Pangola Christmas Bird Count

Chestnut-mandibled toucan

Toucans of three species are up close and personal at Pangola

On January 8th 2011, I attended the Christmas Bird Count at Finca Pangola, as part of the CBC Maquenque.  The trip was notable not only for the beautiful environment and the bird sightings but also for the companionship with Adilio and Tito, and for the very warm welcomes we were given by Gary, who manages the finca, and the family of doña Norma who provided us with huge and delicious meals a lo tico.

My personal total of birds identified for the whole trip came to around 110 species (4 life birds), though this includes my journey from Turrialba to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí and the scenic return to San Antonio via La Alegría.  Those interested simply in the list of species should now go to the end of this post, bearing in mind that it does NOT match the CBC list for Pangola.  On the day of the count, we managed to miss several ridiculously common species, such as the Common tody-flycatcher, Cattle egret, Groove-billed ani and Baltimore oriole.  I know I’m trying to learn the scientific names, but I am NOT going to give here the Latin names of these.  As on the CBC at CATIE, Spanish names were rarely used, so you really have to learn some Latin if you’re cooperating on a bird count.

All photos are courtesy of Adilio Zeledon Meza, unless otherwise captioned.  Here’s a common species that I’m not sure we actually saw on count day.

Black-cheeked woodpeckerpole

Black-cheeked woodpecker in the sun at Pangola

I had set off early, around 5.45 am, intending to take it slow before making the 10.00 appointment with Adilio in Puerto Viejo.  Unfortunately, a large mudslide on the Turrialba-Siquirres road stopped me and all the rest of the traffic for a good hour.  No signs of road rage here in Costa Rica, however.  All the drivers as well as the villagers waiting for their buses smiled pleasantly, and not even stoically, throughout.  The rest of the drive to Siquirres was then painfully slow, but I still had plenty of time and made my first stop at the little town of Horquetas, just after the turn-off to Sarapiquí.  The roadside restaurant there has a bird feeder consisting of a bamboo pole with fruit impaled on its spikes on each side, a system I have immediately copied here at home.  I had only a coffee but can recommend the place simply on the basis of the friendly owners and the chance to see honeycreepers up very close and personal.  These were the Green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) and the Red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus).

The female Green Honeycreeper is very green


Red-legged Honeycreeper, visiting from the Pacific side?

A misunderstanding on my part led me to then drive to Puerto Viejo and then have to drive back to the Los Robertos restaurant at the Sarapiquí turn-off on the San José-Limón main road where Adilio and company were having breakfast.  Adilio does not recommend Los Robertos by the way (poca comida y cara).

Leaving my untrustworthy Ford Ranger pickup in Río Frío, a few kms. off the road near Horquetas, with the family of Adilio’s novia, we rumbled off in the Isuzu Trooper with Tito at the wheel.  Following instructions from Gary at Pangola, we made the lengthy drive through Puerto Viejo and Río Cuarto, and then via Santa Rita and a dirt road.  We stopped for lunch on the way at San Miguel at the junction from which you can take the road to Heredia through the mountains that was destroyed in the La Cinchona earthquake.

It´s a pleasant drive but doesn’t match the return route (shorter and more scenic) that we chose two days later.

Upon our arrival at Pangola, a small, typically Tico place with a mostly Nica population, doña Norma showed us the house where we were to stay, straight opposite hers.  The house is used for the many international volunteers who come to Pangola.  The flat road surrounded mostly by fields with scattered trees doesn’t look very inviting for birdwatching, but don’t be fooled.  Toucans, parrots (Mealy, Red-lored, White-crowned) and parakeets (Olive-throated, Orange-chinned) fly right across the road, as do the two species of macaw found in Costa Rica, Great green and Scarlet.

Red-lored parrot

Red-lored parrots, courtesy of Adilio Zeledón Meza

A much more modest fellow, the Yellow tyrannulet (Capsiempis flaveola) in doña Norma’s garden had me stumped for a little while.  This neat little yellow bird is new to me, and the small flycatchers always pose particular problems, even for relatively experienced birders.  I was able to tick off on my life list yet another bird that is a common species in many parts of Costa Rica and I think I feel relatively comfortable with recognising it if it should appear again.  There were several of these tyrannulets flitting about upon our arrival, but they skilfully hid from sight for the count day, and thus didn’t make the official list.

