In the birding world, a bird denoted as being “rare” can earn that categorization in a number of ways. For example, a Common Cuckoo is a pretty darn good rarity when seen in North America because it normally lives on the other side of two oceans. Go to its typical home range at the right time of the year and you probably have a fair chance of hearing its distinctive call and seeing one or two (needless to say, I would love to see one because any time I have been in their breeding range, they were already on their way to Africa).
If I had seen a cuckoo during November in Denmark, I would have seen another type of rarity, one that is simply out of season. In Costa Rica, such a species might be a Yellow Warbler in late June. At other times of the year, that super common bird would be a given in Costa Rica, but not when it is sweet singing from second growth and willow-edged rivers in upstate New York. Like the cuckoo situation in North America, common birds up north like Ring-billed Gulls would be a category 3 or 4 rarity here and the Hooded Merganser that appeared in 2012 would have been a straight up 5.
Nevertheless, those aren’t the birds that people come to Costa Rica to watch. Among the glittering bunch of hummingbirds, tanagers, and other avian delights, people on birding trips to Costa Rica hope to see such rarities as Slaty-backed Forest-falcon, Black and white Hawk Eagle, or Black-crowned Antpitta. They also wish they could glimpse even rarer species like Tawny-faced Quail, Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, and Harpy Eagle. While the first three species are tough enough to see, the latter trio of birds are probably ten times as difficult. In the case of the owl, it’s more a matter of looking for it at night in the cold, wet, high-elevation places where it occurs and then having one respond to a call. For the quail, you have to get lucky in areas of lowland forest in the northern part of the country that are big enough to host a population. Then there is the case of the Harpy Eagle. Like the quail, this monster raptor (and it really does look like a monster when seen at close range) needs areas of intact lowland forest with enough prey items to keep them healthy, happy, and raising successful baby Harpies. The only problem is that there might not be enough intact forest to support a healthy population.
The Harpy Eagle used to thrive in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific slopes but even then was surely tough to see because it doesn’t soar, occurs in in low density populations, and sneaks through the canopy like a massive, winged feline. If you take a satellite view of Costa Rica with Google Earth, zoom on down to the Caribbean lowlands. Sadly, what you see is a huge amount of deforestation and fragmentation. Such destruction was all too easy to accomplish because Costa Rica is a pretty small place. We aren’t talking about some massive area but a country the size of West Virginia with maybe half or more of it being mountainous. It was a story that has been retold many times over in many parts of the globe and it’s a simple one. As the population grew, people needed places to live, so they cut down forests because they didn’t know how to use the rainforest to survive. Nor did the government realize the importance of keeping such forests intact but they did know that if they were cut down, people could maybe raise cattle or grow something to make some kind of living. So went a lot of the forests and that’s mostly why the Harpy Eagle is almost gone in Costa Rica. It’s also why it is tough to find sites where various antbirds and other lowland species are fairly common. A lot of the rainforest birds in Costa Rica (and other places) just don’t do well with edge effects. they evolved to live in complex, shaded, magnificent rainforests where edge was limited to rivers and treefall gaps, not forlorn chunks of forest flanked or surrounded by pasture. Many of the forest species generally die out or become very rare because they aren’t living in the conditions in which their lineages had been evolving for a few several million years or more.
Ok, so now for the brighter note!
Not all of the Caribbean lowland forests in Costa Rica have been cut down, there are still sites where you might see most species that historically occurred, and those areas can also be found by using Google Earth. Basically, if you want to find the best sites for seeing rare birds and lots of birds overall, you have to find the places most similar to what the landscape looked like before 1950. That would be areas with as much forest cover as possible and Google Earth is a phenomenal help in this regard. For example, take a look at Tortuguero National Park on Google Earth and you can see that it’s a pretty good sized area of forest that is also connected (if rather narrowly) to large areas of forest to the north (especially the Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, one of the most important lowland forest areas in Central America). It’s no surprise that the most recent records of Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica have come from Tortuguero, it also happens to be the most regular site for Crested Eagle in the country, and harbors good populations of a variety of forest dependent species.
Use Google Earth to scan to the north and you can see a fair amount of forest near the Nicaraguan birder that is much less fragmented than other lowland sites. Since this area is also connected to those mother lode rainforests in Nicaragua, it’s another good place to try for lowland forest rarities and Harpy probably turns up (and goes unseen) once in a while. Two lodges up that way are Laguna del Lagarto and Maquenque Ecolodge.
If we scroll back down to the south, you will see three or four other main areas of lowland forest. The first is La Selva but sadly, various edge effects and lack of connection to other lowland forests have resulted in serious declines of many forest species. While most of the birds are still present, they are much rarer than they were 20 and 30 years ago, and the deep forest birds seem to be more regular in the back part of the reserve. Further south, the next biggest lowland block is Barbilla National Park. This would be a great area to explore and I know that nunbirds have been seen there (a sign of good lowland habitat), but due to a near absence of infrastructure, the park is really tough to access. Keep on heading south and east and you will notice that there appear to be lowland forests at the base of the mountains near Limon and then further south near Cahuita on down to the border. Since the forests at the base of the mountains aren’t as fragmented and have a fair amount of connection along a southeast to northwest trajectory, it’s no surprise that they harbor some of the best Caribbean lowland birding in the country. Places like Veragua, Hitoy Cerere, and the Gandoca reserve aren’t visited so often by birders but if you want to have a fair chance at rare Caribbean lowland birds, this is where the most extensive habitat is found. I haven’t been to Hitoy in a while but I have yet to experience Caribbean lowland rainforest birding of the same high quality caliber anywhere in the country (nunbirds and fruitcrows are common and move around in canopy flocks with other larger birds, Black-eared Wood Quail are fairly common, Great Jacamar is there, antwren flocks, Snowy Cotinga, and so on and so on).
On an even brighter note (and one that proudly hefts hope up on its shoulders), in addition to finding sites that might turn up the rarest of rainforest birds, Google Earth also helps us see where we can hopefully reforest to provide better corridors between existing forested sites. Who knows, maybe we can even restore La Selva back to its former full birding glory (if you thought it was good now, try imagining it being 5 times as good)!