In the northern hemisphere, September takes on several meanings. For kids and parents, it’s new shoes, a clear plastic protractor (at least it used to be), notebooks, and other school supplies. For millions of people in the USA, it means that Monday nights will once again be dedicated to football. For the birder, it also means migration.
Millions of wood-warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and shorebirds are on the move. While we watch football, YouTube, or sleep, they race through the night on their way to wintering sites where the summer never ends. Go birding on the right morning and you might see hundreds of migrant birds. If you live in the right place, you might even see them in your backyard. It’s also important to go birding because accompanying those thousands of common and expected birds, are a few species that should be elsewhere. At this time of year, somewhere in the northeast, there are always a few Black-throated Gray -Warblers, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and other species of the west whether birders find them or not.
In Costa Rica, it’s a similar situation, and two weeks ago, the chance at seeing one of the those rare vagrants was enough to send me on a four hour drive to the northwest. The bird in question was an Aplomado Falcon, I have seen them elsewhere but laying eyes on one in Costa Rica would be a seriously sweet tick for my country list. The bird had been seen at the same site for at least two weeks, there was nothing keeping me at home, and my friend Johan Kuilder was up for the trip. So, instead of some birding closer to home, off we went at 5:30 a.m. for the hot, windy dry lands of Guanacaste.
The destination was the rice fields on the road to Playa Panama but there were other birds to look for en route, especially because we would be passing near the best shorebird sites in the country during high tide.
With that in mind, we figured that a quick check of the Cocororas salt ponds would be worth it. The only “problem” was too many birds for a quick check!
Although we didn’t turn up any rarities, Johan got a lifer, I got a couple of year birds, and it’s always fun to hang out with the shorebirds. Shortly after, we were back on the highway and heading north towards a hoped for rendezvous with an adventurous falcon. On the way, we made another stop, this time at a turf farm! Every birder in the know knows that a turf farm in fall is always an opportunity for excitement. In Costa Rica, it’s the same situatation and we were hoping for the same exciting birds. However, although the conditions looked perfect, we didn’t see any golden-plovers or grasspipers. At least Pectoral Sandpiper made it onto the year list though, and it was interesting to see several Collared Plovers in the grass.
After that, we made a bee-line to our destination, the Finca Trancas, or rice fields on the road to Playa Panama. Getting there was easy enough, and there are plenty of places to look but we did not find the falcon. Either it was doing some serious hiding, or it had left the building because I scoped every tree, hedgerow, and the ground in search of that bird. Since others also checked that site that day and came up zero for the falcon, I think we were two days late. Hopefully, it will show up again there, at Palo Verde, or maybe even Chomes (according to eBird, a juvenile was also seen on that date in 2010).
Despite the missing Aplomado Falcon, all was not lost because there were plenty of other interesting birds to see while searching for the raptor. Back along a vegetated canal, we were entertained by hundreds of Dickcissels. Flock after flock of these mid-western migrants moved along the canal in nervous flocks, a few birds calling the whole time. There were at least a thousand that fed in a tall, grassy field next to the canal!
Bank and Cliff Swallows foraged over the open fields and a Zone-tailed Hawk made an appearance. On the other side of the main road, we found a small group of Solitary Sandpipers, herons, and, best of all, two Jabirus in flight!
Scanning the fields failed to turn up grasspipers or other interesting birds but we did see a Harriss’s Hawk soar overhead, saw a juvenile White-tailed Hawk, and had nice looks at Tricolored Munias.
After a quick stop at the nearby catfish ponds (mostly dry and a locked gate) and the German Bakery (good stuff), it was time to head back home. We arrived by 5 p.m. and although we missed the falcon, we realized how feasible it was to do a short day trip to that area and see some really cool birds at the same time.
