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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What Woodpeckers are You Going to See When Birding Costa Rica?

Woodpeckers are one of those bird families that are so cool and distinctive that they are even immediately recognized by most non-birders. Thanks to Woody Woodpecker and the unforgettable antics of birds that thrive on “head-banging”, someone who has no idea what a chickadee or flycatcher is can still correctly identify a woodpecker when they see one. They won’t know if it’ a Downy, Hairy, Greater Spotted, or Lineated (if they live in the neotropics) but they still get credit for recognizing a bird at the family level.

In common with most of the American tropics, Costa Rica has a wealth of woodpeckers. The diversity for this chiseling, strange, long-tongued bunch gets even higher in the Amazon and forested habitats of southern Asia but with 16 species to choose from in a place the size of West Virginia, I’m not complaining! Here is a rundown of this fine family of birds that includes information on where and how to see them when birdwatching in Costa Rica:

Olivaceous Piculet: The piculets are a strange group of mini-woodpeckers that will remind you of titmice or maybe nuthatches. Most species reside in South America although a few are found in Asia and one occurs in Africa. In Costa Rica, just one species occurs and as with most of these miniscule woodpeckers, it’s easy to overlook. It’s sometimes seen along the river trail at Carara but is much more regularly sighted further south. Forest edge, gardens, and viney second growth in places such as the Golfo Dulce area, Hacienda Baru, and the Valle del General are all good sites to see the Olivaceous Piculet in Costa Rica. You might also see it around Cano Negro and I have run into it on more than one occasion in guava orchards near Arenal.

No pics for this minute bird.

Acorn Woodpecker: This clown of the high elevations is fairly common and easy to see wherever oak trees are found. Although it lives on Poas and Barva, it doesn’t seem to be as common at those sites compared to Irazu Volcano and the Talamancas.

birding in Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker: This is a true beauty of a bird that evolved in the humid forests of southwestern Costa Rica and western Panama. You can’t see it anywhere else and it’s not as common as the related Black-cheeked Woodpecker is on the Caribbean slope. Although it does occur at Carara National Park, seeing it there during a day of birding is by no means guaranteed. I usually hear it inside the forest but don’t see it too often. However, it becomes more common in rainforest further south. It’s pretty easy to see at sites like Hacienda Baru, the Osa, and other areas with humid forest from about Jaco to Golfito.

birding Costa Ricabirding Costa Rica

Black-cheeked Woodpecker: Most woodpeckers are bold, handsome birds and this species is no exception.  It hides a red belly and yellow front, but the red crown, black cheeks, and white stripes on a black back are easier to see. Happily, this fun bird is also common and easy to see in humid forest and edge in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. This is one that will be hard to miss when taking a birding trip to Costa Rica.

birding Costa Rica

Red-crowned Woodpecker: A common edge species in Panama and northern South America, it’s also easy to see on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Although it hybridizes with the next species around Carara and Jaco, what appear to be pure Red-crowns are easily seen from Manuel Antonio National Park and points further south. Watch for it in gardens and other non-forest habitats.

birding Costa Rica

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker: This nice looking woodpecker is only found from southern Honduras to northern Costa Rica. It’s common in any dry forest habitat from the border of Nicaragua south to Carara National Park and the Central Valley. They have also been showing up in deforested parts of northern Costa Rica on the Caribbean slope. This is the de-facto woodpecker species in the Central Valley and if staying in hotels in the San Jose area, you will probably see a few right in the garden.

birding Costa Ricabirding Costa Rica

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Yes, this woodpecker makes its way south to Costa Rica for the winter. Not too many make the trip but you may come across one or two when birding in Costa Rica. They can show up just about anywhere although seem to be encountered more often in foothill and highland areas.

birding Costa Rica

Hairy Woodpecker: It might be the same species as Hairy Woodpeckers from the north, but it sure looks different! The birds in Costa Rica are similar to Hairy Woodpeckers from the Pacific northwest in having duller, browner plumage. They also seem smaller than birds from the north. A commonly encountered species in high-elevation forests.

birding Costa Rica

Red-rumped Woodpecker: This is by far the toughest woodpecker to see in Costa Rica. You can go to known sites for them and still miss this species (at least that has been my experience!). They are much more common in western Ecuador and Colombia so count on seeing Red-rumped Woodpeckers there. If you need to see one in Costa Rica, try looking in edge habitats and mangroves around the Golfo Dulce. It’s supposed to also occur in the mangroves near Carara but I haven’t seen nor heard it there.

