In Costa Rica, the beginning of a new year also marks the start of another high season. Although visits begin to pick up as we move through December, the real jump happens after the ball drops. As if on cue, the rains of the wet season are replaced by fresh new winds flying through sunny skies around San Jose and the Pacific slope. The dry season may or may not extend to the Caribbean slope but overall, there’s a lot less rain and for us birders, that translates to more birding time. Ironically, it also means less bird activity but as long as you can get up at the crack of dawn (and you should if you want to have a better chance at antpittas and more birdies in general), the birding is going to be “fabtastic”.
You might see a White Hawk or two.
With more birders on their way to Costa Rica these days, I also get more questions and inquiries. With the aim of answering most such questions in one fell swoop, I have put together some FAQs pertinent to birding in Costa Rica now and in the coming months:
What time do national parks open?: The parks in Costa Rica pretty much run on office hours. Unfortunately, as those of us with favorite binos know, birds don’t follow the same schedule. They do get up early and that’s when we need to look for them. This doesn’t jive too well with protected areas being open from 8 to 4 but sometimes, there are ways around that schedule. If you can, visit the national park the day before and ask if you can go in around 6 a.m. on the following day. This usually works for Tapanti, Braulio Carrillo, and various other sites. It won’t work for crowded Manuel Antonio. If you can’t get in before 8, just bird adjacent habitat until then.
Even if you go in after 8, you might still see an Ochre-breasted Antpitta.
How can I see toucans, owls, and tanagers?: Toucans and tanagers are pretty easy as long as you visit the right habitat and sites (this translates to quality forest within the respective ranges of various species). As for owls, that takes a bit more effort, usually at night. There aren’t as many known owl roosts but it’s always worth it to ask at any lodge. As far as where and how to look for and find these and other birds in Costa Rica, you will find over 700 pages of this information in my Costa Rica bird finding e-book (or just buy it to help support this blog!).
Is Cerro Lodge close to San Jose? How about Carara National Park?: Cerro (a much recommended lodge for birding the Carara area) is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from the airport, and a ten minute drive to the park entrance. When staying there, make sure you also bird the grounds and road in front of the lodge.
Safety issues in Costa Rica?: It’s pretty much like most places- just use common sense and you will be alright. Don’t leave the vehicle where you can’t see it, especially if you have stuff inside, and don’t walk around with binos and cameras in urban areas.
Which field guide should I use?: As far as a paper guide with illustrations goes, nothing beats the latest version of “The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide” by Garrigues and Dean. Compact, great illustrations, maps, it’s an essential. If you like images of birds, looking at them while listening to their sounds, making target lists, and doing so on a smart phone or tablet, the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is another essential.
Should I rent a car, and if so, from where?: It’s of course much easier to get around with your own vehicle but what about the driving? How easy is it to rent a car? If you are familiar with city driving, you are ready for driving in Costa Rica. Just drive defensively, be ready for other drivers to not follow all the rules, and expect very few signs. Use a GPS navigator, avoid rush hour traffic in the Central Valley whenever possible, and only get a four wheel drive vehicle if you plan on visiting sites that require one. As far as where to rent the vehicle, I can’t help there, I’m not sure which place is best.
There goes most of the most common questions and concerns that get run by me, I hope my answers can help. If I could offer a last bit of advice, I would suggest not expecting species on a checklist for any given site to be immediately apparent and present during a quick visit. Yeah, most seasoned birders know that’s par for the course no matter where we go but it’s always worth mentioning because these tropical ecosystems are complex, and about the only thing predictable is their unpredictable nature. The best way to see more birds in a given amount of time anywhere in Costa Rica is by being patient and spending more time in high quality, rich habitats. Hope to see you birding in 2017!