When most birders think of Costa Rica, shorebirds don’t usually come to mind. Although thousands of waders do winter and migrate through the country, let’s face it, people with serious bins usually visit Costa Rica for a pleasantly high number of regional endemics, a few dozen hummingbirds, glittering tanagers, quetzals, and the list goes on but it doesn’t typically include Whimbrels, Willets, or even godwits.
Marbled Godwits are common in Costa Rica during the winter months.
For birders from North America, most of those shorebirds are especially unexciting because they can be seen back home, or at least on shorter trips closer to the home base. However, for birders from other parts of the globe, getting in some shorebirding is a quick way to tick and study a bunch of New World waders. To fill in the shorebird pages of your guide or checklist, bring a scope and try these following spots and strategies:
Estuaries, especially Tarcoles
Any of the estuaries on both coasts are good for shorebirds. As with many places on the planet, river deltas in Costa Rica are a good way to connect with species like Collared Plover, Semi. and Wilson’s Plovers, Black-bellied (Grey) Plover, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers (the three standard peeps in Costa Rica), and a few other waders. Other, rarer shorebirds can of course also show, and the most productive estuary might be the one at the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. For this spot, I’m not sure which end of the tides is best (maybe low?), but it’s always worth checking. This can be done on one of the birding mangrove boat tours or by visiting the Playa Azul area.
This estuary is a rarity magnet and thus always worth checking.
This most classic of shorebird sites has long been the best place to look for waders in Costa Rica. That dynamic could be changing because of different management practices and the presence of squatters but, so far, it still seems worthwhile to check. During the dry season, much of the place can dry out but the lagoons close to the beach are often the best ones. The road through the ponds often requires four wheel drive and also provides access to mangrove birds. High tide is the best time to visit this site because this kicks the birds out of the Gulf of Nicoya and sends them in the ponds. However, if you do visit during low tide, you can still check out some of the birds on the mud flats of the Gulf. Since this site has little shade and is rather extensive, walking it could be a good way to die from heat stroke. Therefore, a vehicle is definitely required and it’s needed to reach every corner of the salt ponds in any case. You may have to search a fair bit to find the birds. Keep in mind that the drive in is also good for dry forest and open country species.
Visiting Classic Chomes last autumn paid off big time with a major flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. They were in this lagoon near the beach. This and an adjacent lagoon are two of the more productive ones for birds.
Punta Morales, Ensenada, and other sites on the Gulf of Nicoya
Located near Chomes, Punta Morales has become a new classic for shorebirds. As with Chomes, the birds come in to the salt ponds during high tide. At times, thousands of shorebirds and terns can be seen on the dikes and feeding in the pools. This site is also easier to reach and likewise provides access to mangroves and some dry forest habitats.
Ensenada has similar ponds used by shorebirds during high tide but doesn’t usually host as many species or individuals. Nevertheless, since this wildlife refuge also offers lodging, it’s a good spot to combine an overnight stay with shorebirding and dry forest birding.
There are also other intriguing salt and shrimp pond sites on the Gulf of Nicoya, the best known being the ponds near Colorado. Interesting birds can occur at any such ponds, a normally pelagic White Tern was seen at one such area on the other side of the Gulf a couple years ago!
Shorebirds at Cocorocas, Punta Morales.
Mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya during low tide.
These pseudo wetlands vary when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but can be worth a look, especially if there are muddy wet fields present. As one might expect, these are the places to look for American Golden-Plovers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Upland Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, and Long-billed Dowitcher. Other shorebirds can also occur and there can be large concentrations of them in the Tempisque basin. Although some of the best rice fields in this area are inaccessible, some good ones can still be birded on the road in to Palo Verde. Mega for Costa Rica Curlew Sandpiper has been found in this area and who knows what else might show?
Other good rice fields to check are the ones on the road to Playas Coco and Hermosa, rice fields near Jaco and Quepos, and, especially, the ones in the wetland area known as Coto 47. This latter site in particular holds a lot of promise and has been reliable for Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.
Rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa- lots of good stuff have occurred here including Baird’s and Upland Sands, and Aplomado Falcon.
Some other wetland sites can also be good for shorebirds, notably Cano Negro, the El Silencio wetland on the road to the VillaBlanca cloud forest, any number of wet pastures and fields, remnant wetland areas in the Coris-Bermejo area near Cartago (mostly inaccessible), and exposed mud flats at the Cachi reservoir (mostly visible from Ujarras).
Wet puddles and the edges of lakes and ponds in paramo and highland areas can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper.
The El Silencio wetlands.
Some Special Birds to Look For
These are a few of the more interesting shorebirds and megas that could show.
Surfbird– Uncommon during migration, any sites in the Gulf of Nicoya are good for it and they can also show on exposed rocky areas anywhere on the Pacific coast.
Wandering Tattler– Rare but winters and migrates through the Pacific coast, only on exposed rocks washed by waves. Check enough such sites and you will eventually find one.