Sorry, no pics of this one!

Smoky-brown Woodpecker: This one can get overlooked although it’s a fairly common bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. It prefers edge habitats and second growth over primary forest and once you learn its vocalizations, you at least hear it on most birding trips within its range. It’s also frequently seen and sometimes joins mixed flocks. Birding at most Caribbean slope sites can turn up this species.

birding Costa Rica

A rather Gargoylish image of a Smoky Brown Woodpecker!

Rufous-winged Woodpecker: This is always a nice bird to see and Costa Rica is a great place for it. Rufous-winged Woodpeckers are fairly common in both primary and secondary forests on the Caribbean slope. They sometimes join mixed flocks but tend to stay in the canopy. They often reveal their presence with their loud, jay-like calls and are seen on most trips to the Caribbean lowlands and foothills.

birding Costa Rica

Not the best image of a Rufous-winged but at least one of its staring bluish eyes is visible.

G0lden-Olive Woodpecker: This widespread highland species is fairly common in Costa Rica although it seems like it occurs at low densities. It can turn up in edge and forested habitats at any middle elevation site although it might be a bit easier around Monteverde.

birding Costa Rica

Cinnamon Woodpecker: This and the following species are members of the Celeus genus, a fact that makes them exceptionally cool because you won’t see anything like these rufousy, fruit eating woodpeckers up north! The Cinnamon Woodpecker is fairly common in humid forest on the Caribbean slope (lowlands and foothills) but its love for the densely vegetated canopy presents challenges to seeing it. However, patience and knowing its vocalizations usually result in sightings of this beautiful species when birdwatching where it occurs. La Selva, Quebrada Gonzalez, and most forested sites in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills are good for this bird.

No photos for this one either!

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker: This striking woodpecker is uncommon in Costa Rica but you still have a fair chance seeing it when birding in the Caribbean lowlands. It turns up in both primary forest and edge habitats at places like La Selva, Tortuguero, and most Caribbean lowland sites.

birding Costa Rica

Lineated Woodpecker: Common and widespread, the Lineated is one of the easier woodpeckers to see in Costa Rica. Birding in edge habitats and gardens at lowland and middle elevation sites usually turns up one or two Lineated Woodpeckers. Their laughing song is reminiscent of the Pileated’s (their northern cousin) and is often heard in hotel gardens.

birding Costa Rica

Pale-billed Woodpecker: This is the biggest woodpecker species in Costa Rica and is placed in the Ivorybill genus (Campephilus). Like other members of this celebrated genus (at least in ornithological circles), it gives a distinctive double knock. In Costa Rica, it shows up in forested sites in the lowlands of both slopes. It’s not super common but should turn up during a two week birding trip to Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Good Birding in Costa Rica near Playa Hermosa

Playa Hermosa is a beach in the northwestern part of Costa Rica. There may be other places called “lovely beach” in the country but this is the official one. The beach is decent but, for birding, you should really head inland. I went up that way this past weekend for a short family vacation with friends and was more than pleased with the birding. Even accounting for the extra enthusiasm associated with birding a habitat that I don’t get to that often, it was still pretty darn good.

Although Playa Hermosa itself has some alright birding in woodlands near the beach, the area I focused on was the road between Playa Panama and the turn-off to Golfo Papagayo (if you are driving, this will make sense). Maybe 10 or 12 kilometers in length, that stretch of road is so good because there are just one or two houses at most and agriculture is limited to rice fields that provide habitat for birds! As with any place in hot Guanacaste, you have to get out there and bird from 5:30 to 8:00 in the morning to really catch the avian action, find a shady or air-conditioned place until 3 pm, and then head back out into the nearby wilds. This birding rubric was perfect for a family that likes to sleep in on weekends and even though I skipped out on the afternoon birding, I still got more than what I was looking for.

