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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Where to See Birds in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

When I started planning my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I followed the same routine as every birder did before taking a trip to a place overflowing with potential lifers. Since we didn’t have the same crazy amount of Internet-based information available nowadays, trips were based on conversations, information derived from the the latest guide book, whatever bird finding book was available, and any trip reports we could get our hands on.

Aside from showing pictures of the birds waiting to be seen in Costa Rica, the Stiles and Skutch guide also provided the other most important information for planning a trip, that of biogeographical regions and the places with the best habitat. While looking through the book, I quickly realized that some birds were only found in dry areas in the northwestern part of the country. With that in mind, I planned a trip to Santa Rosa National Park to look for those dry forest specialties. Given its size, the fact that one could camp there, intact habitat, and access by public bus (at least to the entrance road), it seemed like my only and best option for Yellow-naped Parrrot, White-throated Magpie Jay, Banded Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, and all of those other dry forest species that couldn’t be seen in cloud forest or in the wet rainforests on the other side of the mountains.

As it turn out, Rufous-capped Warbler can be seen in lots of places.

The trip to Santa Rosa was a memorable success highlighted by Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Elegant Trogon, expected parrots and parakeets, Thicket Tinamou, and lots of other birds. The long, hot hike to the campground was worth it (I think it was) but I didn’t know then that  there were other options for dry forest species. In fact, there’s lots of options for dry forest birds in Costa Rica. Some show up in the Central Valley and most can be seen from around Chomes north to the border with Nicaragua (with a fair number occurring south to Tarcoles).

Yellow-naped Parrots are uncommon and declining but still seen at various sites in Guanacaste south to Tarcoles.

Open fields  with scattered trees are the most common habitat in Guanacaste and are pretty reliable for everything from magpie jays to Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

Black-headed Trogons don't really have crests. This one is fighting the wind.

Nonetheless, the best birding is usually around the more forested riparian zones that have the birds listed above plus Little Tinamou, Long-tailed Manakin, Banded Wren, Painted Bunting, Olive Sparrow, and lots of other birds including chances at Collared Forest Falcon and maybe a Crane Hawk.

Laughing Falcons are also regular.

If you can make it to Santa Rosa or any area of protected dry forest, chances are much better for Cracids, Thicket Tinamou, and mammals but if you can’t fit that in to the itinerary, don’t fret because there are still have plenty of options to check out the blues on a Turquoise-browed Motmot, study a Roadside Hawk in flight, and tick a thick-knee. Get out early for roadside birding at such sites as the road to Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road in front of Cerro Lodge, the lower slopes of Rincon de la Vieja, areas near Playa Hermosa, Playas del Coco, and other beaches, and you have a chance at seeing most of the dry forest species. Mid-day is of course slow but early morning and late afternoons are always birdy in any wooded area or riparian zone in Guanacaste, including any wooded areas at or near your hotel.

Spend more than a day in the northwest and expect to see White-throated Magpie Jay.

Not to mention, wetland sites such as Chomes, Punta Morales, Palo Verde, and any other wetlands are usually just as good for smaller birds as they are for aquatic species.

A typical Chomes binocular view.
Jabiru (neotropical waterbird royalty) also occurs in some Guanacaste wetlands.

I guess I should also mention that since you can probably clean up on Guanacaste birds in a few days, you shouldn’t need more time than a week. Another possibility is basing yourself in the northwest and doing day trips to Heliconias, Cano Negro, Rincon de la Vieja, and Carara. Do that and you put yourself in range of 600 or species.

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bird photography Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds

Pale-billed Woodpecker Action in Costa Rica

Everyone likes woodpeckers. How can you not like a bird that entertains with head-banging antics and maniacal laughter? Costa Rica has her fair share of these star birds. The zebra-backed Hoffmann’s visits gardens in San Jose, the Lineated laughs its way through edge habitats from the lowlands to middle elevations, and woodpeckers that visit fruit feeders remind us that we are certainly situated in the tropics.

Hoffmann's Woodpecker.
A Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Troppenstation, la Gamba, Costa Rica.

If you bird in the northern Caribbean lowlands, it’s possible to see 7 species in a day, including the biggest of the bunch; the Pale-billed Woodpecker.