Long-billed Curlew– Rare in Costa Rica but regular in winter at Punta Morales, the Colorado area, and Chomes. Numbers vary but there are probably three to ten birds present each year.
I was happy to get my year bird in January.
Hudsonian Godwit– A sweet one to add to your country list but a long shot because studies have shown that most probably skip over Costa Rica when flying from stop over sites in Colombia and Mexico. Nevertheless, there must be a few that touch down each April and May, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Josh Beck, Kathi Borgmann, Susan Blank, and I saw our bird at Chomes on April 24th, 2014.
American Golden-Plover– Several pass through but rather few stop. Watch for it at any shorebird sites during migration.
Pacific Golden-Plover– Very rare but this one might actually be slightly more regular than expected. The reason I say this is because this past February, one was documented out of a group of six (there were only photos of the one so we can’t say for sure if the others were also Pacifics but based on the date and the observer’s comments, it seems likely). They were in rice fields of the Tempisque basin; some of the least visited yet most productive shorebird areas in the country. The other reason why this species may be more regular is because few birders in Costa Rica are aware that this species is even possible and thus haven’t had it on their RADAR. When the photos of the recent Pacific Golden Plover were circulated, most people said it was an American Golden Plover (not as if it’s an easy identification to start with).
Curlew Sandpiper– Only a few records but given the lack of monitoring, I bet one or even a few pass through each year.
Ruff– See Curlew Sandpiper.
This one is pretty easy to identify.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper– Not on the list yet but at least one flew through here because this species was identified in Panama last year! Lots of Pectorals pass through, I wonder how many Sharp-taileds also migrate through the country? If you see a funny looking Pectoral, take pictures!
Red-necked Stint– Not on the list either and in winter plumage not likely to be noticed. If there is a vagrant one in Costa Rica, hopefully it will have the decency to sport some breeding plumage. Along similar lines, I suppose it’s not out of the question to also mention Common Ringed Plover as a very rare possibility.
A Red-necked Stint I saw in Thailand- note the very unassuming plumage in this old, digiscoped shot.
Bristle-thighed Curlew– Um, isn’t this blog supposed to be about Costa Rica? No, not on the list yet but like the Pacific Golden-Plover, it winters on Pacific islands. It might turn up some day on Cocos Island and who knows, perhaps on the mainland coast?
American Pipit– Not exactly shorebird material but since it would be a great find, has already occurred a few times, and is likely to show in the same habitats as sandpipers and plovers. The same goes for Red-throated Pipit and wagtails- serious long shots for sure but hey, they are possible!
To learn more about sites for shorebirds and other birds in Costa Rica, as well as how to find and identify them (and to support this blog), get my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
It’s April and most of the migrants have left Costa Rica. Not all of them, I saw a Hooded Warbler yesterday along with a few Chestnut-sideds, Yellows, and Philadelphia Vireos but the majority have gone back north. In the meantime, it’s been raining more often and the local birds are out and singing. Stay in the Central Valley right now and you will be made aware of that with a chorus of 4 a.m. Clay-colored Thrushes. Visit now and you also have a better chance of connecting with calling Three-wattled Bellbirds up around Monteverde and in the remote and enticing Las Tablas area near Panama.
You might also benefit from knowing the following information:
Pollo Vaquero restaurant
It takes more than bird finding information for a satisfying stay in Costa Rica. If you happen to find yourself hungry and on the road between Ciudad Quesada and San Miguel (you will be on this route if travelling between the Arenal area and Sarapiqui), the roadside Pollo Vaquero restaurant could be your best bet. Somewhere west of Rio Cuarto, eat at this local diner to experience the type of service, good food, and value that used to be commonplace at most “sodas” in Costa Rica. Nowadays, it’s all too common to come across restaurants that charge too much for too little quantities of average fare. Not so for this nice little place. I recommend it very much!
Casona Cafetal restaurant
Sticking to the restaurant theme, this one in the Orosi Valley might be one to avoid if you don’t want to pay more for average food. It’s not bad, the surroundings are pretty nice, and there are Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrows in the surrounding coffee fields but if you do eat here, know that the cuisine is far from incredible despite being available for gourmet prices.
Poas Volcano National Park closed!
Back to much more pertinent news. Yep, sadly, one of the volcanos visible from my house and from much of the Central Valley became much more active on April 14th. Although the volcano has shown small signs of activity now and then, that was nothing compared to the eruptions of recent days. Since that first day of volcanic action, Poas shot a cloud of ash and gas three kilometers into the sky along with some rocks, and the park has been closed. Very unfortunately for birders and a few businesses up that way, the police also blocked off the access road well before the park entrance. I have heard that they moved the barrier up the road since then, and for the sake of the Volcan Restaurant, I sure hope that’s the case. To sum things up, unfortunately, this means that the most accessible high elevation habitat near the airport is off limits for an indefinite period of time.
You can still visit the Colibri Cafe though.