In continuation, this is my take on birding hotspots for major habitats in Costa Rica (see part one for the three main factors used in determining hotspots):
- The Central Pacific area: We could also just call this “Carara National Park and vicinity” because that is the main hotspot for this part of the country. In fact, this mega-ecotone is such a crossroads of biodiversity, it’s a strong candidate for being the top birding hotspot in Central America. Few other places can claim a list of around 600 recorded species within such a small area as well as regional endemics, uncommon forest species, and so on. Carara and nearby has it all; quality, protected forest, a variety of major habitats (lowland rainforest, dry forest, open areas, mangroves, lowland river, estuaries, and seashore) with a subsequent huge variety of species, and easy access. If there are any downsides to birding the Carara area, they would be the limited opening hours for the national park (7 to 4 during the high season and 8 to 4 in the low season), and the damn heat. That said, easy solutions to those disadvantages come in the form of good birding just outside the national park, and using a combination of air conditioning, lightweight clothing, and cold drinks. There are a few choices for lodging with Cerro Lodge being a stand out for quality birding, photo opportunities, habitat restoration, and proximity to the national park. Villa Lapas also offers similar advantages for the birder, and other choices for lodging a bit further from the park are The Macaw Lodge and Punta Leona.
- The Southern Pacific: Although the forests at Carara are essentially part of the southern Pacific bioregion, there are a few very good sites rather far from Carara that also deserve hotspot status. Good birding can be had around Manuel Antonio National Park and several sites around Dominical but the best birding is found on and near the Osa Peninsula. Outside of the Osa, the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge and vicinity is a major birding hotspot. This is one of my favorite sites in the country simply because you can see a huge variety of species, including many uncommon birds. Bird the road through La Gamba and you might see Crested Oropendola, Brown-throated Parakeet, Scrub Greenlet, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and several other birds that can be tough in Costa Rica. If the remaining rice fields have not been converted to oil palm plantations, you might find Paint-billed Crake and rare vagrants. Flowering trees can have everything from Veraguan Mango to White-crested Coquette, and once you reach the rainforests at the lodge and in Piedras Blancas National Park, it’s fairly easy to see four trogon species, several wrens, antbirds, woodcreepers, and so on with chances at the endemic Back-cheeked Ant-Tanager, and Uniform Crake. Check out the 158 species I had during a fairly casual day of guiding in this area.
- The Osa: The good birding in the South Pacific doesn’t stop at Esquinas. There are several excellent sites on the Osa peninsula, including two of the best birding lodges in the country; Bosque del Rio Tigre and Luna Lodge. Both of these are comfortable lodges with fantastic birding and excellent guides with the best local gen you could hope for, and have primary forest connected to the forests of Corcovado National Park. Many of the same species as Esquinas can also be found at and near these sites. Although the birding in the national park is great, problems with access exclude Corcovado from hotspot status. Other great birding sites in the Osa can also be found at stations run by Osa Conservation, at Lapa Rios, Bosque del Cabo, and lodges in the Drake Bay area. Rincon de Osa also deserves mention since it’s the most reliable site in the world for the highly endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga.
- Caribbean foothills: Somewhere between cloud forest and lowland rainforest, the wet foothill forests of the Caribbean slope are very important habitat for hundreds of bird species. In addition to providing a home for Lattice-tailed Trogon and other foothill specialties, these forests are also an important refuge for many lowland forest birds that no longer occur in large areas of the deforested Caribbean coastal plain. There are several good foothill sites to choose from, the most accessible being El Tapir and the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station in Braulio Carrillo National Park, sites around Arenal National Park and Bijagua, and Rancho Naturalista. Rancho in particular, is a classic birding lodge with various feeders, excellent guides, and excellent gen for the lodge and surrounding areas. Near Rancho, El Copal merits a mention because the birding is some of the very best in the country but it’s not as accessible nor as comfortable as Rancho. The same can be said about the Pocosol Research Station, a fantastic site located in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest on the route between San Ramon and La Fortuna. Past La Fortuna, excellent birding can also be had on the grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge. Further north, sites near Bijagua also offer high quality forest with equally high quality birding including fair chances at Tody Motmot, Lovely Cotinga, uncommon raptors, and much more.
