We all have our favorite spots for birding, even for those of us who happen to live in a country that is basically one big birding hotspot. That’s what Costa Rica is. Find some good forest and there will be a bunch of birds to watch and take pictures of. Even so, if you want to say, for example, look for Black-chested Jay and Sulphur-rumped Tanager while thousands of hawks kettle overhead, you can’t do it in the Central Valley. The same goes for birding around Carara National Park, the Sarapiqui area, or even the Osa Peninsula. To lay the eyes on the birds mentioned above, we need to bring the binoculars to lands south of Limon. This is well off the regular birding route, about 4 hours by car from the vicinity of San Jose, and well worth the trip because the area is fantastic for lowland rainforest birding.
It’s also very good for migrants and this is why I guided a trip to Manzanillo for our local birding club this past weekend. We did indeed see some migrants and quite a few other birds. If you go birding around there, here are some suggestions:
- Birding in uncharted territory: Despite the fantastic birding, very few people go birding south of Limon compared to other areas in the country. It’s just too far off the beaten track for tours and thus receives scant attention from birders nor many mentions in trip reports. This is partly why I love to write about the area when it comes to birding, the other reason is because I love birding down that way. Little coverage means that every visit provides an opportunity to increase the birding knowledge for sites south of Limon and there’s always the chance of finding some really exciting bird. If you bird down that way (something I wholeheartedly recommend), please put those observations into eBird. This is a list of a day at Manzanillo and our list of 102 species from a couple hours on the RECOPE road just outside of Manzanillo.
- Check out the Carbon Dos Road: I did, but it was just for an hour and well after dawn. This road provides access to the Fila Carbon above Cahuita, a forested ridge that probably has the jay, the tanager, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and lots of other good birds. From our brief scout, we found good access to the edge of nice rainforest, and some good views of the forest canopy. Although we didn’t see any cotingas, it looks like a good area to check for Snowy and maybe even Lovely, and could turn up many other species. We saw loads of Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, other migrants, and had a fair number of resident species. Our eBird list.
- Bird the Puerto Vargas entrance to Cahuita National Park: This was another brief stop and another place I would like to bird at a more bird-friendly time of day. Tall forest flanks the side of the road, it’s smartly placed on the coastal migration route, and is probably good for Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and many other birds including the jay. We dipped on those but what could we expect from a 15 minute stop?
- Check out the Puerto Viejo Botanical Garden: This is one of the best spots to bird in the area because it provides some access to good forest. Although it doesn’t open early, you can still get in some very good birding on the muddy trail next to the entrance. The trail is unmarked but obvious. It can be followed to a stream and then across the stream and up the ridge if you like. If you don’t want to cross the stream, you can see several birds right around the entrance. We did that and although we couldn’t find a Spot-crowned Antvireo, we did have good looks at Dot-winged, White-flanked, and Checker-throated Antwrens, Chestnut-backed Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Canada Warbler, Plain Xenops, and so on.
- Visit during migration: Although this area is good for resident species any time of the year, it really is most exciting during migration. I know, most birders from Canada and the USA don’t come to Costa Rica for Eastern Kingbirds and Prothonotary Warblers but it’s always cool to see flock after flock of kingbirds flying overhead like oddly shaped swallows, and who can get tired of seeing twenty or more Scarlet Tanagers in one day? It’s also a good occasion for studying Eastern Wood-Pewee and Red-eyed Vireo; these two species migrate through in the thousands. Of course we can’t forget about the river of raptors. Huge kettles of hawks, kites, and Turkey Vultures are always hard to overlook.
- Bird at your hotel: Most of the lodging between Puero Viejo and Manzanillo is located in old, shade cacao plantations and rainforest. The shade cacao acts pretty much like forest and although it seems like several understory species are rare or not present, most of the canopy birds are. I like the fact that the birding can be great right around the hotel because then, you don’t have to rely on 8 to 4 national park hours, paying entrance fees, and the birding is much more accessible.
- Check the rivers and streams: Although they aren’t common, Agami Heron, Sunbittern, Sungrebe, Green Ibis, and uncommon kingfishers all occur in the area.
- Get in some night birding: This past trip, the night birds just weren’t calling so we did not find Great Potoo, nor Spectacled, Crested, and Black and white Owls. However, we did hear one Mottled Owl and one Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and on past trips, I have had all of the above in one night on the main road between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo!
- Keep an eye out for rarities from Panama and take pictures: I have heard credible reoprts of White-tailed Trogon and Blue Cotinga from this area (both of which would be new for Costa Rica). It seems like Rufous-crested Coquette, and Flame-rumped Tanager might also occur as vagrants. Take pictures of any unusual birds and let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Make the trip: Consider visiting this area if you want easy, nice lowland forest birding around and near your hotel. With plenty of beaches, this is also a nice place to bring the family (although know that Puerto Viejo is a definite, busy, backpacker party town).
Hope to see you birding in Manzanillo, Costa Rica!