Costa Rica is an easy place for fantastic, tropical birding. Whether the plane touches down in the Central Valley or the airport near Liberia, it doesn’t take long to get into excellent, protected tropical forests with things like curassows, antbirds, trogons, parrots, fancy wrens, and the list goes on. This is why hundreds of birders visit Costa Rica every year, and why I have more than 600 species on my year list (and it’s only August). It also helps to have megadiversity, easy access to good habitats, experienced guides, and birding information that ranges from excellent field guides and birding apps, to a new map with hotspots, and a comprehensive bird-finding guide for Costa Rica.
But, for folks who feel like getting away from easily accessible sites such as Carara National Park and the foothill rainforests around Arenal, Costa Rica plays host to several remote, little birded areas. These are the places that tend to have the most intact forests and could host populations of Crested Eagle, Red-throated Caracara, Gray-headed Piprites, and other decidedly uncommon birds. The only problem is that the reason why they host intact forested habitats coincides with the reasons why they are visited by very few birders. Why trudge through mud and rain for a chance at a few rarities around Rara Avis when you can still see lots of other birds around Sarapiqui? Why explore sites around Laguna del Lagarto when you can just spend your time in the Arenal area? Why take a boat ride up a river to reach an indigenous community when you can dine on wonderful Italian cuisine and relax in a pool near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca?
When it comes down to it, if you don’t go, you don’t know what’s really there. However, if you check out Google Earth, you will have an idea of the amount of forest in those hidden corners of Costa Rica, and intact forest is key for 99% of those rare species you are probably missing. Yorkin is one such place. To have an idea of where it is located, check out Google Earth or a map of Costa Rica, and go to the far, eastern corner where Sixaola marks the border with Panama. From there, trace your way up that river past the town of BriBri, then take the first river to the east. This is the Yorkin River, it marks the border, and is where I went with the Birding Club of Costa Rica this past weekend. I hadn’t been there before but based on the location, and amount of forest, it looked like a place that could turn up any number of rarities and maybe a new bird or two for the Costa Rica list.
These are some observations and highlights from that trip:
- Not as hard as you think: Well, at least getting there. It takes around four hours to drive to BriBri from the San Jose area, and another 15 to 20 minutes to reach the village of Bambu. In Bambu, you have to look for the boat drivers at the only store there (look for a fairly large thatched roof structure on the east side of the road). If you have a vehicle, they will show you where to leave the car. Then, when all is ready, you get on a motorized dugout canoe, and head up-stream for an hour. Upon arrival, your host from the Yorkin women’s ecotourism project will show you to your lodging, and so on. It takes a while but it’s fairly easy and reminded me of trips to ecolodges in the Amazon basin.
- Be ready for the boat ride: Although the voyage is straightforward and thus fairly easy, you might want a small cushion for your seat on the boat, and will definitely want to bring something for the rain. It rains often and the boat doesn’t have a roof. That said, the drivers will put your stuff in plastic bags if you like. It’s pretty tough to bird from the boat but keep the binos at the ready because you motor through good forest for most of the ride and I would not be the least bit surprised if Harpy and Crested Eagles live in that area. In fact, I bet they do. They wouldn’t be exactly common but you never know when one might be perched in view.
- Bird before you get on the boat: Speaking of birding from the boat, actually, it’s worth it to bird around Bambu and from the departure point for the boats. Without too much effort and in very little time, we had a Snowy Cotinga, Lesser Nighthawks, Pearl Kite, White-lined Tanager, toucans, and several other species. Scanning the forest canopy with a scope from the edge of the river would also be worthwhile.
- Bring rubber boots: After optics, this should be the most important item on your packing list. The trails are pretty muddy! Bring the boots, you will be wearing them most of the time.
- Pack light, pack for hot, humid, wet conditions: There’s not a lot of room on the boat, so try to pack light. The weather is hot, humid, and rainy most of the time, so pack accordingly and use dry bags!
- Not much electricity: Solar panels provide electricity, but it might not be enough to charge your devices. Maybe, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a place to hang out with “devices”. It’s more of a place to explore, hike muddy trails, look for rare birds, and learn about BriBri culture.
- Lodging is basic: In case you expected something else, don’t. The lodging is basic but clean and with mosquito nets. I saw a couple of scorpions in my room so shake out your stuff before putting it on! That said, scorpions can find they way into just about any ecolodge in the lowlands.
- Bugs?: Not that bad when we were there. Very few mosquitoes, and a few biting flies here and there. Use repellent and you will be fine.
- Food: Basic, home-cooked stuff and it’s great! Portions might seem small but they usually offer seconds if you need it, and you can always bring energy bars (essential adventure birding, eatable accessories in any case).