Pale-billed Woodpecker.

Since it’s a Campephilus, and does indeed give that infamous double knock, it’s the closest thing we have to an Ivorybill. Although its dimensions fall far short of the Lord God Bird, its pale bill and longish neck are reminiscent of the true Ivorybills.

Pale bill- check. Longish Giraffey neck- check.

Unlike the massive pair of woodpeckers of lost primeval forests, the Pale-billed is fairly common and regularly found in rainforest, tropical dry forest, and semi-open woodlands in Costa Rica. As long as enough woods and big trees are around, Pale-billeds occur and they are of course always fun to watch. Recently, I was entertained by one that spent an hour foraging for grubs on a big, dead tree.

Looking for grubs.

Although these woodpeckers can be seen at any height in the forest, this one was foraging two meters above the ground. It carefully pecked away dead bark to eat some sort of grub and worked a small area on the tree for about an hour.

Finding a grub.

It never gave a double knock nor called while foraging and didn’t seem bothered by my presence. Who needs reality shows when you can watch a Pale-billed Woodpecker in action?

Pale-billed Woodpecker.
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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Where to See Ground Cuckoos when Birding Costa Rica

Everyone knows what a cuckoo is, even non-birders and the most disconnected of human beings. Well, maybe more like 70% of non-birders but let’s just say that cuckoos are among the better known of birds because of this one in Europe that constantly repeats its name and has the evolutionary gall to lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The immediate anthropogenic response is something along the lines of “What a feathered cad”!

No point in judging the behavior of an animal that has nothing to do with people but it does at least make folks more familiar that particular family of birds. What the non-birders don’t realize is that there are a lot more cuckoos than the one flying around and dropping its progeny off in the nests of other species. Bird anywhere in the world and you start to realize that cuckoos come in many sizes and are all over the place (sort of). Go to Africa and you realize that some cuckoos are even as pretty as cotingas. Don’t believe me?Jjust take a gander at a few photos of a chlorophonia copying Emerald Cuckoo or a purple and white Violet Cuckoo!

In the Americas, our cuckoos aren’t nearly as colorful but they still entertain with cool, lanky looks, and weirdo behaviors. One of the more interesting groups of cuckoos found in the Americas is that of the ground cuckoos. Up in the USA, we become familiarized with that bunch of birds by way of the Greater Roadrunner (another obviously very well known cuckoo). Go birding in the neotropics and you eventually realize that there are some other crazy looking ground cuckoos out there. We look at their pictures in the field guides and are dazzled by their colored eyerings and exotic appearance and of course can’t wait to see them.

That's a cool colored eyering.

As we read trip reports and look more into the matter, though, we come to the sinking conclusion that they are a pain to see. In fact, some are so tough to glimpse that it sounds as if it takes a major mix of birding effort and luck to tick them off the list. Those much wanted mega birds are the Neomorphus species cuckoos, the official ground-cuckoos of the rainforest. They sort of look like roadrunners in size and shape but unfortunately, the similarities end right about there. Unlike the easy-going, readily accessible roadrunner, the ground cuckoos of the rainforest are super shy birds that live in very low density populations (so it seems). We don’t know much about them because they are so hard to study

The other thing that makes them tough to encounter is because they need big areas of primary forest. These things are top insectivores of the understory so they requite lots of big katydids, frogs, lizards, and other prey items large enough to keep them going. With that in mind, we can surmise where the best places in Costa Rica are for seeing this country’s Neomorphus ground-cuckoo, the Rufous-vented. However, before thinking about the locations of the most intact forests, we also need to consider its geographic and elevational ranges. In Costa Rica, historically, the good old RV G Cuckoo was found on the Caribbean slope from the lowlands up to about 1,200 meters. Sadly, we have to say historically because it just does not survive in pasture, cultivations, and small patches of forest that have become standard in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica.

A lot of other species still occur, including Green Ibis.