El Tigre marshes no more
Often mentioned in trip reports, the wet fields at this site in Sarapiqui used to be good for various marsh birds including Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. However, a few years ago, they began to dry out, the owners put in cattle, and also appear to be actively draining what the few remaining wet areas. In all likelihood, it will be converted into a pineapple field doused with poison. So, it’s probably not worth it to include this site in an itinerary because it’s basically finished.
On a much brighter note, the site formerly known as the Nature Pavilion just keeps getting better. The father and son team continue to give natural history and tree planting tours, and have recently set up a feeder situation that brings in toucans and other large frugivores. Macaws (both Great Green and Scarlet) also visit from time to time to feed on seeding and fruiting trees. Although there are fewer birds at the feeders at the moment (typical for April and May), they do have an accessible nest of a Royal Flycatcher, and there’s always a chance at Sunbittern on the river. Hopefully, we will hear about available roosting owls in the near future, they told me they were actively looking for them!
White-necked Jacobin- a typical shot from Dave and Dave’s
Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at Finca Steller
Finca Steller acts as the field headquarters for the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, is accessible from the village of El Tigre, and sounds like it offers some excellent birding opportunities. Open from 8 to 4, there are trails, and a recent video was taken there of a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo! Given that this low density high quality indicator species is present, I would expect a lot more from this “new” site.
That’s all for now, as always, lots of birds to see, places to explore, and plenty of easily accessible, excellent birding. Hope to see you here!
There’s more than one way to watch a bird. When I was a kid, I stared out the window of cars and buses, constantly scanning distant tree tops, fields, and other aspects of urban and rural landscapes that rushed on by. In the summer, the sweet smell of hay fields was accompanied by Eastern Kingbirds that perched on fence lines and sallied into the air , beautiful orange-bellied Barn Swallows coursing over fields, sudden bright yellow American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers in flight, hawks on high perches or telephone poles, a Belted Kingfisher perched on a wire over a river, and other roadside avian sights. Since then, I have seen a few good birds from trains, even pulling lifers like Sharp-tailed Grouse and the one and only funky Lewis’s Woodpecker while traveling through western situations, but, as one might expect, the most productive birding is a consequence of your own two feet.
Being in control of our own mobility facilitates searching branches and other vegetation for the inconspicuous. We can listen for target birds and head in that direction, or just hang out and wait for stuff to show. It also makes it easier to access more sites but there are still a few habitats denied to those on the ground. Until someone invents some futuristic water walking device, even the closest of pelagic zones is a no go to the walker. The same goes for most wetlands, including rivers, lakes, and marshes. Sure, you could wear waders and hope that you don’t step into some bottomless quick sand while floundering through muck and mud but no bird is worth being eaten by the marsh. Those wetland situations are where boats come into play and you will need one when birding a few sites in Costa Rica.
Some fine boat birding at Tortuguero.
The two main ones that come to mind are Cano Negro and Tortuguero. Cano Negro is essentially a wetland area more associated with Lake Nicaragua than the Caribbean lowlands. You do get some species from that bio-zone but it’s also why you can see things like Nicaraguan Grackle, Limpkin, and Snail Kite. Tortuguero, on the other hand, is mostly composed of swampy coastal rainforest where the “roads” are canals and rivers. Both sites can be birded without a boat but you would be missing a lot if you stuck to dry land. Although they have their similarities, Cano Negro and Tortuguero also differ in some ways. Here are some thoughts that stem from comparing the two:
In this respect, both sites are similar. Spend two days birding from boat at either site and you have a very good chance of seeing the sole New World representative of the Finfoot family.
The big-headed night bird is regular at both sites.
Great Green Macaw
Not at Cano Negro but doing quite well at Tortuguero with several birds recently feeding on Beach Almonds in the village!
Cano Negro has more kingfishers
Perhaps from fish being more concentrated and maybe being less affected by pesticides, one usually sees a lot more kingfishers at Cano Negro. All of the same can also be seen at Tortuguero but they are more common in Cano Negro.
Although the king of New World storks has been seen at Tortuguero, it’s far more regular at Cano Negro, especially during the dry season.
Cano Negro wins in this regard too but that’s because it actually has freshwater marshes whereas Tortuguero kind of doesn’t.
Thanks to help from Daryl Loth, owner of Casa Marbella, that didn’t stop us from seeing Least Bittern!
Since Cano Negro can be accessed by car, whereas reaching Tortuguero requires a ride in a boat, I suppose Cano Negro is somewhat easier to get to. That said, It’s not difficult to reach Tortuguero, even with the public boat, and to see the best of Cano Negro, you have to hire a boat to access the heart of the refuge in any case.
There is some forest at Cano Negro but Tortuguero easily wins this hand. Most of Tortuguero is tall rainforest, some of which can be accessed at Cerro Tortuguero and on a trail that parallels the beach. This offers a better chance at seeing Semiplumbeous Hawk, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other forest-based species.
