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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Big Day Birding in Costa Rica, 2016

If you pay attention to this blog, there’s a fair chance that you know about my Big Days in Costa Rica. If not, then allow me to explain. Each year, I spend way too much planning and analyzing a route that can result in 300 plus species of birds. With more than 900 species on the country list, that shouldn’t be a problem, except that I’m not talking about one or two weeks. No, the craziness comes in the form of a one day event of all out birding, hunter concentration smack in the face of no sleep, and eating chocolate to see more birds. Actually, eating chocolate for birds isn’t crazy at all (in fact, I absolutely recommend it) and it really does help at 2 pm when you have been awake for 12 hours and still need to see a caracara, kingfishers, and hundreds of other species.

This year, the Big Day was originally planned for March. Susan, Robert, and I were going to blast through the country with blazing binoculars from Cano Negro all the way over to the Pacific coast at Chomes with rainforest and cloud forest in between. We were going to do that but then each of us got sick right before the day of reckoning, so, with a heavy heart, it was postponed until April 24. Most of the wintering birds would be gone and that does leave a hole in the final tally, but there would also be migrants coming through and maybe more birds singing as well. At least, that was the gamble and we didn’t have a choice anyways if we wanted to do a Big Day in 2016.

Although Robert couldn’t make it, we still met up with him and Eduardo Amengual on the eve of the Big Day at Cano Negro. We saw a Short-tailed Nighthawk, enjoyed some fine conversation, shared laments over the passing of Prince, and, thanks to Eduardo, also shared a smooth and delicious Spanish Rioja. This was followed by an attempt an getting five hours of sleep. That almost worked except for when I had to get up and slaughter several mosquitoes. Luckily, they weren’t as quick as me and I smashed them in triumph. Triumph-this is what you feel after enduring that damn buzzing in the ear and getting bit in the middle of the night. A bit of sleep after killing mosquitoes was followed by the alarm going off at midnight and the official start of our Big Day!

In the yard at Kingfisher Lodge, we heard a Common Pauraque, and got a response from a Common Potoo- Yes! Two birds down, 298 to go! Looking for roosting birds turned out to be fruitless, but a walk to the dike and dock at Cano Negro gave us Boat-billed Heron, our only Black-bellied Whistling Duck of the day, and a few other species along with the mesmerizing ruby red eyeshine of a couple dozen caimans.

I was hoping we would find one of these guys roosting but no avian cigar for us…

After getting some extra exercise by way of walking in a circle in Cano Negro village, we eventually found the lodge (and the car), and headed out into the night in search of more birdies. Stops on the road out gave nothing new until we reached the bridge at San Emiliano. However, lucky for us, the hoped for Great Potoo was perched at eye level just below the light.

A friendly Great Potoo. These birds are really big!

Off in the fields, no Striped nor Barn Owl (and forget about the super rare Ocellated Poorwill) but it was still cool to hear another Common Potoo. Then, we were off for an easy night drive to our site for more owls and the dawn chorus. This was around Luna Nueva and Pocosol and almost two hours from Cano Negro. To make a long story short, we heard one Mottled Owl, nothing else, and had a disturbing absence of dawn chorus. As the first light of the day became visible on the way to the Pocosol station, we did pick up some birds here and there including Crested Guan, our only Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and various second growth species, but in the forests of the station itself, the trees were eerily bereft of bird song.

Seriously, this was not good and not just because it was a Big Day. I settled on the rainforests at Pocosol as a dawn starting point because these are some of the highest quality forests I have seen in Costa Rica. They host a huge array of common and decidedly uncommon species, and the hope was that being there at dawn would give a better chance at getting more species. Simple as that. On past trips at this time of the year, the dawn chorus at this site was so profuse, it was hard to distinguish which species were calling. Just amazing. On April 24th, though, the forest resounded with cicadas and almost nothing else. Trust me, this is not normal, nor were the dry leaves and wilted moss. If some of the most intact rainforests in Costa Rica are like this, I can’t help but wonder how many areas are approaching ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a drought, it’s prolonged hot, dry weather caused by global warming in places not adapted to those conditions, and the outlook is bad.