- But what about the birds?: There is a fair sampling of edge species around the village but the best birding is a tough hike up to nearby ridges. Bird around the lodging and you will see common stuff but you might also find a Uniform Crake (I heard two of them), see some good birds on the trail near the river (like Yellow-eared Toucanet, who knows what else is possible?), and can look for soaring raptors that fly above the ridge.
- Ridge birding: Since most of our group did not want to climb up a steep, muddy, slippery hill, we barely touched the surface of the best habitat. Frustrating,but that’s the way the ball bounces. However, from what little I saw, if you can manage it, the hike is worth it. We had views into the canopy of the forest and distant fantastic forests of the Amistad International Park, and were just getting into good primary rainforest. We didn’t have enough time to properly bird it but our local guide, Myriam, recognized the calls of White-fronted Nunbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and maybe even Great Jacamar. Others have seen Black-crowned Antpitta up there (and might be one of the best places for it in Costa Rica), and a local birding guide told me that he had seen Lovely Cotinga, toucanets, antbirds, and other forest species. I am pretty sure that piprites is possible as well as most other rare and uncommon forest species. Another indication of wild habitat was Myriam mentioning that Jaguar comes down near her house once every four months, according to her, when someone is pregnant.
- Cacao birding: Cacao is one of the most important crops for this area and is what grows around the entire village area. It’s not the best for birds but still hosts a fair variety of species, especially near the bridge and forest. Some of the stand-outs that we recorded were Yellow-eared Toucanet, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, and Olive-backed Quail-Dove.
- School birding: One of our best sites was the vicinity of the school. It overlooks the river, is next to a stream, and affords views of two forested ridges. Since it’s also blessed by a breeze, this is a great area to hang out on a hot afternoon. We had White-whiskered Puffbird and other species by the stream, Snowy Cotingas and a few Crested Oropendolas across the river, and, best of all, good views at King Vulture (common here), Black Hawk-Eagle, flocks of migrating Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and, best of all, two sightings of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. I think many other species are possible on the forested ridges, maybe even Lovely and perhaps Blue Cotinga, and maybe a chance at the really big eagles and Red-throated Caracara.
- Night birds?: I had high hopes for several nocturnal species but all we got was a Mottled Owl. However, we didn’t get in much night birding, especially in better habitats so I still think that most expected species should be present. Myriam was familiar with both potoos as well as all expected owl calls, and maybe even Rufous Nightjar.
- Few large birds: Big birds like guans and Great Tinamou are around but much more rare than other sites in Costa Rica. Even toucans stayed away from the village, and we suspected that this was due to at least some sort of hunting pressure. Those birds are still present but frequent the forest, and are easier to see at other sites in any case.
- The local people: Our hosts were welcoming, very friendly, and very nice. Interacting with them was a wonderful addition to the trip and something I hope to repeat on a future occasion. They are also very tough and accustomed to walking for kilometers through muddy, hot conditions. You can’t walk around on your own but that wasn’t a problem. I just told Myriam where we wanted to go and she took us. However, if you just want easy trails, make sure to tell her because she didn’t think twice about walking on steep and muddy trails (but always warned us of trail conditions).
If I visit Yorkin again (and I hope I do), I would spend at least two full days in the primary forests on the ridges, and probably spend the rest of my time scanning the canopy and skies for raptors and cotingas. I would also spend more time scanning from the river, and even seeing if the boat could stop along the river to scan the canopy from shore. If you go, please leave a comment about your trip!
Costa Rica is a dream for any aficionado of topography. Before you ask yourself if there really are people who dig topography, let me assure that there indeed are. Most of us like a mountain scene or two (partly why those Ricola commercials are so memorable), and when I lived in the flatlands of Illinois, I met more than one person who was surprisingly enthused about any change in topography. “Topography!” they would exclaim as we drove over a bit of escarpment. I don’t bemoan that excitement in the slightest for I too am an aficionado of abrupt changes in elevation!
In Costa Rica, you are better off being a fan of a crumpled, up-lifted landscape because that describes most of the country. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. That’s also partly why we have so many birds that occur nowhere else but Costa Rica and Panama. It’s also why we have a bunch of birds that normally live in the Andes. AND, it also makes it easy to leave the urban zone behind and head up into the mountains to one of the closest, best spots for birding near San Jose.
Varablanca is just 40 minutes to an hour from the San Jose area and it’s an easy place to see a good variety of highland birds. Most birders don’t go there because they save their mountain birding for Cerro de la Muerte (aka Savegre, the Dota Valley, Quetzal Paradise). While there is more habitat up that way, Cerro de la Muerte is also 2 and a half to 3 hours from San Jose. The proximity of Varablanca makes it an easy, honest option for a first night in country, and I know of at least one local birding tour company that does stay in Varablanca for the first night of most tours.
