There are at least 5 distinct regional habitat types or ecosystems in Costa Rica; dry forest, middle elevation cloud forest, high elevation rain forest, Pacific slope lowland rain forest, and Caribbean slope lowland rain forest. Birding in this latter habitat type is especially exciting because it harbors ecosystems with the highest number of bird species in Costa Rica (around 400). Despite having birded in Costa Rica since 1992, I probably get just as excited as visiting birders do when the road through Braulio Carrillo National Park suddenly announces its exit from the steep mountains with a panoramic view of the Caribbean lowlands. Just as the feelings of anticipation and excitement never fail to spring forth upon entering this highly biodiverse region, the obvious deforestation on the lowland plain tempers my excitement with a sharp stab of reality that goes too deep to ignore. In these “modern”, overpopulated times, banana fields, pineapple plantations, and cattle pastures have replaced much of the forest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. There are birds but instead of seeing a few hundred species in tall, incredible rain forest, birders might encounter 40 or so bird species in scrubby fields with isolated trees and even fewer among the bananas and pineapples. Birding in good, lowland rain forest is still possible but the heavy pressure upon the land has given birders very few options.
Pineapple farms- an avian desert.
The principle site most folks visit for their fix of Caribbean Slope birding in Costa Rica is at the “La Selva” biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. One of the easiest sites to visit (1.45 hours from San Jose), the good trails and facilities, and legendary reputation of La Selva keep it on the list of must see places when birding in Costa Rica. The birding is good with species such as Great Curassow, Great Potoo, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Semiplumbeous Hawk more easily seen at the station than elsewhere, but in reality, several species have sadly disappeared from or have become very rare in the forests of La Selva (Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, and most understory insectivores). Another disadvantage is that unless you pay close to $90 per person to stay in a rather basic bunk bed, you can only access the station on short, guided tours that cost $30-$40 per person. In that most of the birds at La Selva can be seen along the entrance road and around nearby hotels such as Selva Verde and El Gavilan, birders will do just as well or better by birding around their hotel, visiting Quebrada Gonzalez for a day, and taking one of La Selva’s guided walks rather than staying at the station itself. I am by no means saying that the birding at La Selva is bad (it’s still very good for a wide variety of bird species), just that birders should be aware that many formerly common, forest based species no longer occur at La Selva and that most of the birds that still occur can be seen elsewhere.
Another good option for lowland Caribbean Slope birding that is much further afield but well worth the visit is the Manzanillo-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge. Situated in the southeastern corner of Costa Rica, this little-visited, 12,000 acre (4 times the size of La Selva) reserve protects lowland rain forest and swamp forest, has no entrance fee, and has accommodations that range from inexpensive, basic lodging to costly resortish hotels. Since it is not a national park, there are people who live within the refuge (this includes the village of Manzanillo). Nevertheless, they don’t appear to have much of an impact upon the refuge itself according to my observations from this past weekend and the opinion of a local guide. The main drawbacks to Manzanillo are its distance from San Jose (4-4.5 hours drive) and that you can’t drink water from the tap (but plenty of bottled water soldin the village). I suppose the lack of general information for the refuge could also be a drawback but that makes it all the more exciting to explore in my opinion. In any case, there are a few guides for the refuge, one of the best for the area being Abel Bustamente. Although he told me he was a general naturalist guide rather than a strict birding guide, from what I saw, he knows the local birds well enough to guide visitors, probably knows about the wildlife of the refuge better than anyone, speaks English well, and is also personable. I don’t know how much he charges but here is his email if you are interested. He is also easy to find upon arrival at Manzanillo; just inquire at the house to the right of this sign before entering the village.
With the caveat that I was mostly guiding begining birders for a day and a half, and that we hardly entered into the primary forest of the refuge, I still have to say that my general impression of birding in Manzanillo was so good I would go back there in a heartbeat. The only other time I have been to Manzanillo was in 1994 and although I had good birding and a bunch of lifers on that first trip, the lack of infrastructure made it difficult to visit (I camped on the beach and battled mosquitoes on horribly mucky trails). Things have greatly improved since those early days with lodging to fit most budgets available in the village or along the road to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Our group stayed in Manzanillo at the aptly named Cabinas Manzanillo ($30 for a basic, clean double with fan). The service was fine, but best of all, they had a fruit feeder that attracted a variety of birds including Golden-hooded and many Passerini’s Tanagers
and flowering bushes that attracted Blue-chested Hummingbird. In fact, Manzanillo is the best place I have seen for this hummingbird species in Costa Rica.
Also in the village were many Pale-vented Pigeons, the usual host of edge species, a plethora of Gray-necked Wood Rails (you cannot miss this species here), Common Black Hawk, flyovers of parrots and parakeets, lots of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, White-lined Tanager, and more. Our best birds in the village were Green and Rufous Kingfisher and American Pygmy Kingfisher (sorry- no pics!). The Green and Rufous was a wonderful surprise-it was actually perched on a telephone wire above a small stream with thick vegetation near the hotel but flew off before I could get a shot. An hour later, I checked the same spot with the group, heard a ticking noise that the small neotropical kingfishers make and found a pygmy kingfisher instead! I was pretty happy with both of these since I needed them for my casual Big Year.
Outside of the village things were even better and we didn’t have to go far since primary and secondary forest, and abandoned cacao plantations that resemble primary forest surround Manzanillo. Birding along the main road out of town and on side roads (especially the one leading to a recreation center) were so birdy that we barely made progress. Migrants such as Eastern Wood Pewees and Red-eyed Vireos were the most common species along with good numbers of Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks that were bringing up the tail end of the fall raptor migration. Other, less numerous migrants were a hefty Peregrine Falcon that was casually making her way south, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Bay-breasted, Tennessee, Mourning, and Blue-winged Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the beach scrub.
A near constant movement of Barn Swallows, Bank Swallows, and Chimney Swifts also kept us busy although we were more interested in the residents. There were also plenty of those to look at with red flowering bushes attracting at least 6 hummingbird species and Bananaquits, and the old cocao plantations harboring Cinnamon Woodpecker, three toucan species, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Plain-colored, Passerini’s, Palm, and Blue-gray Tanagers, Western Slaty and Fasciated Antshrikes, Cocoa, Black-striped, and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Bay, Black-throated, and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Northern Bentbill, Bright-rumped Attila, Cinnamon Becard, White-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange-billed Sparrow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, etc.
One of the best birds was Purple-throated Fruitcrow; we heard several and saw a few of this cotinga species that has become uncommon in many areas of Costa Rica. A rare cotinga we did not see but that Abel has seen in the area is Lovely Cotinga. Another good we saw that has become rare is Costa Rica was Yellow-tailed Oriole that visited the feeder at Cabins Manzanillo.
Although trogons are tough at this time of year because they don’t sing, we at least got perfect looks at this male Violaceous Trogon that perched on a wire in front of Abel’s house.
During the very brief amount of time spent on trails in the primary forest of the refuge, we also had Crested Guan, Little Tinamou, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, and Song Wren.
During our short visit to the area, since rather casual birding turned up 132 species without spending much time within the forest proper, I am pretty sure Manzanillo has a great deal of potential. I really can’t get back there soon enough not only because the place is very birdy in general but also because there has been so little birding done in Manzanillo. We missed out on night birding because of the rain but this site probably has both potoos, several owls, and Short-tailed Nighthawk. Manzanillo also has a great Caribbean restaurant, a soda that served us coffee at 5:30 A.M. with advance notice, and if you need to beef up your fish list, a coral reef just offshore. Getting there is pretty easy-just follow the signs from Limon to Puerto Viejo or take the bus (one a day).