Hotel Robledal

The Hotel Robledal is about 20 minutes from the airport, along the narrow back streets of San Jose. Open fronted markets, barber shops, and houses blurred past as the hotel shuttle made it’s way in streets full of motorbikes, people, and dogs.

I had arrived in Costa Rica a day early before my birding tour started and I hoped the birding was good from the hotel grounds. I had already seen blue and white swallows circling above the roads.

Within minutes of arrival at the Robledal, I was birding the grounds, turning up a few old Texas friends, the great kiskadee, long-tailed grackle, and the National Bird of Costa Rica,  clay-colored thrush. To these I added social and boat-billed flycatcher. I scanned the skies hoping to see a raptor, perhaps a laughing falcon but they only yielded black vultures.


A poolside clay-colored thrush, National Bird of CR, at the Hotel Robledal.

These familiar birds where joined by others that remained unidentified. Two of which were hummingbirds that did not sit still long enough to observe details. I was able to id a Hoffman’s woodpecker that was working it’s way up a trunk and the stunning rufous-naped wrens were practically a yard bird here. Our guide dubbed these birds “rapper wrens” for their songs. A white-winged dove was sitting on a nest and some Inca doves were in the process of building theirs. Beyond the back fence, a  melodious blackbird was tending eggs on a stick nest while a nearby snag was always bearing the fruits of tropical birds. None was as stunning as the two parrots that visited in the late afternoons and early mornings.


A pair of yellow-naped Amazons in the snag in the back garden of Hotel Robledal.

During diner I sat down with some of the family that owned the Robledal to watch the Costa Rica National Team play French Guiana in the Gold Cup. Fútbol or soccer as we call it, is the national obsession in CR, where every town of any size has a fútbol pitch. In the second half Marco Ureña was subbed on and one of brothers turned to me and said, “You see that player? He lives down the street from me.”

Costa Rica is a small country, full of birds and fútbol!


Florida Canyon

I meet my guide at the point where Madera Canyon Road turns sharply to the left towards Green Valley and the dirt road begins to the right. We loaded a cooler filled with water and snacks into my rental black Volkswagen Jetta. (How could they give me a black car in the middle of an Arizona summer?!)

The car was surprisingly low to the ground in a part of the country that is crisscrossed with dirt roads in various states of maintenance. On a previous trip I had driven over the Chiricahua Mountains, and being from California, I wondered when the paved road was going to start. It never did.

Our destination this morning was Florida Canyon (pronounced Flor-ee-da) and our target bird was ( as David Allen Sibley puts it, a “very rare visitor from Mexico to southern Arizona”), the rufous-capped warbler (Basileuterus rufifrons). This long-tailed small warbler with a stunning facial pattern is not just a visitor to Arizona but a breeder. In Florida Canyon there could possibly be seven pairs on territory.

We started up the trail and it didn’t take long for my guide to pause and listen. He had heard something off to the right, a bird foraging in the trees. He called in a little gray long-tailed puff of a bird. it was another “rare visitor from Mexico”, the black-capped gnatcatcher (Poliotila nigriceps). A great lifer and another tick off my target bird list! This gnatcatcher was now breeding in a few locations in Arizona, including Florida Canyon.

On our way up the dry creek bed, my guide pointed out a tarantula hawk. He noted that the wasp was not aggressive to humans but it’s sting was second only to the bullet ant of Central America according to the Schmidt sting pain index. Both bullet ants and tarantula hawks received a score of 4 which represents the most painful sting on the pain index (a honey bee is rated at 2). So we gave the wasp a wide berth.


We headed further up the canyon on a trail that was blazed by birders in their pursuit of the highly sought after rufous-capped warbler. We stopped, looked and listened. No dice. We headed further in and did the same, still no dice. We continued up canyon and as my guide was pointing out a larger boulder, I spotted the warbler than appeared a few feet above his head. It’s facial pattern was unmistakable. Rufous-capped warbler! Lifer!


Feathery Fireworks

July 4 was my first full day in Arizona. I was staying at the legendary birding hotspot the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon. I awoke early with the intention of adding one elusive quail to my lifelist.

