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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope lowlands Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Adventurous Birding at Yorkin, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an easy place for fantastic, tropical birding. Whether the plane touches down in the Central Valley or the airport near Liberia, it doesn’t take long to get into excellent, protected tropical forests with things like curassows, antbirds, trogons, parrots, fancy wrens, and the list goes on. This is why hundreds of birders visit Costa Rica every year, and why I have more than 600 species on my year list (and it’s only August). It also helps to have megadiversity, easy access to good habitats, experienced guides, and birding information that ranges from excellent field guides and birding apps, to a new map with hotspots, and a comprehensive bird-finding guide for Costa Rica.

But, for folks who feel like getting away from easily accessible sites such as Carara National Park and the foothill rainforests around Arenal, Costa Rica plays host to several remote, little birded areas. These are the places that tend to have the most intact forests and could host populations of Crested Eagle, Red-throated Caracara, Gray-headed Piprites, and other decidedly uncommon birds. The only problem is that the reason why they host intact forested habitats coincides with the reasons why they are visited by very few birders. Why trudge through mud and rain for a chance at a few rarities around Rara Avis when you can still see lots of other birds around Sarapiqui? Why explore sites around Laguna del Lagarto when you can just spend your time in the Arenal area? Why take a boat ride up a river to reach an indigenous community when you can dine on wonderful Italian cuisine and relax in a pool near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca?

There's also a beach in Puerto Viejo.

When it comes down to it, if you don’t go, you don’t know what’s really there. However, if you check out Google Earth, you will have an idea of the amount of forest in those hidden corners of Costa Rica, and intact forest is key for 99% of those rare species you are probably missing. Yorkin is one such place. To have an idea of where it is located, check out Google Earth or a map of Costa Rica, and go to the far, eastern corner where Sixaola marks the border with Panama. From there, trace your way up that river past the town of BriBri, then take the first river to the east. This is the Yorkin River, it marks the border, and is where I went with the Birding Club of Costa Rica this past weekend. I hadn’t been there before but based on the location, and amount of forest, it looked like a place that could turn up any number of rarities and maybe a new bird or two for the Costa Rica list.

These are some observations and highlights from that trip:

  • Not as hard as you think: Well, at least getting there. It takes around four hours to drive to BriBri from the San Jose area, and another 15 to 20 minutes to reach the village of Bambu. In Bambu, you have to look for the boat drivers at the only store there (look for a fairly large thatched roof structure on the east side of the road). If you have a vehicle, they will show you where to leave the car. Then, when all is ready, you get on a motorized dugout canoe, and head up-stream for an hour. Upon arrival, your host from the Yorkin women’s ecotourism project will show you to your lodging, and so on. It takes a while but it’s fairly easy and reminded me of trips to ecolodges in the Amazon basin.

    Driving to Bribri
  • Be ready for the boat ride: Although the voyage is straightforward and thus fairly easy, you might want a small cushion for your seat on the boat, and will definitely want to bring something for the rain. It rains often and the boat doesn’t have a roof. That said, the drivers will put your stuff in plastic bags if you like. It’s pretty tough to bird from the boat but keep the binos at the ready because you motor through good forest for most of the ride and I would not be the least bit surprised if Harpy and Crested Eagles live in that area. In fact, I bet they do. They wouldn’t be exactly common but  you never know when one might be perched in view.

    Taking the boat upriver.
  • Bird before you get on the boat: Speaking of birding from the boat, actually, it’s worth it to bird around Bambu and from the departure point for the boats. Without too much effort and in very little time, we had a Snowy Cotinga, Lesser Nighthawks, Pearl Kite, White-lined Tanager, toucans, and several other species. Scanning the forest canopy with a scope from the edge of the river would also be worthwhile.
    Getting on the boat.

    One of several Snowy Cotingas we saw during the trip.
  • Bring rubber boots: After optics, this should be the most important item on your packing list. The trails are pretty muddy! Bring the boots, you will be wearing them most of the time.
  • Pack light, pack for hot, humid, wet conditions: There’s not a lot of room on the boat, so try to pack light. The weather is hot, humid, and rainy most of the time, so pack accordingly and use dry bags!
  • Not much electricity: Solar panels provide electricity, but it might not be enough to charge your devices. Maybe, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a place to hang out with “devices”. It’s more of a place to explore, hike muddy trails, look for rare birds, and learn about BriBri culture.

