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Which Bird Vocalizations to Study for Birding in Costa Rica?

Going birding in Costa Rica? I hope so. Since my first visit in 1992, experiencing the birds and biodiversity of this beautiful country is something I have wished for every birder. Costa Rica offers accessible tropical habitats, mixed flocks busy with colorful tanagers, toucans calling from treetops, and macaws dominating their surroundings by way of super sized plumage, appearance, and, most of all, screams.

Referring to those loud voices as vocalizations wouldn’t be wrong but we aren’t talking about some sweet rainforest melody. Macaws scream and they do it loud. It’s good, it makes sure you know where to look, where to watch the sky and wait for that avian royalty to fly into view. But I would be amiss if I said it was a song. That term seems better for the more musical voices of Bay Wrens and Clay-colored Thrushes.

birding Costa Rica

The friendly voice of the national bird may be more evocative than its modest appearance.

Just as Costa Rica has hundreds of birds to look at, this birding nation also has just as many birds to listen to. Yes, hundreds, as in several hundreds. If you feel daunted or that it would be silly to try and learn all of those bird songs, well, you might be right. I suppose it depends on how much time you feel like dedicating to the endeavor. However, as with visiting any place for birding, learning at least some of the more common and noticeable bird sounds will be worth your while.

The audible side of birding is just as important as the visual aspect of experiencing the avian. It might be even more important because most birds sing or vocalize and we hear them before we see them.. As with most forested habitats, in tropical forest, we hear many more birds than are seen, maybe even 20 species heard before laying eyes on just one. Knowing which birds make those whistles, chirps, and other calls is key to knowing what’s hiding in the forest, which species are waiting for us back there in the bromeliads and vines and mossy understory. That knowledge also helps locate target species and adds depth to a journey already made rich by time stopping viws of golden-beryl green quetzals, strutting curassows, and surreal wine-dipped Snowcaps.

It might seem daunting but it’s worth learning some of those calls, a few of those songs. With that in mind, these are a good 50 bird species to start with. They are frequently heard, have distinctive vocalizations, are very special birds you don’t want to miss, or a combination of those factors.

Great Tinamou– Listen for the mournful evocative whistles in lowland and foothills rainforests. It can sing any time of day or night.

great tinamou

Crested Guan– If you hear loud, odd sort of barking or honking calls coming from the forest canopy, this species is probably around.

Spotted Wood-Quail– Birding in the Dota Valley? Listen for this bird’s rollicking song in the cool montane airs of the early morning.

Gray-cowled Wood-Rail– This loud, drunken sounding bird calls from riparian zones in many parts of the country, urban green space included.

Green Ibis– Another bird that sounds like it may have had a few too many. It blends its prehistoric sounding calls with an equally prehistoric appearance.

White-throated Crake– Heard much more often than seen. If its sounds like eggs are sizzling in a marsh or tall wet grass, this species is the cook.

Ruddy Ground-Dove– The typical doveish calls of thsi common bird are good ones to learn.

Red-billed Pigeon– Ditto for Costa Rica’s most common pigeon.

Short-billed Pigeon– The Barred Owl isn’t the only bird that says, “Who cooks for you”? This plain colored rainforest pigeon asks the same question.

Squirrel Cuckoo– Some people claim this bird is being rude and saying, “Up Your’s!” I just think its living up to its cuckoo family antics.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl– A common bird in many of the dry parts of the Pacific slope.

Mottled Owl– One of Costa Rica’s most frequently heard owls.

Common Pauraque– The standard nightjar in many parts of Costa Rica.

Gartered Trogon– A common bird, vocal, and a good one to know so you can admire its plumage of many colors.

Resplendent Quetzal– Not as common but one of the most spectacular birds on the planet. They are vocal and hearing them is one of the best ways to find them.

Lesson’s Motmot– Hear a dog or owl giving a double bark or hoot? You might be hearing a Lesson’s Motmot.

Broad-billed Motmot– This motmot makes a funny nasal sounding noise that is difficult to describe.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar– Vocal, locally common, and a good bird to know.

Collared Aracari– This aracari doesn’t sound anything like the larger toucans.

Yellow-throated Toucan– Loud and proud, the yelps of this big-beaked badboy are typical of the audio rainforest scene.

Lineated Woodpecker– It sort of laughs like a Pileated but still sounds quite different.

Collared Forest-Falcon– Learn its mournful calls to realize how common this relusive species is actually is.

Laughing Falcon– The laughter of this masked snake eater carry for some distance.

Scarlet Macaw– It is good to know what the screams of this magnificent bird sound like.

White-crowned Parrot– A common parrot in many parts of Costa Rica.

Barred Antshrike– Another common bird with a characteristic song.

Chestnut-backed Antbird– The friendly whistled notes of this understory species are synonymous with rainforest.

Cocoa Woodcreeper– One of the more common woodcreeper species in the humid lowlands.

Spotted Woodcreeper– A common bird of mixed flocks in foothill and cloud forest habitats.

Three-wattled Bellbird– The loud calls of this special bird are incredible.

Silvery-fronted Tapaculo– Another bird heard more often than seen, you will hear its loud staccato vocalizations in cloud forest and high elevation habitats.

Masked Tityra– It’s just nice to know that some birds sound like cartoon pigs.

Great Kiskadee– A bird that says its name and says it often.

Boat-billed Flycatcher– A kiskadee look-a-like. Maybe it complains about kiskadees getting more attention?

Yellow-bellied Elaenia– Common in gardens and second growth and very vocal.

Long-tailed Manakin– The intriguing calls of this beautiful bird are frequently heard.

White-collared Manakin– Another common manakin, this one calls and displays from second growth.

Lesser Greenlet– Easy to overlook but common and often heard. A good vocalization to learn.

Green Shrike-Vireo– No, that’s not a titmouse even if it does remind you of one.

Brown Jay– Hear some typically jayish calls? It’s probably this bird.

Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (and other wrens especially Rufous-and-white and Nightingale)- You will hear plenty of wrens, including the friendly song of this bird while birding in cloud forest.

Clay-colored Thrush– The song of this bird may remind you of the American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

Black-faced Solitaire– One of the best songs in the country!

Olive-backed Euphonia– You will probably hear quite a few of these in the lowland and foothill forests of the Caribbean slope.

Yellow-crowned Euphonia– Another commonly heard euphonia.

Rufous-collared Sparrow– This is one of the first species heard at first light in the Central Valley.

Costa Rica birding

Melodious Blackbird– The ringing calls of this common species have become a regular part of the audio backdrop in many places.

Great-tailed Grackle– Another loud and very common urban species.

Collared Redstart– The hurried song of this friendly species is typical of high elevation sites.

Black-thighed Grosbeak– A nice, beautiful song to learn.