- Caribbean lowlands: Historically, the Caribbean lowlands were cloaked in fantastic ranforests. and the birding must have been spectacular. Stories of that level of birding still exist in the form of tales told by researchers who worked in La Selva during the 70s. They tell of seeing Great Jacamar, hearing about Harpy Eagle sightings, and bearing witness to an abundance of birds, frogs, and other rainforest wildlife rarely encountered in present times. However, this was before massive deforestation changed the ecological landscape of the Caribbean lowlands and the difference in birding is notable. Good birding can still be had at several sites but the best lowland birding is found in areas with connection to the most intact lowland habitats. Such sites also tend to be difficult to access and is why Hitoy Cerere, Veragua, and much less accessible sites fail to make it onto hotspot lists. If you can get there, expect excellent lowland birding. If not, then some very good alternatives are Laguna del Lagarto, the Sarapiqui area, and sites near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo.
- Laguna del Lagarto might be the best birding hotspot for the Caribbean lowlands because the ecolodge offers a fine combination of comfort, good service, and great birding. Visit and you will be asked when you want to see Agami heron, roosting owls, or other birds they know about. Watch from the porch and you can photograph toucans, parrots, and other birds that visit an excellent feeder. You might also see raptors, King Vulture, Scaled Pigeon, toucans, or Snowy Cotinga in nearby treetops. Inside the forest, you might find White-fronted Nunbird, antbirds, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and even Tawny-faced Quail. Since those forests are also connected to the extensive lowland rainforests of southeastern Nicaragua, maybe Harpy Eagle or Red-throated Caracara will make an appearance?
- That said, if you can’t make it to Laguna del Lagarto, the easiest accessible lowland rainforest is in the Sarapiqui area. Take the early morning birding tour at La Selva for an excellent variety of birds along with great birding on the entrance road to the research station. Stay at La Selva or more comfortable ecolodges like Selva Verde, the Quinta Inn, Sueno Azul, or Tirimbina for good birding on the grounds of the hotel. The reserve at Tirimbina is especially good and can be visited by non-guests of the hotel for a fee although the opening hours are a bit limited. Time should also be made for a boat trip on the Sarapiqui to see Green Ibis, look for Sungrebe, roosting potoos, Sunbittern, and other birds.
- The forests south of Limon can also be excellent for birding and are very easy to access. Much of the habitat around Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo is a mix of lowland rainforest and old shade cacao plantations. Most lowland species seem to be present including Purple-throated fruitcrow, Great Potoo, Green and Rufous Kingfisher, and Tiny Hawk, the birding is often very good right around the hotel, and the area is excellent for migrants.
- Wetlands: There are two top wetland areas in Costa Rica. These are the wetlands of the Tempisque floodplain and the Cano Negro area. Palo Verde National Park is the main site in Tempisque but there are a few other privately owned wetlands as well. Bird Palo Verde for Jabiru and many other wetland species, and a good selection of dry forest birds including Thicket Tinamou. Jabiru is also possible at Cano Negro along with Sungrebe, Great Potoo, Black-collared Hawk, and various other wetland species. Remaining forests at Cano Negro are also good for a fair variety of lowland rainforest species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, and Bare-crowned Antbird. If visiting Cano Negro, make sure to also take a boat ride in the Medio Queso wetlands near Los Chiles. This is the best area for Pinnated Bittern, Spotted Rail, Least Bittern, Nicaraguan Grackle, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and several other rare species.
Visit Costa Rica and you will find good birding in lots of places. Visit the hotspots mentioned in these two posts and you will be visiting the best sites in the country. Make the most of any birding trip to Costa Rica by hiring an experienced birding guide.
To support this blog and find the most comprehensive information about birding sites in Costa Rica, get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book that will enrich the birding experience in Costa Rica at every level.