It’s a bit hard to judge which site comes out on top in this regard but Tortuguero seems to be ahead when it comes to rarities. The coastal location results in sightings of vagrant gulls and occasional pelagic species as well as a chance at many a rare migrant. I bet that all sorts of really rare species have passed through there unnoticed because we don’t have enough people looking. In that regard, I dare say that the same can be said about Cano Negro. Huge concentrations of birds occur as the lagoons shrink in size, including quite a few shorebirds. I could easily see something like a Ruff, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, or some vagrant stint pop in and out of those wetlands and never be seen.
This Reddish Egret was a rare, fine addition to my year list.
No contest here but then again Tortuguero has been playing host to far more tourists for much longer. Try the Buddha Cafe or Ms. Myriams. Both highly recommended! Very few options at Cano Negro but you will get by.
Good, easy birding
Fortunately, this most important factor is shared by both sites. You can’t go wrong when birding Cano Negro or Tortuguero, just make sure to book one or more boat rides!
In the northern places where winter chases some of the birds away from their breeding grounds, spring represents a dramatic, obvious, much anticipated change in the natural surroundings. Suddenly, the sun comes back to town, the snows melt, flying, honking skeins of geese come first, and when it gets warm enough, the green spaces play host to the songs and bright colors of breeding warblers, vireos, orioles, grosbeaks, and the other lovely birds of May. Depending on where you live, they come back in April too, and in Costa Rica, that’s also when most of them leave.
The migrants that is. Cool, crazy birds like the Great Potoo are here all year long.
The other birds show us spring with an abundance of song while the landscape becomes flush with new, green vegetation. Since a fair part of the country doesn’t really experience a dry season, the change from sleeping brown grasses to robust green fields takes place in the Central Valley and other parts of the northern Pacific slope. In addition to a more verdant landscape and the profuse singing of Clay-colored Thrushes, these are a few other aspects of birding Costa Rica during spring:
It rains more
Spring is really the change over from dry times to the official wet season, and in April, it is marked by heavy rains just about every afternoon. Don’t fret about the rains, though because the overcast weather results in better birding anyways.
They were always present, just way up there too high to watch in a satisfactory manner. They do the same swift speck thing in spring but also come much lower just before a storm. When that happens, you might actually see the brown collar on a Chestnut-collared Swift, or markings on the faces of Spot-fronted and White-chinned Swifts. Knowing their vocalizations is still the best key to their identification but the best looks are had at the front of a storm.
It’s not as diverse or vocal as in the north, but we still bear witness to impressive numbers of birds throughout the month of April. Bird the Caribbean lowlands and coast (think La Selva, Tortuguero, and areas south of Limon) right now and there might be too many birds to look at. Literally millions of Chimney Swifts, Cliff Swallows, Purple Martins, and other birds move in a steady river towards the north along with kettles of Mississippi Kites, and groups of Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks. In the trees and bushes, Red-eyed Vireos race north along with some warblers, Eastern Kingbirds, pewees, and Scarlet Tanagers. Keep watching and you might pick out rarities for Costa Rica like Gray Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, warblers that normally winter in the Caribbean islands, and Black-whiskered Vireo. Add shorebirds to the mix and there are a lot of birds waiting to be seen!
Like the swifts, these birds are also here at other times of the year but seem to be more obvious during April. Unfortunately, it’s because, like their relatives up north, Bronzed Cowbirds also lay eggs in the nests of other birds. You will see them but I wish we would see less, especially because it seems that they like to parasitize the nests of the endemic Cabanis’s (Prevost’s) Ground-Sparrow.
These ones were courting in a site for the ground-sparrow.
If you happen to be in Costa Rica during April, enjoy the bird show and please enter sightings into eBird!
Cerro Lodge is one of the main accommodation options for birders visiting the Carara area. It’s also one of the only real options but that doesn’t take away from its value in terms of proximity to the park, service, comfort, and (best of all), good, on-site birding. Given that reforestation efforts have resulted in more birds at the lodge itself, more fruit feeders, hummingbird bushes, and an overlook that can turn up everything from raptors, macaws, parrots, parakeets, Yellow-billed Cotinga (typically distant), trogons, and flyby Muscovy Duck, don’t be surprised if you feel completely satisfied with birding from the lodge restaurant. But, if you feel like stepping off the lodge property, get ready for more great birding on the road that runs in front of Cerro Lodge.