    The welcome sign.
  • Lodging is basic: In case you expected something else, don’t. The lodging is basic but clean and with mosquito nets. I saw a couple of scorpions in my room so shake out your stuff before putting it on! That said, scorpions can find they way into just about any ecolodge in the lowlands.
  • Bugs?: Not that bad when we were there. Very few mosquitoes, and a few biting flies here and there. Use repellent and you will be fine.
  • Food: Basic, home-cooked stuff and it’s great! Portions might seem small but they usually offer seconds if you need it, and you can always bring energy bars (essential adventure birding, eatable accessories in any case).
  • But what about the birds?: There is a fair sampling of edge species around the village but the best birding is a tough hike up to nearby ridges. Bird around the lodging and you will see common stuff but you might also find a Uniform Crake (I heard two of them), see some good birds on the trail near the river (like Yellow-eared Toucanet, who knows what else is possible?), and can look for soaring raptors that fly above the ridge.
    Lesser Greenlets are pretty common.

    Long-tailed Tyrants were also fairly common.
  • Ridge birding: Since most of our group did not want to climb up a steep, muddy, slippery hill, we barely touched the surface of the best habitat. Frustrating,but that’s the way the ball bounces. However, from what little I saw, if you can manage it, the hike is worth it. We had views into the canopy of the forest and distant fantastic forests of the Amistad International Park, and were just getting into good primary rainforest. We didn’t have enough time to properly bird it but our local guide, Myriam, recognized the calls of White-fronted Nunbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and maybe even Great Jacamar. Others have seen Black-crowned Antpitta up there (and might be one of the best places for it in Costa Rica), and a local birding guide told me that he had seen Lovely Cotinga, toucanets, antbirds, and other forest species. I am pretty sure that piprites is possible as well as most other rare and uncommon forest species. Another indication of wild habitat was Myriam mentioning that Jaguar comes down near her house once every four months, according to her, when someone is pregnant.

    Birding on the ridge.
  • Cacao birding: Cacao is one of the most important crops for this area and is what grows around the entire village area. It’s not the best for birds but still hosts a fair variety of species, especially near the bridge and forest. Some of the stand-outs that we recorded were Yellow-eared Toucanet, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, and Olive-backed Quail-Dove.

    Birding the trail along the river.
  • School birding: One of our best sites was the vicinity of the school. It overlooks the river, is next to a stream, and affords views of two forested ridges. Since it’s also blessed by a breeze, this is a great area to hang out on a hot afternoon. We had White-whiskered Puffbird and other species by the stream, Snowy Cotingas and a few Crested Oropendolas across the river, and, best of all, good views at King Vulture (common here), Black Hawk-Eagle, flocks of migrating Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and, best of all, two sightings of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. I think many other species are possible on the forested ridges, maybe even Lovely and perhaps Blue Cotinga, and maybe a chance at the really big eagles and Red-throated Caracara.
    One of the views from the school.

    A Black-and-white Hawk Eagle flying high into the sky above the village.
  • Night birds?: I had high hopes for several nocturnal species but all we got was a Mottled Owl. However, we didn’t get in much night birding, especially in better habitats so I still think that most expected species should be present. Myriam was familiar with both potoos as well as all expected owl calls, and maybe even Rufous Nightjar.
  • Few large birds: Big birds like guans and Great Tinamou are around but much more rare than other sites in Costa Rica. Even toucans stayed away from the village, and we suspected that this was due to at least some sort of hunting pressure. Those birds are still present but frequent the forest, and are easier to see at other sites in any case.
  • The local people: Our hosts were welcoming, very friendly, and very nice. Interacting with them was a wonderful addition to the trip and something I hope to repeat on a future occasion. They are also very tough and accustomed to walking for kilometers through muddy, hot conditions. You can’t walk around on your own but that wasn’t a problem. I just told Myriam where we wanted to go and she took us. However, if you just want easy trails, make sure to tell her because she didn’t think twice about walking on steep and muddy trails (but always warned us of trail conditions).

If I visit Yorkin again (and I hope I do), I would spend at least two full days in the primary forests on the ridges, and probably spend the rest of my time scanning the canopy and skies for raptors and cotingas. I would also spend more time scanning from the river, and even seeing if the boat could stop along the river to scan the canopy from shore. If you go, please leave a comment about your trip!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Costa Rica bird finding guide high elevations middle elevations

Easy, Highland Birding in Costa Rica at Varablanca

Costa Rica is a dream for any aficionado of topography. Before you ask yourself if there really are people who dig topography, let me assure that there indeed are. Most of us like a mountain scene or two (partly why those Ricola commercials are so memorable), and when I lived in the flatlands of Illinois, I met more than one person who was surprisingly enthused about any change in topography. “Topography!” they would exclaim as we drove over a bit of escarpment. I don’t bemoan that excitement in the slightest for I too am an aficionado of abrupt changes in elevation!