Whether because they are common, heard often, or make fantastic sounds, these are the 50 species I recommend learning first. If 50 seems like too many birds to learn, go for 25 or even 20. You will probably hear several from the list when visiting Costa Rica, maybe even on that first exciting morning. If you can find time to learn more, that’s even better. If you can’t learn any, that’s alright too; what’s most important is making it to Costa Rica for birding and enjoying several days of fantastic Costa Rica birds.

There are additional birds not on this list that would also be good to learn, other birds you will certainly hear during a birding tour to Costa Rica. Some are bird species that may be familiar to folks who have birded Arizona or other places in the USA, species like Blue Grosbeak and Inca and White-winged Doves. Others include various hawks, hawk-eagles, warblers, and so many others. It’s always good to study those other species because make no doubt about it, many will be entering your personal birding audiosphere.

Whether you just want to learn a few, the 50 on this list, or listen to the whole shebang of 900 species, a complete birding app for Costa Rica can help. It works because you can:

  • See pictures of the birds while listening to them.
  • Use filters to show birds by family (if you feel like say focusing on antbird vocalizations), region (if you want to study the calls of birds that say only occur in the mountains), or other attributes.
  • Listen to the sounds of 900 species (its nice to have the songs of so many birds at your fingertips).

Not to mention, in a recent update, we also included:

  • 7 more species for a total of 1005 species and subspecies on the app. One of these was a recent addition to the Costa Rica bird list, the others are species that could eventually occur.
  • More images, including birds in flight.
  • Regional endemic search filter and updated list of regional endemics
  • Updated information about behavior and habitats of pelagic birds and other species.
  • Name changes that reflect AOS and eBird checklists
  • Improved range maps

Learn some bird songs to get ready for your birding trip to Costa Rica. The birds are waiting and the birding is always fantastic. I hope to see you here!

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10 Full Days of Fantastic Birding in Costa Rica January-Feb., 2022 – One Spot Left!

The Costa Rica birding season will be here soon. For some lucky folks, it’s already happening. Those fortunate birders have been enjoying the benefits of birding in Costa Rica with views of everything from shy Yellow-breasted Crakes to mega Bare-necked Umbrellabird and hawk-eagles. The usual magnificent mix of glittering hummingbirds and tanagers are also being seen along with

Resplendent Quetzal– a true world mega.

Would you like to start your year of birding with ten days full of fantastic birds in Costa Rica?

How about seeing Costa Rica hummingbirds like the Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

Violet Sabrewing and chances at more than 30 other species.

Scarlet and Great Green Macaws

along with several other parrots and parakeets including

the endangered Yellow-naped Parrot.

While birding rainforests entertained by the haunting whistled songs of tinamous, antbirds, and woodcreepers, there will be chances to see such stunning tropical birds as

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Broad-billed Motmot

Broad-billed Motmot

Chesnut-colored Woodpecker

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Gartered Trogons and much more.

In cloud forest, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers await

along with cute Collared Redstarts

and Yellow-thighed Brushfinches.

Yellow-thighed Brushfinch

Boat rides in bird rich wetlands can have crakes,

the unique Sungrebe,

and the near endemic Nicaraguan Grackle.

Tropical dry forest offers another fantastic suite of birds to watch including stunners like the Turquoise-browed Motmot

Black-headed Trogon,

and Long-tailed Manakin.

On the tanager front, Costa Rica is blessed with beauties like the Crimson-collared Tanager,

Scarlet-rumped Tanager,

Emerald Tanager

Emerald Tanager

Speckled Tanager

Speckled Tanager

Red-legged Honeycreeper and more.

Toucans? Oh, there will be toucans too…

Keel-billed Toucan Laguna Lagarto

Hundreds of birds are waiting including the beauties shown above. Many will be seen (maybe 400 of them) on a fantastic birding tour in CostaRica scheduled for 10 days in January and February, 2022. Carefully designed by local experts to maximize bird variety at key sites, lucky participants will visit such hotspots as the Sarapiqui rainforests,

Cinchona,

Cinchona is a good site for the White-bellied Mountain-gem, a local regional endemic.

high elevation cloud forest,

the incredible wetlands of Cano Negro,

birding Costa Rica

the fantastic rainforests of Arenal,

and the Carara area.

The new Universal Trail at Carara.

If you are or know of a woman birder who would love to experience the fantastic birding of Costa Rica and be willing to share a room with another woman birder on this trip, send an email today to information@birdingraft.com

Fantastic tropical birding is waiting in Costa Rica, I hope to see you here!

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Which Migrant Species Are Encountered Most Often While Birding in Costa Rica?

Migrant species are birds too! Well of course they are but when they can also be seen back home, even the best of them tend to receive less attention. Eye-catching Baltimore Orioles, cool Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, inquisitive Yellow Warblers and other birds that flew all the way to Costa Rica. Not looked at. Incredible but then again, when a birder has the choice of focusing on familiar birds or seeing once in a lifetime lifers, the best course of binocular action becomes obvious.

I can’t fault visiting birders for paying less atttention to Baltimore Orioles. If I could look at those or a host of new birds, I wouldn’t spend much time focusing on those pretty blackbirds either. Always cool to look at (and do enjoy looking at them in Costa Rica) but they aren’t really the main reason to visit Costa Rica for birding.

Even so, if you make a personal oath to avoid looking at birds seen on many a previous occasion, it’s still worth knowing about the possibilities. No matter where you go birding, the more prepared you are for the trip, the better it will be. Study in advance and you don’t just identify more birds, you also have better knowledge of what to expect, where to find various species, and have a more fulfilling trip. These are some of the more common migrant species you can expect to see while birding in Costa Rica.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted-Sandpiper

Bird nearly any waterway in the country and you can expect running into some of these common teetering waterbirds. They may look plain but in Costa Rica, they share space with the likes of Sunbittern and tiger-herons.

Broad-winged Hawk

If you thought that perched raptor really looked like a Broad-wing, it probably was. During the winter months, this hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors. However, taking a closer look doesn’t hurt; juvenile Gray, Gray-lined, and Roadside Hawks can look similar.

Great-crested Flycatcher

Hear that classic “wheep!” call? No other local birds makes that sound and Great-cresteds frequently give that call in Costa Rica during the winter. They can be seen in many habitats but are probably most common in tropical dry forest (which they share with other similar-looking Myiarchus species).

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied-Flycatcher

It’s not the only Empid in Costa Rica during the winter but it is the most common one. To make things a bit more confusing, it often gives a single call note easily confused with call notes given by Acadian Flycatchers.

Philadelphia Vireo

Coming from some of the same breeding areas as the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Philadelphias also winter in many of the same places as the small flycatcher. Costa Rica is an excellent place to study this bird because in this country, the Philly Vireo rules as the common wintering vireo (Warblerings are very rare).

Barn Swallow

Hordes of Bank and Cliff Swallows migrate on through but many Barns stay in Costa Rica. Expect lots of this common, beautiful bird in open habitats in the lowlands.