Lately, I have been spending more time up that way guiding and watching birds at the Poas Volcano Lodge. Here are some recent highlights and observations from Varablanca, Cinchona, and Poas:
- If it’s raining, go to Cinchona: It might be raining there too, but I have escaped the water on more than one occasion by heading to a lower elevation. The other plus side for Cinchona is still being able to watch birds come to the feeders even if it happens to be raining.
- Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.
- Black-thighed Grosbeak: Although it often moves to lower elevations in rainy weather, it seems to be fairly common at Poas Volcano Lodge and in the general area.
- Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher: The general area always seems good for this cool endemic. It sounds like a cricket and usually hangs out in the crowns of tall trees. The Black and yellow is also fairly common around Poas.
- Don’t discount quetzals and guans: The R. Quetzal is far from common around Poas but it is there. Hang out long enough at the Volcan Restaurant (please support their buisiness and donate generously for the feeders), and there is a fair chance that one will show. Find a fruiting avocado and you might also see one or two. Black Guan is more regular, especially in the forest along the road to Poas.
- Prong-billed Barbet: This species is pretty common in this area. It can show up in any spot with forest but if you want really close looks, check out the feeders at Cinchona and Poas Volcano Lodge.
- Red-tailed Hawk: Yes, readers from the USA and Canada will be saying, “So what?”. To that, I ask if you think this looks like a Red-tailed from home? It doesn’t sound like one either. I wonder how far genetically removed it is from birds up north? Maybe a little, maybe enough for a split. Varablanca and Poas are good areas to study this highland endemic subspecies.
- Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.
When booking your hotel for that first and last night in Costa Rica, remember that birdy Varablanca is just 45 minutes to an hour from the airport.
The calendar says “August’ but in Costa Rica, the weather mimics so many other times of the year. I look out the window and see the thick blanket of clouds hugging the tops of the mountains. It might rain, it might not, but it’s warm outside and that’s always a given. Unlike the northern temperate zone, this month isn’t the last 30 days of summer. There won’t be any crisp autumn nights ahead either. Much to my daughter’s chagrin, she won’t witness the change of seasons. She might feel differently if she knew that winter is not a Disneyesque frozen wonderland. While the natural magic of soft falling snow and faint crystal frequencies of forming ice could remind one of “Elsa”, the enchantment lasts only as long as your personal comfort. Wade through snow drifts, feel the pain of freezing toes, and come face to face with screaming wind chill, and the wish to grow wings and fly south become tangible. After all, a lot of birds do it once a year, so why not us?
A lot of those migrants fly to and through Costa Rica and some have already arrived. Although several shorebirds appear to have stayed here instead of going north, more have definitely flown down from their northern breeding grounds. A few local birders have made trips to Chomes and seen fair numbers of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and even a Long-billed Curlew. Several have also had encounters with Clapper (Mangrove) Rail, a resident, furtive species that appears to be regular in short Black Mangroves at Chomes and nearby sites in the Gulf of Nicoya.
Other shorebirds are surely around and arriving as well, so, hopefully, more birders can get out there and see what’s happening (I hope I can!).
As far as Passerines go, it’s still too early for the majority of warblers but a few have made appearances, including this year’s first report of Cerulean Warbler. Go to the right places in late August and early September and you have a very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler in Costa Rica. Those places are usually foothill and middle elevation forests on the Caribbean Slope, especially at the Reserva las Brisas. The first Cliff Swallows have also appeared, and many other species will be here in a month.
Birds are also leaving Costa Rica. Go birding here during March and the songs of Piratic Flycatchers are a constant theme. Go birding now and you would be lucky to see one. They have stopped singing and some are probably still around, but most have departed for Amazonia. Two other “summer” breeders will also be gone soon as well. Both the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and the Yellow-green Vireo are pretty common species on the Pacific slope from February to about now. I heard both just the other day so know that they are still around but most will be leaving any one of these nights.
Two of the most spectacular species about to leave town are the Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites. Migrating groups have been reported and they are headed to the Amazon basin. the birding is great in Costa Rica, but I wish I could fly with them, at least for a little bit. It would be interesting to see if they go to one area for the winter or if they roam over the vast rainforests. It would also be nice to take in a few Amazonian dawn choruses, but only for a little while because I wouldn’t want to miss the rest of fall migration in Costa Rica.
