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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica middle elevations

Easy Raptor Watching Near San Jose

Costa Rica might have a lot of raptors on the country list but we don’t really see them very often. They are out there but populations are naturally low, and many require high quality forest. Well, lets just say that there are more in high quality forest because there’s just more food available.

Ironically, the problem with seeing lots of raptors in Costa Rica is related to the high levels of biodiversity. Basically, hawks of all sizes have to compete with other hawks, flycatchers, and other birds. The result is fewer hawks but the flip side of the birding coin is more species of hawks. Nevertheless, some places are better for seeing more raptors in a short amount of time than others, and one of the best ones near the Central Valley is the Cinchona-Virgen del Socorro area.

This spot is an excellent site to hang out and wait for raptors because the area is easily accessed by good roads (it takes about an hour and 15 to 20 minutes to drive there), and there are several spots that overlook a forested canyon. As a bonus, this area is also close enough to Braulio Carrillo to up the odds of having a few of the rarer species fly into view.

Some of the species to look for:

White Hawk

The Socorro area is one of the classic sites for this beautiful hawk. Look for it perched in the canyon or just flying around on sunny days.

Barred Hawk

This one is also best seen on sunny days as it soars, calls like a gull, and displays. Its shape is a heck of a lot like a Black Vulture.

Short-tailed Hawk

One of the more commonly seen raptor species in Costa Rica, including this area.

Swallow-tailed Kite

From February to August, this expression of avian elegance is commonly seen around Cinchona and Socorro.

Broad-winged Hawk

This common, wintering species often perches on roadside trees or is seen soaring overhead.

Gray Hawk

Another commonly seen species, this adaptable hawk is a good one to know because it can occur almost anywhere in the country.

Bat Falcon

A pair or two lives in the canyon. In the early morning, watch for them perched on snags, including the one near the Colibri Cafe. We also see this species soaring or in flight and looking a lot like a White-collared Swift in the process.

In addition to the two regular vultures, bonus birds can also show up including Ornate and Black and White Hawk-Eagles, and Great Black Hawk. On the San Miguel section of the road, you might also see Laughing Falcon, Double-toothed Kite, and King Vulture. In the past, Solitary Eagle was also regular in this area. Although it hasn’t been seen for several years, maybe it could turn up again?

For more information about finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica, see How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Great Birding for a Bargain at La Marta Refuge

I wish I could say that birding is always free. It would be if we still lived in a world with abundant habitat and biodiversity because there would be easier access to more birds. But, the modern realities of overpopulation and big money interests that view conservation as a hindrance to short term gain continue to result in fewer birds and even fewer places to see them. This varies by region and nation, but is why we have to pay entrance fees and guides to see birds like Philippine Eagle, wood-quails, and countless other species. Sure, we could try and see them on our own, but with more birds restricted to national parks and protected areas, paying to have better chances at more species has become a common necessity.

In Costa Rica, although there are public places that lack gates and require no entrance fee, the best and most accessible places for birding are in private and public reserves. I was at one such site last weekend and given the number of uncommon species we encountered, level of avian activity, and trail mileage, it was an excellent bargain. This place is “La Marta Refuge” and if you feel like seeing lots of birds for a bargain, I recommend it, absolutely. What to expect:

Tawny-crested Tanagers: Yes, they can be seen elsewhere but the high numbers at La Marta put them first in terms of expectations. This is probably the most common species at the site.

Always a fun bird to watch.

Other tanagers: Fruiting trees are also visited by Emerald, Speckled, Black and Yellow, Bay-headed, and other tanagers including the uncommon chlorospingus formerly known as the Ash-throated Bush-Tanager. Enjoy the show!

I was very pleased to finally get a shot of this uncommon probable endemic split.

Pretty easy access: La Marta is accessed by a road from the town of Pejibaye. Although there are time when the entrance road might require four wheel drive, for the most part, it is easy enough with a regular car. Contact them for updated road conditions.

Basic lodging and camping: If you want to stay there, the accommodation is cheap but very basic. Rooms are shared, mattresses are thin, there aren’t any mosquito nets, and the water is cold but it doesn’t cost much! Meals can also be arranged for a good deal, and camping is possible.