Baltimore Oriole

As mentioned above, many of this beautiful bird winter in Costa Rica. They often give short versions of their whistled song, come to feeders, visit fruiting and flowering trees, and occur in flocks. Enjoy them!

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

That “chicky tuck tuck” call is a familiar sound in many parts of Costa Rica. Whether looking for birds in hot and humid lowland rainforest or wearing a light jacket in the mountains, you will probably see more than a few of these red beauties.

Wood-warblers

As befits this fun group of special little birds, they really deserve their onw category. Several species winter in Costa Rica, these are the ones seen the most:

Wilson’s Warbler– One of the more common species of montane habitats, its a good idea to learn its call before the trip.

Tennessee Warbler– Expect lots of these little birds at flowering trees, especially on the Pacific slope.

Black-throated Green Warbler– Go birding in montane forest and you should run into some of these. Keep an eye out for uncommon Twonsend’s and rare Hermit Warblers (and the ultra rare Golden-cheeked!).

Chestnut-sided Warbler– A bird so common in winter Costa Rica, some visiting birders just call it “ubi” (short for ubiquitous, here’s looking at you Mike, Pat, and Shai!). Don’t be fooled by its gnatcatcher looks, if you thought you saw a Chestnut-sided in wintering plumage, you sure did, and again, and again. The eye-ringed bird with the lime green back is especially common in humid habitats. I have to wonder, since this species was historically much more rare, upon becoming abundant, has it had any sort of impact on the habitats in frequents in the winter?

Waterthrushes– Both are commonly seen, Louisiana in its expected favored rocky river and stream habitats, and Northern in any number of lowland wetland sites.

Prothonotary Warbler– This beautiful bird occupies some of the same space as the Northern Waterthrush. It’s especially common in mangroves.

Prothonotary Warbler as seen on the Costa Ria BIrds Field Guide app.

Yellow Warbler– This familiar country bird will be just as familiar in Costa Rica.

These aren’t the only species that winter in these birdy lands. They are common and you will likely see numbers of them but you will also see various additional species. For North American birders, watching these “birds from home” do their stuff on wintering grounds will generate deeper understanding and better apreciation of their avian lives. For birders from other places, they will act as fun lifers to look at and experience. Either way, they are always fun birds to watch.

Study them with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, a digital field and reference guide with all of the species on the Costa Rica bird list and several more that could occur (to show nearly 1,000 species). If you already have the app, the next update will show the latest name changes and include 5 additional species that may eventually be found in Costa Rica. Get ready for birding in Costa Rica- it’s closer than you think!

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How to See More Antpittas in Costa Rica Part 2- Low Elevations

Antpittas are most often affiliated with the cloud forests of the avian rich Andes. It makes sense, those fantastic habitats of bird aficionado dreams are where most people see their first antpitta. In the past, as wonderfully birdy as those places are, except for birders wielding a good deal of time, patience, and determination, many an antpitta stayed safely put in the “heard only” category.

That tantalizing dynamic was changed by feeding stations and similar situations. Once they hit the birding scene, Giant Antpittas, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, even the previously near mythical Moustached Antpitta started showing up on trip reports and bird lists that featured satisfied antpitta checks in the “seen!” column. Worm feeding stations in Ecuador and Colombia quickly became the easiest way to see antpittas and in the subsequent years since they became established, they have helped thousands of people test their close focus on antpittas.

These special feathered gnomes reach their greatest diversity in the Andes but they also live in other, hotter places. In the absence of feeding stations, antpittas of the lowland and foothill forests continue to be some of the more difficult birds to see. Like their montane cousins, most are readily heard but unlike some birds in the mountains, they haven’t adopted the way of the fed worm. Who knows, maybe lowland ntpittas would comply if more people tried to make that happen but until then, most situations for such species as the Thrushlike, Spotted, and Speckled-breasted Antpittas will require old fashioned antpitta viewing factors like stealth, determination, and good fortune.

Those and other attributes are needed to see the lowland antpittas that are two of many cherished birds in Costa Rica. Here are some ideas for laying eyes on these prize birds:

Streak-chested Antpitta

Fortunately, in Costa Rica, we have one or two reliable sites to connect with this cool little bird. Go to Carara National Park, especially as soon as the park opens, walk the Quebrada Bonita loop trail, and you should hear its sad whistled song. Invest the time in looking and waiting for the bird and you also have an excellent chance of seeing it. It’s worth keeping a careful eye on the trail as far ahead as you can see, I have noticed this stealthy little ball of feathers hop across and into view on more than one occasion.

streak-chested-antpitta

They can also show at the edges of antswarms but most birders find them by listening for their haunting whistled song. As with other shy forest birds, a key way to see one is by carefully scanning the forest floor and patiently waiting for one to reveal itself. That typically happens when one hops into view but they can also get noticed when they puff their chest feathers in and out. That body inflation isn’t the most obvious motion in the forest but is another reminder to check out any percieved movement, event the hint of one. I recall seeing more than one Streak-chested Antpitta as well as other birds being attuned to such forest hints.

For the Pacific race of this species, Carara is the most accessible spot but they also occur in other forested sites, especially flat areas with tall forest in the Osa Peninsula.

As for the Caribbean slope version of the Streak-chested Antpitta, listen and look for it in the same way at Quebada Gonzalez, deep in La Selva, and other sites with extensive primary forest. It doesn’t seem to readily occur at Arenal but with lowland species moving upslope, this might change. It’s also worth mentioning that ideally, a Costa Rica birding tour should try and see this bird on both sides of the mountain because there’s a fair chance two species are involved.

Streak-chested-Antpitta-intermedius-1
The Caribbean slope subspecies of this cool little bird.

Thicket Antpitta

This vocal skulker is Costa Rica’s other lowland antpitta. Since it might be more at home in the foothills and occurs in second growth, Foothill Antpitta or S and G Antpitta might be more appropriate but in any case, “Thicket” still works.

This secretive bird isn’t shy with its vocal chords. Over and over, it teases with its rising whistled song. A good thing too because otherwise, you would never see the thing. It absolutely loves wet and thick second growth and can occur anywhere in the Caribbean lowlands but may be most frequent in the Tilaran Mountains. That would mostly be the Arenal area. Go birding on the Peninsula Road or various other spots and you will probably hear it. To see it, find a spot near a singing bird where you can actually see the ground and play the patience game.

Other very good sites for this species include Tierras Enamoradas and Pocosol.

It’s worth mentioning that this bird could also end up being a species separate from the ones that live in South America. Maybe, maybe not but there’s nothing wrong with seeing more antpittas.

These are the lowland antpittas of Costa Rica. Birds worth seeing but birds that also require patience, stealth, and determination. A good guide and birding tour in Costa Rica can also make the difference. Speaking of that, I know of a tour available for an excellent price that has one spot open for a woman (sharing a room with another woman). The tour is scheduled in January, 2022 and because of a cancellation, that one spot to see Streak-chested Antpitta and hundreds of other species is available.

