Before my first trip to Costa Rica, I prepared for it like a commando on an all important mission. There was a scheduled departure date printed on my plane ticket (no e-tickets back in 1992) and the destination was San Jose, Costa Rica. This meant that I had a near certain date with a baptism into neotropical birding and I of course wanted to see everything. I realized that I wouldn’t see vagrants or rare species but should see most of the birds on lists for sites to be visited. After all, how hard could it be? Spend enough time in the right habitat and the birds will be there. I was an experienced birder so even though I didn’t know the vocalizations, I should still be able to track singing birds down and tick them off the list with a definite check of the pencil (or pen).
I wasn’t able to put a tick next to the name of White-whiskered Puffbird after my first trip.
Identification and knowing where to find them wouldn’t be too much of an issue because as a big part of my training regimen, I studied the field guide. No, it was more like memorizing sections of the field guide. I ignored the text about nesting but soaked up key information about habitat and behavior. Status indicated how likely it was to see each bird and after collating that with sites to be visited, I figured that I would see 400 plus species.
The only problem was that I had based my assumptions on the only birding I knew (that of the temperate zone) and therein lay my fundamental error. I had no idea how different the birding would be even though I didn’t have any experience with many a tropical avian family. Although I saw over 300 species in 3 weeks using only public transportation, I was intrigued by why I saw so few antbirds, missed so many supposedly common species (according to the book), and why rainforest birding could be so…birdless. If you have already birded the neotropics, then you are probably aware of how it differs from birding in habitats much closer to home. If you have yet to bird Costa Rica or any other tropical habitat, the following are just a few of the ways that birding in Costa Rica differs from watching birds in places like Illinois, New York, France, or California:
- Rainforests can be birdless: Well, they actually aren’t at all but it can seem that way when you are walking around some place with a list that claims 300 plus species and you have seen just two of them! How can this be? Is it some practical joke? A conspiracy put forth by ornithologists and conservationists hell bent on scamming the public? Although some commentators who thrive on manipulation of negative emotions would have you believe that scientists do this on a regular basis, let’s ignore that nonsense and look at the situation from a more realistic perspective. Basically, rainforests may seem birdless because our avian friends are hiding from predators, occupy large territories, may be moving around to find scarce resources, and are naturally rare. Put those factors together and it can seem like there are no birds..until you suddenly see dozens.
Love the evergreen vista of moss and plants, now where are the birds!?
- Mixed flocks: Small birds also flock together in the north but the phenomenon isn’t nearly as complex as mixed flock behavior in tropical regions, Costa Rica included. In most forested sites, a lot of small bird species stick together to increase the chance that one of them will spot any of the myriads of predators that lurk in the shadows. You might not see much for an hour or two until you are suddenly inundated with birds that flit, creep, and rush through the vegetation. Just as you get a few looks at birds in the avian stampede making its way through the trees, they have flown off in the wrong direction and you are left once more with an empty forest and confused feelings of abandonment.
Learn the vocalization of the White-throated Shrike-Tanager to locate this striking species and the fantastic mixed flocks it associates with.
- Neotropical nomads: While the majority of forest species in Costa Rica seem to stick to set territories, various parrots, manakins, cotingas, and other frugivores migrate up and down the mountains in search of food. Although those movements vary by species and time of year, in general, they tend to move into lower elevation forests at the end of the wet season and much of the dry season. Hummingbirds also make their own mysterious movements in search of flowering plants.
One day, Brown Violet-ears were common at El Tapir. They were absent a month later.
- Army ants, fruiting trees, and bamboo: Birds in Costa Rica use a larger variety of habitats and several specialize on just one or two sources of food. This makes those birds harder to find unless you come across their preferred food source or (in the case of army ants) foraging strategy.
Peg-billed Finches were common on Poas and Barva in patches of seeding bamboo. Once the bamboo was done, they were nowhere to be found.
- Many raptor species, few raptors: Don’t expect to see hawks perched on roadside posts or soaring above your hotel. It can happen but since most are naturally rare and adapted to forest, seeing just one or two of several species is the norm even when birding heavily forested sites.
Like many raptor species in Costa Rica, the White Hawk is uncommon but regular in rainforest.
- Parakeets and motmots in the backyard: However, not all is fraught with difficulty. Stunning, tropical species like Blue-crowned Motmot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet are common garden birds in the Central Valley and a variety of beautiful tanagers, hummingbirds, toucans and other tropical avian delights also show up in hotel gardens near rainforest sites.
Blue-crowned Motmots are one of the more stunning garden species in the country.
- Some cool wintering species: The north also has lots of cool wintering species (and especially this year!) but Costa Rica has a nice mix that includes Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Painted Bunting, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Summer Tanager, and much more.
Wintering Broad-winged Hawks are the most commonly seen raptor species in Costa Rica.
To sum things up, don’t expect birding to be anything like that of the temperate zone and don’t expect to see all of your target species on a short trip. However, spend enough time in the field and you can expect to see a good variety of birds as well as some rarities. As with just about anywhere, expect to see the most if you hire an experienced guide, especially if that person is good with vocalizations.