Recently, a fold-out publication called, “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” was distributed at the Birdfair in Rutland, UK. It’s a boon for birding in Costa Rica, it’s wonderful that it was published, and I hope the hotels and agencies that paid for this marketing product will benefit from it. The ones mentioned as birding hotspots protect habitat, offer good accommodation and services, and are good spots for birding. I would also agree that some in the publication do merit “birding hotspot” status, especially Rancho Naturalista. However, several other fantastic sites for birding were not mentioned, including some that certainly deserve “hotspot status”. This doesn’t mean that the publication is bad or wrong. It mean that there wasn’t enough space to mention every site. Lack of certain sites also stems from the inclusion of the “comfort factor” for designation of hotspots. According to the people who made this publication, quality of service and accommodation were definitely factored into the equation. They also told me that hotspots are meant to refer to regions rather than hotels (those being mentioned as “core sites” for a region). Nevertheless, since “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” leaves out several important sites for birding in Costa Rica, I feel obligated to set the record straight, or basically give my opinion regarding birding hotspots in Costa Rica:
What makes a place a birding hotspot in a country that already happens to be one big hotspot?
This is a worthwhile question to ponder because yes, since Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia, has a bird list of more than 900 species including dozens of regional endemics, and one can reach most corners of the country by driving four or five hours from the center, it’s easy to give hotspot status to the entire nation. Nevertheless, not every site has hundreds of bird species and that usually comes down to presence or absence of habitat. Therefore, extent of habitat (1) should be the primary factor in determining “hotspot” status because basically, in Costa Rica, the most intact forests have the most bird species and the highest number of birds. Protection (2) is another consideration because unsustainable hunting affects populations of tinamous, cracids, wood-quails, raptors, etc. and makes them much harder to see. The other main factor is logistics (3) because although the best highland birding I have seen in Costa Rica was on the trail up to Chirripo, present regulations and challenges rule it out as a feasible birding destination (you won’t see many birds when you have to constantly march uphill). The comfort factor is also something to consider but since excellent birding isn’t contingent upon easy access, and quality lodging, I haven’t given that factor as much weight as the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Publication.
So, with those factors in mind, this is my take on the top sites where a birder is most likely to encounter the highest number of species and regional endemics in a given amount of time, for each region or major habitat:
- Central Valley: When this part of the country was covered in moist tropical forest and wetlands, it was probably fantastic birding and a great place to see Three-wattled Bellbird, Long-tailed Manakin, and many other species. However, since this is the part of the country where people set up house and agriculture, those birding opportunities disappeared 150 or more years ago. As with any area mostly dedicated to urbanization, the birding opportunities that remain are pretty slim. You don’t want to linger for too long in this part of the country but if you have to stay here, try the birding at Zamora Estate Hotel and Xandari. The Bougainvillea is a perennial favorite but both of the sites mentioned are closer to the airport, have more habitat, and thus more bird species. You might also want to stay a bit further afield in the Varablanca area.
- Cloud forest: In my opinion, the Monteverde area wins hotspot status for this wonderful habitat. It’s easy to get to (and will be easier when more of the road is paved), has plenty of infrastructure, is easy to bird, and has lots of great habitat. Bellbirds are easy from March and April to July, the R. Quetzal is reliable, and many other uncommon species are easier in the forest reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, and Curi-Cancha) than other parts of Costa Rica and elsewhere, including Highland Tinamou, leaftossers, Azure-hooded Jay, Coppery-headed Emerald, and many other species. Include a trip down to the San Gerardo station and you will also visit one of the best birding sites in Central America. This is an excellent area for Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas, Black-headed and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and many other possibilities including hawk-eagles, and even Solitary Eagle.
- Tropical dry forest: Although many dry forest species seem to be more adaptable than rainforest species, and can thus be seen in edge habitats and riparian zones in much of the northwest (the Tarcoles River and north of there), the best hotspots for this habitat are probably Santa Rosa National Park, Palo Verde National Park, and Rincon de la Vieja National Park. At Rincon de la Vieja, the drive up is good for many dry forest birds while the forests of the park have a nice mix of dry forest and rainforest species including Tody Motmot, various raptors, a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, quail-doves, and the list goes on.
- High Elevations: Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find excellent high elevation birding in Costa Rica due to ease of access of several protected areas. Poas is an easy fix for high elevation endemics, and can be better for Black Guan and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher than the high Talamancas. However, the best sites for high elevation birding are indeed located in the Talamancas on Cerro de la Muerte. Savegre is often mentioned as the place to go because they have a great, well-earned reputation, comfortable accommodation, and good habitat with good birds. However, if you can’t afford Savegre, you can still see the same birds by staying at other lodging in the area and birding from the main road in San Gerardo de Dota, birding on the road to Providencia through Quetzal National Park, and birding the trails behind La Georgina. Toucanet Lodge and Paraiso de Quetzales also deserve mention.
Learn about more hotspots next week…
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