companion Birds of Costa Rica Sound Collection data base can be purchased and downloaded from the publisher for $24.99 that can then also be installed on your device  via the BirdsEye Costa Rica app.) The description of the app on iTunes contains these caveats: “BirdsEye is not a field guide” (although it’s claimed to be “an indispensable field tool for finding birds”). The bird sounds accessible on the app “are available only for the migrants from North America.” And as mentioned, an active internet connection is required for to access eBird sightings for your location and “to download images and sounds for the first time. Photos are available for more than 95% species but are missing for a few birds that are rare in Costa Rica.”

One of the key features of this app seems to be access to the eBird data base that could give you “up to the minute” updates on species seen in your location. (The app is described as being “powered by eBird,” and all purchases of the BirdsEye app helps support the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a good thing!) For all practical purposes, this requires that you to have a cellular data internet connection, something not that reliable in many birding areas and certainly not practical for most casual visitors to Costa Rica who don’t sign up for a cellular data plan during their visit. The description of the app also mentions the requirement to sign up for a free Birds in the Hand account in order to take advantage of some customization features (personal bird lists, etc.) and an optional $4.99 monthly BirdsEye Membership “to unlock all the media available in the app for each bird (new photos and updates available daily)” and other search and bird list features. It’s somewhat unclear if this membership requirement applies for access to the basic “media” (especially photos) for the app or only new media, whatever that might mean.

My take. Because the more straightforward Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app reviewed above requires no internet connection to use in the field (only to download from the relevant app store), I am not inclined to pursue this app further. However, if anyone reading this has used this app in Costa Rica, I’d welcome your thoughts. It’s certainly possible that by not personally trying the app,  I’m not doing it justice here.

Some last thoughts. In 2013, shortly after I wrote my initial review of these apps,  I ran into Robert Dean, co-author of Garriques & Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide, and he confirmed that an app based on this popular field guide is underway. One of his goals is that the app be as complete digitally as his field guide is in the print media, with the addition of other features such as bird sounds, photos, and access options that digital guides can so readily provide. Presumably, such an app will also include Robert Dean’s wonderful bird illustrations. I suspect that when this app eventually appears–and as of this writing, it still hasn’t–it will likely become the best Costa Rica bird app available.

A Little Citizen Science?

On three different occasions and locations this week I have noticed Baltimore Orioles sharing a tree with Gray-headed Chachalacas.

Could there be a commensal* relationship going on?  Are the Baltimore Orioles benefitting as the big, sometimes clumsy Chachalacas stir up arboreal insects and other invertebrates?  We see a similar type of relationship with cattle and cattle egrets, monkey troops and Gray-headed Tanagers.

Please contact me if you notice this Gray-headed Chachalaca/Baltimore Oriole affiliation:


Thanks everyone; Greg.

*Commensal–a relationship between two different organisms, where one benefits and the other is (seemingly) not affected.