Monday, January 25, 2016

Late migrants and a solid start on winter birds

November was a much more exciting month than September or October. We got a new camera at the end of October, and were excited to get out and use it. We had a nice mix of late migrants passing through as well as the start of some of our winter specialties. Here are the highlights from the month:

November 4: Kuna Sewage Ponds

On November 4 we took a quick trip out to the Kuna Sewage Ponds. We didn’t have any particular targets in mind, we just wanted a chance to start getting used to the camera at a place we knew for sure there would be birds. Highlights from this trip included a Peregrine Falcon and a flock of Dunlins.

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Peregrine Falcon at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. November 4, 2015.

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Dunlins (and a Ring-billed Gull) at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. November 4, 2015.

November 14: Wildland Firefighters Monument

One of the more exciting finds of the month was a Hooded Warbler that an employee of the National Interagency Fire Center found hanging out around the Wildland Firefighters Monument. At first it seemed like there wouldn’t be any access for birders to be able to go see the bird since the fire center is a closed campus with security procedures that have to be satisfied for anybody to visit, but it actually turned out that all we needed to do was drive up to the gate, tell the security detail we wanted to see the monument, show our IDs, and keep a visitors pass on us while we were there. It took an hour or so of patience, but eventually we tracked the bird down. We got nice looks a couple of times but it wouln’t hold still long enough for pictures. The “safety shot” below is the best I could do when I just hurriedly snapped the shutter the very first time the bird flew in front of me. If you look close the small dot in the center is the Hooded Warbler.

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Hooded Warbler at the National Interagency Fire Center, Ada County. November 14, 2015.

November 15: Simco Road and Ted Trueblood WMA

On November 15 we took Simco Road (about halfway between Boise and Mountain Home) down to the Ted Trueblood WMA near Grandview. We had been on Simco Road a couple of other times recently and had noticed decent sized flocks of Horned Larks starting to gather in the area, so we decided to slow down and start checking them out to see if they had any buntings or longspurs mixed in. On this trip, we did manage to find a small handful of Snow Buntings, a pretty nice find for this close to Boise!

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Snow Bunting on Simco Road, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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Snow Bunting on Simco Road, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

At Ted Trueblood we had loads of Sparrows to pick through. We were hoping to pick up a Golden-crowned, which we didn’t find, but we did get a nice late season Savannah Sparrow.

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Savannah Sparrow at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

On the island in the center of the main pond we had a nice mix of shorebirds – including Dunlins, White-faced Ibis, Wilson’s Snipes, and this was about the latest we’d seen most of those species in Idaho.

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Dunlins and a White-faced Ibis at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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White-faced Ibis at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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Wilson’s Snipe at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

At one little opening in the thick marsh where a small canal ran through we pulled over for a minute to listen for rails and any potential late season Soras. No Soras on this trip, but we did get a nice look at a couple of Virginia Rails.

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Virginia Rail at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

While we were enjoying the rails we spotted a couple of unusual sparrows, and after getting a decent look they turned out to be Swamp Sparrows. Apparently these guys are somewhat regular at Ted Trueblood, but they’re pretty rare in Idaho, turning up almost exclusively along the Snake River corridor in the southern part of the state.

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Swamp Sparrow at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

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Swamp Sparrow at Ted Trueblood WMA, Elmore County. November 15, 2015.

November 21-23: Camas NWR

The weekend before Thanksgiving Nora and I headed to Rexburg to spend some time with my parents while Ellen went on a retreat with her sisters. The timing was serendipitous, as Steve Butterworth found a Gyrfalcon while performing a raptor survey near Camas NWR right after we got to town. I spent a few mornings trying to relocate the bird. I never did find it but did have a good time looking. My first trip out yielded a nice flock of American Tree Sparrows and a very mellow Rough-legged Hawk.

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American Tree Sparrow at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 21, 2015.

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Rough-legged Hawk at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 21, 2015.

Larry Arnold zipped over to try to relocate the bird as well. He did find it, and gave me a quick call to share the details. I followed his directions to the spot where he tracked it down and quickly found a falcon, though it turned out to be a Prairie Falcon instead of a Gyrfalcon. I also flushed a pair of Barn Owls while trying to get better views.

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Prairie Falcon at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 22, 2015.

