One of the most common observations (aka complaints) that birders new to Costa Rica make is related to the sad paucity of raptors. I am definitely sad to admit that this is a valid view because unlike the weedy fields and woodlots far to the north, we don’t see very many raptors on a regular basis. The lower number of raptors is related to higher diversity (and thus lower populations per species due to a higher degree of interspecific competition), and too much substandard forest habitat (edge effects not being conducive to the ecosystems needed to sustain large, healthy populations of forest-based raptors). You see, in Costa Rica, at least half or more of the raptors in the country are very much adapted to intact forest. They don’t do as well in places where there is just as much cow pasture and ag. Fields as rainforest because those habitats just don’t provide enough of the type of food needed for birds like Great Black Hawk, hawk-eagles, Semiplumbeous Hawk, White Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and so on.
This is probably why birds of prey and a higher diversity of raptors are seen when birding in places with large areas of healthy forest (such as the Osa Peninsula, Braulio Carrillo, Rincon de la Vieja, and so on).
However, even if you happen to be hanging out with your binos in fantastic forest, not nearly as many raptors will appear if it rains. While that wet weather can result in views of hawks and falcons perched on an emergent tree, it doesn’t compare to the birds that take to the skies in sunny weather. In general, that aspect of raptor watching in Costa Rica is kind of similar to Europe and North America because this is when all sorts of species can take to the skies.
Last weekend, I got the chance to compare birding during dry and rainy weather at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. It was sunny on Friday and rained for nearly all of Saturday and guess which day was better for raptors? Yes, Friday at Quebrada Gonzalez was good for birds of prey as well as for several other non-raptorial species including killer looks at Black-crowned Antpitta, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Red-headed Barbet, antvireos, antwrens, Lattice-tailed Trogon, White-crowned Manakin, and several tanagers including more Blue and Golds than I have ever seen there in one day.
But, back to the raptors- on Friday, we started off the day with a Barred Hawk,
saw one or two King Vultures through the trees, and got great looks at an adult Ornate Hawk Eagle in flight. We also saw a couple of Broad-winged Hawks but they are pretty much par for the course during the winter months in Costa Rica. In the afternoon, we also lucked out with totally satisfying views of a Semiplumbeous Hawk on the Ceiba trail. It was nice to finally connect with this uncommon species at Quebrada because I had heard of reports from the Ceiba and Botarrama trails. As with some other, more lowland inclined species, the Semiplumbeous doesn’t seem to be regular on the Las Palmas trail. So, that was sunny Friday and we weren’t even focused on looking for raptors.
On rainy Saturday, although we connected with several busy tanager flocks at El Tapir, and saw a fine Ocellated Antbird, we didn’t see anything flying in the rain. However, we still managed nice perched looks at King Vulture and Double-toothed Kite.
The raptor happy sunny weather on Friday also reminded me of guiding a week before then at Cinchona and Poas. That was also a very sunny day that resulted in very close looks at Barred Hawks right from the Café Colibri (the name for the Cinchona hummingbird spot), White Hawk, Bat Falcon, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk eagle (probably Ornate but too far away to say).
In a couple days, I am headed to Palo Verde- a totally different, more open habitat that might give me some nice looks at open country raptors like Harris’ Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Snail Kite, and hopefully a lifer rail and duck. Wish me luck!