Recently, a fold-out publication called, “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” was distributed at the Birdfair in Rutland, UK. It’s a boon for birding in Costa Rica, it’s wonderful that it was published, and I hope the hotels and agencies that paid for this marketing product will benefit from it. The ones mentioned as birding hotspots protect habitat, offer good accommodation and services, and are good spots for birding. I would also agree that some in the publication do merit “birding hotspot” status, especially Rancho Naturalista. However, several other fantastic sites for birding were not mentioned, including some that certainly deserve “hotspot status”. This doesn’t mean that the publication is bad or wrong. It mean that there wasn’t enough space to mention every site. Lack of certain sites also stems from the inclusion of the “comfort factor” for designation of hotspots. According to the people who made this publication, quality of service and accommodation were definitely factored into the equation. They also told me that hotspots are meant to refer to regions rather than hotels (those being mentioned as “core sites” for a region). Nevertheless, since “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” leaves out several important sites for birding in Costa Rica, I feel obligated to set the record straight, or basically give my opinion regarding birding hotspots in Costa Rica:
What makes a place a birding hotspot in a country that already happens to be one big hotspot?
This is a worthwhile question to ponder because yes, since Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia, has a bird list of more than 900 species including dozens of regional endemics, and one can reach most corners of the country by driving four or five hours from the center, it’s easy to give hotspot status to the entire nation. Nevertheless, not every site has hundreds of bird species and that usually comes down to presence or absence of habitat. Therefore, extent of habitat (1) should be the primary factor in determining “hotspot” status because basically, in Costa Rica, the most intact forests have the most bird species and the highest number of birds. Protection (2) is another consideration because unsustainable hunting affects populations of tinamous, cracids, wood-quails, raptors, etc. and makes them much harder to see. The other main factor is logistics (3) because although the best highland birding I have seen in Costa Rica was on the trail up to Chirripo, present regulations and challenges rule it out as a feasible birding destination (you won’t see many birds when you have to constantly march uphill). The comfort factor is also something to consider but since excellent birding isn’t contingent upon easy access, and quality lodging, I haven’t given that factor as much weight as the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Publication.
So, with those factors in mind, this is my take on the top sites where a birder is most likely to encounter the highest number of species and regional endemics in a given amount of time, for each region or major habitat:
- Central Valley: When this part of the country was covered in moist tropical forest and wetlands, it was probably fantastic birding and a great place to see Three-wattled Bellbird, Long-tailed Manakin, and many other species. However, since this is the part of the country where people set up house and agriculture, those birding opportunities disappeared 150 or more years ago. As with any area mostly dedicated to urbanization, the birding opportunities that remain are pretty slim. You don’t want to linger for too long in this part of the country but if you have to stay here, try the birding at Zamora Estate Hotel and Xandari. The Bougainvillea is a perennial favorite but both of the sites mentioned are closer to the airport, have more habitat, and thus more bird species. You might also want to stay a bit further afield in the Varablanca area.
- Cloud forest: In my opinion, the Monteverde area wins hotspot status for this wonderful habitat. It’s easy to get to (and will be easier when more of the road is paved), has plenty of infrastructure, is easy to bird, and has lots of great habitat. Bellbirds are easy from March and April to July, the R. Quetzal is reliable, and many other uncommon species are easier in the forest reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, and Curi-Cancha) than other parts of Costa Rica and elsewhere, including Highland Tinamou, leaftossers, Azure-hooded Jay, Coppery-headed Emerald, and many other species. Include a trip down to the San Gerardo station and you will also visit one of the best birding sites in Central America. This is an excellent area for Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas, Black-headed and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and many other possibilities including hawk-eagles, and even Solitary Eagle.
- Tropical dry forest: Although many dry forest species seem to be more adaptable than rainforest species, and can thus be seen in edge habitats and riparian zones in much of the northwest (the Tarcoles River and north of there), the best hotspots for this habitat are probably Santa Rosa National Park, Palo Verde National Park, and Rincon de la Vieja National Park. At Rincon de la Vieja, the drive up is good for many dry forest birds while the forests of the park have a nice mix of dry forest and rainforest species including Tody Motmot, various raptors, a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, quail-doves, and the list goes on.