With that in mind, we can start narrowing the search. Of course, known sightings also help in not only telling us where to look but also in the types of habitats that support that sneaky cuckoo. Overall, the place that stands out in terms of RV G Cuckoo sightings is Las Heliconias lodge. This awesome birding spot is situated in high quality, old growth forest at around 1,000 meters elevation and is indeed located on the Caribbean slope. It’s also a pretty large area of rainforest. If we check Google Earth for sites in Costa Rica with similar amounts of forest at either that elevation or lower, here are some other places to check in addition to Celeste Mountain Lodge and other places in the same forest complex as Heliconias:

Trail signs at Heliconias.
  • The other northern volcanoes: These would be Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, and Orosi. Little birding is done in these areas compared to other sites in Costa Rica but if you can find places to stay and access the habitat, it will be well worth the effort. The ground-cuckoo has indeed been seen on the main trail at Rincon de la Vieja and should be possible at other rainforest sites in the park. Given the amount of intact rainforest on the other volcanoes, the bird very likely occurs there as well.
  • Caribbean foothills and middle elevations in the Tilaran Mountains: The bird has definitely been recorded on the road to Manuel Brenes (by your’s truly) and from Lands in Love. Given the extent of rainforest at similar elevations at Pocosol, Cerro Chato, and even the Arenal Observatory Lodge, it probably also occurs at those sites too. Even though it hasn’t been recorded from the Observatory Lodge, it should be there based on the amount of quality forest.
  • Rara Avis and Braulio Carrillo National Park: It has been seen at El Plastico and might also occur at Rara Avis. The cuckoo has also been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez if very seldom. Since the forests haven’t changed at those sites since known sightings, the species should still be present. It has also been seen at the Rainforest Arial Tram but I hesitate to even mention it because the place seems more intent on selling package tours for the tram than allowing people to pay an entrance fee for birding only.

    What ground cuckoo habitat looks like.
  • Maquenque Lodge and Laguna del Lagarto: Although there are more edge effects in the northern complex of forests than other sites mentioned, I bet it still occurs because there is quite a bit of rainforest up that way.
  • Barbilla National Park and Hitoy Cerere: No reports but that’s no problem because those sites receive so little coverage. Nevertheless, the elevation and extent of forest points to them being likely sites for the RF G Cuckoo.

Ok, so now for a few sites where it might occur but if it still does, must be pretty darn rare:

  • La Selva and Sarapiqui: Although it would seem that la Selva should be a great area for the bird, given the absence of sightings despite almost constant coverage, don’t count on finding it there. I suspect that the forests of La Selva just aren’t connected well enough with the forests in Braulio where it does occur for it to become reestablished. I hope I am wrong and that it makes it into La Selva without being noticed but given the reduction in other understory species, it seems like La Selva won’t be a place for the ground cuckoo until there is a lot more, older forest in the corridor with Braulio.
  • Tortuguero National Park: A lot of forest but since most of it is swampy, this doesn’t seem suitable for the ground cuckoo. The same can be said about Barra del Colorado. Sungrebe yes, ground-cuckoo no.
  • Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo: There is just about no birding being done on the forested hills above these places (the Fila Carbon) so who knows, maybe it occurs? That said, it doesn’t seem like this is a likely area for the ground cuckoo because the forests there lack connection with the more extensive rainforests at the base of the Talamanca Mountains.

So, there is a bit of a round up on where and where not to look for the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. However, knowing where to look is half the battle. The other half is knowing how to look for it. Given its low density populations, there is hardly a guaranteed best way to find the ground cuckoo but finding an antswarm in the right habitat definitely improves your chances.  Although people have chanced upon them at Heliconias, local guides there have seen them most often by locating an antswarm and sticking with the swarm until the cuckoos show up (even if it takes two or more hours).

Ok, so this might sound discouraging if you had hoped to see one of those wild, rainforest roadrunners in Costa Rica, but keep in mind that another ground cuckoo also occurs and it’s a lot easier to see! Unlike the big old RV G Cuckoo, the Lesser Ground Cuckoo doesn’t need rainforest. In fact, it doesn’t seem to like forest at all because it is commonly found in scrubby fields and second growth throughout much of northwestern Costa Rica. I have even had it at sites near San Ramon, Alajuela, and close to Santa Elena. Sure it’s shy but with patience, this one is at least 100 times easier to see than its larger cousin.

A Lesser Ground Cuckoo not on the ground.