On the first morning, I headed out onto the road and stopped at riparian woodlands near the coast. White-throated Magpie Jays were calling, Clay-colored Robins were singing, and other common birds joined in with the dawn chorus. Not hearing anything uncommon, I drove up into the coastal hills and stopped in a scrubby area to record a group of Yellow-naped Parrots that were flying past. Blue Grosbeaks and Stripe-headed Sparrows sang from the grassy areas and I heard my first Thicket Tinamou of the day and year.

As I continued on, I picked up Brown-crested, Piratic, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers by voice and stopped off in a nice looking area of dry forest and riparian habitat about 7 kilometers from Playa Hermosa. This was the hotspot for the morning and I picked up just about every expected bird without even walking from the car. There was so much birdsong that recording individual species became a challenge. It reminded me of other mornings surveying birds in the pine forests of the Rocky Mountains or doing May point counts in the deciduous forests of northern New York where the quantity of birdsong makes you feel like you have walked into a little piece of Heaven.

The following species are in this recording of the dawn chorus from this site: Thicket Tinamou, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Elegant Trogon, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Banded Wren, Hoffmann’s Woodepcker, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon, Inca Dove, Rufous-naped Wren, and Blue-crowned Motmot. It sounds like there might also be an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper near the beginning of the recording but it’s too far away for me to say for sure.

As Thicket Tinamous sang from the woods and Elegant Trogons called from the hillsides, a Streak-backed Oriole alighted in the top of a tree for my first photo opp. of the day.

Streak-backed Orioles are much more common that Spot-breasteds in Costa Rica.

A Pygmy-Owl imitation brought in one of the small owls and a host of small birds that mobbed it.

birding Costa Rica

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are much more common south of the Texas border.

birding Costa Rica

Stripe-headed Sparrows are a handsome species that is easy to see when birdwatching in Costa Rica.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

It was nice to get lots of looks at beautiful little Banded Wrens.


Plain-capped Starthroats were pretty common along that road.

birding Costa Rica

I found several Brown-crested Flycatchers but no Nutting’s.

I also got my year Canivet’s Emerald but failed to get a good picture! Other species that came in to the owl were Yellow-Green Vireos, Lesser Greenlets, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, Blue Grosbeaks, Rufous-naped Wrens, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler, Scrub Euphonia, and Great Kiskadee. Away from the owl, Turquoise-browed Motmots were visible while a Blue-crowned called from the dry stream bed, a Plain Chachalaca made a sudden appearance (good bird in Costa Rica!), Squirrel Cuckoo appeared, an Olive Sparrow sang a few times, and both Black-headed and Gartered Trogons called and revealed themselves. Overhead, Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets flew past along with a handful of White-fronted Parrots.

As the song died down around 7:30, I drove 2 kilometers further to a flat area used for cultivating rice. Just as I had hoped, part of the field had been flooded and yielded a new country bird in the form of Pectoral Sandpiper (!). I also heard a few Leasts and a large white spot in the back of the field turned out to be a….

birding Costa Rica

Jabiru!

Another country bird for me and an excellent find! I have heard of them showing up near this area in the past so knew it was a possibility but with 60 or in all of Costa Rica (I think), seeing one is an accomplishment. Oddly enough, there weren’t any other storks around and the only herons with it were Great Egrets and Cattle Egrets. After pulling off the road to check a vegetated ditch, I got a Limpkin and Bare-throated Tiger Heron as they flew into the nearby field.

birding Costa Rica

Limpkin- a good year bird to get.

birding Costa Rica

Bare-throated Tiger Herons are the easiest of the three tiger heron species in Costa Rica.

Although that field could probably turn up rails and Masked Duck, I didn’t get so lucky when I was there. On the dove front, however, I saw three Plain-breasted Ground-Doves compared to one Common and two Ruddys so the rice fields could be a good spot for that uncommon species. Heading back up the road towards Playa Hermosa, I made one more stop along the way where the it passes by nice forest on its western side and got pictures of

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Elegant Trogon and

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Streak-backed Oriole in its nest.