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Barn Owl at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 22, 2015.

On one more attempt on the way out of town back towards Boise we still couldn’t find the Gyrfalcon, but did see this nice weasel, which appeared to be mid-transition from its summer to winter coats

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Weasel at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 23, 2015.

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Weasel at Camas NWR, Jefferson County. November 23, 2015.

November 28: Simco Road

The day after Thanksgiving we had a really nice layer of hoarfrost across the valley. I figured the extra layer of ice might concentrate the lark flocks on Simco Road near the road where the ground was clear so we headed out to take a look. Turns out that was a good guess. Right off the bat we found a large flock of finches hanging out near the road working over some old sunflowers. We had a very narrow shoulder and a fair bit of traffice, so we only had a couple of minutes to look, but we quickly turned up a Common Redpoll, one of the first of the year around the Treasure Valley, and closer than they’re usually found to Boise.

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Common Redpoll on Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

We found loads of larks hanging out near the road, but the problem was that since there was so much traffic the flocks wouldn’t stay put long enough to get a good look. We started checking side roads instead which turned out to be a great strategy. We found one particularly large flock and hung out right near them and just took our time picking through every bird in the flock. Our patience paid off, as we turned up at least one (and likely two) Lapland Longspurs! This was a new state bird for us, and a species we’ve spent a lot of time looking for each winter.

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Lapland Longspur near Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

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Lapland Longspur near Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

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Lapland Longspur near Simco Road, Elmore County. November 28, 2015.

We ended the month at 291 birds for the year in Idaho, much better than I expected we’d do. The nice bump in November gave us the encouragement we needed to try to add as many more as we could in December to close out the year. Stay tuned to hear how the rest of our 2015 played out.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Camera!

Back in August our old trusty Canon SX50 HS crapped out on us mid-sequence while we were shooting shorebirds on the Oregon coast. It was still covered under my 2 year Best Buy warranty, but when I took it in to get repaired, they told me their had been a recall on that model so they couldn’t repair it, and would need to just refund the value of the camera instead. That sounded like a pretty sweet deal to me! After getting the refund we effectively ended up with a free camera for the nearly 2 years we owned the SX50.

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The last picture taken by our Canon SX50 HS. August 21, 2015.

The only problem now was that we needed to pick a new camera. We’d enjoyed our SX50 and the SX40 we owned before that so had originally figured we’d just upgrade to the SX60, however the reviews for the SX60 were not great. We considered just getting another SX50, but Best Buy wasn’t selling them anymore, and they were hard to find new for a decent price online, plus the whole recall issue was concerning too. Really the only other superzoom camera that could compete with the Canon SX line in terms of zoom was the relatively new Nikon P900, which features an impressive 83X optical zoom!

However, it seems that Nikon must have underestimated the demand for the P900. They sold out very quickly, and then never really got fully restocked. They were making small shipments every now and then to a handful of stores, but those new shipments always sold out very quickly too. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait an indeterminate amount of time to be able to get a new camera set up, especially since it was hard to be happy using our backup camera (SX40) after how much of an improvement the SX50 had been. However, I couldn’t find a could backup option I was really happy about, so we just kept waiting, and I kept checking everyday to see if any came back in stock. On October 24 they finally came available at just one store – Best Buy. I hurried and placed an order, and when I checked back just a few hours later they were sold out again. The camera showed up on the 27th, and we’ve been enjoying learning to use it since.

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Hopefully you’ll start to see an improvement in the photo quality on the blog. I’m sure there will be a bit of a learning curve as we get used to the new setup, but with the additional zoom and resolution we should be able to put more pixels on the birds we’re photographing. Here’s a comparison of the Canon SX50 HS and Nikon P900 courtesy of DP Review.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Little Blue Heron on the Boise River Greenbelt

October was another slow month – we were a little traveled out after September and there wasn’t much to chase for most of the month so we took it easy, hit up a few places we hadn’t seen before, and enjoyed the scenery more than the birds on a few day trip. One nice outing for birds was a trip up to White Cloud Mountains bordering the east side of the Stanley basin. It was hunting season, and someone apparently left a pile of organs behind which attracted a nice handful of Gray Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers.

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Organs and a Gray Jay in the White Cloud Mountains, Custer County. October 17, 2015.