Another little flycatcher genus, the Contupus group, is particularly troublesome, and here at Pangola they were everywhere.  However, the only recognisable call note was always that of the Tropical pewee (Contupus cinereus), and plumage just doesn’t seem to help.  I couldn’t see even a faint trace of yellow on any of the singers, although bill and crown descriptions often matched the field guide descriptions.

Pangola Reserve entrance road

Binoculars raised at the entrance

We walked through into the Pangola Reserve, the first part of which consists of trees planted some twelve years ago, so I understand.  We had great views of a pair of Bat falcons (Falco rufigularis) posted on some very high bare tree snags just a few yards inside.  These are really my first good views of this bird, having seen it before only from a distance.

Bat falcon courtesy of Lip Kee

Bat falcon, courtesy of Lip Kee, flickr

The property manager, Gary, arrived in a lovely big Landcruiser and took us a kilometer or so to the impressive boardwalk that he is having built in primary forest.  Huge ceibas are a feature of the forest here, but, as is always the case in thick forest, it’s really hard to find and identify the birds because of the thick vegetation.  The boardwalk is actually built of wood specially treated and imported from the United States.

Pangola boardwalk

Pangola boardwalk, not yet complete but one of the best

Giant ceiba

Magnificent ceiba on the boardwalk

Gary, poor chap, has to live in a magnificent wooden house in an absolutely splendid forest setting.  At the side of the house is a huge watchtower that takes you up to treetop level and gives a fantastic view as far even as the Arenal Volcano.  After a Heineken aperitif with Gary, to the accompaniment of a Black-and-white owl (Ciccaba nigrolineata) in the background, we returned to the village road and spent the evening tucking into a large Tico meal with doña Norma, husband, cute little daughter Maria Fernanda and a visiting teenage cousin.

Maria Fernanda

Maria Fernanda

Early to bed.  Why?  Because, in our enthusiasm, we decided to get up at 3.30 am and drive down to the boardwalk in the primary forest to listen for owls and such.

Boardwalk entrance

Night entrance to the boardwalk and primary forest

Five hours later, three grown men are lying on a wooden boardwalk in complete darkness at the foot of a giant ceiba in the middle of primary forest.  We are not alone.  Thousands of zancudos are there to keep us company and hum mosquito songs in our ear.  Despite their attentions, it’s still a remarkable experience that anyone who cares to can easily undertake, though so few do.

Here’s a shot of a Common pauraque that tried to fly in through the car window on our way to the boardwalk.

Common Pauraque at Pangola

Pauraques like close contact with cars

The first sounds of interest to us came just before dawn, Little tinamous (Cryptorellus soui) and howler monkeys.  First bird sighting was a female Pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis) peeking from its hole before getting up for breakfast, but a rare treat for me was the sight of several spider monkeys high in the trees.  They were quite noisy and allowed a close approach, but birds were harder to detect, and by mid-morning we had racked up an unbelievably low total of only 23 species in and close to the primary forest.  One of these was another life bird for me, the strikingly patterned Black-striped woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus lachrymosus), and I certainly wasn’t complaining.  Another beautiful bird that I’ve only seen once or twice was the Chestnut-coloured woodpecker (Celeus castaneus)  We heard lots of birds but saw very few.  Fortunately, Adilio was able to identify some species by sound alone.  I keep promising myself to listen more to the recordings that I have finally managed to acquire.

Highlight of the day was the group of six Great green macaws (Ara ambiguus) busy feeding in high trees with a large troupe of howlers nearby.  Scarlet macaws (Ara macao) had been seen the day before but we felt lucky to see so many Great greens, good evidence that things are going well for them.