In Costa Rica, you are better off being a fan of a crumpled, up-lifted landscape because that describes most of the country. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. That’s also partly why we have so many birds that occur nowhere else but Costa Rica and Panama. It’s also why we have a bunch of birds that normally live in the Andes. AND, it also makes it easy to leave the urban zone behind and head up into the mountains to one of the closest, best spots for birding near San Jose.

A trail at Poas Volcano Lodge.

Varablanca is just 40 minutes to an hour from the San Jose area and it’s an easy place to see a good variety of highland birds. Most birders don’t go there because they save their mountain birding for Cerro de la Muerte (aka Savegre, the Dota Valley, Quetzal Paradise). While there is more habitat up that way, Cerro de la Muerte is also 2 and a half to 3 hours from San Jose. The proximity of Varablanca makes it an easy, honest option for a first night in country, and I know of at least one local birding tour company that does stay in Varablanca for the first night of most tours.

Lately, I have been spending more time up that way guiding and watching birds at the Poas Volcano Lodge. Here are some recent highlights and observations from Varablanca, Cinchona, and Poas:

  • If it’s raining, go to Cinchona: It might be raining there too, but I have escaped the water on more than one occasion by heading to a lower elevation. The other plus side for Cinchona is still being able to watch birds come to the feeders even if it happens to be raining.
    Note the sign.

    There be barbets and a toucanet on that feeder.
  • Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.

    Black-cheeked Warbler.
  • Black-thighed Grosbeak: Although it often moves to lower elevations in rainy weather, it seems to be fairly common at Poas Volcano Lodge and in the general area.
  • Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher: The general area always seems good for this cool endemic. It sounds like a cricket and usually hangs out in the crowns of tall trees. The Black and yellow is also fairly common around Poas.
  • Don’t discount quetzals and guans: The R. Quetzal is far from common around Poas but it is there. Hang out long enough at the Volcan Restaurant (please support their buisiness and donate generously for the feeders), and there is a fair chance that one will show. Find a fruiting avocado and you might also see one or two. Black Guan is more regular, especially in the forest along the road to Poas.
  • Prong-billed Barbet: This species is pretty common in this area. It can show up in any spot with forest but if you want really close looks, check out the feeders at Cinchona and Poas Volcano Lodge.

    Prong-billed Barbet.
  • Red-tailed Hawk: Yes, readers from the USA and Canada will be saying, “So what?”. To that, I ask if you think this looks like a Red-tailed from home? It doesn’t sound like one either. I wonder how far genetically removed it is from birds up north? Maybe a little, maybe enough for a split. Varablanca and Poas are good areas to study this highland endemic subspecies.

    Maybe we should call this an Orange-bellied Hawk.
  • Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.
    Ruddy Treerunner.
    The Spangle-cheeked Tanager is another endemic.

    And so is the Large-footed Finch.

When booking your hotel for that first and last night in Costa Rica, remember that birdy Varablanca is just 45 minutes to an hour from the airport.

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migration

Birds Arriving, Birds Leaving Costa Rica in August

The calendar says “August’ but in Costa Rica, the weather mimics so many other times of the year. I look out the window and see the thick blanket of clouds hugging the tops of the mountains. It might rain, it might not, but it’s warm outside and that’s always a given. Unlike the northern temperate zone, this month isn’t the last 30 days of summer. There won’t be any crisp autumn nights ahead either. Much to my daughter’s chagrin, she won’t witness the change of seasons. She might feel differently if she knew that winter is not a Disneyesque frozen wonderland. While the natural magic of soft falling snow and faint crystal frequencies of forming ice could remind one of “Elsa”, the enchantment lasts only as long as your personal comfort. Wade through snow drifts, feel the pain of freezing toes, and come face to face with screaming wind chill, and the wish to grow wings and fly south become tangible. After all, a lot of birds do it once a year, so why not us?

These two escape a very cold winter.

A lot of those migrants fly to and through Costa Rica and some have already arrived. Although several shorebirds appear to have stayed here instead of going north, more have definitely flown down from their northern breeding grounds. A few local birders have made trips to Chomes and seen fair numbers of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and even a Long-billed Curlew. Several have also had encounters with Clapper (Mangrove) Rail, a resident, furtive species that appears to be regular in short Black Mangroves at Chomes and nearby sites in the Gulf of Nicoya.

A Long-billed Curlew from last year.

Other shorebirds are surely around and arriving as well, so, hopefully, more birders can get out there and see what’s happening (I hope I can!).

As far as Passerines go, it’s still too early for the majority of warblers but a few have made appearances, including this year’s first report of Cerulean Warbler. Go to the right places in late August and early September and you have a very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler in Costa Rica. Those places are usually foothill and middle elevation forests on the Caribbean Slope, especially at the Reserva las Brisas. The first Cliff Swallows have also appeared, and many other species will be here in a month.