A view from the dining area at Pocosol.

We walked the forest trail in silence, hoping for some bird to call and got nothing. At least not until the cicadas slowed down well after dawn. Then, we did pick up birds here and there including some good, expected ones like Black-headed Anthrush, Dull-mantled Antbird, Russet Antshrike, and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Motmots were also calling but it was way too quiet overall. Since we needed more species from that area that we expected during dawn chorus, we stayed longer than scheduled and did pick up more here and there, including White Hawk, King Vulture, and some species near Luna Nueva. I’m not sure what our total was at that time but probably somewhere around 140 species.

Next on the list was the drive up to sites on the way to San Ramon. En route, fortunately, we connected with species seen from the car like Black-cowled Oriole, Rock Pigeon (oh yeah, it counts!), Olive-throated Parakeet, and some others. A stop at the small marsh turned up Great Blue Heron and a few other species, and San Luis was good for tanagers. Our next main stop was the Cocora Hummingbird Garden. Although this cloud forest site had treated us well in the past, it was dead on April 24th. Whether because of dry weather or the loud music from an adjacent birthday party, we came up zilch in the forest but at least picked up some hummingbirds in the garden. The lack of birds prompted a brief stop in front of Nectandra which finally gave us givens like Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch but overall, the cloud forest was a bird silent bust.

One of the birds we picked up was Green-crowned Brilliant.

The stops from then on were better, including Tropical Mockingbird, Purple Gallinule, and several other targets at the Silencio marsh, a quick Vaux’s Swift while filling up in San Ramon, and driveby Rufous-breasted Wren, Plain Wren, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (I love driveby birds on a Big Day). No luck with any driveby birds on the descent to the coast but we lucked out in terms of traffic. Our next main stop, Punta Morales, also provided with a sweet combination of mangrove species and waterbirds. Scanning produced several shorebird species, two gulls species, and five tern species, along with some dry forest stuff. We picked up more dry forest birds on the drive to Chomes, and then got up a few more shorebirds at Chomes itself, best being American Golden-Plover. Although shorebird numbers there were surprisingly low, we also had nice looks at Wilson’s Phalaropes, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and other waterbird targets, and a surprise bunch of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying to roost. As dusk approached, I figured that checking the fields on the way out might be interesting. This turned out to be a good choice as we heard Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Collared Forest-Falcon, Double-striped Thick-knees, and the best bird of the day, Upland Sandpiper! Two called a few times just as it got dark, and they were probably flying into the night sky to migrate north. It was magic. Last but not least, we also managed a Barn Owl that flew in front of the car on the drive out. That was a serendipitous relief.

We quit after the Barn Owl at 6:30. This was early by Big Day standards but we were pleased and pretty much too tired to keep listening for non-calling owls. The final tally was 260 species, and I figured that we could have added at least 80 common species if more birds had been singing (such as tinamous for example), but we weren’t complaining because it was, after all, a memorable, fine day of birding.

Our list for the day: Big Day list 2016

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caribbean slope lowlands

Birding in Costa Rica at Hitoy Cerere

Costa Rica is like a mini continent. Seriously, head to the northwest and magpie-jays call from dry, dusty lanes. Drive a couple hours to the south and you hit humid forest right after the Tarcoles River and where Scarlet Macaws start to screech and thickets echo with the loud voices of endemic Riverside Wrens. Take a turn into the mountains and the weather cools down while the endemic factor heats up. Bird those cloud forests and you might see quetzals, Flame-throated Warblers, and lots of other local goodies. Keep going over that central geological spine and we descend onto the wet Caribbean slope, first through more cloud forest, then through mossy foothill rainforest, and finally into the Caribbean lowlands. That last lowland area harbors the highest diversity in the country. Fewer endemics, but the forests and wetlands make up for it with 400 something species including Great Green Macaw, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Ocellated Nunbird, and several other classic neotropical birds.