Pangola tower

Pangola watchtower

Pangola forest view

View from the watch-tower

Gary had unfortunately left the property but at his watch-tower, which overlooks the laguna, we had nice views of songbirds at treetop level, including the pretty Blue dacnis (Dacnis cayana), another new bird for me despite its widespread distribution.

The laguna is quite large and is worthy of a day´s attention in itself.  Adilio was thrilled to see, yes see, a White-throated crake (Laterallus albigularis).  I too had never seen one before; they specialise in taunting you with their churring sound from a distance of a few feet.  This one gave a few whistling notes in addition and showed itself briefly several times just a few inches in front of our noses.

Pangola Laguna

Pangola Laguna

Crakes, unlike good children, ought really to be both heard and seen in order to be properly appreciated.  I remember the time a group of avid birders gathered at dawn on the shores of San Francisco Bay to catch a glimpse of a rare Black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) that was reputed to have established itself there.  With the cameras all lined up, the tiny rail popped up onto an open gravel space while the birders all held their breath.  At which point, an unobtrusive Great blue heron nipped out, grabbed the rail and exited stage right.

Good sightings at the lagoon were an Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) (some easy Latin there), three immature Pied-billed grebes (Podilymbus podiceps), and a Broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus), while three species of swallow skimmed the surface of the water, albeit in very small numbers.

The snake bird - photo courtesy of Karel Straatman

My final life bird was the eye-popping Red-capped manakin (Pipra mentalis).  I missed the female but got one good look at the handsome male.  Wish I had a hat like that!

Red-capped manakin flickr

Red-capped manakin male, courtesy of flickr

A bird we saw frequently was the Boat-billed flycatcher (Megarhynchus pitangua).  I am unsure of its occurrence at my house in San Antonio, so I was pleased to be able to get a good look at several individuals.  The thick bill is not so easy to distinguish, in my opinion, and the call note seems the most obvious way to be sure that it’s not a Great kiskadee.

The other flycatchers that the locals call ‘pecho amarillo’ are also tricky, and I haven’t yet been able to identify the Golden bellied flycatcher (Myiodynastes hemichrysus) of the highlands or the White-ringed flycatcher (Conopias albovittatus).  Both are supposedly fairly common.  Have I been seeing these birds without knowing it?

I took one little walk alone in the afternoon and much enjoyed the loneliness.  It didn’t bring much in the way of new species, although a Masked tityra (Tityra fasciata) was a bird that I’ve seen only very infrequently.  I missed some type of guan or maybe partridge at one point, but I also startled a collared peccary.  He ran off pretty quickly, and I don’t blame him because the reserve has pumas and ocelots.  Gary showed us some night photographs for confirmation.

Adilio & me chow down

Adilio reaches for more of doña Norma's great food

The evening meal at doña Norma’s was followed by a most enjoyable conversation with Tito, a young man who is a non-birder but who showed unflagging enthusiasm for being outdoors and driving the backroads.


Tito relaxes at the tower

In the morning, we had yet another substantial meal before Tito took the wheel for the return trip by a different route, first through pineapple fields, which yield little in the way of bird life (or any other, for that matter) and then through very pleasant hilly country sprinkled with occasional ponds.

Marsh near Pangola

Marshland between Pangola and Chilamate

We thus added the Northern jaçana and Purple gallinule that had eluded us at the Pangola laguna.  When we arrived back at Río Frío to pick up my car, the day’s birding ended with the sighting of a hawk that we were unable to identify, despite getting a really good look at it.  It flew just as Adilio got the camera trained on it.  My first thought was that it was a Barred forest-falcon (Micrastur ruficollis), while Adilio more sensibly chose Gray hawk (Buteo nitidus).  Of course, I’ve never actually seen a forest-falcon, of any kind, and my choice was based on the illustration in Garrigues, which at first seemed the only one that matched the heavy black breast and belly bands of this bird.  The black patch through the eye was what bothered us most about the identification, and we still have reached no conclusion.  The tail had at least two white bars and seemed fairly long.  I estimated the size at something larger than a Roadside hawk, but, alas, no photo or illustration in guides or on internet seems satisfactory.  Barred hawk?  Tail too short, and Adilio thinks its upper breast wasn’t black enough.  Yellow legs and cere exclude Crane hawk.  Anybody out there got any ideas?  Adilio reports from his novia that it appeared again the next day in the same tree next to the house, but no one has a camera there.

