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.
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls are much more common south of the Texas border.
Stripe-headed Sparrows are a handsome species that is easy to see when birdwatching in Costa Rica.
It was nice to get lots of looks at beautiful little Banded Wrens.
Plain-capped Starthroats were pretty common along that road.
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….
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.
Limpkin- a good year bird to get.
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
Elegant Trogon and
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.