Good luck with the ground cuckoo and please post a comment if you see one!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Hanging Out with Hummingbirds from Poas to Sarapiqui

Yesterday, I guided a couple on the Poas-Cinchona-Nature Pavilion route. This always makes for a fun, easy-going tour because it puts the focus on feeders and photography with such extra possibilities as mixed flocks, and target birds like Black Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet, toucans, and high elevation endemics. Although the unusual hot, dry weather on the Caribbean slope has put a damper on bird activity (and can’t be doing anything good for birds, plants, insects, or anything other life forms adapted to rain on a daily basis), we still connected with the guan, quetzal, barbet, and an overall nice variety of birds.

A Prong-billed Barbet from another day at Cinchona. We saw one at the Volcan Restaurant.

Hummingbird feeder activity was especially good and was the main focus on our attention. At our first main stop, the Cinchona Cafe, we were treated to near constant hummingbird activity. One of the most common species was the big, bold, and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

Male Violet Sabrewing.

At least 6 males were present and one female eventually showed as well.

The sabrewing was outnumbered, however, by Green-crowned Brilliants. At times, one feeder would play host to 6 or 7 brilliants, including juvenile males.

A male Green-crowned Brilliant .
A frontal view of a male brilliant.

The next most common hummingbird species was the tiny Coppery-headed Emerald, a white-tailed, middle elevation sprite with a slightly decurved bill.

A close, front view of a female Coppery-headed Emerald.

Green Hermits were also visiting the feeders more than they usually do (I wonder if the Heliconias they feed on are suffering from lack of rain), a few White-bellied Mountain Gems also made an appearance, and a couple of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were around.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

One Green Violetear was present but fed on flowering bushes instead of sugar water at the feeders. Rounding out the Cinchona hummingbird show were a few male and female Green Thorntails. Sometimes, the thorntails and other hummingbirds would perch within arm’s length.

A male Green Thorntail at Cinchona.

After enjoying a delicious country breakfast accompanied by hummingbirds, we moved on down slope to the Nature Pavilion. Being situated in the Caribbean lowlands, this site has a totally different set of hummingbirds (except for the near ubiquitous Rufous-tailed). White-necked Jacobin is the regular species at this site although hermits can also zip by, woodnymphs usually show up (although not yesterday), and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer makes an appearance or two (we did have this one).

A male White-necked Jacobin.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- note the red feet!

In addition to hummingbirds, we also did alright with other bird species even during the heat of the mid-morning. Two pairs of Rufous Motmots showed well down by the river along with Bay Wren, Collared Aracari, and a brief Keel-billed Toucan. A Black-mandibled also called but wouldn’t reveal itself.

A female Gartered Trogon from the Nature Pavilion.
Vivid Red-legged Honeycreepers were feeding in a flowering tree when not feeding on fruit.
A Striped Basilisk also showed well at the Nature Pavilion.

When the clock got close to noon, we headed back upslope, and drove on up to the Volcan Restaurant. This hotspot is situated at a much cooler 2,000 meters and shows it with birds like Magnificent Hummingbird, and Purple-throated Mountain Gem.

Magnificent Hummingbird.

We also enjoyed the antics of several Volcano Hummingbirds (all females but didn’t pick out any Scintillants), Green Violetear, a couple more Violet Sabrewings, Green-crowned Brilliants, one female Magenta-throated Woodstar, and a female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

A Volcano Hummingbird at the feeder.
A female Magenta-throated Woodstar.
A female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.

The forested riparian zone at the restaurant also dished out some non hummingbird birdies, including Prong-billed Barbet, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart, and a few other species, one of which was a female quetzal! A small Lauraceous tree next to the stream had some fruits and the female was actively feeding on them.

After getting our fill of a good lunch, lots of hummingbirds, and the birds in the riparian zone, we checked out the higher elevation forests near the entrance to the national park. They had already seen lots of Fiery-throated Hummingbirds at Paraiso de Quetzales but that didn’t stop us from looking at a few that were feeding on flowering bromeliads. Other birds included a quick Black Guan, Sooty, Mountain, and Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, some very nice looks at several Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Black and yellow Silky Fkycatcher, and both Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.

A fun day overall, it makes me want to go back up there and just hike off into the highland forests on Poas.