I also heard Long-tailed Manakins and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo there and the forest is probably good for other species.

The following day, I checked the hotspot once again and added Laughing Falcon, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Northern Beardless Tyrannulet to the list. The rice fields had more water and both yellowlegs instead of the pecs as well as 5 species of swallows. The Jabiru was in the same spot and a pair of Southern Lapwings called from the fields. I was also hoping to bird the catfish farms but the ponds appeared to be dry and it didn’t look like any birds were present so I didn’t spend any time there.

The road between Playa Hermosa and the turn off to Golfo Papagayo is a bit too far to walk but it would be an excellent place to bird from a bicycle. There is very little traffic and there are several places where you can pull off the road and park the car. Although the area is pretty quiet and has low population pressure (hence habitat for birds), as with any roadside birding in Costa Rica, I wouldn’t walk far from the car to avoid possible break-ins. To get to this road from Liberia, just take the main road past the airport and turn right where signs indicate “Golfo de Papagayo”. They might also say, “Playa Panama” but I don’t think they mention “Playa Hermosa”. Follow that road and then take a left towards Playa Panama. You should see the rice fields shortly after. There is also some nice habitat at that intersection that probably holds some good Guanacaste birds.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

A Rundown of a Big Day in Costa Rica (or Getting and Missing Birds part Dos)

Last weekend came and went like a flash. Not this past weekend but the weekend before. Although I did see a bunch of high-flying Chestnut-collared Swifts foraging above the house with a light phase Short-tailed Hawk taking to the thermals beneath them, that was a muuuuch more relaxed experience than the last Saturday of March and the first Sunday of April. You see, the Big Day actually commenced on that Saturday and started several hours before it officially started. Before you feel like quoting Arnold Drummond by saying, “What you talking about Willis?!” (RIP Garry Coleman), allow me to explain.

If you want to get serious about doing a Big Day and break some birding record, you have to get crazy with the planning and preparations. I had already planned everything out at least a week prior to the Big Day but still needed to get busy with the preparations. This meant buying supplies for the day such as a large bottle of  Coca Cola (caffeine and sugar are a Big Day birders best friend), snacks galore, and making a pizza. Yes, that’s right, making a pizza and since I make the dough, that tacks on 2 hours to the equation. Homemade Pizza is my lembas (if you read Tolkien, you know what I mean) and is therefore an essential for a long day of birding. Call me a pizza snob if you will but I forgo ordering it in Costa Rica because I grew up with pizza from western New York. That’s the way I like it so that’s pretty much the way I make it. Nor do I just bake any old pizza for a Big Day. It has to be a bready, focaccia-like pizza to stand up to the rigors of the days and retain its flavor. Perhaps even more important, this way, it’s also easy to just grab and eat cold.

So, due to having to drop my daughter off for a birthday party in another town, I made the dough in the morning, baked the pizza in the afternoon, and rushed off to San Ramon to pick up team mate Juan Diego Vargas but before then, I packed the other essentials into my pack: binoculars, scope, charged camera, charged digital recorder and microphone, insect repellent, sunblock, gatorade drinks, and water. The route and bird lists were printed. I couldn’t think of any other vocalizations to brush up on. I was ready to hear a Black-billed Cuckoo chuckle from the night sky and tick it off. In other words, I was ready to rock and roll.

After coming back with Juan Diego and talking about the recent rare sighting of American Bittern in inaccessible wetlands near the Nicaraguan border, we met up with Susan Blank at my house. Susan and her husband own a couple of golf shops and set up golf tours in Costa Rica and elsewhere and they excel at that but what Susan is perhaps even better at is driving the twisty roads of Costa Rica. Growing up in the countryside of southern Pennsylvania has also given her excellent bird-spotting abilities and these would be put to the test on Sunday.