The birding is always good but it’s always better when you can work the binos in quality forest. Sadly, since it’s all too easy to fell trees in flat, lowland areas, large areas of mature lowland rainforest can be hard to come by. Most visitors to Costa Rica get their fill at or near La Selva and the birding around there is wonderful, and perhaps it’s not right to compare it with other sites, but my favorite area for lowland birding lies much further south. Once you pass Siquirres, there’s more lowland forest in the house. Most of it is in hilly areas with little access, but a lot of it can be birded right from a hotel and roads south of Limon. Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common, there are lots of toucans and parrots, Snowy Cotinga isn’t too hard to come by, and protected areas have Great Curassow, and so on, and so on.

The curassow gets downright tame in many protected areas of Costa Rica.

Even so, the best areas are still the ones with the least accessible rainforest because there tends to be less impact and more connection to the major forests of the Amistad International Park. One of those “best areas” is the Hitoy Cerere Reserve. Located on the other side of the Valle de la Estrella, Hitoy backs up to the Amistad Park and is therefore connected to rainforests that stretch into Panama to the south and reach Pacuare in the north. There’s more than enough forest for all sorts of species that have become uncommon elsewhere and there’s a fair chance that Harpy Eagles still hunt in the remote corners. Although there weren’t any large eagles for us during a recent two day trip, quality birding was still the rule of birding law.

Hoping to see a cotinga or other canopy species, our inaugural stop was at a forested hillside a kilometer or two before the reserve. This ersthwile canopy tower was a nice place to start the morning and the birds came fast and furious. Blue Ground-Doves were especially common and called while various tanagers and flycatchers moved through the trees, and wrens and antbirds sang from the undergrowth. No cotingas, nor anything rare but we probably identified 60 species or more in half an hour.

At the reserve, the staff were friendly, let us in before the official opening time of of 8 am, and showed us the trails. Although I hadn’t been to Hitoy since 2001, the trails were pretty much the same; one loop through second growth and mature forest, and another, less maintained trail that penetrated wilder parts of the forest. We did both and the birding was pretty darn good.

After walking up the main trail and reaching good forest, it wasn’t long before we were stopped in our tracks by a wall of good birds. While listening for Black-crowned Antpitta, a Great Jacamar suddenly called right next to us. Almost before we could register the importance of the call, a flash of rufous and green materialized into one perched right in front of us!

Great Jacamar is pretty rare in Costa Rica because it needs lot of mature, lowland rainforest.

It called again and again and refused to leave until we walked away from it!

A major year bird and country tick for the others in our group. While the jacamar called like a raptor and a cat (seriously, this is what it does), a Scaly-breasted Wren sang very close and let us watch it. This was another quick tick for one in our group, and a species that is usually tough to see. While this was going on, Purple-throated Fruitcrows called from the canopy and oropendolas rushed through the trees. Somewhere in there, we were also watching a small flock of antwrens including the uncommon for Costa Rica, White-flanked.

When we finally decided to move forward, the call of a dove caught my attention. Another careful listen and yep, I was sure it was a Violaceous Quail-Dove! We crept up to the bird and searched the thick vegetation but much to our frustration, the bird was out of sight and never came closer. I guess you can’t see them all but it would have been nice to lay eyes on this widespread yet perpetually rare dove. I would have especially loved a picture of it since it is one of the last species missing from the field guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama that I work on.

Although we missed laying eyes on the dove, the next encounter made up for it in the form of a Black-crowned Antpitta. The gnatpitta chuckled from the undergrowth and finally gave great looks for all- major lifer for everyone but me but I was still more than happy to watch that tough species!

A blurry yet identifiable gnatpitta.

After the antpitta, we continued on the trail until I decided that the snake-hiding undergrowth just wasn’t worth the risk. Back on the small loop trail, it was mid-morning and quiet as expected but we still had fun with Spotted Antbird, and two woodcreeper species at a rather lackluster antswarm, calling Red-capped Manakin, and a few other understory birds. Back out in front of the station, we were amazed to hear another Great Jacamar and happy to see that the participants of a biology course taught by Oscar Ramirez were watching it.

