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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)

Roadside Hawk birding Costa Rica

Gray Hawk (4)

Gray Hawk birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawk (4)

Osprey (3)

Double-toothed Kite (1)

Double-toothed Kite birding Costa Rica

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.

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12 Responses to “Where are the raptors when birding Costa Rica?”

  1. this is some of the birds I hope to see when I visit the country. :)

  2. As a former hawk counter in the northeast US Costa Rica is frustrating, last trip was TV and BV everywhere, 1 OS, 3 Common (Mangrove) Black Hawk, too many Yellow-headed and Crested Caracara, 3 Plumbeous Kite, 50 STKI, 1 Roadside Hawk, 3 Gray Hawk, 1 WTKI, 1 RT. I am guessing there really are other hawks out there…lol.. first trip was much better, 1 OS, 1 YHCA, 3 CRCA, 2 WTKI, 1 RT, 2 BW, 2 White Hawk, tons of BV and TV, 3 King Vulture, 1 SWHA, 1 STHA, 1 ZTHA, 2 Bat Falcon, 3 Gray Hawk, 5 Roadside Hawk, 1 UnID large raptor.

    Been asked to look into bringing an Audubon group down next year for 10-14 days so I may be in touch about some guiding work. Since it isn’t my chapter it may be tricky, but I have 6 people wanting to go already after hearing about my last trip. I am the top birder in the county so they know we’ll find birds or they’ll die while I am trying..lol ( I have a reputation of forgetting people need food, bathrooms, and such while birding)

    2009 since you got a lifer? I get all bent out of shape after about 2 weeks…lol

  3. No, nothing like hawk counting in the northeast but big flights of TVs, Swainson’s and Broad-winged’s in Costa Rica are impressive. Your trip totals are similar to what a lot of people get during two week trips. There are ways to see more species but you really have to go to the right spots and put in a fair amount of time and effort because so many species are local and occur at naturally low densities. This also makes raptor watching rather unpredictable in Costa Rica in terms of which species to expect when birding forested areas with high diversity. The flip side of that, however, is that one often sees individuals of different species of uncommon raptors on different days at the same site. For example, at Quebrada Gonzalez, if one spends two hours actively searching for soaring and perched raptors from the parking lot during the mid-morning, it’s typical to get White Hawk one day and Black Hawk-Eagle on the first day and then Barred Hawk and Ornate Hawk-Eagle the following day (along with King Vulture, A. Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk). I should mention that it’s also amazing how inconspicuous raptors can be even when soaring! Like if one doesn’t actively look for them in the right places at the right time of the day then they are pretty easy to miss.

    Yes, please let me know if you bring a group down to Costa Rica and are interested in guiding during part of the trip. I would be happy to help them see more raptors, other uncommon birds, and make the most out of their birding trip to Costa Rica.

    Your birding trips sound pretty hardcore! I was more that way some years ago (camping out in wonderful, crazy places, and surviving on very little) but have discovered that I can see just as many bird species in a comfortable fashion by looking for birds the right way at the right sites.

    Yes, I could really use a lifer! I try to stay Zen about it but I’m going to make an effort very soon to get a few. When driving back from Quebrada Gonzalez this past weekend, a friend of mine caught a glimpse of what must have been Red-fronted Parrotlets zip across the highway. Those would have been lifers (although I am pretty sure I have glimpsed their silhouettes on two occasions in the past)! I did pick up 3 new year birds though- Canada Warbler, White-crowned Manakin, and Sharpbill. The last one was heard only.

  4. Jejeje, I really like when you translate what birds are saying!

  5. Great post Pat. The photos are great and the information on birding Costa Rica for raptors is excellent.

    Costa Rica will undoubtedly be my first neotropical birding destination and I will seek more information from you when that time comes. I now understand why birders, especially from the U.S., would have trouble finding raptors down there. No soaring out in the open? Preposterous!

  6. Glad you like the posts and info., I hope they are of help when you eventually head down this way. Yeah, not a whole lot of soaring going on and low population densities doesn’t add up to many raptor sightings.

  7. Hi,

    My partner and I will be visiting Costa Rica for the first time from November 6th to 20th. The first week will be a wildlife tour including stayovers at Monteverde(3), Arenal Volcano(1), and Tortuguero(2), and San Jose(1).

    The second week will be open. Our greatest desire, like many other birders, will be to see a Harpy Eagle. Through my research, the Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula or La Amistad International Friendship Park are the only 2 areas one might be fortunate to see a Harpy Eagle.

    Would you be able to provide any recommendations please?

    Kate La Plante
    West Vancouver, BC, Canada

  8. Hi Kate,

    The wildlife tour should be fun and actually you have just as good a chance (if not better) to get Harpy Eagle at Tortuguero. Although anyone visiting this national park would be very lucky to see a Harpy Eagle, one or two birds have been sighted there on several occasions this year and may be nesting somewhere within the park.

    As you mention, there have also been sightings of Harpy Eagle in the Osa and Amistad National Park so trips there also have the remote chance of seeing one of these huge birds of prey. It’s possible but the chances are pretty slim because Harpy Eagles are very difficult to see even in areas with larger populations of these birds. As an example, when I worked and lived in Tambopata, Peru for about a year (a prime area for Harpy Eagle), I identified them on just 3 occasions. Even with several guides out in the forest on a daily basis, I think Harpy was sighted in the area maybe once a month at most. The problem with seeing Harpy Eagles away from a nest is that they hunt by sort of sneaking through the canopy over a large area. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be seen just that it’s always tough to see one away from a nest. If a nest could be found and viewed in Costa Rica, then seeing a Harpy here would be pretty easy!

    That said, if you stay in places where Harpy have been sighted, since they need big, wild areas with lots of prey items, you will see lots of other amazing things even if you don’t manage to spot a Harpy. In the Osa, they have been seen at Luna Lodge, Bosque del Cabo, and Marenco but any lodge in forested areas of the Osa Peninsula could result in a Harpy sighting. Another spot is the Las Tablas area of La Amistad and I think they could turn up at Laguna del Lagarto and Maquenque in the northern part of the Caribbean lowlands (a Peruvian friend of mine saw one in that area 10 years ago which is pretty unfair because he had already seen several in Peru). I hope that helps!

  9. Hello.

    Im am looking information about owning raptors in costa rica. I met a certified breeder of USA not long ago and he is interested on bringing a peregrin falcon here. I offered to the research however the goverment has no info online. Can you please help me?

    Best regards

    Josef Krogulec.

  10. @Josef- Sorry, I don’t know anything about that for Costa Rica. I doubt that falconry is allowed.

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