After saying goodbye to my wife and eating a few slices of good luck pizza, off we went around the block to start out Big Day at 7:15 pm.  A Common Pauraque quickly became our first species but the Tropical Screech Owls refused to play and the star-lit skies were bereft of migrants so we moved on to higher elevations. At our third stop, the air was still and that helped convince a Mottled Owl to respond to an imitation of its barking “song”. It responded with a lackluster, low key “hoot” but we caught the sound so ticked off it went for bird number two (don’t worry, I won’t do this for the other 259 species).

Further nighttime stops were a bust and we were surprised because Bare-shanked Screech Owls and Dusky Nightjars are usually pretty good at responding. Whether it was due to the time of the year or just bad luck, we didn’t get any other owls at night.

We got to El Gavilan, our spot for the night, around 9 pm and had this wonderful Caribbean lowland birding site all to ourselves. Short-tailed Nighthawk made it onto the list, we listened for a bit longer, and then hit the sack. Thanks to Rodolfo, the night watchman, we had coffee at 4:30 am shortly after waking up and got caffeinated while listening to the night sky. No migrants, no Spectacled Owl, no Green Ibis and it was time to move on. Night birding was not being productive! We drove the two kilometers to the edge of the La Selva property and listened for more owls as the multitude of Clay-colored Robins filled the air with their dawn songs. A Central American Pygmy -Owl made it onto the list (success!) but no other Strigiformes vocalized.

The very birdy yard at El Gavilan. We didn’t have time to hit this spot during the morning birding rush even though it makes for easy, excellent Caribbean lowland birding.

As the sky began to lighten, we rushed over to the E Tigre fields for dawn. I picked this spot as a pre-dawn stop in the hopes of getting rare marsh birds, Green Ibis, hearing migrants, and maybe picking up an owl or two. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad choice because none of the above complied. Nevertheless, dawn came fast and furious as it always does in the tropics and this was when the true Big Day craziness commenced.

When everything starts to sing at the same time, you hardly know where to begin. You just have to put yourself into a Zen-like mindset and do one song at a time. If you know your vocalizations well, you can just call off birds as soon as they start and this is the real way to do it as it helps with the one true bane of Big Days- time. The faster you can call the birds, the more likely you will get more so the next twenty minutes went something like this:

“Great Antshrike! Got it?”

“Yes”

“No…wait….yes!”

“Lineated Woodpecker”

“Laughing Falcon”

” I got a pair of kites in the distance”

“Giant Cowbird over the horizon!”

“Got it”

“Did you get the Laughing Falcon?”

“Yes, did you get the Streak-headed Woodcreeper?”

“Yes, keep looking for the Nicaraguan Seed Finch!”

Kiskadees were sounding off, the Clay-coloreds were trying to drown out other, more important species, and flock after flock of Bronzed Cowbirds made us realize just how darn common those sneaky Icterids were. It was a good thing we checked the cowbirds though because one trio of blackbirds turned out to be a group of  Shinys and we picked up a deep chested, undulating Giant. It bordered on chaos and it didn’t help that the rails refused to call but we at least got one White-throated Crake and found our Nicaraguan Seed-Finch so we departed from the break of dawn site feeling hopeful about the day.

It was a quick five minute drive over to the edge of the La Selva property where we hoped to pick up a wealth of other “dawn birds”. We needed stuff like motmots, tinamous, wrens, and as many birds to sing as possible. Although we couldn’t count on a host of understory species that have become rare at or have disappeared from La Selva, I figured that it would still be productive enough for a 15 minute stop. As is promised by the early hour, the avian action was fast and furious and we got both tityras,  two Motmots, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, White-ringed Flycatcher (our only spot for that one!), and Cinnamon Woodpecker among others. The Fasciated Antshrikes and Long-tailed Tyrants that are usually recorded there were no shows though and the tyrant ended up being one of the big misses on our Big Day.

A Long-tailed Tyrant from another day.

I got this Fasciated Antshrike a week after the count at the exact same spot where we tried for it in vain.