This was followed by siesta time for us and the birds. Once we became reactivated, we enjoyed a few big kettles of Swainson’s Hawks and a quick flyover of a target male Snowy Cotinga.


Really happy to get this, one of us needed it as a lifer. The dove-live bird even stayed for scope views.

After the cotinga, we continued down the entrance road with the hopes of finding Sulphur-rumped Tanager. On the way, one stop produced an immediate response from and excellent looks at Central American Pygmy-Owl while small birds mobbed it.


This cool bird was right in our faces.

With the owl in the bag, I decided to stop at a promising looking patch of forest where Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant was calling. My idea was that if that species was present, maybe other forest birds were likewise possible. This proved to be correct when I heard the call of Sulphur-rumped Tanager! We glimpsed the bird as it flew just over the canopy and walked down the road, fingers crossed that it had stopped within view. Luck was still with us that day because it had stopped in a tree top just down the road and stayed long enough for scope views to be had by all. It’s not the brightest of tanagers but through the scope, we could see the white tuft at the shoulder, the black bill, and the distinctive shape. Eventually, it also flipped around enough for us to glimpse the pale yellow rump (not as obvious a field mark as you might think). I was also pleased that its call was recognizable because recordings of chip notes often sound different to me than the real thing. The recording I had listened to reminded me of a Black and Yellow Tanager, and sure enough, that is what I heard in the field.

That last main target rounded out an excellent day of birding. We probably had 130 or so species total, and none of those were waterbirds. The following morning, we came back with hopes for the quail-dove but no luck there, nor did we have the jacamar again. We did hear the antpitta though, and saw a few other birds before moving on.

Getting to Hitoy Cerere: In common with many sites nowadays, this turned out to be much easier than what I remembered. The lack of signs at key spots means that you still need to know where to turn but the road wasn’t that bad. Overall, it was similar to conditions on the road to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and could be done with a two wheel drive. Keep in mind, that this could easily change with heavy rains but it should still be easy with four wheel drive.

So, if coming from Limon or Cahuita, follow the road to Pandora (this is at a prominent turn with a gas station on the corner).

At one point, you can go straight or take a right and cross a bridge over a small river. Just go straight.

Eventually, go through bananas, and watch for a sign to Hitoy. Take a left at the sign (it has an arrow pointing that way).

G to a T and take a right (another sign to Hitoy there).

Drive 4.8 kilometers to a fork and bear left (no sign there).

Drive 1.6 kilometers and take a left at the fork (still no sign).

Drive 3.6 kilometers on to the reserve (signs and buildings!).

The drive takes about one hour from Cahuita without birding en route and is around 36 kilometers (from the Cahuita area). There is a $8 entrance fee.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope lowlands

Good Birds at Tirimbina Biological Reserve, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is famous for keeping a high percentage of territory under protection as national parks and reserves. This is wonderful and absolutely laudible but what is often overlooked is the reason why Costa Rica put so much land under protection. Look at satellite imagery of Costa Rica on Google Earth and two things are immediately obvious: (1) a high percentage of the country is deforested, and (2) most of the remaining forest is in mountainous areas. As has so often been the case with protected land in many parts of the world, there wasn’t any push for preservation until alarming areas of the country were bereft of forest. Fortunately, enough people in power realized that the time for protecting biodiversity and watersheds were long overdue, and the national park system kicked into gear.

Fortunately, Costa Rica is also a very mountainous country because steep topography in areas with high precipitation often acts as a natural buffer to logging operations. This is why we still have lots of forest in the mountains, but also why rainforest is a rare commodity in flat, lowland areas. Sadly, such places usually harbor the biggest trees, and the combination of major lumber and ease of access makes them extremely susceptible to logging. This is probably also why Speckled Mourner is so very rare in Costa Rica, why Streak-chested Antpitta is very local, and why Great Potoo is decidely uncommon in the Golfo Dulce lowlands. It seems like all of these species require or prefer flat areas with tall forest, especially the mourner. This is also why it can be tough to gain access to quality, lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope. Much of that remaining habitat occurs near the border with Nicaragua and at sites in the southeast with other areas of lowland rainforest situated in the Sarapiqui region. Although the best known lowland forests in Sarapiqui are at La Selva, there are other sites that also offer excellent bird and seem to be better for certain species. One of those places is the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an excellent place to bird whether visiting La Selva or not.

