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Little Known, Promising Sites for Birding in Costa Rica : The El Zota Research Station

Costa Rica is a small country and has been a popular birding destination since sometime in the 80s but it still holds a surprising number of little known, little birded sites. Given that we are talking about a place with political boundaries roughly equivalent to those of West Virginia, how can this be? Why don’t we know about the birding possibilities in every nook and cranny of this Central American nation? The answer to that can be summed up with three main reasons. In no particular order, they are:

  1. Access: Although the road situation has greatly improved in the last five years, before that time, a lot of the better hinterland birding sites were perhaps best accessed by mule or a Land Rover. Nowadays, it’s not much different for some areas and the uplifted, naturally broken young lands in this part of the world also present challenges to getting around and into various birding sites. I suppose I should also mention that most of the national parks have few trails and since they are treated more as wildlife preserves, most areas in national parks are actually off limits.
  2. Number of birders: There are birders who live in Costa Rica but we don’t have nearly as many birding people with time and resources to scout various parts of the country throughout the year. Oh, how I wish we did because then I would have more opportunities to twitch crazy vagrants and the like. That way, someone could find that Rufous-crested Coquette, a Swallow Tanager, and a Brown-chested Martin not too far from my home and I could just go on over and see them. On second thought, since I have so little free time to chase birds, I would probably be in a near constant state of frustration so never mind, don’t find those rarities without me!
  3. Tour routes: Logistics determine where tours go perhaps more so than the birds themselves and few tours leave the main birding circuits. That leaves little room for additional knowledge of other birding sites and likely explains why so many visiting birders choose the Hotel Bougainvillea as their place to stay near San Jose, and the Sarapiqui area for all of their Caribbean lowland birding rather than venturing further afield to such excellent lowland areas as Laguna del Lagarto and Maquenque, or the Puerto Viejo de Talamanca/Manazanillo area (although Sarapiqui is much closer, sorry but the birding at La Selva is truly not what it used to be).

I suppose another factor is habitat destruction in so many areas that are accessible. Don’t be fooled by the marketing put out by the tourism institute, a lot of forest in Costa Rica has been cut down and we really need to reforest in many areas to maintain the country’s biodiversity, especially in places that should host incredible lowland rainforest instead of hot cattle pastures and pineapples fields where anis and TKs play but not much else.

Looking for birds in deforested areas on the way to El Zota.

Despite that unfortunate bit of info, there is hope for both better knowledge of additional birding sites in Costa Rica and people who want to restore ecosystems and live in a sustainable fashion. Actually, everyone except maybe sociopaths would prefer to live sustainably if they could see how unsustainable land diminishes quality of life, especially for their descendents and other future people. But, in the meantime, we do have those who not only care but work hard to make a difference. El Zota Research Station is one of those very special places and I can’t recommend going there enough.

A small wetland at El Zota.

Situated just outside of Barro Colorado Wildlife Refuge (which means that it’s kind of more protected than other places even though people live there),  El Zota used to be a cattle farm. In the 1980s, this was pretty much common practice in lowland rainforest areas of Costa Rica. People didn’t know what else to do with the land so the forest was cut down, some of the wood was used, and the rest was turned into cattle pasture with some cultivations. The owner of El Zota started out like that but somewhere along the way, he decided that he would rather preserve most of his property than leave it to the cows. That decision has resulted in many hectares of former pasture being converted back into forest. In fact, I could hardly believe that one area I visited used to be pasture.

This forest used to be pasture.
We had these Honduran White Bats in that reforested area.

He also established trails through the habitats on his farm, has let many areas regenerate, and has a nice tract of primary rainforest. Oh, and he also keeps people from hunting on his property and tries to work with neighbors to hopefully convince them to regenerate forests and conserve biodiversity. The place is mostly used by student groups but birders are more than welcome and if you go there, get ready for some exciting birding, herping, and possible encounters with some choice wildlife. I base that statement on a short weekend trip to the place that I did withe the local birding club. As with any biodiverse place, one leaves feeling that he or she had barely scratched the surface. I feel that way when birding Laguna del LagartoLands in Love, or other excellent sites and El Zota was no exception. As my friend Robert Dean put it, “the place has lots of potential”. I couldn’t agree more, especially since Tapirs are fairly common there (we didn’t see one but saw lots of tracks), all cats are present including Jaguar (we found scat), and the station features habitats as varied as a big lagoon to primary rainforest and various stages of second growth. It’s the type of place that might even turn up a Harpy Eagle or other very rare lowland bird species and it’s that sort of exciting possibility that urges me to return.

Some of the Birding Club of Costa Rica birding at El Zota

So, after all of that talk, here is some truly useful information and other impressions:

Birds and wildlife

  • Lots of monkeys: We were seeing monkeys more often than most other places in Costa Rica, especially Spider Monkeys. It’s a sign of good habitat, little or no hunting, and tells you that many birds are also possible.
  • Red-throated Caracara: Ok, I couldn’t keep this one in. Although I missed this very rare bird species, other people on the trip heard at least two not too far from the lodge. Despite doing a lot of looking and listening in the same spot at other times, we did not get them again but the fact that they were recorded is still pretty big news for birding in Costa Rica.
  • Very birdy second growth: We had quite a few birds while walking along the road through the farm on our first afternoon and on our last morning. These were expected Caribbean lowland species like Black-faced Grosbeaks,
    A Back-faced Grosbeak at El Zota.