One of the best and most accessible sites for middle elevation birding in Costa Rica is just 30 minutes from Cartago. It’s the place where most birders in Costa Rica see their first Streaked Xenops, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and other decidedly uncommon, middle elevation species that are much easier to see in the Andes. Although these can still be easily missed at Tapanti, it is the most reliable site in Costa Rica for the birds mentioned above (except the antthrush- easier at the San Gerardo field station). Lots of other quality birds also show up in the quality, mossy forests at Tapanti, including Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Sharpbill, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and so on. So, why is it then, that I rarely bird there? After all, it’s pretty close to the Central Valley.
Ironically, the vicinity to the Valley is also what keeps me from going there. You see, it’s near the eastern side of the Valley while I live on the western side. Lack of a good ring road means a trip through the traffic of San Jose and then Cartago to get there, and then again to come back. Hit the rush hour traffic and we are talking two to three hours of slow going vehicles with more than a few people who appear to not know how to operate them. And that’s just one way. So, that’s what keeps me from Tapanti and I wish it didn’t because the birding is always good and the forests are fantastic.
Last weekend, since we hadn’t been there in more than a year, Susan and I decided to visit Tapanti on Saturday. A weekend always means more people in the park but I doubt that it affects birding that much. There was some light rain, but for the most part, we lucked out with cloudy weather and had around 70 species.
I was very pleased with the xenops because in Costa Rica, Tapanti seems to be the only accessible, reliable place for it. A year bird and also one that I needed for the Birding Field Guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama. It was hanging out with a small mixed flock that also had Slaty-capped Flycatcher, some tanagers, and a few other species.
After hanging with the xenops, we headed towards the entrance. It was still too early for the eight o’clock opening time but you can still run into quite a few good birds in that stretch of forest before the gate. We checked the streams for lancebills without any luck, but saw another mixed flock with several expected, small bird species. No rarities but still nice to watch Tawny-capped Euphonias, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and so on.
Once the park opened, we went in, paid our entrance fees, and birding along the main road to the Pavas Trail. The cloudy weather resulted in lots of activity including Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds. Still none of my other targets (which are pretty rare anyways), but still fun birding in beautiful surroundings.
I figured we would check out the Waterfall/Pavas Trail to look for forest birds. It’s not as steep as the Arboles Caidos, and based on habitat, looks ideal for everything from antpittas to Sharpbill and maybe even Lanceolated Monklet. Although we didn’t find any of those, I bet you could. The thing about tropical birding is that birds can be present but go unseen one day and then be hopping on the trail the next. It also means that it’s worth it to spend several hours of several days in quality forest. You will see new birds every day and probably eventually run into most of the rare species. I bet that would happen on the Waterfall/Pavas Trail, I sure wish I had the time and resources to test that hypothesis with four or five days of surveying that site!
We had more of the same that we had already seen along with heard only Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that showed well but just wouldn’t stop long enough for photos. Even if it had stopped for more than three seconds, the understory was probably too dark anyways. By then, it was around 11, and the rain was starting up so we walked out of the trail and checked along the road a bit higher up. Things were pretty quiet but we had nice looks at a female Black-bellied Hummingbird.
Birding on the way out was likewise quiet so we decided to check out a soda (small diner) just outside the park entrance. The place is called “Los Maestros” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a shame that I didn’t know about the place before I finished my bird finding/Costa Rica birding companion e-book but at least I can mention this special spot now. Los Maestros is up the first small road outside of the entrance to the park with a sign that says “Tapanti Ecoturs”. Go up that road (and watch birds on the way, this is where we had the xenops), and walk up to the small soda on the left. It seems connected to a house but don’t worry about that. The food was surprisingly good and is inexpensive, the view looks suitable for raptors and seeing other birds in the treetops (we didn’t see much because of the rain), the owner has her heart in the right place (she talked about our need to improve the environment, has worked with local kids along those lines, and has a grandson who is a birder), and Black-billed Hummingbirds fed in the Porterweed. A fruit feeder and food scraps on the ground for other birds could bring in everything from tanagers and barbets to Scaled Antpitta. I hope I can somehow convince her to do that…
After lunch, the rain lessened so we gave the entrance to the park one more check. Once again, we ran into another nice mixed flock with several expected species. Nope, nothing rare but you gotta keep trying!
On a sobering note, large areas of semi-shade coffee have been cut down on the way to the national park. These areas were very birdy, acted as habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and many other species, and will now be rather birdless. Will the Golden-wings that wintered there survive? Who knows but most probably won’t. Some of the shade coffee is still around but who knows for how long? I suspect that the coffee bushes stopped producing due to drier, hotter weather, so the landowners cut everything down and planted tomatoes and other crops instead. It was a sad reminder of the link between a suddenly warmer world, shifting agriculture, and the subsequent, detrimental effects on biodiversity.