- High Elevations: Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find excellent high elevation birding in Costa Rica due to ease of access of several protected areas. Poas is an easy fix for high elevation endemics, and can be better for Black Guan and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher than the high Talamancas. However, the best sites for high elevation birding are indeed located in the Talamancas on Cerro de la Muerte. Savegre is often mentioned as the place to go because they have a great, well-earned reputation, comfortable accommodation, and good habitat with good birds. However, if you can’t afford Savegre, you can still see the same birds by staying at other lodging in the area and birding from the main road in San Gerardo de Dota, birding on the road to Providencia through Quetzal National Park, and birding the trails behind La Georgina. Toucanet Lodge and Paraiso de Quetzales also deserve mention.
Learn about more hotspots next week…
To support this blog and find the most comprehensive information about birding sites in Costa Rica, get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book that will enrich the birding experience in Costa Rica at every level.
Chomes. I birded Costa Rica’s top shorebird site last week. I wish I could bird there every day because, as with any important hub for migration, birds come and go, probably on a daily basis. What flies in the day after you visit? Heck, what flies in later the same day? I wish we knew! This is the place that probably sees visits by a lone, lost Red-necked Stint, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and other vagrants. But, there’s no one there to see them. Heck, if a Red-necked Stint showed up in winter plumage, who would notice it anyways?
Chomes is always exciting because every visit is different. You never know what’s really going to show up but if you visit during high tide during shorebird migration, you can bet that you will see a bunch of those Arctic messengers. Various terns and a gull or two are usually mixed in with the shorebirds, and there are other birds. Here are some thoughts on what to expect during the upcoming birding season:
- A good access road: The road into Chomes leaves from the Pan-American highway. It’s not signed very well (no surprise there), and used to promise a bumpy ride. Yes, “used to” because the road has been drastically improved! Much of the road was graded this past Saturday, and the workers seemed ready to finish the job. At the moment, it is definitely good enough for two-wheel drive cars, including the tracks into the shrimp ponds. Heavy rains could change all that but they aren’t likely.
- Too dry on the way in: Speaking of rains, we wish that more water would fall in Guanacaste and Chomes. The current El Nino effect is keeping things dry and since that’s actually global warming, it’s only going to become drier. Although we didn’t survey birds on the drive in, I can’t help but get the impression that there are fewer birds around. No surprise there since the life-giving rains have not lived up to ecological expectations. The riparian zones might be the best places to check for dry forest species along with sites in the foothills.
- Huge agricultural areas: Immense fields have been a part of the Chomes picture for years and they probably explain why the road has been fixed. I don’t know what they will be used for but if it happens to be pineapple, just drive on past. Pineapple fields are basically filled with poison and thus have almost no birds (or other life for that matter). If something else is planted, scan for thick-knees, Harris’s Hawk, and other open country species (Aplomado Falcon has been seen there in the past).
- Shorebirds during high tide: Some plovers and sandpipers are there during low tide but the numbers don’t compare to high tide. Check the tides and schedule accordingly because a lot of birds come here to roost and feed when the nearby Gulf of Nicoya is filled with water. On Saturday, we had hundreds of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and lesser numbers of other species including a rare Long-billed Curlew. This is the eBird list.
- Collared Plovers on the beach: You can also pick out a few on the ponds but this past visit had a dozen or so on the beach. Nice close looks!
- Mangrove Rail: This secretive species has always been present in the scrubby Black Mangroves but it’s of course always hidden. Go early in the morning and look in spots where the scrubby mangroves are in shallow water and wet ground. When the edges of the mangroves dry out, the rails seem much harder to find because they are probably hanging out in the middle of the mangroves. These are the short mangroves that grow in the ponds.
- Mangrove birds: I was surprised that we saw so few mangrove species this past visit. Most of my past birding at Chomes has resulted in easy looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, and various other species including chances at Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Try the taller mangroves on the road to the beach and on the track next to it for all of these.