Lots of trails in good habitat: This is one of the few places I have seen in Costa Rica that have kilometers of trails. All of the trails go through forest, a fair bit of which is habitat that has grown back over a hundred years and includes many non-native Poro trees. I suspect this affects the avifauna somewhat but maybe not too much because it’s connected to large areas of mature, native forest, and the back trails access more of that habitat. Limited time kept us on trails much closer to the HQ, and those were good enough but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones way back in the reserve hosted rarities like Black-banded Woodcreeper, Sharpbill, and many other uncommon species.

Uncommon species: Speaking of rare birds, these are some of the “good” ones we saw or heard among species already mentioned:

Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Barred Hawk

Bicolored Hawk

Crested Owl

Short-tailed Nighthawk

Snowcap

Brown Violetear

Dull-mantled and Ocellated Antbirds

Tawny-chested Flycatcher- fairly common on the road near the buildings!

Although we did not see Sunbittern, nor Tiny Hawk, both of these are regular at La Marta.

Lanceolated Monklet: Saving the best for last, um, yes, based on this past weekend, La Marta might be the best site for this species in Costa Rica. It’s a pain to see no matter where you go but since we had two different birds in one day, and the trails access lots of suitable habitat, seeing the monklet at La Marta is a fair bet than many other sites.

I would love to go back, although next time, I hope I can survey the more remote parts of the reserve to look for ground-cuckoo, Gray-headed Piprites, and various other rare species.

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Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Some Tips for Birding Costa Rica at Carara National Park

I have written about Carara National Park on more than one occasion. One of the better birding sites in an already very birdy country, this important protected area merits more coverage because it always delivers. Although I have mentioned tips for better birding at this site in other posts, it doesn’t hurt to provide updates and more suggestions for making the most out of Carara. Try these tips to see more in and around Carara National Park:

Do both trails: There are two main trails at Carara. The “Laguna Meandrica” is the famous “River Trail” and leaves from a small, hidden parking area nearly a kilometer from the HQ heading towards San Jose. Carefully watch for the entrance to this trail on the right. The other trail leaves from the HQ and has a few loops. Both can overlap quite a bit in terms of species but also have their differences. In general, expect more edge and second growth species on the Laguna trail and more deep forest birds on the HQ trails although both are always good. On the Laguna trail, the oxbow lake is much smaller than it used to be and not nearly as productive. Given the high temperatures on Laguna, if you want to do both in a day, do that one in the morning and the forest trail after lunch.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar can be seen on both trails.

Check the large rocks: On the HQ trail, pay close attention to any large rocks on the forest floor. One or more might be a Great Tinamou!

Do the back loop of the Quebrada Bonita trail: It seems like more of the deep forest species are more regular on the back loop of this trail. These are birds like Baird’s Trogon, Marbled Wood-Quail (pretty rare), mixed flocks with Russet Antshrike, Rufous-winged Woodpecker and other species, Northern Schiffornis, Streak-chested Antpitta, Rufous Piha, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and Black-striped, Long-tailed, and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers. These can also turn up on other trails but seem most common on the back loop. This is the part of the trail on the other side of the bridge over the creek.

The White-shouldered Tanager is commonly seen on both trails as well.

Bird the Bijagual Road: This is an easy area to bird when looking for raptors and when you have an hour or two before the park opens (seven until April, eight at most times of the year). Great birding on the Cerro Lodge road can also make good use of that time but the Bijagual Road is also worth it. The other day, we did especially good in front of the Pura Vida gardens with looks at Fiery-billed Aracari, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Western Tanager, and several other species. There is overlap with the national park but since some species are more regular on this road, it’s a good area to include in your birding mix.

The view from the Bijagual Road during the wet season.

Check the crocodile bridge: As with just about all birding, this area is best at dawn and late afternoon, especially for flybys of various species coming to and from roosting sites. But, if you have to check it in the middle of the day, that could still be worth it because you never know when a quick walk to the middle of the bridge might turn up a Pearl Kite, Harriss’s Hawk, waterbirds, Yellow-billed Cotinga, or other additions.