Birding trips to Costa Rica can be scheduled during the dry season but, if you want to see a quetzal and hundreds of other species that live in the highlands and haunt the wet, lowland rainforests, expect precipitation. It might come in the form of a light mist, pouring rain, or birding in the middle of a cloud. Just be prepared for it and everything will be alright. Doubt may grow when the sky neglects to turn off the faucet for a few days but what are you gonna do? Get back on the plane? Hell no! This is Costa Rica! You go birding dammit! You might go crazy but hey, you still gave it the good old college try. You can also follow these tips if you find yourself birding in the clouds or dealing with near constant rain:
- Be Prepared: Don’t let hopes and positive thoughts lull you into complacence about the rain. Dry season or not, when four meters of rain per year is a normal occurrence, no amount of positive thinking will dissipate those clouds. It’s going to happen at some point so be ready for it with an umbrella for the hot lowlands, and a poncho for birding in the highlands. Get enough dry bags for your equipment, and listen to The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” while packing your stuff.
- Bring waterproof binoculars: Most quality binos these days are waterproof and fogproof. If your’s aren’t, seriously consider an upgrade before the trip because this is a must when birding in wet Costa Rica.
- Practice birding with an umbrella: On many occasions, birds are active in light rain and misty weather. Don’t miss birds by venturing back into the hotel during such typical cloud forest weather. Learn how to hold an umbrella and binos at the same time, and see more birds.
- Bird in the pouring rain: When birding in the clouds, don’t be surprised if the water all around you coalesces into soaking, pouring rain. If that does happen, wait under an umbrella for ten minutes or so to see if it lightens up. It’s worth the wait because if the rain does stop or turn back into mist, this is often followed by a sudden burst of bird activity. If the pouring rain keeps coming down, head back to shelter, get a wonderful cup of coffee (always fantastic in Costa Rica), listen to bird sounds on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and watch from there. There won’t be so many birds but a few things might come into view.
- Watch hummingbird feeders: At least the hummingbirds tend to remain active. Enjoy the feeder action from a sheltered spot.
- Head to Guanacaste: If you just can’t take the constant mist and rain any longer, you can always go to the dry habitats of Guanacaste!
Expect rain and birding in the clouds no matter when you go to Costa Rica. Be prepared and you can also still expect a lot of cool birds.
Costa Rica is a fantastic place for close looks at hummingbirds. Feeders and gardens planted with the hummingbird delicacy known as Porterweed bring in most species for soul satisfying views, and hundreds of digital captures.
However, although most birders end up with 30 plus species during a two or three week trip to Costa Rica, most also end up with the same set of missing species. Those blanks usually include White-crested Coquette, White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, and a few other species. One of those usually missing birds is the Green-fronted Lancebill, a rather dull hummingbird with a long, needle-like, oh so slightly upturned bill.
This one can be a pain because it happens to be genuinely uncommon, ignores feeders, and doesn’t even visit Porterweed. Look in those places and you will see lots of hummingbird action but won’t see any lancebills. The lancebill prefers more refined food and places, look there and you might find them. Here are a few tips on finding and seeing this choice Costa Rican hummingbird:
- Cloud forest: Although it can show up in foothill forests, the lancebill is most at home in the cloud forest zone. These are the forests shrouded in mist and draped with moss and epiphytes, and the lancebill lives in them from the Monteverde area south to Panama, and on both slopes between 800 and 2,300 meters.
- Hanging flowers: This odd hummingbird doesn’t have that long bill for nothing. Its bill seems to be adapted to clumps of tubular, hanging red or pink flowers because this is where it often feeds. Like a miniature Sword-billed Hummingbird (a South American, surreal specialty), lancebills sneak underneath those hanging flowers and feed from each tube with delicate precision. If you see a bunch of these flowers in cloud forest, a lancebill will probably show up sooner or later.
- Streams and waterfalls: This is the best tip for finding a lancebill because whether you run into those special flowers or not, these birds are almost always found along streams. Like a wannabe dipper or Black Phoebe, they will even perch on a rock in the middle of the rushing waterway. They seem to like small waterfalls even more and will perch near the base or plunge basin to fly and out and catch unseen bugs.
- A few good sites: Any forested stream with small rapids and waterfalls in cloud forest is a good place to watch and wait for Green-fronted Lancebill but some of the more reliable spots are streams in Tapanti National Park (especially the one at the entrance), Monteverde (try the waterfall trail), The San Luis Canopy and nearby, and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (take the forest trail and watch around the base of any small waterfall).