- Bobwhite and hordes of roosting White-fronted Parrots in the evening: You can also get Spot-bellied Bobwhite during the day but it seems easier in the evening. A covey or two can show up anywhere on the road to the beach. The parrots fly in by the hundreds.
- Hot weather, bugs, and no services: I almost forgot to mention these fun factors! That vehicle you are in is your terrestrial lifeboat, especially if it has air conditioning. Be prepared, use the restroom before birding at Chomes, and scope from the shade!
Hope to see you at Chomes!
The ferry is the poor person’s pelagic. Or one for people with limited time. Or, on some routes, a quick fix for folks who suffer from wave action. However you want to call it, a ferry is an easy way to see birds from a boat, and by “birds” I mean the ones that are especially hard to see from shore. The Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is the easiest way to see some pelagics in Costa Rica and although you can’t count on Pterodromas or other wicked flying denizens of the super deep, the boat does cross one of the richest estuarine gulfs in Central America. I’ve been thinking more and more about that gulf. Like about what lives in those waters and what comes there from the ocean to feed. In terms of birds, it’s pretty darn important. The mud flats are used by resident wading birds and thousands of migrant shorebirds, the mangroves are home to the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird and nurseries for thousands of fish, and the waters provide food for dolphins, tuna, thousands of Black Terns (which seem to be there all year long), and various other seabirds.
It’s the “various others” that draws me to the gulf, especially during these El Nino times. Storm-petrels, Galapagos Shearwater, and Blue-footed Booby have been regular, and many other birds are possible. Thanks to near daily trips and reports by Jorge Zuniga Lopez, we have heard about Sabine’s Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Costa Rica’s first Peruvian Booby! Since a couple of these were seen the past month, yesterday, I made time for a trip down to Puntarenas to watch from the ferry. I came prepared with snacks, binos, scope, camera, and a vigilant mindset that would hopefully yield new year birds and additions to my Costa Rica list.
My first stops were the cruise ship pier and the lighthouse area in Puntarenas, two spots that can turn up pelagics. The pier had a couple of boobies along with regular terns and Brown Pelicans but I just could’t turn that juvenile Brown Booby into a Red-footed. Over at the lighthouse, scanning with a scope revealed swarms of Black Terns along with one Elegant, and a few Royals and Sandwich Terns. Eventually, I spotted a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters, pretty far off but still identifiable. That point really is the most accessible place to see some pelagics from shore in Costa Rica because it’s close to a spot where the inner gulf meets the outer gulf. You could easily go and see nothing but on one occasion, I could even identify Black Storm-Petrels there with binoculars.
The ferry got underway around 9 and I started seeing birds shortly thereafter. Most were Black Terns.
But, a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters also made an appearance, one right in front of the boat!
Further on, I saw a Blue-footed Booby. Oddly, one of the only boobies seen that day. Other days have resulted in several.
Eventually, scanning the hordes of Black Terns on a drift line turned up a Brown Noddy.
Interestingly, I didn’t see storm-petrels until the return ride to Puntarenas around 11:30 and noon. Unfortunately, none came very close to the ferry but they gave me enough studies to watch several Black Storm-Petrels, one or two Least Storm-Petrels, and just as I was about to give up scanning while the boat moved up and down, one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!
Although I didn’t get my Sabine’s Gull nor see any mega rarity, I did pick up three year birds (two Storm-Petrels and Least Tern). Once again, I also exited the ferry feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of what can be seen in the Gulf of Nicoya. What flew in after the ferry went past? What happens to be visiting the gulf today, especially the deeper parts? If you have the time, the ferry is easy enough to do. Park the vehicle at Franks Cabinas just north of the ferry ($8 for the whole day), buy a ticket for 810 colones (maybe $1.50), and get on board. After getting off the ferry in Paquera, just walk right back through the ticket area, buy another $1.50 ticket for the return trip, and scan for birds on the way back. The trip takes an hour and a half. Make sure to get on first and pick a spot right up front on the top deck.
Tags: Pelagic birding
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.