    Chestnut-colored, Cinnamon, Pale-billed, Rufous-winged, and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers,

    A Cinnamon Woodpecker.
    A Pale-billed Woodpecker.

    various flycatchers, Blue Dacnis, Plain-colored Tanager,

    We saw several Plain-colored Tanagers.

    Pied Puffbird, trogons, Collared Aracari, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, both motmots, heard Slaty-breasted Tinamou, and so on. It seemed like lots of other stuff could show up.

    There were a few Pied Puffbirds around.
  • Black and white Owl at the lodge and other night birds: We almost had to not look at a pair that called both nights right at the lodge cabins. Israel, the resident guide (he knows a fair number of birds but is more into herps) said he was surprised that we didn’t get the Great Potoo because it’s often present right at the lodge.
  • Quiet primary forest: The primary forest was maybe 6 kilometers from the lodge so we were brought there by truck in the early morning.
    Getting on the truck.
    Inside the forest.

    There were amazingly few birds overall but I still think the forest has serious potential because a couple of hours in primary rainforest never gives a fair idea of the birds that actually occur. We still managed to hear Great Green Macaw, White-necked Puffbird, and Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant, and see both motmots, trogons, Black-crowned Antshrike (the new name for Western Slaty Antshrike),

    Black-crowned Antshrike

    Tawny-crested and White-shouldered Tanagers, Red-capped Manakin, both motmots, and others. This was also where we had the Jaguar scat.

  • A nice big lagoon: More like a lake, they usually have a canoe so you can check it out and find things like Sungrebe and small kingfishers. Although we didn’t see those, they surely occur. We did have one or two Green Ibis for consolation.

    Nice big lagoon.
  • Raptor migration: We saw some raptors migrating through the area.
  • Frogs: Although we didn’t go look for them, I was hearing frogs all of the time so I bet it’s a good area for them!

    Not a frog but a small Fer-de-Lance. See if you can find it!
  • Enticing bird list: The bird list has such very good species as all three hawk eagles, Speckled Mourner, and Gray-headed Piprites.

    This shy Semiplumbeous Hawk is one of many resident raptors on the list.
  • Not sure about antbirds: On a low note, several antbird species are not on the bird list and we didn’t get them either. That’s not to say that they aren’t there but El Zota might not be good for Ocellated Antbird and other forest based antbird species.

Some lodge info

  • Good food: We enjoyed nice, country Tico fare and were treated to a delicious barbecue on our last night.
  • Basic but good rooms: Rooms are basic but this a research station and the place is meant to be enjoyed outdoors.

    One of the lodge cabins.
  • Low cost: The rooms might be basic but the beds are comfortable and guess how much you pay to stay there? How does $40 per person per night sound for lodging with 3 meals and access to excellent birding? Sounds like a bargain to me!
  • Four to five hours from the San Jose area: It takes around four or five hours to get there without doing any birding on the way. Four wheel drive is needed for the final 6 kilometers of road but the station can help with transportation.
  • Proximity to Barro del Colorado: Before heading home on Sunday, we checked out some of the road into Barro del Colorado. The road was good and the habitat looked even better with nice primary forest and some interesting wetlands. I sure would love to bird there early in the morning! El Zota can also arrange boat tours in the refuge. Since it’s basically a pristine wilderness area that is almost certainly visited by both large eagles, yeah, I want to do that some day.

    Good habitat on the road through Barro del Colorado.

I wonder when I will get back to El Zota. Hopefully soon but if any readers of this post happen to go, please leave a comment with a link to a trip report and or/summary of highlights so the world can know what you saw!

2 replies on “Little Known, Promising Sites for Birding in Costa Rica : The El Zota Research Station”

Hi Pat,
Great to read about another good birding area in Carribean lowlands. I’ll mark it down as a possible destination. I found the snake in your photo by the way!
Looking at Google Earth, I wonder how much the still large intact rainforest area in neighbouring Nicaragua contributes to maintaining the richness of the somewhat fragmented forest on the Costa Rican side.
I also wanted to ask you about the Fundación Durika reserve in southern Costa Rica. I notice from eBird that you have records from that area but I don’t think you’ve described your trip there on this blog. Would you recommend it as a good place to see cloud forest species? The work and forest conservation efforts of the community there sound particularly inspiring.
Kind regards
Les Mitchell, Australia (still planning a trip to CR in June/July next year!)

@Les- Glad you like the info, I would recommend El Zota for birders and ecotourists who would like experience a wild, little birded area in the Caribbean lowlands for a low price and that is also active in local conservation. Yes, right about the forest block in southeast Nicaragua- one of the most important areas of forest in Central America and probably vital for sustaining biodiversity in northeastern Costa Rica at least until more parts of the country can be reforested.

As for Durika, I have birded right outside the reserve but never inside it. Probably has nice birding in the reserve, sounds like the birding might be just as good or more interesting on the road to Durika. Post about that:

As for cloud forests species, I don’t know but it’s probably easier to see those birds at sites like Monteverde and other more accessible cloud forest sites.

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