This road gets birdy by way of patches of roadside dry forest, second growth, mango orchards, fields, a small seasonal marsh, and a flat, floodplain area near the Tarcoles River. As one might expect, that mosaic of habitats has resulted in a fair bird list, and I suspect that several other species could show. In addition to a wide variety of common edge species, these are some other key birds to look for:
This raptor might be the star of the Cerro Lodge bird assemblage. Although not exactly abundant and never guaranteed, the lodge and the road are probably the most reliable sites in Costa Rica for this species. In this country, the raptor with the long, red legs prefers riparian zones with large trees in lowland areas, mostly on the Pacific slope. The proximity of the Tarcoles River to the road and the lodge apparently works well for this cool bird because it’s seen here quite often. If you don’t get it from the restaurant, a day of focused birding on the road should turn up one or more of this nice raptor. In addition to both caracaras, other raptors can also show up including Short-tailed, Zone-tailed, Common Black, and Gray Hawks, Gray-headed Kite, Plumbeous Kite, and Collared Forest-Falcon. Down in the floodplain, keep an eye out for Pearl Kite.
It might not seem exciting but it’s still worth knowing that this area is a good one for wild Muscovy Ducks. One or more can fly over the lodge, road, or be visible from the lodge restaurant. The abundance of this species probably varies with water levels in the surrounding area. I usually see one or more flybys in the morning but there are times when I haven’t seen any, and I recall one morning when more than a dozen were seen from the restaurant.
Double Striped Thick-Knee
If you still need this weird one, watch for it in open fields anywhere on the road, but especially in the floodplain area just before dawn.
Striped Cuckoo and Lesser ground-Cuckoo
The Striped is regular from the lodge and along the road and the ground-cuckoo is probably increasing.
Although Black and White used to be a given at the lodge, unfortunately, it’s not as regular as in the past. It still occurs in the area though and does still visit the lodge on occasion. Other owl species that can show up include Barn, Spectacled, Mottled, and Pacific Screech. Striped is also heard and seen from time to time. The most common owl species is Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.
Various dry forest species
Many dry forest species are common at the lodge and along the road including stunners like Turquoise-browed Motmot and Black-headed Trogon.
These two can occur at the lodge and anywhere on the road along with species like Stripe-headed Sparrow, Brown-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. Checking spots with dense vegetation and a more forested aspect can turn up Olive Sparrow, Banded Wren, Royal Flycatcher, and even Stub-tailed Spadebill. Beauties like Blue Grosbeak and Painted Bunting are also regular in scrubby habitats along the road.
This cool bird seems to be increasing at this site and is now regular along the road and even at the lodge itself.
Macaws, parrots and the like
Thankfully, Scarlet Macaws are doing very well in Costa Rica. While watching them fly past and perch in trees at and near Cerro, you can also watch for flyby Yellow-naped, White-fronted, and Red-lored Parrots, White-crowned Parrots, Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, and, when certain trees are seeding, hundreds of Crimson-fronted Parakeets. At times, Brown-hooded and Mealy Parrots can also occur for a fine Psittacine sweep.
This stunner is always around.
Last but not least, watch for this spectacular jay on the road and at the lodge feeders.
Enjoy birding at Cerro and vicinity, I hope to see you out there! Please see an updated bird list below:
|List of birds identified at Cerro Lodge and the road in front of the lodge, with abundance as of 2017|
|This list probably awaits more additions, especially from the more heavily wooded area on the northern part of the property.|
|c- common, u- uncommon, r – rare, vr- very rare and vagrants|
|Please send additions to the list or rare sightings to email@example.com|
|Area covered includes the vicinity of Cerro Lodge and the road to Cerro Lodge from the highway to where it dead-ends on the river flood plain.|
|Keep in mind that the abundance of various species is likely changing due to the effects of climate change.|
|Great Blue Heron||u|
|Little Blue Heron||c|
|Black and White Owl||c|
|Pacific Screech Owl||c|
|Costa Rican Swift||u|
|Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift||u|
|Northern Barred Woodcreeper||r|
|Northern Beardless Tyrannulet||c|
|Southern Beardless Tyrannulet||r|
|Southern Rough-winged Swallow||c|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||c|
|Rufous and white Wren||u|
|Black and White Warbler||c|
The height of the “birding season” in Costa Rica happens during March. Really, the birding here is good year round but the majority of tours like to visit during the third month because, in Costa Rica, the month of wild winds and early spring coincides with migration, most wintering species still being present, a bit more bird song, and less rain. If you are about to visit this wonderful, birdy place, I hope that the following birding news tidbits will be of help:
American White Pelicans at Cano Negro: No, you don’t expect these big aquatic birds in Costa Rica. Far easier to see further north, this species is a very rare vagrant here. However, for the past couple of years, flocks have made appearances at Cano Negro. During past two weeks, many lucky birders in the Cano Negro area have added this one to their country list. I wish I was one of them but I haven’t had a chance to head up that way. With luck, they may stick around for another week or so. Keep an eye out for this one while looking for Jabiru, kingfishers, crakes, and other species in this wetland hotspot.
Medio Queso: I haven’t been there yet this year but it sounds like the guy who usually does the boat trip is even more difficult to contact because his phone number is no longer working. I expect that he still lives in the house at the end of the dike, one probably needs to go there a day before to ask about a boat ride the following morning.
A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture does its harrier thing at Medio Queso.