Various key sites will be visited including Poas, Sarapiqui, Cope’s, Cano Negro, Arenal, and Carara. Last year, a similar tour saw more than 425 species during 10 days of fantastic birding. If interested or know someone who would love to experience a wealth of tropical birds and close looks at macaws, toucans, tanagers, hummingbirds, and many other birds in Costa Rica, please contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com

As always, I hope to see you birding in fantastic Costa Rica. It’s closer and easier than you think!

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How to See More Antpittas When Birding in Costa Rica- Part One

Antpittas aren’t your averge garden bird. At least not unless your backyard borders Andean cloud forest and other places haunted by these most special of plump birds. Many people (that means non-birders too) have heard of sparrows, pigeons, larks, and a host of additional avian groups but antpittas? Yeah…maybe not so much. Ask your average person about antpittas and you may find that such discourse is a good way to elicit looks of confusion, nervous laughter, or maybe even offending someone. Don’t be surprised, it’s what people do when presented with odd language that sounds completely bizarre.

We can’t blame them, after all, the word “antpitta” is likewise confusing to birders who have never seen pictures of antpittas. Ask your backyard birding Uncle Billy about them and he might respond that last time he checked, ants were insects. If he has been studying Birds of the World or scrolling Flcker for colorful bird pictures, is prone to mansplaining and has never birded outside of the confines of his garden, he might also add, “Oh, you mean pittas! Now that’s a beautiful bird. You need to see a pitta, they only live in…Singapore. Go there, there’s tours to see them, you should sign up for one. Oh, and bring your binoculars and a camera, you can’t go on a tour without those. You could learn a lot about birds, there’s a guide that will help you.”

In response, after calming the urge to punch him in the arm, you could mention that yes, you are aware of those jewels of the forest floor but that actually, no, you weren’t referring to them or insects. You had anther bird in mind, the one you had even mentioned..antpittas.

Ochre-breasted-Antpitta

If you still managed to harbor enough patience and good will to continue conversing with your uncle, you could then show him a page or two from a field guide, birding app, or search results that demonstrate some choice members of the Grallaria genus. Who knows? Such a kind gesture might open his eyes and mind to antpittas and if he reacts like many other birders do, his eyes will go wide, he may say things like, “Well I’ll be darned!”, “It’s a football with legs!”, or even “What the hell is that thing…what is it?!?” No matter what his exclamation at the discovery of the antpitta, he will then want to go and see them.

This is because once people who use binoculars learn about antpittas, most really, really want to experience them. One might assume that birders would prefer to ogle the iridescence of tanagers, fill their eyes with eagles, and enjoy the fairy moves of hummingbirds. Therein lies some truth but birding is so much more than the fancy side of avian life. Attraction is also found in unexpected appearances, in birds that hop right into your imagination.

In the case of antpittas, they jumpstart your sense of wonder by looking like forest gnomes wearing feathered capes, by mournfully whistling at you from the depths of the rainforest, and by rarely letting you see them. The taming of antpittas with worms has erased some of that antpitta fantasy but it hasn’t made a dent in their popularity. If anything, feeding them has brought these odd birds into the birding spotlight, has made more people aware that these weird and wonderful creatures exist.

In Costa Rica, we are blessed with 5 antpitta species and although you won’t find any antpitta feeding stations, there still are ways to see them. This post is numero one in a short series about antpittas. Let’s start with the megaist one of the bunch:

Black-crowned Antpitta

Actually in a related but separate bird family (the Conophagidae) and therefore more properly known as a “Gnatpitta“, this fancy bird is one heck of a mega. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why it’s a “mega” is because you don’t see them.

Black-crowned Antpitta digiscoped Costa Rica
A Black-crowned Antpitta I digiscoped some years ago in Costa Rica.

Despite being big enough to take on a chicken in a fair fight, this gangstapitta is also adept at avoiding birders. Sadly, it does it all the time and not by merit of its skulking prowess. It’s also honestly uncommon and seems to have declined in the few sites where used to chuckle at passing birders (seriously, listen to it chuckle). As with so many other birds and climate crisis life in general, this decline is likely associated with consistently drier conditions that have resulted in less things to eat.

With that extra bit of scarcity factor in mind, seeing this special bird in Costa Rica has become that much more difficult. Since this Pittasoma is also regular at sites in Panama, most save a date with it whle birding there. However, since the ones most often seen in Panama are another, distinct subspecies, connecting with it in Costa Rica is worth the effort.

If that’s the case, why isn’t it seen on birding tours in Costa Rica? As in any tours? The answer is basically “other birds” and “logistics”. While a tour could see Black-crowned Antpitta on one or more of the regular circuits, making that happen would take up time more easily dedicated to seeing many other birds much easier to see and photograph. It can take hours, even days to find (or majorly dip) one of these birds.

The Costa Rica Pittasoma equation is further complicated by logistics. The sites where the bird is regular are off the regular tour track and most aren’t very suitable for group tours. Until we find accessible and reliable places for the antpitta in northern Costa Rica, tours will need to detour or focus on southern Costa Rica.

Given the excellent birding near and south of Limon, that’s not such a bad idea! The best option for a group tour would probably be Selva Bananito while more indepedent birders could stay in any number of places near Cahuita or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and look for the antpitta at Kekoldi and other suitably forested sites. The best places seem to be streams and other wet and muddy areas in primary rainforest and adjacent old second growth. As with other antpittas, even then, the bird isn’t easy to find but your chances improve if you can quietly scan for it on forest trails at dawn and in the late afternoon, and listen for its distinctive vocalizations.

But wait, that’s not all! Luckily, in common with some other challenging understory species, this bird loves to follow Army Ants. If you find an ant swarm in good habitat for the gnatpitta, keep waiting and try to stay with the ants until the antpitta makes an appearance. The nice thing about this birding hat trick is if the antpitta doesn’t show, you will still a bunch of other cool birds, maybe even a darn R.V. G. Cuckoo.

Finding this special antpitta is never easy but you can’t go wrong looking in the right places; in the homes of antpittas, the birding trends towards the awesome end of the spectrum.

To be continued…

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Some of the Best Road Birding in Costa Rica: the Ceiba-Cascajal Road

Great spots for birding in Costa Rica aren’t limited to national parks and protected areas.

Don’t get me wrong, many of those special places are excellent and you can’t go wrong with a day of birding in Carara or Tapanti but they aren’t the only sites to enjoy quality birding time.

In Costa Rica, byways that pass through a mix of private lands with varying degrees of protected status can be replete with excellent “road birding”. One such hotspot is the Ceiba-Cascajal Road, a promising area
that has been consistent with generating a fine variety of rare, uncommon, and serious mega species. As with so many other good birding spots in Costa Rica, it also has an excellent sampling of more expected birds.