Tirimbina is, in part, an old cacao plantation with a good degree of primary lowland rainforest. Most of the expected species are present except for the two very large eagles (Crested Eagle might still show up but the Harpy is almost certainly gone from Sarapiqui) and a few other species that seem to be susceptible to edge effects and thus require large areas of intact forest (Red-throated Caracara, Black-eared Wood-Quail, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo). That said, I wouldn’t be too surprised if a wandering caracara showed up on occasion, and perhaps the wood-quail and ground-cuckoo might still be present in very small numbers (or might even come back if we can establish a better corridor with Braulio Carrillo National Park).

Birding at Tirimbina begins right in the parking lot where toucans, chachalacas, Plain-colored Tanager, and other species visit fruiting trees. Those same species along with Rufous Motmot and edge birds can also be seen around the buildings, but the best birding is on the other side of the river. This is where the forest is located and this is the place to see tinamous, antbirds, Red-capped Manakin, and species of the tall forest. Getting there requires a walk across the river bridge (open from 7 to 5, even guests have to check in with reception), and if you are visiting for a day, stopping by the reception to purchase a day pass ($17). The lack of nocturnal access to the best forest is disappointing but that’s the way the birding ball bounces.

From the bridge, scan the river for Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Sunbittern. Agami Heron is also seen now and then as it stalk smaller side channels. The bridge is also a good place to scan the canopy for perched raptors and Snowy Cotinga (not uncommon).

Snowy Cotinga

Once inside the forest, careful birding along any of the trails can result in Great Tinamou, and literally hundreds of possibilities.

We had three Great Tinamous at an antswarm. They were very tame!

Speaking of antswarms, we ran into one last month and had perfect looks at Ocellated Antbirds along with Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, and Northern Barred Woodcreeper. Although we didn’t see anything else with the swarm, it could certainly attract many other species including motmots, forest-falcons, and who knows what else.

One of the Ocellated Antbirds.

The understory is also good for mixed flocks of insectivores. These birds tend to be quiet and unobtrusive. Listen for the sharp call of Checker-throated Antwren, and watch for White-flanked Antwren (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica), Streak-crowned Antvireo, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and other species.

Female White-flanked Antwren.

You also need to watch for canopy flocks. These can host some exciting species, the star of the Tirimbina show being White-fronted Nunbird. This formerly common species has become rare in much of the Caribbean slope because so much of its required lowland primary rainforest habitat has been cut down. The canopy flock might also have Black-striped and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Green Shrike-Vireo, White-shouldered Tanagers, oropendolas, and maybe even Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots. From August to February, such flocks can also have Bare-necked Umbrellabird (!).

Nunbirds!

The canopy also hosts some lowland specialty flycatchers best seen from a hanging bridge that acts as an erstwhile canopy tower. Those target flycatchers are Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. Continuing on, keep an eye out for fruiting trees that could attract other birds, and in creek beds and seeps with a thick understory, listen for the low, two-noted whistle of Slaty-breasted Tinamou. This tough species is much less common than the Great, and Tirimbina is one of a few reliable sites for it.

Slaty-breasted Tinamou!

As with any lowland rainforest site with good forest, of course many other species are also possible. Just keep checking the same trails because the more you look, the more you see. This site also works well in combination with an early morning birding tour at La Selva. Do that, and bird Tirimbina for four days to a week and you have a fair chance of getting most targets, and hitting 300 species (especially if you hire an experienced guide). Who knows, maybe you will even find that Speckled Mourner? I know two people who found one at Tirimbina a few years ago.