Although it’s a small country, Costa Rica is jam-packed with birding opps. It’s fully stocked with avian delights, and that’s why it’s hard to figure out where to go. If you happen to stay in Costa Rica for a year, there won’t be any problem figuring out where to go because that just might be enough time to visit every place in the country (if you go birding every day and have unlimited funds, time, and energy). But, since most of us have but a few weeks to spare for a birding trip to Costa Rica, we have to settle on the sites that will give us our target species and the best birding bang for our bucks.

One of those places in Cano Negro. Look on a map and it might seem to be way out there but it’s really not. The exact biogeographical definition for the area might also seem elusive (and it is) but that doesn’t matter either. Go and you will see a healthy variety of birds, including a bunch of rare and uncommon ones for Costa Rica. I was up that way last weekend and although the rare crakes did not come out to play, it was still a dang fine trip anyways. These are some of the good reasons for scheduling in a visit to Cano Negro garnered from that most recent trip:

  • Medio Queso: Yes, it literally translates to “half cheese” but when it comes to birds, it’s more like a rare gourmet gorgonzola. Need Pinnated Bittern, rails, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and chances as Jabiru, Black-collared Hawk, and maybe even an Aplomado Falcon? Take the boat trip on the Medio Queso river. The road is just south of the airport in Los Chiles, the boat driver is at the end of the road, and his name is Rafael Palacios. He knows where to find the birds and if you do one boat trip in Costa Rica, do this one! Although high water made us a bit too late for the rails, people were getting close focus views of Spotted Rail, and Yellow-breasted and White-throated Crakes during late March and April when water levels were low. And, no, they didn’t even use playback. We didn’t see the falcon either, nor Jabiru (probably also because of high water) but we did see lots of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, tons of Nicaraguan Grackles (almost no Great-taileds), and most other targets on our list including easy Pinnated Bittern and several Least Bitterns.

    Least Bittern trying to sort of hide.

  • Scaled Pigeon, Yellow-winged Tanager, and other uncommon birds around Los Chiles: We were happy to see Scaled Pigeons calling from trees right in the town of Los Chiles and although we missed the tanager, it can turn up in town, and is most likely at feeders with papaya. Or, if you really want to see that tanager, just go birding in most places north of Costa Rica up to eastern Mexico.

    One of our many Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters at Medio Queso- just outside of Los Chiles.

  • Waterbirds: As in Green Ibis, Sungrebe, kingfishers, Agami Heron, Jabiru, and so on. You might see them all or you might miss some of the rare ones but either way, you will see a lot!

    One of our many Nicaraguan Grackles at Medio Queso. They can also been seen at Cano Negro but aren't as common.

  • Raptors: A trip to Cano Negro typically reveals a nice selection of raptors. Although rainy weather was not ideal for raptors last weekend, we still saw Black-collared Hawk (best site in Costa Rica for this one), Snail Kite, Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Bat Falcon, and three vulture species. Several other raptors species can also show.
  • Woodpeckers: With ten species possible, it looks like Cano Negro is the woodpecker capital of Costa Rica. The only one I missed over the weekend was Pale-billed. I saw or heard: Lineated, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Rufous-winged, Golden-olive, Smoky-brown, and Olivaceous Piculet!

    Rufous-winged Woodpecker

  • Kingfisher Lodge: We stayed at this well-priced place and were treated very well. Rooms are basic but fine and clean, and have fans or air conditioning. The grounds were very birdy and had a great mix of Caribbean slope forest and edge species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, Pied Puffbird, Bare-crowned Antbird (heard only but at least we know it is there), Gray-headed Tanager, Royal Flycatcher, Greenish Elaenia, parrots and parakeets, Green Ibis, woodpeckers, and so on. I would go back in a second. If you want fancier digs, there is also the birdy Hotel del Campo and Cano Negro Natural Lodge.
  • Night birding: This endeavor can be exciting in the Cano Negro area. Although we dipped on Ocellated Poorwill, that’s no big surprise given that others have spent many hours and more than one night looking for it. However, we did see Pacific Screech Owl around the main plaza, heard Mottled Owl, and had Common Potoo right at Kingfisher Lodge during about 30 minutes of night birding. Oddly, we did not see the usually reliable Great Potoo at the San Emiliano bridge.
  • It’s also easy to get to: Well, actually, Los Chiles is easy to get to and is about 4 hours from San Jose. The road to Cano Negro is rocky and slow going but can still be done with a small car.

It might seem out of the way, but Cano Negro is a fun place to bird, and easy to combine with Arenal. March to early May are best but it’s always worth a visit!