Situated west of the town of Orotina in the hot Pacific lowlands, the area is dotted with patches of tropical dry forest, riparian zones, pasture, sugarcane fields, and at least one seasonal wetland. The end result is
habitat for a large number of species and most can be encountered from a good gravel road. This country road links the town of Orotina to smaller settlements and the main coastal highway. Additional side roads probably offer up similar good birding but they might not be as maintained as the main route linking Orotina to Ceiba and Cascajal.

Head to Ceiba and you can keep on birding dry tropical forest and other habitats all the way to Bajamar and Guacalillo; classic areas for birding tours in search of dry forest species. Take the Cascajal route and although it might cover a smaller area, there’s still plenty enough habitat for a fine day of birding. From what I have seen, this road also accesses
more interesting habitat; a mosaic of promising wooded areas with big trees and an open area with a seasonal wetland.

Where to look for birds? While there are plenty of birds to see anywhere along on the roadside, this information should give some notion of expectations:

Dry Forest Birds

A good percentage of tropical dry forest species are present. Although you probably won’t find birds that require larger areas of more intact forest, notably Thicket Tinamou, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, there are plenty of Long-tailed Manakins, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Black-headed Trogons, and Striped-headed Sparrows to look at. The more wooded spots and riparian zones will also be good places to look for possible Stub-tailed Spadebill, Royal Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and various other dry forest birds.

One of the many Turquoise-browed Motmots from this road.

Scrubby areas can have Striped and Lesser ground-Cuckoos, Crested Bobwhite, wintering Painted Bunting, and wintering Grasshopper Sparrow (an uncommon, much desired species for local birders), as well as other rare sparrows. Both wooded and scrubby areas occur on various parts of the road.

Wide Open Habitats

When you feel like taking a break from peering into vegetation, scan the open fields for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Southern Lapwing, raptors, swallows, and various other open country species. The thick-knees may be seasonal but even if you don’t see them, there will still be other interesting open country birds to look at including occasional Red-breasted Meadowlark. One such visit to a spot with open fields turned up Costa Rica’s best documented Burrowing Owl!
The sighting prompted Costa Rica’s subsequent biggest twitch which then sadly became Costa Rica’s biggest dip. Did the bird get scared off by too much photography harassment (a growing problem)? That’s always possible but we will never know.

Double-striped Thick-Knee

Seasonal Wetlands

These can occur in a few different parts of the road; one is a low, wet spot in the area with large open fields on both sides of the road, and the other is on the road to Cascajal. This second wetland is particularly interesting as it has some freshwater marsh vegetation and low scrubby growth in wet fields. Although I didn’t see any on a recent visit, the site looks perfect for Wilson’s Snipe and may host uncommon or vagrant wetland species from time to time. I’m eager to give it a good check!

Night Birding

The nocturnal birding on this road can be very productive. Although it may take some time to find the birds, Barn and Striped Owls occur, Pacific Screech-Owl is common in wooded areas with large trees, Mottled Owl is also fairly common in those same spots, Black-and-white Owl sometimes occurs, and Spectacled Owl can show up in the more wooded riparian zones. And those aren’t the only night birds lurking in the dark!

Although uncommon, both Northern and Common Potoo have been found, Lesser Nighthawks are commonly seen in the evening skies,
and Common Pauraques will flush from the track at night. Given the open habitat, it wouldn’t be out of the question to find a rare White-tailed Nightjar and Chuck-will’s Widdow may be found in the winter months.

It’s also a good idea to pay careful attention to any nightjar seen on or perched near the road just in case you find a rare wintering Whip-poor-will or document Spot-tailed Nightjar for Costa Rica. Although not on the official list, some years ago, one may have been seen by Robert Dean and Eduardo Amengual in dry habitat on the road to Monteverde.

Given this possible sighting and its migratory nature, I included it as one of several species to look for on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
The wet, open fields along the Ceiba-Cascajal Road look like a very good place for this mega to occur.

I should also mention if you do go night birding on this road, keep an eye out for snakes. Please watch for any of these shy and over persecuted creatures on the road and be careful to not injure them!

Raptors

The mosaic of tropical habitats and large dove and rodent population make this road an excellent area for raptors. Keep an eye on soaring birds and check the electric pylons and big trees for perched birds.

Here’s the raptor deal on some of what to look for:

Pearl Kite– Uncommon but regular.
Vultures– Among common Black and Turkey Vultures, keep an eye out for the occasional King and rare Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture in open wet fields.
Osprey- There must be more water in this area than I think because I have often see an Osprey or two flapping overhead!
Hook-billed Kite– Uncommon but present.
Gray-headed Kite– Rare but could occur from time to time in more wooded areas.
Plumbeous Kite– An uncommon summer visitor, more common in the Guacimo-Guacalillo part of the road.
Crane Hawk– Rare but does occur in this area.
Bicolored Hawk– Rare but has been recorded.
Cooper’s Hawk– This is a good area for this uncommon wintering species.
Sharp-shinned Hawk– Another uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.
Northern Harrier– A rare wintering species in Costa Rica, this is a fair spot for it.
Harriss’ Hawk– This road is one of the easier sites for this species in Costa Rica.
Broad-winged Hawk– A common migrant and wintering species.
Short-tailed Hawk– As with many areas in Costa Rica, one of the more commonly seen raptors.
Gray Hawk– One of the most frequent raptor species in Costa Rica.

Roadside Hawk- Another common raptor in Costa Rica, especially in the lowlands.

Roadside-Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk- Uncommon but regular.
Red-tailed Hawk– In the lowlands, occasional wintering individuals occur. This is a good site for migrants from the north.
Swainson’s Hawk– Although most migrate through Costa Rica, some winter in open areas of the Pacific lowlands.
White-tailed Hawk– An occasional visitor to this area.
Collared Forest-Falcon– As with many sites, fairly common but secretive. Easiest to detect when it calls in the early morning and evening.
Laughing Falcon– Fairly common.
American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine– The open fields of this road are good sites for these wintering species.
Bat Falcon– A pair or two seem to be present and can be seen anywhere along the road.
Aplomado Falcon– Yes! Not expected but this vagrant migrant to Costa Rica has been seen at this site and given the open habitat could occur from time to time.
Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras– fairly common.

Parrots

It’s always fun to see parrots! The three most common species in this area are White-fronted Parrot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, and Orange-chinned Parakeet.

Yellow-naped Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, White-crowned Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet are also regular and even Scarlet Macaw can be seen.

One of several overlooked birding destinations in Costa Rica, in large part, we can thank some local birders for bringing attention to the avian richness and potential of this site, especially Beto Guido, Mckoy Umaña, and others.