Three wonderful days birding were topped off by my discovering the beautiful back route to Guayabo via La Alegría.  This made it unnecessary for me to drive to either Siquirres or Turrialba and allowed me to see just exactly where the Lagos de Bonilla are located.  More on this fantastic backroad in a future post.

For the official Maquenque Christmas Bird Count tally, please contact Daniel Schneider at

Here’s my list, but remember it includes quite a few species that can’t go to the count and omits a couple that I personally didn’t get on count day.

  • Great tinamou
  • Little tinamou
  • Pied-billed grebe
  • Gray-headed chachalaca
  • Anhinga
  • Great egret
  • Cattle egret
  • Snowy egret
  • Green heron
  • Black vulture
  • Turkey vulture
  • Gray hawk
  • Roadside hawk
  • Broad-winged hawk
  • Bat falcon
  • Crested caracara
  • Laughing falcon
  • Mystery hawk (help!!)
  • White-throated crake
  • Purple gallinule
  • Northern jaçana
  • Rock pigeon
  • Red-billed pigeon
  • Short-billed pigeon
  • Ruddy ground-dove
  • White-tipped dove
  • Olive-throated parakeet
  • Orange-chinned parakeet
  • White-crowned parrot
  • Great green macaw
  • Red-lored parrot
  • Mealy parrot
  • Groove-billed ani
  • Spectacled owl
  • Black-and-white owl
  • Common pauraque
  • Swift (sp.)
  • Stripe-throated hermit
  • Rufous-tailed hummingbird
  • Violaceous trogon
  • Slaty-tailed trogon
  • Ringed kingfisher
  • Amazon kingfisher
  • Chestnut-mandibled toucan
  • Keel-billed toucan
  • Collared araçari
  • Black-cheeked woodpecker
  • Rufous-winged woodpecker
  • Chestnut-colored woodpecker
  • Pale-billed woodpecker
  • Olivaceous woodcreeper
  • Streak-headed woodcreeper
  • Black-striped woodcreeper
  • Barred antshrike
  • Chestnut-backed antbird
  • Yellow tyrannulet
  • Paltry tyrannulet
  • Yellow-bellied elaenia
  • Common tody-flycatcher
  • Ochre-bellied flycatcher
  • Bright-rumped attila
  • Tropical pewee
  • Great crested flycatcher
  • Boat-billed flycatcher
  • Great kiskadee
  • Social flycatcher
  • Gray-capped flycatcher
  • Tropical kingbird
  • Black-crowned tityra
  • White-collared manakin
  • Red-capped manakin
  • Brown jay
  • Blue-and-white swallow
  • Mangrove swallow
  • Northern rough-winged swallow
  • Southern rough-winged swallow
  • Tropical gnatcatcher
  • Band-backed wren
  • Bay wren
  • Plain wren
  • Black-throated wren
  • House wren
  • White-breasted wood-wren
  • Clay-colored robin
  • Tennessee warbler
  • Chestnut-sided warbler
  • Black-and-white warbler
  • Buff-rumped warbler
  • Bananaquit
  • White-lined tanager
  • Summer tanager
  • Passerini’s tanager
  • Golden-hooded tanager
  • Blue-gray tanager
  • Palm tanager
  • Blue dacnis
  • Green honeycreeper
  • Red-legged honeycreeper
  • Thick-billed seed-finch
  • Variable seedeater
  • Yellow-faced grassquit
  • Blue-black grassquit
  • Black-striped sparrow
  • House sparrow
  • Grayish saltator
  • Buff-throated saltator
  • Black-headed saltator
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak
  • Great-tailed grackle
  • Black-cowled oriole
  • Baltimore oriole
  • Scarlet-rumped cacique
  • Montezuma oropendola
  • Olive-backed euphonia

2 thoughts on “Pangola Christmas Bird Count

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