Although drier conditions mean that there aren’t as many birds as there used to be, you can still see a lot, especially with a lot of time and patience. As with any tropical forest, it pays to be patient and walking with an experienced guide is the best way to see more birds.

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Birding Costa Rica

Some Costa Rica Birding News for February, 2017

The second month of the year has begun and anyone working on their year list should be well underway with that endeavor. Time is a wasting, go get them birds! Since the start of the year, I have followed that policy as well as I can and it’s paid off with a good selection of key species from few trips afield. But that’s not really why I am writing this post. This one is going to deal with the latest in birding-related news for Costa Rica, I hope it’s of help!

This Tawny-throated Leaftosser at Virgen del Socorro was a welcome find, and even more so because it perched for photos! Looking forward to finally putting images of this tough species on field guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama.

The current dry season and cold fronts: It’s dry and windy in the Central Valley and the Pacific northwest. That’s normal for this time of year although the cold fronts hitting the Caribbean are reminiscent of weather in December. That translates to lots of cloud cover and rain, and that’s a good thing for those wet forests.

Lots of trees have fruit: At least, that’s the way it looked a few days ago around Virgen del Socorro. Most trees were covered in fruit and we had a good number of tanagers. I suspect the same thing is going on in much of the Caribbean foothills and lowlands. Check it out, that’s where a lot of birds are going to be, especially elevational migrants like Black-thighed Grosbeak, Black-faced Solitaire, cotingas, and who knows what else?

Black-thighed Grosbeak

An order for a plan to protect Corcovado National Park: Excellent news! Hopefully, this will come to pass because for the past five years or so, the park has been pretty much besieged by illegal gold miners who also hunt within the park. I just hope and pray that they haven’t managed to kill any of the last remaining Harpy Eagles that may occur in the Osa, nor that such a travesty happens before effective protection takes place. Since challenging logistics and regulations keep most birders out of the park boundaries, most don’t actually visit the park itself. But, quite a few do bird in lodges just outside of the national park and effective protection will result in healthier bird populations for those areas as well. It goes without saying that most of us birders are all about protection of special places with lots of birds whether we visit them or not.

Lots of good birding in the usual places: From eBird reports, it looks like most of the expected species are being seen in commonly visited sites. In other words, the birding is good, expect to see a lot!

Cinchona Colibri Cafe charges for photo sessions: If you visit the Cafe Colibri with a DSLR, expect to pay $10, and they may eventually charge an hourly fee. Since they have a new feeder set-up down below, both barbets are regular, and Buff-fronted Quail-Dove has been showing up, the fee is a pretty good value.

A Red-headed Barbet from the Cafe Colibri.

San Luis Canopy Tanagers?: I heard a rumor that they are no longer feeding tanagers at this site between La Fortuna and San Ramon. Whether this is true or not, the site still merits a visit because fruiting trees attract the same set of tanager species and other birds.

Cano Negro is jamming: The recent (and perhaps on-going) wet weather have flooded fields on the road in to Cano Negro. Those have been good for Jabiru and lots of other target wetland species. I wish I were there!

The Chomes situation: I haven’t been there recently but what little I have heard doesn’t sound so good. Another rumor but given the appearance of the place and settlers moving in to the pond area, it might be true that the site is no longer being managed for shrimp and salt production. If this is true, the ponds at this classic site probably won’t be as suitable for shorebirds as in the past. If so, hopefully those same birds can find enough refuge in the gulf itself. As for us birders, it might be harder to find Mangrove Rail, and shorebirding will be even more limited, the best spot being the Punta Morales ponds at Cocorocas.

A scene from Cocorocas.

I hope this news helps, and hope to see you enjoying the birds and nature of Costa Rica!

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dry forest Pacific slope

A Few Tips for Dry Forest Birding in Costa Rica

Different major habitats are one of the main reasons why we have so many bird species in Costa Rica, especially the rainy places. More water translates to higher numbers and varieties of life forms, birds included. But, if you tire of humid, energy sucking and optic challenging conditions, you can always retreat to the hot, dry northwest. Although the Central Valley also sort of falls into the Pacific dry forest bio-region, the habitat is much better down in the lowlands.