I look forward to my next visit, hopefully, one that begins before dawn. To learn more about where to see birds in Costa Rica along with insider tips to look for them, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

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Birding Manzanillo, Costa Rica on October Global Big Day, 2021

October is migration season in Costa Rica. It can also be heavy afternoon rain season or even rain all day season but the massive influx of birds is fair compensation. This is the month when us local birders do well by watching green space and inspecting the many Red-eyed Vireos for birds with black whiskers. I’ve put in a fair amount of vireo checking time and although I’m still whiskerless, I’ll keep on looking.

Looking at every gray-capped, pale white and olive bird is worth it and not just because one might have black whiskers. I enjoy each and every one because they have flown from the leafy green summer woods of Ohio, New York, and Ontario. I owe it to them; these are the birds that survived the window gauntlets of the north. I admire their soft, unobtrusive ways and knowing that Costa Rica is just one stop on the flyway train to Amazonia makes these foliage-colored birds sort of unbelievable.

During October Global Big, 2021, I had expected to pass the time checking vireos and other less mobile species right around the home. On account of local driving restrictions, we weren’t allowed to use the car on October 9th, I had become resigned to the idea of local exploration. Not to mention, I had things to do on the day after Global Big Day so why go anywhere? It was birding from home or no birding at all. That was alright, there’s always stuff to see, especially during migration times.

At least that was the idea until my Sunday plans were changed to a later date. Suddenly, the door of possibilities opened to going somewhere for the big eBird count on October 9th! We would have to leave on Friday in order to stay overnight in a place where we could bird on foot or bicycle on Saturday (because of those driving restrictions). Since we would have to wait until Sunday to drive home, well, we would just have to watch birds on that morning too.

It took some quick planning and very few places had availability but before we knew it, our later afternoon and evening plans for Friday included a long drive to Costa Rica’s promised land for migration; the southern Caribbean zone.

The South Caribbean region of Costa Rica includes any of the lands south of Limon. I always love visiting this underbirded part of the country because there is a good amount of nice forest habitat, beaches and estuaries that turn up interesting seabirds, cool resident species, interesting Caribbean culture, and fantastic bird migration.

Stay just about anywhere south of Limon and you will see a lot. Partly because of room availability, we ended up in Manzanillo. I’m not complaining. This little town near the end of the line around 15 kilometers past Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is surrounded by the rainforests of the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, an excellent underbirded area that host a healthy variety of lowland species along with a big helping of migrants. Since the village of Manzanillo acts as a clearing in that forest, it can attract some interesting open country species as well as be a great place to see birds in flight as they make their way south.

Some suggestions and highlights from our trip:

Guapiles-Limon Highway- Night Driving is a No No

This principal highway has been under construction for some years now. It will still be some years before it’s finished. When it is finished, the driving should be fantastic, day and maybe night too. Until then, I highly advise only driving that road during the day. On Friday, we found ourselves doing some night driving and…it was like participating in a road trip from another dimension, one where nightmares are the norm. No illumination, no painted road lanes, the only reflectors being some small posts that marked the edge of the road (which happened to be a small cliff that dropped a meter or more). There were also big trucks, a few confusing lane changes, and a few random criminally negligent road craters.

If you do find yourself driving that particular byway during the dark hours, if you make it to Limon and its any consolation, the driving after that point is sweet and easy-going. Time your trip accordingly.

Birding in Manzanillo Village- Check the Streams

In the early morning of October 9th, I walked a block or two up the road to a small stream that passes next to an empty weedy lot and heads straight into wetlands with Raffia palms. As soon as I got there I heard a splash followed by soft ticking calls. I knew it had to be one of the small kingfishers and as I had suspected, yes (!), it was the smallest one.

That American Pygmy-Kingfisher flew downstream but right after its departure, I heard more ticking calls, this time from the part of the stream next to the vacant lot. A quick scan and I couldn’t believe my luck, it was the rarest of the small kingfishers, a Green-and-Rufous! Next thing I knew, it was zipping my way, seemingly pursued by a Clay-colored Thrush. The jade and burnt orange kingfisher flew about a meter next to me as it jetted past.

This is a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher from Cano Negro.

Birding that same spot also gave us nice looks at Prothonotary Warbler, Canebrake Wren, and some other birds, the most interesting being a surprise Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, a bird much more normally encountered on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific slope.

Pay an Early Visit to the Trails in Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

We ended up visiting the official trails of the refuge after in the later par of the morning. We hadn’t planned it that way, in fact, we hadn’t planned on doing that at all. But since we were walking over that way, we ended up entering and walking the trails for a short ways.

We saw several Tawny-crested Tanagers (very common in this area) and some other birds but if I could do it again (and I would like to), I would enter the trails right at the opening time of 6:30. That would result in much more bird activity coupled with less people activity. On our weekend visit, the place was crowded like Disney.

I should mention that visiting the trails (of which there are a few, most follow the beach) was as easy as writing down your name and some other information, having your bag briefly checked for alcohol beverages (leave the wine back at the hotel!), and visiting a hand washing station (commonplace in Costa Rica since the start of the pandemic).

Check Out the Soccer Field (Football Pitch)

As with settlements of all sizes in Costa Rica and most parts of the world away from Canada and the USA, Manzanillo had a soccer field (football pitch). This is always a good place to check, especially during migration. It’s where Costa Rica’s sole record of Whistling Heron was made and where other occasional vagrants have appeared.

On our visit, the field hosted a bunch of Eastern Kingbirds, Dickcissels, and a few resident species. The kingbirds were perched on the ground either resting and/or fluttering after bugs. I have never seen anything like it! As a major bonus, one of the only kingbirds perched in a tree next to the pitch just happened to be a long overdue country bird; a Gray Kingbird!

The pale Caribbean version of a TK gave us fantastic looks in perfect light. At some point, we had to stop watching it, a shame we didn’t bring the camera!

Bird the RECOPE Road or the Road Towards Puerto Viejo for Great Forest Birding, or Bird Both

Both of these options are just outside of the village and both are excellent for a number of Caribbean lowland species. We didn’t see anything crazy but the birding early Sunday morning was nevertheless excellent. I heard fruitcrows and Central American Pygmy-Owls, had fun watching Northern Barred and Black-striped Woodcreepers, and was challenged by trying to watch dozens and dozens of small birds way up there in the canopy. Most were Red-eyed Vireos but other bird were with them too, it was the fun type of busy.

Central American Pygmy Owl

Don’t Forget About the Village Birding

Manzanillo itself also makes for some nice birding. We enjoyed flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and streams of migrating swallows. Common Nighthawks in the evening and plenty of parrots, tanagers, flycatchers, and other birds during the day. There were also the two aforementioned kingfishers, a calling Great Potoo at night, the Yellow-crowned Tyarnnulet, and other species. It’ the type of place where every bird should be checked and where a Tiny Hawk can suddenly appear at the tip top of a tree.

Our October Global Big Day turned out to be a pleasant 127 species surprise. Not bad for doing all of our birding on foot, taking a short afternoon nap, and meeting with friends for drinks on the beach. I can’t wait for my next birding trip to the southern Caribbean zone of Costa Rica.

