The perceived scarcity of raptors (non-owl raptors) when birding Costa Rica is a recurring topic of conversation between birders whom I guide and myself. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the following questions and observations:
“We haven’t seen many raptors other than Black and Turkey Vultures”.
“We have seen motmots, lots of hummingbirds, some tanagers, and a bunch of flycatchers. We haven’t seen any of those antpittas or antbirds though (another common theme), and very few raptors”.
“Where the heck are all of the hawks”?
With a field guide (that new classic, “the Garrigues and Dean”) that illustrates 53 (!) species of vultures, hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons, it’s no wonder this is a recurring topic of conversation.
I can’t recall if I wondered the same thing during my first trip to Costa Rica but I know that my raptor list had more holes than a Swiss cheese festival when I boarded the plane back to New York.
The raptor list for Costa Rica is certainly robust so where is the thrush-sized Tiny Hawk, the pint-sized Barred Forest-Falcon, the hefty Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and that king of the rain forest canopy, the monstrous Harpy Eagle when taking a birding tour in Costa Rica?
Well, all I can say is that they are out there, but there are some factors that explain why we don’t see raptors as often as we do north of the Tropic of Cancer. In no particular order, the reasons for the perceived paucity of raptors when birding Costa Rica is:
1. High diversity=natural rarity. Instead of the raptor scene being dominated by a pair of Buteo species, two Accipiters, a couple of falcons, and a scavenger or two, Costa Rica has a much larger variety of raptors that occupy more specific niches. This means that most species occur at population densities that are lower than birds of temperate zones and are therefore naturally rare. This is demonstrated by raptor lists after two weeks of birding in Costa Rica. A fairly typical count after a two week visit to 4 main sites during the high and dry season might be:
Turkey Vulture- lots
Black Vulture-even more
King Vulture-1 (yay!)
Roadside Hawk (2)
Gray Hawk (4)
Broad-winged Hawk (4)
Double-toothed Kite (1)
White-tailed Kite (1)
Plumbeous Kite (2-they went to Cerro Lodge)
Crane Hawk (1-Cerro Lodge again)
White Hawk (1)
Barred Hawk (1)
Common Black-Hawk (4)
Red-tailed Hawk (2)
Crested Caracara (4)
Yellow-headed Caracara (6)
Laughing Falcon (1)
As you can see, the species number is fairly high (18) but few individuals. I should add that this is a pretty conservative count and if one goes to certain sites, uses a guide, and specifically looks for raptors, several more species should be seen.
2. Most Costa Rican raptors are forest species. Not only does this mean that they are harder to see in appropriate habitat (because all of those trees and epiphytes are in the way), but it also means that unless you bird areas with fairly large tracts of primary forest then you won’t have a chance at watching cool stuff like Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, Barred Hawk, or Semiplumbeous Hawk among others.
3. Not all raptors soar. The Red-tailed Hawks, buzzards, falcons, and kites of the north spoil us into thinking that all one needs to do to see a raptor is look up into the sky…..and there they are (!) beautifully soaring and calling up in the blue saying, “Here I am in all my raptorial glory! Watch as much as you like and study my subtle shape to master raptor identification!”
If only the raptors in Costa Rica (and elsewhere in the neotropics) were so extrovert and unashamed! Other than vultures, soaring raptors in Costa Rica are far and few between and the ones that do regularly soar either don’t do it that often or spread their wings as part of their hunting strategy and therefore “hide in plain sight”. Among regularly soaring raptors that are often seen with vultures that kettle up into the hot mid-morning sky are Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. The first two are seen just as often in their preferred edge habitats while the Short-tailed is one of the birds that attempts to “hide in plain sight” by flying so high that it becomes a speck way up there in the clouds.
Of course there are also the massive migrating flocks of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks that pass through but they don’t linger to show off. A good number of Broad-winged Hawks stay for the winter but they don’t seem to get kicks out of soaring around to show off their splayed primaries. What? You aren’t of the opinion that raptors get their kicks, their cheap thrills, demonstrate their joie de vie from soaring around on widely splayed wings? You might change your mind after watching American Swallow-tailed Kites for a few hours.
4. Many Costa Rican raptors hunt with surprise and ambush tactics. The problem for birders is that this effective strategy only works when your prey can’t see you which means that the forest-falcons and other forest raptors are naturally inconspicuous. Very short birders who do sloth imitations in the Osa Peninsula might get lucky (or very UNlucky) and attract a Harpy Eagle but in general, one has to be as attentive and disciplined as a fire-walking Shaolin monk and/or just get lucky in catching a glimpse of raptors inside the forest.
You can and do see raptors when birding Costa Rica but no, don’t expect to see them soaring all over the place. Hire a birding guide who knows how to find them and go to the right places, however, and you will fill in a bunch of those gaps in the raptor list.
In general, areas with extensive forest are your best bets. Some of the better places in Costa Rica for seeing a good variety of diurnal raptors in no particular order are:
- Carara National Park and vicinity. The variety of forested and open habitats make the area around Carara a consistently good place for raptors. Cerro Lodge and vicinity is good for Plumbeous and Gray-headed Kites, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Osprey, and both Caracaras. The nearby national park also has these and Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, King Vulture, and Collared Forest Falcon are regularly seen.
- The Osa Peninsula. The extensive forests of the Osa and Corcovado National Park offer the remote chance of glimpsing Harpy and Crested Eagles, a fair chance at all three hawk-eagles and Tiny Hawk, and a good chance at seeing White Hawk, Common and Great Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, and several other species.
- Cano Negro. Cano Negro is a waterlogged, protected area with low rain forests and open country. This adds up to lots of raptors including species that are uncommon in Costa Rica such as Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kite, and Harris’s Hawk.
- Braulio Carrillo National Park. Spend the mid-morning hours in the parking lot at Quebrada Gonzalez and you have a good chance of seeing King Vulture, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Barred Hawk, and a fair chance at White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite and all three hawk-eagles. You might also see Bat Falcon and Tiny Hawk.
- El Copal. The vantage point from the balcony of the lodge is perfect for raptors in that it provides an ample view of a forested ridge. Barred Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk are regular while other species such as Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, and Ornate Hawk Eagle could also make an appearance.
- El Ceibo ranger station, Braulio Carrillo National Park. I haven’t been to this site located well off of the beaten path on the western side of the national park since 1994 but it looked pretty darn good for raptors at that time! White Hawk was easily viewed as it hunted for toads at the forest edge, Bat Falcon was in the area, I got my lifer Barred Forest-Falcon in the forest (pure chance though and could happen at any number of sites), and the view from the ranger station overlooked a large area of forest.