El Tapir hummingbirds: During several trips to this site over the past month, Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, and Green Thorntail have been present every day. It might take a bit for the Snowcap to show but it usually does. The coquette often perches on the dead sapling in the garden, sometimes sharing the tree with a thorntail and a male Snowcap! Other hummingbirds in the garden have mostly been Rufous-taileds, along with a few Violet-headeds and woodnymphs. Of course, these species and other hummingbirds are also easy at Rancho Naturalista.
A male Black-crested Coquette at El Tapir.
Other birds at El Tapir: The trail to the river isn’t maintained as well as some in the national parks but it’s always productive. As usual, it has been especially good for antwren flocks that move quietly through the forest understory. These are usually composed of Tawny-faced Gnatwren, White-flanked, Checker-throated, and Dot-winged Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Stripe-breasted Wren, Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, foliage-gleaners, and a woodcreeper or two along with chances at rarer species. Other interesting species on this trail as of late have included Olive-backed Quail-Dove, Lattice-tailed, Slaty-tailed, Gartered, and Black-throated Trogons, Northern Schiffornis, and good mixed flocks of tanagers (including Blue and gold) and other birds. My “best” species were Central American Pygmy-Owl and a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets in the same day. From the parking lot, King Vulture often shows flying high overhead, and any of the hawk-eagles are rare but always possible.
The pygmy-owl from the other day. First time I have seen it at this site!
Not long after, a Yellow-eared Toucanet perched in the same tree.
Also, please remember to pay the caretaker the $10 entrance fee. Although there is no sign, this is what he expects.
Quetzals on Poas: They are always up there somewhere but finding them usually requires locating the fruiting trees they feed on. Recently, I had a pair in a fruiting avocado close to the Volcan Restaurant. As expected, this major target is much easier on Cerro de la Muerte, and at Monteverde.
Carara is dry but still productive: In keeping with current global warming trends, Carara looks much drier than it used to and although the birds are there, sadly, there aren’t as many as even five years ago. The humid forest species are easier to find further south but if you need them from Carara, they might be more regular on the HQ trails back at and past the stream. It’s still a good place to find Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, and many other species but it might take longer to find them.
It’s a good place for ridiculously close views of various birds. This Bicolored Antbird was perched near our feet.
Piratic Flycatchers and Yellow-green Vireos: It took a while for these to show in numbers but they are finally back and singing and calling in lots of places. These migrants take advantage of the wet season to breed in Costa Rica before migrating to the Amazon. The same goes for Swallow-tailed Kite and Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, both of which are also around, although in what seems to smaller numbers.
Park hours: Just a reminder about hours for the national parks. Carara opens at 7 (thank goodness) and closes at 4, all other parks are open from 8 to 4. To enter early, visit the park the day before and ask if you can go in early to watch birds. Say “Puedo entrar a las 6 para ver aves manana y pagar la entrada despues? (Can I enter at 6 to watch birds tomorrow and pay the fee after?)”.
Traffic: It’s as bad as ever and, impossibly, seems to only get worse. The upside is that bad traffic jams are mostly in the Central Valley area. Away from there, things are much better although you should still expect a fair degree of bad driving habits. Worst times are between 6 and 8:30 in the morning and between 3:30 and 6 in the evening. Driving at pre-dawn is wonderful but seriously watch out for potential drunk drivers!
As always, I hope to see you in the field!
Recently, while guiding in the La Selva area, one of our many target species finally showed at the end of the day. Like other birds I was looking for, in Costa Rica, this one only occurs in lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope and thus finds itself sharing a hitlist with the likes of Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Snowy Cotinga, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and other choice species. Although those three birds failed to show, the White-ringed Flycatcher made an appearance as one of our last species of the day.
A distant White-ringed Flycatcher.
This flycatcher is one of several species that looks kind of like a Great Kiskadee or Social Flycatcher, but isn’t, and that’s why I’m going to talk about it. Based on the images of White-ringed Flycatcher that pop up during online searches, it looks like Social Flycatcher is the biggest contender in terms of mis-identification because 80% of the images that were tagged as White-ringed were actually Socials along with a few kiskadees and even Tropical Kingbird thrown in for good measure. That’s reasonable, I mean they look almost exactly the same, but this is also why you won’t learn much about identification of White-ringed Flycatcher from looking at images in Flckr.
Instead of doing that, check out these tips for an honest to goodness tick of White-ringed Flycatcher while birding in Costa Rica, Panama, or other parts of their range:
Habitat and Behavior: Yep, these factors are mentioned first because they provide the best clues. While other kiskadee type flycatchers can hang out on fences, and even zip down to the ground, the White-ringed has more refined tastes. This fly-catching aristocrat almost always keeps to the canopy, even perching on the very tops of tall trees like a pseudo-cotinga. Yes, it will come lower in some places but if you see a kiskadee-type bird sitting on a fence row, it’s probably not going to be a White-ringed. I am sure this is why so few images of this species are actually available. Unlike the other kiskadees, this one also prefers forest. Thankfully, it will come to the edge and sometimes to semi-open areas, but for the most part, this is a forest species that requires old second growth and/or mature lowland rainforest. Similar to other kiskadees, it sallies for bugs and fruit, and often occurs in groups of four to six birds.