To learn more about this and other birding sites in Costa Rica, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“; a 700 plus page birding companion for Costa Rica.

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Costa Rica Birding News October, 2021

October in Costa Rica is a month of migration. It’s our May, the time of year for local birders to perk up their ears, check those recent sightings in eBird and get themselves into the birding zone. Knowing that thousands of birds are passing through Costa Rican territory night and day, it’s a challenge to not wander outside and connect with that migration flow.

However, if there were a birding bible, it would likely say, “One cannot live on watching birds alone, there are other important things in life too.” With that in mind, I am grateful to be able to get in an hour of birding on most mornings and I also venture further afield now and then. Thanks to eBird and Facebook pages, I’m also kept informed of some sweet sightings made by Costa Rica’s strong (and growing) local birding community. Check out some of the latest notable birding news from Costa Rica:

White-cheeked Pintail at Punta Morales

Local birder Mckoy Umana has found more than one rarity. Thanks to his skills of observation and dedication, Mary and I saw a beautiful mega Gray-hooded Gull last year at Punta Morales. A few days ago, he did it again by finding a mega White-cheeked Pintail at the same site! Several other birders have gone to see this vagrant duck, I hope it stays long enough for us to lay eyes on it too. One can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual that was seen near Ciudad Neily earlier this year. It also makes me wonder what other cool vagrant waterfowl are waiting in present and future birding wings.

Oilbird Tracked with Transmitter!

Thanks to another talented local birder and guide, an Oilbird in Costa Rica has finally been tracked with a transmitter! Given that we don’t know where these nocturnal birds are coming from, this is probably the most important Costa Rica bird news of the year. Thanks to persistence and hard work carried out by David Rodriguez, for the first time, data are finally available showing movements of an Oilbird in Costa Rica.

Oilbird in Costa Rica
The Oilbird is some weird, nocturnal, mega whatnot. This was my lifer from 2013.

Although the transmitter stopped recording before it entered any caves (as far as is known), it did show that the bird traveled more than 200 kilometers while visiting sites near the Pacific Coast.

Cerulean Warblers Tracked with Transmitters!

Odd nocturnal birds weren’t the only species tracked in Costa Rica. Thanks to MOTUS towers that were recently erected, Cerulean Warblers fitted with transmitters have been tracked in Costa Rica and in Panama. This work was accomplished by Ernesto Carman, Paz Irola, and other folks associated with the Cerulean Project.

A Good Year for Buff-breasted Sandpipers (or Just Better Detection?)

This fall migration seems to have been especially good for Buff-breasted Sandpipers. This long distance Arctic migrant was seen by several local birders at sites in Guanacaste and at the Juan Santamaria Airport (my partner and I were pleased to have seen one a few days ago). Each year, “Buffies” migrate through Costa Rica but since they don’t have a huge population and can just fly right on over Costa Rica in a jiffy, they can be easily missed.

For the past few years, though, Buff-breasteds have been seen in Costa Rica at several sites on an annual basis. Unfortunately, I doubt the additional sightings are from an unknown yet very welcome increase in their numbers. Don’t we all wish that were the case! Such a hopeful situation would be wonderful and I would love to be proved wrong but more Buffies being seen in Costa Rica is almost certainly a result of there being higher numbers of skilled local birders looking for them. The more people looking the better, now who’s going to find us a Red-necked Stint? If not one of those Sibs, a Curlew Sandpiper will do…

Pacific Golden-Plover Seen at Cocos Island

Speaking of lost shorebirds, in September, a Pacific Golden-Plover was reported from Cocos Island. Given that one was also seen there last year, a few other records from mainland Costa Rica have also come to light, and because we are talking about a bird all too easily passed off an an American Golden-Plover, I can’t help but wonder if the bird from Alaska occurs as an annual vagrant. Yet another situation for observant local birders to be aware of.

Bare-necked Umbrellabirds at Centro Manu

Yes, finally, some news about a resident species every birder headed to Costa Rica would love to see! This rare mega is a choice species equally hoped for by local birders. It can turn up at any number of sites but because they are so few in number, chances at seeing them always seem frustratingly dismal. Not at the moment!

Although far from guaranteed, lately, several of this endangered species have been seen at Centro Manu. This species moves around so it’s hard to say how long they will be there but recently, one or more have been seen on a daily basis. Might they stay until January? The answer probably depends in part on how much food is available.

Fortunately, we may have some good gen about the big cotinga’s daily occurrence thanks to local birder Kenneth Guttierez. His family owns the place and he checks the trails just about every day. Let’s hope the birds stay into February. I should also add that their presence highlights the importance of forest reserves in the transition zone between foothills and lowlands. This ecotone is what umbrellabirds (and various other birds) need, it should be a priority for reforestation efforts.

That’s about all for Costa Rica birding news for today. I could also mention that hundreds of resident species are waiting to be seen but that’s actually not news because in Costa Rica, fantastic birding is expected. Hope to see you here!

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A Good Day of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

What’s a good day of birding in Costa Rica? For that matter, what’s a good day of birding anywhere? A common answer is “a good day of birding is any day when you go birding”. I can’t deny a certain degree of veracity to those words but let’s face it, no day of birding is the same, sometimes you get better views, others are highlighted with rare species, and the best of days exceed all expectations.

In trying to keep with the Zen birding way, before I look for birds, I try to erase the expectations. I am aware of the possibilities, that’s always important, but don’t actually expect anything. This way, the birding experience is more realistic because after all, the appearance and occurrence of birds are beyond our control. All we can do is up the odds in our favor by planting trees or taking other actions to protect bird habitat, learn how to look for and identify birds, and then carefully look for them in the right places.

Today being in the heart of fall migration, I can’t honestly say I didn’t have expectations but I still went birding without expecting to see certain species. I knew various species were out there, suspected that rare ones were present too but also walked out the door knowing that I can’t know if or when we would cross paths with them. All one can do is the things one can control; put in the birding time, observe, and be quick with the binos.

With or without expectations, today, September 26, 2021 was a good day of birding in the Central Valley of Costa Rica (perhaps my best). These are some of the reason why:

Major Migration

Each morning, lately, I have started the day looking out back, checking to see which birds have arrived from the north. Most mornings, a few birds are there, some days more than others. There have been a few good mornings but nothing like today, a day that featured an observable morning flight. Multiple warblers and vireos shot out of the vegetation, as per usual, flying upstream. A few stopped but most kept going and I couldn’t try and follow, there were other birds to look at. At times, a few too many.

A bird flying into a Cecropia turned into a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Eastern Kingbirds materialized in a treetop to my right. Something else zipped in and landed…this fall’s first Summer Tanager! Scanning the background revealed a small flock of Bronzed cowbirds, a larger flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeet and a constant movement of Bank Swallows. I had 50 species in maybe 30 minutes and we were about to head out the door to look for more.