Since this hummingbird probably has linear territories along streams, you usually have to wait for it to show up. Like other birds, it’s easiest in the early morning when it calls, is more active, and sometimes gets in chasing fights with other lancebills. No matter what time of day you look, once you find a suitable spot, be patient and keep scanning the rocks, twigs, and flowers until one shows up. You will probably see a few other good birds in the meantime.
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Carara National Park and vicinity isn’t that far from the Central Valley, especially with the highway that cuts 30 to 40 minutes from the former route. The cut in driving time has made day trips to Carara from the San Jose area quite feasible, and the high number of bird species makes this Central American hotspot a worthy place to sling the binos on any birding trip to Costa Rica. Every time I go, I am reminded and convinced of Carara’s hotspot status. BUT, I don’t hightail it down to Carara every chance I get because I am also always reminded of the omnipresent heat and humidity.
Some days around Carara are hotter than others but you are always going to sweat. Or, at least I do, I think because I carry a bunch of stuff and wear clothes. When I walk through the forest I can’t help but wonder how indigenous people must have lived around there. Visions of Amazonian people typically come to mind,, people who wear little clothing, go swimming a lot, and take it easy during the heat of the day. I dare say that it must have been the same around Carara although locals also had the big side benefit known as the ocean.
Last weekend, I figured that the time had come to do a non-guiding trip to Carara. You see, I mostly visit the park and surroundings when guiding, and those are always exciting, bird-filled days, but it’s also nice to to go there in search of recordings, some tough target species, and just to see what happens in the forest. So, with a big frozen bottle of water, Gatorade, and a bunch of snacks (including two chocolates truffles that of course melted but didn’t fail to satisfy), birding friend Susan and I did a day trip to Carara on Saturday.
I wanted to check for Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-tailed Flycatcher around the mangroves, and hope for pictures of Marbled Wood-Quail, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet in the forest. I have never had the two targets in the mangroves, nor have heard of anyone else getting them there but based on habitat, they might be very rare residents. Two of the forest birds are uncommon and the other two are always recorded but happen to be an incredible pain to photograph. I knew that I might not find anything I was looking for but I also knew that we would see more than our fair share of birds.
Our first stop was Bajamar to check the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya. The seas were nice and wavy but the avian result was zilch except for one distant Royal Tern. Although it looks good for seawatching, the marine birds are much better from the ferry and watching from the tip of Puntarenas.
To check the mangroves, from Bajamar, we drove south along the coast right the end of the road and the mouth of the Tarcoles River. There isn’t a whole lot of mangrove access but you get pretty close and there’s a fair number of birds. Although the woodpecker and flycatcher were predictably absent, we weren’t complaining about the fun combination of wading birds, edge species, and others including Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-naped and White-fronted Parrots, and a calling Collared Forest-Falcon.
When it was time to catch the 8 a.m (not ideal for birding) opening time for the national park, we left Guacalillo, drove back out to the main road, crossed the crocodile bridge, and went to the HQ. Entrance tickets were quickly purchased, restrooms visited, and into the forest we went. It became quickly apparent that the birds were nice and vocal on Saturday, and they stayed like that for most of our time in the forest.
Since my targets were far more likely back in the primary forest away from the road, we spent very little time in the old second growth, and bee-lined it back to the trails on the other side of the bridge. There are really too many birds to mention although expected and interesting ones included Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill (heard only and would not let us see them!), Riverside Wren, Black-hooded Antshrike, lots of Dot-winged Antwrens, Orange-billed Sparrow, calling Great Tinamous, and so on.
On the other side of the bridge, more deep forest species became apparent as we heard Baird’s Trogon (one of five trogon species for the day), Scaly-breasted Wren, Red-capped Manakins, Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Streak-chested Antpitta. As luck would have it, we also got lucky with one of my targets!
Leaftossers are always a pain but this one perched more than long enough for me to get shots of it.
Not long after, we had a male Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting away from us. It eventually crossed the trail for excellent views.
Around there, we also had Lesser Greenlets and Red-capped Manakin nagging at something off in the woods but it was just too far to see if it was s snake or owl. One of my other targets also sort of cooperated although it stayed too high and in bad light for the best of shots.
Although we didn’t encounter as many mixed flocks as I had hoped, we did find one with Russet Antshrike, a couple woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, tanagers, antwrens, and a few other birds.
The morning wore on but the birds never really stopped calling. Even though we didn’t come across any other targets (the greenlet was heard several times but never close enough to photograph), we still had a good, birdy time in the forest. That’s typical for Carara. By the time we exited the trees, it was two p.m. and stifling hot. That’s also typical for Carara. Thank goodness for vehicles with air conditioning!
Even though we were sort of casually birding and stopped at 2, when I counted up all of the species we saw or heard from the time we left San Jose to the time we returned, we ended up being just shy of 160 species.