Next on the list of morning sites was a quick stop at the Chilamate bridge followed by a jaunt over a rocky road to a good patch of forest that was bound to yield some nice additions. The bridge was checked for kingfishers, tiger-herons, and Sunbittern but the only things we ended up pulling out of there were a Black Phoebe and Spotted Sandpiper. Oh well, it was on to the patch of forest as we listened and looked in vain for flyby Great Green Macaw and Long-tailed Tyrants. Our first Northern Jacana was sighted by a stream and we picked up birds shortly after arriving at the forest. Although Black-striped Woodcreeper and Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant were absent, we got both White-whiskered and White-necked Puffbirds, a Black-throated Trogon that came in close to stare at us, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Green Honeycreeper, Rufous Mourner, Chestnut-backed Antbird, and a few other species in just 15 minutes. In retrospect, we probably should have started the Big Day at that spot but the clock was ticking and there was no time for regrets so we drove off to Tirimbina Rainforest for a last chance at Caribbean lowland rainforest birds.

By the time we got to Tirimbina, the height of the morning action was slowing down and according to schedule, we should have already hit the road for Virgen del Socorro. With so many birds till possible though, we decided to put in an hour at Tirimbina. The walk in gave us Short-tailed Hawk, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Wood Thrush and Swainson’s Thrushes that were feeding on fruiting shrubs. After paying a resident-discounted entrance fee, we headed out over the metal bridge that crosses the Sarapiqui, stopping in the middle to look for birds. It was getting pretty quiet but the trails through the excellent rainforests atTirimbina were bound to give us some birds. Given that we were there during the mid-morning lull, we did pretty darn good. Western Slaty Antshrike found its way into the list along with Red-capped Manakin, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and two of our best birds for the day; Black Hawk Eagle and Ornate Hawk Eagle. As hawk eagles tend to do, both started calling from high in the sky and thus earned treasured spots on our list.


Birding from a canopy bridge at Tirimbina.

Western Slaty Antshrike from Tirimbina. This place might even be a better choice than La Selva for birding the Caribbean lowlands.

Our hoped for mixed flock never appeared and it was time to go so we jumped back into the car and traded the lowlands for the middle elevation forests of Virgen del Socorro. We got there by about 11:30 after a quick stop at a nearly birdless lagoon that nevertheless gave up Slaty Spinetail and both yellowthroats. Despite a windstorm of spishing, the White-collared Seedeaters refused to show like they did on days before and after the count. A similar thing happened with White Hawk at Virgen del Socorro but we at least picked up a bunch of other birds. Barred Hawk called as it soared above the canyon. Standard species like Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, Stripe-breasted Wren, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren,and Tufted Flycatcher quickly made their way into the list as did goodies like Nightingale Wren, Green Thorntail, Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush, Plain Xenops, and Smoky-brown Woodpecker.

The good forests on the other side  of the river also treated us well with Brown Violetear, several tanagers (including beauties like Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Emerald), Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Overall, a pretty productive stop of an hour or so. Despite no White Hawk, we left Virgen del Socorro, made a quick stop at Cinchona to pick up Coppery-headed Emerald and miss White-bellied Mountain Gem before continuing uphill. On the way, Sooty-faced Finch called, we got the promised Torrent Tyrannulet at the La Paz waterfall, and a quick stop turned up a Golden-olive Woodpecker. As we neared the top of the road at Varablanca, rain was pouring down and thus things did not bode well for highland species around there and at Poas.

There’s a Torrent Tyrannulet somewhere near that waterfall.

The rain only became worse when we stopped at the Volcan Restaurant. After ticking Volcano Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem from inside the car, we bravely stepped out into the rain to check the riparian zone there that can be great for a number of species. After a minute of soaking rain and no birds, we got back into the car and wondered if we should just write off Poas altogether. Hoping to get above the rain and knowing that most birds higher up would be new and impossible elsewhere, we drove up to the entrance of the national park. Unfortunately, the rainclouds were higher than that and the water kept on falling so we weren’t going to get as many species as we probably would have on Poas. We still got some good ones though and these included species like Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Barred Parakeet.