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Gray Jay in the White Cloud Mountains, Custer County. October 17, 2015.

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Gray Jay in the White Cloud Mountains, Custer County. October 17, 2015.

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Clark’s Nutcracker in the White Cloud Mountains, Custer County. October 17, 2015.

Back in town our first nice rarity in a month and a half came when news hit IBLE that a Little Blue Heron was being seen on the Boise River Greenbelt off of Parkcenter Boulevard. We zipped over quickly and found a group of birders that had just seen it, but it had flown off. We meandered downstream a bit and several others started fanning out along the river corridor to try to track it down. After half an hour or so we got a call to let us know it had returned to pretty much the original spot it was found. We caught up to the group quickly and got to enjoy really nice views.

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Little Blue Heron on the Boise Greenbelt, Ada County. October 25, 2015.

The bird was immature, so despite the name was actually all white. At this age they’re quite similar more common egrets we have around here, but can be distinguished by dusky tips to the primaries, and yellow-green legs instead of black legs on the Snowy Egret, the most likely bird this would be confused for.

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Little Blue Heron on the Boise Greenbelt, Ada County. October 25, 2015.

Very fun find, and only the 5th Idaho record (3rd if only accepted records are counted). This bird was kind of a turn in our luck, and November was a little more interesting. Stay tuned for details.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A slow September

September was a bit of a slow month for our Idaho year list. I was out of the state for about half the month traveling for work (first to Costa Rica and then to San Antonio, Texas), and had a reunion with some friends, so we didn’t really stay on top of the birds that were in our neck of the woods. We did sneak in a few outings, mostly looking for interesting southbound shorebirds.

On September 5th, we went to Lake Lowell to track down some Sanderlings that were reported there. We found them right away running along the foot of the lower dam.

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Sanderling at Lake Lowell, Canyon County. September 5, 2015.

After spending a few days with friends at a cabin near Bear Lake, we stopped at American Falls on the way home on September 13th. We actually hadn’t birded there before – kind of a shame since it’s such a major hotspot for the state. We didn’t have any major rarities, but did find pretty high bird numbers. Common Terns were one of the more interesting finds, and you can find a few mixed in with other terns and gulls in the digiscoped photo below (look for the dark carpal bars).

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Mixed gulls and terns at American Falls, Power County. September 13, 2015.

On the 28th I took a few hours off in the morning to head out to Kuna Sewage Ponds. The ponds are only accessible on weekdays, so I usually have to take 2-3 hours off of work to get out there at the right time. This trip didn’t have anything too exciting. Loads of American Pipits, an out-of-season Greater White-fronted Goose, and a Baird’s Sandpiper.

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American Pipit at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. September 28, 2015.

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Greater White-fronted Goose (among Canadas) at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. September 28, 2015.

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Baird's Sandpiper at Kuna Sewage Ponds, Ada County. September 28, 2015.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Costa Rica!

At the tail end of August I took off for a work trip to Costa Rica. Believe it or not our occasional tropical getaways actually do consist mostly of work, so there isn’t a lot of spare time to check out the local birds. I did have one afternoon with a couple of free hours to roam around the hotel property on Herradura Bay, and on the last day of our trip we had a boat tour of the Tarcoles River with a tour guide that turned out to also be a pretty good birder.

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Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

The first wildlife of the trip were these little Common House Geckos that were all over the halls of the hotel. Native to Southeastern Asia, they were suspected to have been introduced to Costa Rica by hitching a ride on a cargo ship.

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Common House Gecko at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 30, 2015.

The day that I had free time to wander around the hotel grounds was rainy and overcast, so the lighting wasn’t great for photos, but I headed out for a small lagoon on one end of the bay to see what was around anyway.

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Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

This pair of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were some of the first birds I found. These birds can also be found in the ABA area in parts of Arizona, along the Gulf Coast, and in Florida, so not necessarily a Costa Rica specialty.

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Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

This pair of Blue-gray Tanagers might have been the first birds I saw that aren’t on the ABA checklist.

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Blue-gray Tanagers at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

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Blue-gray Tanager at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

This Tropical Kingbird is a very close relative to our Western Kingbird, with perhaps the most helpful field mark hidden. The tail on a Western Kingbird is square, but the tail on a Tropical Kingbird is notched.