The La Selva entrance road is a regular spot for this species.
Tertials: Instead of checking other parts of the bird in question, check out the back section of the wing. Although some Socials and other kiskadee types can show some pale edging to the tertials, this field mark seems to always stand out more in the wings of the White-ringed Flycatcher, even at a distance.
Hard to see in this image but this shows the pale tertial edging and white meeting on the nape.
White on the head: True to its name, it does have a white “ring” on its head. Actually a diadem, the white eyebrow is broader or wider than other kiskadees, and meets on the front and back of the head. In the Social and Boat-billed, the white on the head does not meet on the nape, but does so in the Great Kiskadee.
Eyelid: Ok, I don’t know if it’s the eyelid or some spot right above the eye, but with a good look, a small white crescent is visible right above the eye of the White-ringed. A far as I can tell, the other kiskadees lack this small but distinctive detail.
Check out the eyelid.
Beak: Not the most principle of field marks but one that does lend itself to the identification equation. Compared to Social Flycatcher, White-ringed has a slightly longer, straighter bill. See enough Socials and this is evident.
Song: As usual with Tyrannids, ear birders are in luck. This one calls frequently, and has a distinctive, even pitched, trilled vocalization nothing like the calls of Social Flycatcher or other kiskadee types.
Places to see it: This species is fairly common at any lowland rainforest site on the Caribbean slope, including the La Selva area and Sarapiqui, Laguna del Lagarto, anywhere near and south of Limon, and various other places. Interestingly, it also occurs on some parts of the Arenal Observatory entrance road.
For more tips about identification of birds in Costa Rica, as well as information about sites, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
Costa Rica might have a lot of raptors on the country list but we don’t really see them very often. They are out there but populations are naturally low, and many require high quality forest. Well, lets just say that there are more in high quality forest because there’s just more food available.
Ironically, the problem with seeing lots of raptors in Costa Rica is related to the high levels of biodiversity. Basically, hawks of all sizes have to compete with other hawks, flycatchers, and other birds. The result is fewer hawks but the flip side of the birding coin is more species of hawks. Nevertheless, some places are better for seeing more raptors in a short amount of time than others, and one of the best ones near the Central Valley is the Cinchona-Virgen del Socorro area.
This spot is an excellent site to hang out and wait for raptors because the area is easily accessed by good roads (it takes about an hour and 15 to 20 minutes to drive there), and there are several spots that overlook a forested canyon. As a bonus, this area is also close enough to Braulio Carrillo to up the odds of having a few of the rarer species fly into view.
Some of the species to look for:
The Socorro area is one of the classic sites for this beautiful hawk. Look for it perched in the canyon or just flying around on sunny days.
This one is also best seen on sunny days as it soars, calls like a gull, and displays. Its shape is a heck of a lot like a Black Vulture.
One of the more commonly seen raptor species in Costa Rica, including this area.
From February to August, this expression of avian elegance is commonly seen around Cinchona and Socorro.
This common, wintering species often perches on roadside trees or is seen soaring overhead.
Another commonly seen species, this adaptable hawk is a good one to know because it can occur almost anywhere in the country.
A pair or two lives in the canyon. In the early morning, watch for them perched on snags, including the one near the Colibri Cafe. We also see this species soaring or in flight and looking a lot like a White-collared Swift in the process.
In addition to the two regular vultures, bonus birds can also show up including Ornate and Black and White Hawk-Eagles, and Great Black Hawk. On the San Miguel section of the road, you might also see Laughing Falcon, Double-toothed Kite, and King Vulture. In the past, Solitary Eagle was also regular in this area. Although it hasn’t been seen for several years, maybe it could turn up again?
For more information about finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica, see How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
I wish I could say that birding is always free. It would be if we still lived in a world with abundant habitat and biodiversity because there would be easier access to more birds. But, the modern realities of overpopulation and big money interests that view conservation as a hindrance to short term gain continue to result in fewer birds and even fewer places to see them. This varies by region and nation, but is why we have to pay entrance fees and guides to see birds like Philippine Eagle, wood-quails, and countless other species. Sure, we could try and see them on our own, but with more birds restricted to national parks and protected areas, paying to have better chances at more species has become a common necessity.
In Costa Rica, although there are public places that lack gates and require no entrance fee, the best and most accessible places for birding are in private and public reserves. I was at one such site last weekend and given the number of uncommon species we encountered, level of avian activity, and trail mileage, it was an excellent bargain. This place is “La Marta Refuge” and if you feel like seeing lots of birds for a bargain, I recommend it, absolutely. What to expect:
Tawny-crested Tanagers: Yes, they can be seen elsewhere but the high numbers at La Marta put them first in terms of expectations. This is probably the most common species at the site.