We just as quickly drove back downslope hoping that the rain was restricted to the highlands. As we headed through the coffee plantations, rain kept us from hearing things like Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush or Rufous-capped Warbler but it luckily stopped before reaching Alajuela. From there, we made our way to the highway that heads to the coast and were happy to see sunny conditions on the drive down. By this time though, four o’clock was fast approaching , we were an hour and a half behind schedule, and we were confronted with a painful decision. Time dictated that we had to choose between either going for more rainforest species and Carara specialties on the Bijagual road, or looking for dry forest birds and waterbirds in the estuary and mangroves at Guacalillo. We opted for the Bijagual road along with a quick visit to a dry forest spot and pretty much wrote off everything from Anhinga to Common Black Hawk and herons unless we could get lucky with aquatic species hanging out at the crocodile bridge.

As we raced to the Guacimo Road (our dry forest spot), road birding was good with a Turquoise-browed Motmot perched on a wire, calling Stripe-headed Sparrows, and a few others for the list. On the Guacimo Road, the usual Common Ground and Inca Doves were absent but we did good with Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Plain-capped Starthroat, Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, and a few other much needed species. No magpie jay and we still needed Brown Jay (!) but it was time to finish up the daylight at the Bijagual Road.

White-lored Gnatcatchers are good about coming in to pygmy owl calls.

That road passes next to the boundary of Carara National Park and is typically great birding in the late afternoon. Fortunately for us, the place worked like a charm and yielded almost every expected species like clockwork! Pygmy-owl whistling called in a Painted Bunting, Greenish Elaenia, and a few other species but we got most by their calls. One after another, we ticked off Northern Bentbill, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous and White, Rufous-breasted, Rufous-naped, and Scaly-breasted Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, Scarlet Macaw, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dusky Antbird, Gray-headed Tanager, Little Tinamou, Long-billed Gnatwren, Long-tailed Manakin, Orange-collared Manakin, and at least a few more to finish off the day including our much expected Brown Jay. It was birding at its best and probably our luckiest stop for the day.

As dusk approached, we made one last stop at the crocodile bridge to hope for waterbirds but other than picking up Lesser Nighthawk and Black-necked Stilt, that last stop was a bust. As night fell, we decided to make another last ditch effort for a few more birds (as is tradition on a Big Day) and drove past the village of Tarcoles to look for things like Boat-billed Heron and owls. Although the boat-billeds had already flown the coupe, we spotlighted a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron for our final and 26oth species of the day. No owls were calling, the place felt like a furnace, exhaustion was creeping in, and it was time to go home.

The drive back up to the Central Valley was a quick one and our Big Day had come to its end. Rain, few migrants, and going off schedule had conspired to keep us from breaking any records but it was still one heck of a fantastic day for birding in Costa Rica that spanned habitats ranging from lowland rainforests on both slopes to dry forest, middle elevation cloud forests, temperate zone rain forests, fields, and coffee plantations. It’s hard to say what our best or most unexpected bird was but it might be a toss up between Barred Parakeet and Ornate Hawk-Eagle.  Biggest misses were too many waterbirds, Inca Dove (a common, easy to see species), the aforementioned tyrant, Great Tinamou (vocal and usually recorded), Barred Antshrike (almost always recorded!), and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

I now have a better strategy though and can’t wait until March 2013 for the record-breaking Big Day.

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Introduction

Getting and Missing Birds during a Big Day in Costa Rica

As every birder knows, a “Big Day” doesn’t refer to some sort of sales scheme, the Super Bowl, or the day when an expectant mother gives birth. Depending on who you talk to, yes, those dates are certainly auspicious BUT when it comes to birding, there is only one “Big Day”. This is a 24 hour period when a small team of diehard (or perhaps obsessive-cumpulsive) birders take to the field and attempt to identify as many species as they can. The usual goal is to break the standing Big Day record for a given region. Said region can be anything from your own backyard to the entire world. Since humans are extremely far from developing any sort of teleportation device, you can’t really do a Big Day that encompasses the “entire world”. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that there is a world record for a Big Day. It stands at 331 species that were recorded by Ted Parker and Scott Robinson in Manu National Park, Peru.