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Tropical Kingbird at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

This Inca Dove was hunkered down quietly in a tree near a walking path.

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Inca Dove at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

The Bare-throated Tiger Heron was another nice Central American specialty.

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Bare-throated Tiger Heron at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

Waders and shorebirds had a fair bit of overlap with birds that are on the ABA checklist too, including this White Ibis, Semipalmated Plover, and Spotted Sandpiper.

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White Ibis at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

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Semipalmated Plover at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

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Spotted Sandpiper at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 30, 2015.

Lastly, this Ringed Kingfisher was a nice find on the way back in at sunset.

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Ringed Kingfisher at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

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Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. August 31, 2015.

A couple of days later we had lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the hotel grounds. The dining area had a handful of iguanas lingering around. They weren’t shy around people at all, and provided great entertainment for everybody over their lunches.

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Spike-tailed Iguana at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. September 2, 2015.

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Spike-tailed Iguana at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. September 2, 2015.

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Green Iguana at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. September 2, 2015.

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Spike-tailed Iguana at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. September 2, 2015.

This Rufous-naped Wren wasn’t shy about approaching the dining area either.

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Rufous-naped Wren at Los Suenos Marriott Resort, Costa Rica. September 2, 2015.

On the last day of our trip we had a boat tour of the Tarcoles River, and discovered that our tour guide was actually a pretty good birder. This was the highlight of the trip for me, as it’s really rare for tour guides to know anything about birds (in Orlando a tour guide on a swamp tour kept giving incorrect or completely made up bird names when people asked what kinds of birds they were looking at) or for tours to actually take any time to stop and look at birds as they go.

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Boat tour on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

The birds came fast and frequent, starting with this Little Blue Heron I caught a glimpse of as we were waiting to disembark.

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Little Blue Heron on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

American Crocodiles were a big hit with the non-birders on the trip (everybody but me), and the boat driver had no qualms about getting up close and personal with them.

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American Crocodile on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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American Crocodile on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

Other reptiles included this young Green Iguana, and a gamily of Plumed Basilisks (also known as Jesus Christ Lizards), including an adult male, adult female, and juvenile.

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Young Green Iguana on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Female Plumed Basilisk on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Young Plumed Basilisk on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Male Plumed Basilisk on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

I was using my backup camera (slower focus, slower burst shooting, etc.) and since we were on the river we were constantly in motion, but I gave it my best shot to try to capture as many of the birds as I could. Luckily most birds that caught our eye were fairly large – not a lot of smaller birds to pick through. These Double-crested Cormorants were a familiar sight.

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Double-crested Cormorants on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

This Green Kingfisher was a nice find too, it was really cool to see the long beak on this guy – it looks a little less dramatic below due to the angle of the photo, but it was really quite a bit longer than the Belted Kingfisher we’re familiar with at home.

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Green Kingfisher on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

The diversity of waders was really nice. We had Little Blue Herons, Green Herons, Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and Wood Storks, to name a few.

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Little Blue Heron on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Green Heron on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Roseate Spoonbill on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Roseate Spoonbills on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Wood Stork on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

There were a few raptors around as well, including this Yellow-headed Caracara, Black Hawk, and White-tailed Kites.

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Yellow-headed Caracara on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Black Hawk on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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White-tailed Kites on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

As we cruised down the river we went up a side channel that connected to some mangrove forest. This was a really cool habitat I could have spent a lot more time in, but we were just there long enough for the guide to show us a spot that was loaded up with these colorful Mangrove Crabs.

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Boat tour through the mangrove forest on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

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Mangrove Crab on the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

The last good bird of the trip was this Turquouise-browed Motmot that we saw while riding from the boat take-out to a lunch. This was a really fun find, as it was one of the very few passerines I saw and one of the more colorful as well. I’d definitely like to spend more time looking for colorful passerines (and fewer water birds) next time I get back to Costa Rica.

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Turquoise-browed Motmot near the Tarcoles River, Costa Rica. September 4, 2015.

Costa Rica is definitely on my bucket list for a proper birding trip (which this wasn’t) but it was nice to get a preview. Hopefully I’ll get a chance before too long to go back with Ellen and properly geared up for some serious birding.