Always a fun bird to watch.
Other tanagers: Fruiting trees are also visited by Emerald, Speckled, Black and Yellow, Bay-headed, and other tanagers including the uncommon chlorospingus formerly known as the Ash-throated Bush-Tanager. Enjoy the show!
I was very pleased to finally get a shot of this uncommon probable endemic split.
Pretty easy access: La Marta is accessed by a road from the town of Pejibaye. Although there are time when the entrance road might require four wheel drive, for the most part, it is easy enough with a regular car. Contact them for updated road conditions.
Basic lodging and camping: If you want to stay there, the accommodation is cheap but very basic. Rooms are shared, mattresses are thin, there aren’t any mosquito nets, and the water is cold but it doesn’t cost much! Meals can also be arranged for a good deal, and camping is possible.
Lots of trails in good habitat: This is one of the few places I have seen in Costa Rica that have kilometers of trails. All of the trails go through forest, a fair bit of which is habitat that has grown back over a hundred years and includes many non-native Poro trees. I suspect this affects the avifauna somewhat but maybe not too much because it’s connected to large areas of mature, native forest, and the back trails access more of that habitat. Limited time kept us on trails much closer to the HQ, and those were good enough but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones way back in the reserve hosted rarities like Black-banded Woodcreeper, Sharpbill, and many other uncommon species.
Uncommon species: Speaking of rare birds, these are some of the “good” ones we saw or heard among species already mentioned:
Dull-mantled and Ocellated Antbirds
Tawny-chested Flycatcher- fairly common on the road near the buildings!
Although we did not see Sunbittern, nor Tiny Hawk, both of these are regular at La Marta.
Lanceolated Monklet: Saving the best for last, um, yes, based on this past weekend, La Marta might be the best site for this species in Costa Rica. It’s a pain to see no matter where you go but since we had two different birds in one day, and the trails access lots of suitable habitat, seeing the monklet at La Marta is a fair bet than many other sites.
I would love to go back, although next time, I hope I can survey the more remote parts of the reserve to look for ground-cuckoo, Gray-headed Piprites, and various other rare species.
I have written about Carara National Park on more than one occasion. One of the better birding sites in an already very birdy country, this important protected area merits more coverage because it always delivers. Although I have mentioned tips for better birding at this site in other posts, it doesn’t hurt to provide updates and more suggestions for making the most out of Carara. Try these tips to see more in and around Carara National Park:
Do both trails: There are two main trails at Carara. The “Laguna Meandrica” is the famous “River Trail” and leaves from a small, hidden parking area nearly a kilometer from the HQ heading towards San Jose. Carefully watch for the entrance to this trail on the right. The other trail leaves from the HQ and has a few loops. Both can overlap quite a bit in terms of species but also have their differences. In general, expect more edge and second growth species on the Laguna trail and more deep forest birds on the HQ trails although both are always good. On the Laguna trail, the oxbow lake is much smaller than it used to be and not nearly as productive. Given the high temperatures on Laguna, if you want to do both in a day, do that one in the morning and the forest trail after lunch.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar can be seen on both trails.
Check the large rocks: On the HQ trail, pay close attention to any large rocks on the forest floor. One or more might be a Great Tinamou!
Do the back loop of the Quebrada Bonita trail: It seems like more of the deep forest species are more regular on the back loop of this trail. These are birds like Baird’s Trogon, Marbled Wood-Quail (pretty rare), mixed flocks with Russet Antshrike, Rufous-winged Woodpecker and other species, Northern Schiffornis, Streak-chested Antpitta, Rufous Piha, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and Black-striped, Long-tailed, and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers. These can also turn up on other trails but seem most common on the back loop. This is the part of the trail on the other side of the bridge over the creek.
The White-shouldered Tanager is commonly seen on both trails as well.
Bird the Bijagual Road: This is an easy area to bird when looking for raptors and when you have an hour or two before the park opens (seven until April, eight at most times of the year). Great birding on the Cerro Lodge road can also make good use of that time but the Bijagual Road is also worth it. The other day, we did especially good in front of the Pura Vida gardens with looks at Fiery-billed Aracari, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Western Tanager, and several other species. There is overlap with the national park but since some species are more regular on this road, it’s a good area to include in your birding mix.
The view from the Bijagual Road during the wet season.
Check the crocodile bridge: As with just about all birding, this area is best at dawn and late afternoon, especially for flybys of various species coming to and from roosting sites. But, if you have to check it in the middle of the day, that could still be worth it because you never know when a quick walk to the middle of the bridge might turn up a Pearl Kite, Harriss’s Hawk, waterbirds, Yellow-billed Cotinga, or other additions.
Although drier conditions mean that there aren’t as many birds as there used to be, you can still see a lot, especially with a lot of time and patience. As with any tropical forest, it pays to be patient and walking with an experienced guide is the best way to see more birds.