Yes, that many! That’s what happens, though, when the birds are singing in a major tropical ecotone with quality forest. Just be ready for the heat.
It’s not high season for birding in Costa Rica but that doesn’t stop birders from visiting. These are vacation days for several birders and although you won’t run into any wintering birds, most birders from the USA and Canada don’t worry about seeing migrants anyways. They hope to see Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, tanagers, hummingbirds, and hundreds of other species that never leave the tropics. Between Friday and Monday, I guided some birders who opted for vacation in Costa Rica. All had been here before but they still had plenty left to see. Here are some of the highlights from a rainy day at Cinchona and the Nature Pavilion, a cloudy, misty one at Lands in Love, and a breezy one around Puntarenas:
- Close looks at birds in the rain: This is alright as long as the birds are active and you can stay dry. We did at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and had close looks at Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Tanager, hummingbirds, and other species. We also scoped a distant Barred Hawk moving through the other side of the canyon and stopped for a surprise, perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle just down the road.
- White-necked Jacobins bathing in the rain and other beautiful birds at the Nature Pavilion: Time spent at this sanctuary of life is always a treat. Red-legged Honeycreepers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, tanagers, and other birds made close visits to the feeders, we saw two King Vultures soar into view, and were treated to close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and other hummingbird species. The guys at the Nature Pavilion also said that, as of late, a Rufous Motmot has been visiting the feeders, and Great Green Macaws have swooped down to check out a Beach Almond tree they had planted a couple of years ago. This last bit of news is especially exciting because once those Beach Amonds start producing seeds, it looks like the Nature Pavilion could become a reliable place to see and photograph Great Green Macaws!
- More hummingbirds in the rain: After enjoying the Nature Pavilion and lunch nearby, we checked out the action and fresh coffee at the Volcan Restaurant en route to Poas. The rain poured down with earnest but we still managed several hummingbirds including a single Stripe-tailed, Green Violetears, Magnificents, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem. That finished off a day with more than 60 species seen and several heard despite nearly constant rain.
- Dry weather!: The lack of rain was a big bonus because the forecast had called for rain and storms. Not a good harbinger for birding but we decided to try our luck anyways. Well, we lucked out big time because we were treated to cloudy, birdy conditions on the San Ramon route to Lands in Love. Easy-going birding along the road produced several targets including prolonged looks at Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black and yellow Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Slaty Spinetail, and Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens.
- Lands in Love: Although we started birding at Lands around 9, we still did quite good on uncommon species. Sepia-capped Flycatcher called but failed to show but we got close looks at Keel-billed Motmot, Spotted Antbird, and Bicolored Antbird in quick succession. On another trail, Song Wren appeared along with Golden-crowned Spadebill and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Then, it was off to lunch at the Loveats Cafe where we saw Double-toothed and Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk-eagle too far away to identify.
- Cocora Hummingbird Garden: Although the hummingbirds showed, including close looks at White-bellied Mountain-Gem, other birds were pretty much a bust. Just not calling or active. However, after speaking with the receptionist, I feel even better about recommending this little known hotspot. After asking about bellbirds, she replied that she had heard them the other day but they were only calling very far off when we were there. However, umbrellabird was present the other day and is apparently regular at this site (!) from March to June. She actually said, “It’s common but doesn’t always show up”. To me, that says that if you spend most of a day or morning at Cocora from March to June, you have a fair chance of seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird, an endangered species that is becoming even more difficult to find. Lots of other birds are also possible in the cloud forest at Cocora.
- Long-tailed Manakins, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other dry forest species: The following day, we tried some dry forest birding near Esparza with highlights being a tree full of Long-tailed Manakins near a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the ant-tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and other dry forest birds.
- Puntarenas: Then, we tried some sea birding from the tip of the Puntarenas peninsula. Brown Boobies and Black Terns fished very close to shore while clouds of Black Terns dotted the horizon. Storm-petrels were seen (too far off to ID, probably Wedge-rumped), one very distant Galapagos Shearwater was spotted, and we managed a Brown Noddy feeding with Black Terns.
- Lesser Ground-Cuckoo: After a delicious lunch in Puntarenas, we checked out Caldera to search for Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and dry forest species. We saw Gray-necked Wood-Rail and Green Kingfisher instead of our targets but did alright with a few dry forest birds. Banded Wren gave good looks, we saw a nice group of magpie-jays, and had looks at a few other dry forest species including an amazing ground-cuckoo fight. What appeared to be two pairs of ground-cuckoos came towards us and right out into the open for a strange, bill-snapping face off. It was pretty much beyond ridiculous.
What can I say, there’s always more than enough to see in Costa Rica no matter when you go birding.