A Summer Tanager in Costa Rica from another day- many of this species winter in Costa Rica.

Nonstop Birding

Hundreds of arrivals from the north and cloudy conditions made for excellent bird activity. At our first main stop, a small area of shade coffee, Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow and Blackburnian Warblers flitted in the trees, four Orchard Orioles chattered from an empty lot thick with grass, and swallows kept streaming overhead. More Bank Swallows moved through along with dark-throated Cliffs, elegant Banks, and a random massive Purple Martin. Before we left that spot, we also heard our first fall migration Swainson’s Thrush and had close looks at the following key species.

Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow

While searching for hidden cuckoos, I heard the tick ticking calls of one of Costa Rica’s major target birds, the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. I see this species at this site from time to time but it’s never guaranteed. Like other skulking ones, this southernmost towhee is a fickle bird that inherently calls its own shots. This morning, three of them gave us a break and allowed us to appreciate their clownish face pattern.

Upland Sandpiper

Next on the list of sites to visit was a place with large expanses of short grass, a busy place that breeds noise but our only close option for grasspipers. Our main target was Buff-breasted Sandpiper and although scanning the runways did not turn up that Arctic visitor, we couldn’t find fault with an Upland Sandpiper. Our second of the year, this special grassland bird was busy foraging near Eastern Meadowlarks and a Killdeer. Perhaps it was reminded of its summer home.

Sunbittern

After the airport, we checked the San Miguel reservoir. This small body of water can be a magnet for waterbirds, when dry, it can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper. Today, no mud flats meant no Baird’s and with the place being covered with Water Hyacinth, we only saw Northern Jacanas, Muscovy Ducks, herons, Purple Gallinules, and a few other birds. With so much vegetation present, thoughts of Masked Duck came to mind (it could easily be there) and we scanned for it but didn’t see one today.

Instead, we saw a Sunbittern! Not on the reservoir itself but just downhill, along the main road where a bridge crosses a forested creek. I had stopped there hoping to find migrants in the woods when I heard the whistle of the Sunbittern. Thank goodness it was vocalizing. If not, I doubt I would have noticed it. We saw one of these Gondwana birds from the bridge and heard another. A fine random sighting for the Central Valley and a reminder of how prevalent this shy species is in Costa Rica.

A Snippet of a Cuckoo

Our final sweet sighting for the day was as brief as a gust of wind but it’ll still do. While watching Alder Flycatcher share space with Olive Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and other birds, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo fast-trained it out of nowhere and flew deep into a fruiting fig. We looked, I tried to remind it of other places by whistling like an Eastern Screech-Owl but it must have been in a vacation state of mind, we never saw it again.

As I write, the day’s not over yet. I just counted 90 species from four hours of birding in the morning and 30 minutes more during the afternoon. With a more concerted effort, we could have easily found more than ten additional species but today was already a fantastic day of birding, I hope yours’ was too.

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Birding Costa Rica: Classic Sites or Off the Beaten Path?

The routes that birding tours in Costa Rica follow are like those of most nations; you go where the birds are BUT in accessible places near enough to other sites to make the route feasible during a week or two of birding. They also need to offer the right blend of comfort, service, food, and security.

A Black-crested Coquette from Rancho Naturalista, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites.

No matter where you bring the binos, this winning tour combination is basically why so many birding tours tend to follow similar routes. Not always, but for logistical reasons, many tours follow a similar circuit and why not? If a birding tour route keeps clients happy and can lessen the chances of running into snags, its a good one. Why not always use the same or similar routes? Those routes can also help with planning a birding trip. Using a blend of trip reports and tour company itineraries as a template for your own trip has long been an easy way to know where to go. After all, you can’t go wrong by visiting the same places as the group tours, right?

Maybe…trip success depends on what birds you want to see and how you want to go birding. See a good number of birds while staying in comfortable rooms? Yeah, those tour itineraries will work but if Black-crowned Antpitta and other uncommon target species are reasons for the trip, the well traveled birding byways won’t be your best option.

The same goes for adventurous birders who would rather explore on their own, visit less birded sites, or pay less. Solo birding, or with a private group? The classic sites will still work to produce a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica but if you want something a little bit different, perhaps see if you can document a Solitary Eagle, don’t overlook the luxury of having the liberty to bird wherever and whenever you want.

Birding on your own, in a small group or on a custom tour and you have a lot more leeway but there’s that one big catch; how do you know where to go? Check out Google Maps and there’s promising looking patches and extensions of ruffled green. But what’s it like on the ground? Some places seem to have roads, some don’t, and some of the better looking spots only have one eBird list.

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to stick to the spots that have been eBirded to the max because after all, at least you know what’s there. With so much coverage, you have a fair idea of which birds roam the woods of places like Rancho Naturalista and La Selva Biological Station (even with an error or two) but what if you want to bird other, lesser known spots?

Isn’t it just as worthwhile to bird places with large areas of forest even if they lack or have smaller eBird lists? You bet it is. The birds aren’t where people have uploaded lists, they occur where the habitat exists and the places with the most species will always be sites with the largest areas of mature, intact forest. It’s pretty simple, if you want to connect with rarities, see more raptors, and see the highest number of species, spend more time in mature forest.

Don’t worry too much about the second growth, you will still see plenty of edge species at and near the forest. If you are up for exploration, try these routes and regions:

Large areas of forest in the north

Check out forest along roads north and west of Rincon de la Vieja, and north and east of Laguna del Lagarto. Not that one could expect to be so lucky but it’s still worth mentioning that Costa Rica’s most recent documented Harpy Eagle sighting happened north of Rincon de la Vieja. I know I wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time up that way. The same goes for sites near Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque, and east of there.

The area south of Limon

There’s a lot of excellent forest habitat near and south of Limon. It’s underbirded, it probably hosts some sweet surprises, and the region seems to be the best part of the country for Black-crowned Antpitta and Great Jacamar. What else might live out there? Various roads that penetrate forest will work for some birding excitement including ones near Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Gandoca, and Hitoy Cerere.

Great Jacamar

The Osa Peninsula

Want to look for Crested Eagle while watching Baird’s Trogons and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, try the La Tarde area and birding on the road to Rancho Quemado and Drake Bay. Seeing one of the prize eagles would be a maybe lottery ticket but it’s always fun to look for it.

Black cheeked Ant Tanager

Other Spots With Promising Habitat

Any other spot with habitat will be good birding, a few to try include the road from Varablanca to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, roads east of Tirimbina, sites south of Guapiles and Siquirres, roads near Dominical, and the Las Tables area north of San Vito.

Still not sure where to go birding in Costa Rica? Don’t sweat it too much, find some habitat and the birding will deliver. Find out more about birding sites in Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica , a site guide and birding companion to Costa Rica. If you do find a Solitary Eagle, please get a picture and let me know, I know a lot of local birders who would love to see one. Until then, happy birding wherever you might be raising the binos.