Birds are also leaving Costa Rica. Go birding here during March and the songs of Piratic Flycatchers are a constant theme. Go birding now and you would be lucky to see one. They have stopped singing and some are probably still around, but most have departed for Amazonia. Two other “summer” breeders will also be gone soon as well. Both the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and the Yellow-green Vireo are pretty common species on the Pacific slope from February to about now. I heard both just the other day so know that they are still around but most will be leaving any one of these nights.

Yellow-green Vireo.

Two of the most spectacular species about to leave town are the Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites. Migrating groups have been reported and they are headed to the Amazon basin. the birding is great in Costa Rica, but I wish I could fly with them, at least for a little bit. It would be interesting to see if they go to one area for the winter or if they roam over the vast rainforests. It would also be nice to take in a few Amazonian dawn choruses, but only for a little while because I wouldn’t want to miss the rest of fall migration in Costa Rica.

Plumbeous Kite.
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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Don’t Expect these Species in Costa Rica, but Look for Them Anyways

More than 900 species have made it onto the bird list for Costa Rica, the very latest addition being a Peruvian Booby found by Jorge Zuniga found by Jorge Zuniga on the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. That’s a lot of birds to look for and we can’t expect to see them all. In fact, no one has seen every species on the list for Costa Rica. Many species are vagrants unlikely to occur again (as in Eastern Phoebe and Hooded Merganser) and others are vagrants that are just a pain (hello Connecticut Warbler). Then there are the resident rare species. Those are in a tantalizing category of their own and include species like Harpy Eagle, Crested Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Gray-headed Piprites, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Tawny-faced Quail, and Black-crowned Antpitta.
Even Keel-billed Motmot is much easier than the birds above.
These are species that you can never expect, no matter how much you look for them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t see them in Costa Rica because if you bird in the right places the right way, the chances of finding them do increase. But, at the end of the day,  the odds are always against you in finding them. All you can do is increase your chances of seeing these and other rare ones by hiring a guide who knows how to find them, spend a lot of time at the most likely locations, focus the intent on searching for them, and not be surprised when they don’t turn up.
So if they are so unlikely, why bother even thinking about the super rare birds? Why spend any amount of time looking for them?
The main reason why it’s worth it to look for rare birds like the ones mentioned above is the best reason for birding. Basically, look for the top rarities, and you will see a heck of a lot of everything else. For example, you can only hope for a Harpy in Costa Rica in the Osa Peninsula, Tortuguero, the Laguna del Lagarto area, and maybe down around Hitoy Cerere and vicinity. Trust me, each of those sites is fantastic for lowland forest birding. If the Harpy is present, so is everything else including good numbers of many uncommon species.
Scaly-throated Leaftosser is a good bet along with other raptors, Black-striped Woodcreeper, antbirds, tinamous, and many other tropical lowland species.
Scaly-throated Leaftosser.
While looking for that Harpy, you will also be in range for Crested Eagle, Tawny-faced Quail in some areas, and maybe the ground-cuckoo, antpitta, and piprites.
The Solitary Eagle is very rare in Costa Rica but there are more recent sightings for it than the other two large eagles mentioned. Recently, in checking some old notes, I noticed that I had written down the bird for Virgen del Socorro some years ago. I think I may have seen one at a distance but sadly, don’t recall the sighting that well and so haven’t included it on my country list! I had seen the species previously in South America at least a few times so may not have paid as much attention to the sighting in Costa Rica because it wasn’t a lifer. Silly me, now I have to keep looking for it. But, while checking for the lonely eagle at Pocosol, the Osa peninsula, and other remote, forested foothill sites, I know that I am going to find antbirds, Song Wren, will have a chance at many uncommon foothill species, will probably encounter amazing mixed flocks, and might even run into a ground-cuckoo. Plenty of other birds are in those same places because high quality habitat = lots of birds.
You might run into a Lattice-tailed Trogon.
The same goes for the Gray-headed Piprites. Although it’s far from pretty, this green, eye-ringed oddity is much wanted because no one ever sees it. Well, hardly anyone ever sees it but when it is encountered, that seems to only happen at high quality foothill and lowland sites. In other words, El Copal, sites near Rancho Naturalista, and Laguna del Lagarto come to mind. There is almost nothing known about the bird and that’s why we have no idea why it’s so rare. Quite the enigma, and the best places to happen across it are in high quality habitat. Might as well look though, because, as with the eagles, you see just about everything else.
Hey, you might get fantastic close looks at Spotted Antbird, and you might see that piprites after all.