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Like most birders, I have always been interested in knowing where I need to go to see the birds I want to see. At least I assume most birders are like that. I know that when my eyes were first opened to all thing avian, I quickly realized that no, you can’t just walk outside and see Baltimore Orioles, beautiful wood-warblers, and owls sitting up there in the Japanese Maples and Hackberries in my neighbor’s yards.

Every bird I looked at seemed to be a House Sparrow, Starling, or Rock Pigeon along with a few genuine natives. The appearance of my first Song Sparrow in our urban backyard was a big deal for a city-bound 8 year old birder, and the “Sparrow Hawks” in the nearby field (aka abandoned railway line) were nothing short of amazing. According to books at the Earl Bridges Library, those species were mapped for Niagara Falls, New York but what about Tree Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Brown Thrasher, and so many other species that were supposed to be there too? I didn’t know then that the maps showed what would live where our house stood if the streets, homes, and sidewalks had never been built. I found out that those and so many other species needed woodlands, grassland, and thickets that grew outside of town, and that you had to travel much further afield to find species that required larger areas of forest.

Although the maps in the field guides showed these solid purple, red, or blue areas where birds occurred, they were actually a general representation of a much more static situation. Bird species could live in the colored areas of the maps but they only occurred in the places that were suited to them, and even then, many weren’t exactly obvious. You couldn’t just go birding and see everything you wanted. You had to really look for birds, and sometimes spend more time looking than you had hoped.  Not to mention, owls were basically a myth. Nevertheless, it was still way easier to find birds in the temperate zone than in tropical forests. For a lot of places in North America, bird-finding guides gave vary specific directions for target birds that worked like a charm. Go there, watch this corner of a field at seven a.m., and enjoy your lifer!

So why doesn’t that work in Costa Rica?

Well, it does if you want to see common, second growth species but that’s where similarities between bird finding up north and 9 degrees from the equator tend to cease. Like the temperate zone, edge species are common because there is a heck of a lot of second growth, they have evolved to quickly take advantage of temporary habitats in a forested landscape, and aren’t too picky when it comes to food.  Not to mention, there are more individuals of a few species rather than very few individuals of many species. These factors make it much easier to see species like Black-striped Sparrow, Passerini’s Tanager, and Variable Seedeater compared to forest birds like Ocellated Antbird, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Green Shrike-Vireo.

Black-striped Woodcreeper

As far as rainforest species go, yes, you do have to know which sites harbor the birds you are looking for but seeing them is still another story. Unlike temperate zone forests in the early summer, rainforest birds aren’t in a hurry to defend territories, mate, and take advantage of the summer arthropod abundance. They seem to take their time to avoid predators, find enough food in a highly competitive landscape, and just stay alive. Camouflaged in appearance and behavior, and occurring at naturally low numbers, typical rainforest species can be so tough to find that you can’t help but wonder “where are all of those birds?” when walking in a seemingly bird-empty forest.

If you go to a large enough area of protected rainforest, the birds on that huge enticing list do occur but this is why you don’t see them right away:

  • Some live in the canopy: Actually a lot live way up there, 100 feet above the ground. It’s hard enough to see birds in the canopy if they are sitting in bare trees. Add vegetation growing on everything and you learn why canopy towers are built.

    A canopy view of a Purple-throated Fruitcrow.

  • Microhabitats: Tropical rainforests are about as uniform and predictable as a broken kaleidoscope. But, we need to celebrate that chaos of life because it’s partly why there are so many possibilities. Learn about microhabitats and pay attention to them to find that Royal Flycatcher, White-crested Coquette, and Dull-mantled Antbird.
  • Army ants and other avian gourmets: Some birds refuse to eat unless Army Ants are present. Others only like certain types of fruit or muddy places where they can find choice worms. Know the places where certain birds like to eat and you just might find them. What? Even that doesn’t guarantee seeing them?- check out the next point.
  • Time spent in quality habitat = More Rare Birds: Even if you do find the right habitat and food, that cotinga, ground-cuckoo, or other tough species might be absent. Wait around long enough and keep checking, though, and they will eventually appear. Some birds are just inconspicuous and naturally rare, or have become even more rare than normal because they have to migrate to lowland areas that have been mostly deforested (poor umbrellabirds…). The upside to this is that statistically, the more time you spend patiently birding in the right habitat, the higher the probability of seeing rare species. This is why it’s worth it to visit quality forest day after day and spend many a quiet hour there. Eventually, the tough birds show up and in the meantime, there’s always cool stuff to see in tropical rainforest anyways.

A site guide can point out places to bird but knowing how to look for target species is a huge help in finding them. There’s no replacement for an experienced birding guide, but “How to See,Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” can help you get ready for your trip, and show you where to look for birds, as well as finding and identifying them.

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