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.
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Good birding, hope to see you in Costa Rica!