Montezuma quail (Cyrtonyx montezumae) is a Southeast Arizona marquee bird. It is a bird that many birder’s attempt to see in this area. Most birders, if they are lucky,  only see the quail briefly as it is flushes, flying away from the viewer. Pete Dunne notes that the Montezuma, “Spends most of its life not being seen.” On two previous visits, Montezuma’s has evaded my view.

On the 4th, I arose early and walked five minutes to the Madera Picnic Area. It was 5:50 AM and there was already a car in the parking lot. It’s owner was a Tucson birder that was looking over Madera Creek into the hillside. I figured that is was always a good sign. I walked up besides him and he said, “Montezuma quail” and directed my view to a point halfway up the hillside.

The cryptic quail eluded my search until the male moved, his harlequin face pattern flashing on the hillside. The female also appeared as the two quail worked along the hillside. I followed then upstream, keeping them in view for a full 15 minutes!  A one point the two headed down to the creekside. This was a quality lifer with absolutely quality looks!


This photo will not win any wildlife photography awards but it is a definitive proof that I was looking at the elusive Montezuma quail.

Later I headed south to the small town of Saint David to finally close out North American kites. In this small area, pockets of Mississippi kites where summer breeders. I came to Golden Bell Road and turned right. The road then turned 90 degrees to the north becoming S. Miller Lane. Halfway down the lane I spotted the unmistakable shape of a Mississippi kite. At one point I had three birds soaring above me. I saw one bird fly into the top of a tall cottonwood. I moved closer to investigate. There was a kite perched in the high branches and to its left was a stick nest with a bird on it! Great find.


A perched Mississippi kite to the right and a nest on the left.


Southeast Arizona 

Southeast Arizona, a true Mecca for birders from around the world. Montezuma quail, Lucifer’s hummingbird, black-capped gnatcatcher, rufous-capped warbler, five-striped sparrow are all highly sought after birds which many birders, after many visits,  have failed to add to their lifelists. These are some of the needles in the haystacks that birders dream about. And my dreams were about to become a reality.

I have birded Southeastern Arizona twice before but only during the winter, when snowbirds double the populations of most towns and cities of the desert. Back then I added some of the most obvious and easiest to find species to my list. Now I have returned in the stifling temps of summer to try and add some of the most emblematic and rarest species to my ABA (American Birding Association) list. And to do this, I needed a little help.

Now driving on the rutted dirtroads of the boarder lands of the United States and Mexico, is not something one should do alone or at night so hiring a birder with knowledge of the area in a high clearance vehicle, is a must.

Enter a twitcher from Leicester, England who know California Gulch like the back of his hand and where individual five-striped sparrow pairs are to be located.

Twitch on!


Extreme Hammocking

Now that I had successfully hammocked over a ragging Gold Country creek I thought it was time to raise the stakes.

From my cabin base camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I headed upstream with my hammock, a book (Birds of Tropical America), and an adult beverage. It was time for some serious hammocking and I was planning to hammock over the mighty San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz County’s largest river!

At just under 30 miles, the San Lorenzo River does not make the top 10 of the longest rivers in California (or the top 25 for that matter), but in December 1955, this river was a force to be reckoned with and with massive rainfall she jumped her banks and flooded downtown Santa Cruz. Now earthen dykes have been built up in order to tame her wintery wanderings.

The winter of 2016-17 have seen record rains and the river has stayed within her water course. But as I hiked upstream I noticed the toll that the high water level had metered out to the trees in the riparian flood zone. So many of the trees were now leaning downstream, almost at a vertical angle and some trees had been completely uprooted. Now this was going to be a challenge because I needed two vertical trees close enough together to pitch my hammock and I wasn’t seeing many.

Once I entered Henry Cowell State Park, I spotted a large, fallen redwood. This looked promising, now all I needed was a parallel fallen tree to attach the other end of the hammock. About 12 feet away was a smaller bay laurel that would do the job. And within 5 minutes, I was hammocking!

The Doublenest pitched between two vertical trees, with the mighty San Lorenzo River flowing below. The smaller bay laurel provided some bounce.

A sketcher in repose, Henry Cowell State Park.