Like most birders, I have always been interested in knowing where I need to go to see the birds I want to see. At least I assume most birders are like that. I know that when my eyes were first opened to all thing avian, I quickly realized that no, you can’t just walk outside and see Baltimore Orioles, beautiful wood-warblers, and owls sitting up there in the Japanese Maples and Hackberries in my neighbor’s yards.
Every bird I looked at seemed to be a House Sparrow, Starling, or Rock Pigeon along with a few genuine natives. The appearance of my first Song Sparrow in our urban backyard was a big deal for a city-bound 8 year old birder, and the “Sparrow Hawks” in the nearby field (aka abandoned railway line) were nothing short of amazing. According to books at the Earl Bridges Library, those species were mapped for Niagara Falls, New York but what about Tree Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Brown Thrasher, and so many other species that were supposed to be there too? I didn’t know then that the maps showed what would live where our house stood if the streets, homes, and sidewalks had never been built. I found out that those and so many other species needed woodlands, grassland, and thickets that grew outside of town, and that you had to travel much further afield to find species that required larger areas of forest.
Although the maps in the field guides showed these solid purple, red, or blue areas where birds occurred, they were actually a general representation of a much more static situation. Bird species could live in the colored areas of the maps but they only occurred in the places that were suited to them, and even then, many weren’t exactly obvious. You couldn’t just go birding and see everything you wanted. You had to really look for birds, and sometimes spend more time looking than you had hoped. Not to mention, owls were basically a myth. Nevertheless, it was still way easier to find birds in the temperate zone than in tropical forests. For a lot of places in North America, bird-finding guides gave vary specific directions for target birds that worked like a charm. Go there, watch this corner of a field at seven a.m., and enjoy your lifer!
So why doesn’t that work in Costa Rica?
Well, it does if you want to see common, second growth species but that’s where similarities between bird finding up north and 9 degrees from the equator tend to cease. Like the temperate zone, edge species are common because there is a heck of a lot of second growth, they have evolved to quickly take advantage of temporary habitats in a forested landscape, and aren’t too picky when it comes to food. Not to mention, there are more individuals of a few species rather than very few individuals of many species. These factors make it much easier to see species like Black-striped Sparrow, Passerini’s Tanager, and Variable Seedeater compared to forest birds like Ocellated Antbird, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Green Shrike-Vireo.
As far as rainforest species go, yes, you do have to know which sites harbor the birds you are looking for but seeing them is still another story. Unlike temperate zone forests in the early summer, rainforest birds aren’t in a hurry to defend territories, mate, and take advantage of the summer arthropod abundance. They seem to take their time to avoid predators, find enough food in a highly competitive landscape, and just stay alive. Camouflaged in appearance and behavior, and occurring at naturally low numbers, typical rainforest species can be so tough to find that you can’t help but wonder “where are all of those birds?” when walking in a seemingly bird-empty forest.
If you go to a large enough area of protected rainforest, the birds on that huge enticing list do occur but this is why you don’t see them right away:
- Some live in the canopy: Actually a lot live way up there, 100 feet above the ground. It’s hard enough to see birds in the canopy if they are sitting in bare trees. Add vegetation growing on everything and you learn why canopy towers are built.
- Microhabitats: Tropical rainforests are about as uniform and predictable as a broken kaleidoscope. But, we need to celebrate that chaos of life because it’s partly why there are so many possibilities. Learn about microhabitats and pay attention to them to find that Royal Flycatcher, White-crested Coquette, and Dull-mantled Antbird.
- Army ants and other avian gourmets: Some birds refuse to eat unless Army Ants are present. Others only like certain types of fruit or muddy places where they can find choice worms. Know the places where certain birds like to eat and you just might find them. What? Even that doesn’t guarantee seeing them?- check out the next point.
- Time spent in quality habitat = More Rare Birds: Even if you do find the right habitat and food, that cotinga, ground-cuckoo, or other tough species might be absent. Wait around long enough and keep checking, though, and they will eventually appear. Some birds are just inconspicuous and naturally rare, or have become even more rare than normal because they have to migrate to lowland areas that have been mostly deforested (poor umbrellabirds…). The upside to this is that statistically, the more time you spend patiently birding in the right habitat, the higher the probability of seeing rare species. This is why it’s worth it to visit quality forest day after day and spend many a quiet hour there. Eventually, the tough birds show up and in the meantime, there’s always cool stuff to see in tropical rainforest anyways.
A site guide can point out places to bird but knowing how to look for target species is a huge help in finding them. There’s no replacement for an experienced birding guide, but “How to See,Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” can help you get ready for your trip, and show you where to look for birds, as well as finding and identifying them.