The beautiful Blue Grosbeak is fairly common.

In Costa Rica, the dry forest region is on the Pacific slope and extends from around Tarcoles north to Nicaragua. Much of it has been converted to farms with open areas for cattle, and crops, rice and melons predominating in the flood plains. However, despite natural forest being limited to riparian zones and protected areas, there are still plenty of interesting birds to see in lots of places. If you find yourself birding anywhere in the dry zone, try these tips to see more stuff:

Early does it: Yeah, that pretty much goes for seeing more birds in most places but getting out bright and early is doctrine in places with tropical dry forest. The difference between activity in the early morning and a few hours later is like a disappearing magic act. The motmots, flycatchers, and everything else were all there and singing, and now they aren’t. Where did they go? What are they doing? Good questions but suffice to say, after 8:30, they don’t feel like being seen. Take a siesta or relax by the pool (or in it) when our feathered targets are probably doing the same.

Water: Speaking of pools, as with other xeric situations, water tends to be a magnet. Focus on the riparian zones and even small bits of shaded water to see more birds. The good thing about such green spots is they can concentrate the birds, especially during the dry season (also when most birders visit). Check for Crane Hawk, Collared Forest-Falcon, Royal Flycatcher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Painted Bunting, Banded Wren, and lots of other dry forest species.

Streaked Flycatcher will probably also show up.

Wetlands: Ironically, the dry forest zone also has some great wetland habitats. The best are in the flood plains of the Tempisque and Bebedero Rivers and include such sites as Palo Verde, Rancho Humo, and other places with marshy areas. Flooded rice fields can also work out, especially the ones on the road to Playa Hermosa and on the way in to Palo Verde. They don’t have as many birds as more natural and less chemically affected habitats but they are still always worth a look. Among the widespread aquatic species, you might also find wintering shorebirds, and, with luck, various rail species. These are also good places to look for seedeaters, Tricolored Munia, Snail Kite, and interesting wintering species.

Places like this are good ones to check.

What about the wind?: It’s often windy out there in the northwest. Just as the birds do, find sheltered spots for birding. Fortunately, this tends to coincide with riparian zones and that’s where more birds are anyways.

Tennessee Warblers: Expect to see a lot of these little boreal Phylloscop wannabes on survival vacation. Yesterday, I saw a bunch of birds fly up from a road in dry forest. I figured they would be Indigo Buntings but nope, they were a bunch of masquerading Tennessees! Pish to see how many come in but keep checking to see if you can tease out a rare vagrant like a Northern Parula, Nashville, or Orange-crowned Warbler. I know, not so exciting for birders from Ontario or Ohio but since these are megas down this way, please do report any you find (I know I want them for my year list)!

Check the swallows: Fast flying aerialists are easy to overlook when we got motmots and parrots in the neighborhood but keep checking and you might turn up rare species for Costa Rica like Violet-green, Tree, and Cave Swallows. All of these tend to occur more often in the dry northwest and are good finds for Costa Rica! For example, I was very pleased to see a Tree Swallow yesterday at Punta Morales. For a moment, I thought I was also going to tick Cave Swallow for the year but it turned out to be a Southern Rough-winged in bright lighting. Even if you don’t turn up a rarity, it’s always good practice to scan through hundreds of Barn Swallows.

Expect a lot of Barn Swallows.

Get into some good dry forest: Although a lot of birds can be seen outside of protected areas, if you also want to see Thicket Tinamou, Stub-tailed Spadebill, woodcreepers, and more birds overall, you need to spend some time in real dry forest and not pasture punctuated with trees. Some of the best dry forest sites are Santa Rosa, Palo Verde, and Guanacaste National Parks, Lomas Barbudal, and quite a few forested areas on the Nicoya Peninsula.

For a lot more information on finding birds in Costa Rica as well as how to look for and identify them, help out this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book.

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Good birding, hope to see you in Costa Rica!