Birders in Costa Rica can’t really hope to get more than 331 species in one lowland rainforest but the large number of distinct habitats that can be accessed in one fell day certainly makes the record an attainable one. If I’m not mistaken, the second biggest of Big Days actually took place in Costa Rica and resulted in 304 species (!). I’m not sure which route was taken by Jim Zook and Jay Vendergast but it probably included the mix of habitats around Carara National Park and the wonderful diversity around La Selva. This past Sunday, Susan Blank, Juan Diego Vargas, and yours truly followed a similar route in an attempt to at least break the Costa Rican record.

During spare time over the past couple of months, I slowly formulated a plan that took into account different routes, sites, and various factors (such as dawn chorus and traffic avoidance) that would maximize our chances of getting the highest possible number of bird species. I constructed bird lists and amount of time to be spent at each site, thought about expected species and those that could easily escape detection. I listened to obscure calls of nocturnal migrants in the hopes of hearing and identifying the birds that make faint burry notes, odd chuckles, and weird rattles that descend from a night sky. Once I came up with that plan and was sure of the possibilities, I realized that we actually had a chance at getting the world record (!) but that there were also factors beyond our control that could hold us back like a teflon, super-glue barricade. These factors were:

1. Dawn chorus: There are so many darn bird species in tropical habitats that their natural rarity makes seeing all 400 species recorded at a site in one day an impossibility. There’s only so much time for each bird and you can’t be everywhere at once so you can’t see everything even during a week of solid birding. However, sound waves are much easier to perceive than a bird hiding in some dense rainforest. This means that you have to identify as much as possible by sound during the first hour after dawn (when the birds are singing) because your chances at seeing many of those same species later in the day falls like the water at Niagara ( I should know as I hail from the cataract city). We actually had a lot more control over this factor than other considerations but we still depended on the birds to vocalize and make themselves known.

2. Migrants- I chose Sunday, April first, to do the Big Day to increase our chances of getting a dozen or so species that are passing through Costa Rica on their way north. By definition, migrants come and go so this was a real crapshoot. Nevertheless, migration is happening in Costa Rica so Sunday seemed like a good day to go for gold.

3. Waterbirds: Despite hundreds of species occurring in the forested habitats of Costa Rica, making time for a site that holds shorebirds, egrets, herons, and the like is essential. If such birds are present, you can easily add 30 species to your total and at least 10 other common species associated with wetlands (like Osprey and Anhinga) will also be found.

4. Weather:  It can’t rain at dawn or you lose a huge chunk of birds. In fact, it can’t rain anywhere except the waterbird site or you lose a chunk of birds. This can be a major point of contention when doing a Big Day in rain-soaked Costa Rica and is why you have to do the Big Day during the dry season.

5. Traffic: What? Traffic in Costa Rica?! Unfortunately, yes and it can devour time like the Cookie Monster let loose in a “Chips Ahoy” factory.

6. The birds of course: Who says those tinamous are going to sing? How do you know if the White Hawks are going to be flying right in front of your face like they did the previous week? The large territories held by any tropical bird species means that you simply don’t know if they are going to be in the same spot as the day before. In fact, many times, they aren’t and this is what makes tropical birding so unpredictable. All you can do is increase your chances of identifying the birds by putting yourself in the right habitat at the right time, knowing how to look for them, and being extremely attentive to every chirp, whistle, and rattle that issues from the underbrush.

To cut to the chase, although traffic worked out wonderfully in our favor, we fell far short of either record by not having enough time to check for waterbirds, being confronted with pouring rain at our high elevation site on Poas Volcano, and getting almost no migrants. I figure that eliminated at least 50 bird species but since we ended up with 260 for the day, that means that the Costa Rica Big day record was certainly attainable. If those factors had been in our favor along with a better site for the dawn chorus, I figure that close to 80 more species is also a definite possibility. That would get the world record so I’m sorely tempted to try another Big Day next week. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure my wife would protest, so I’ll be happy to stick with a morning or two of more relaxed birding.

What birds did we get? Which birds did we amazingly miss? Stay tuned for part two...