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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Some Sites for Shorebirds in Costa Rica

When most birders think of Costa Rica, shorebirds don’t usually come to mind. Although thousands of waders do winter and migrate through the country, let’s face it, people with serious bins usually visit Costa Rica for a pleasantly high number of regional endemics, a few dozen hummingbirds, glittering tanagers, quetzals, and the list goes on but it doesn’t typically include Whimbrels, Willets, or even godwits.

Marbled Godwits are common in Costa Rica during the winter months.

For birders from North America, most of those shorebirds are especially unexciting because they can be seen back home, or at least on shorter trips closer to the home base. However, for birders from other parts of the globe, getting in some shorebirding is a quick way to tick and study a bunch of New World waders. To fill in the shorebird pages of your guide or checklist, bring a scope and try these following spots and strategies:

Estuaries, especially Tarcoles

Any of the estuaries on both coasts are good for shorebirds. As with many places on the planet, river deltas in Costa Rica are a good way to connect with species like Collared Plover, Semi. and Wilson’s Plovers, Black-bellied (Grey) Plover, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers (the three standard peeps in Costa Rica), and a few other waders. Other, rarer shorebirds can of course also show, and the most productive estuary might be the one at the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. For this spot, I’m not sure which end of the tides is best (maybe low?), but it’s always worth checking. This can be done on one of the birding mangrove boat tours or by visiting the Playa Azul area.

This estuary is a rarity magnet and thus always worth checking.

Chomes

This most classic of shorebird sites has long been the best place to look for waders in Costa Rica. That dynamic could be changing because of different management practices and the presence of squatters but, so far, it still seems worthwhile to check. During the dry season, much of the place can dry out but the lagoons close to the beach are often the best ones. The road through the ponds often requires four wheel drive and also provides access to mangrove birds. High tide is the best time to visit this site because this kicks the birds out of the Gulf of Nicoya and sends them in the ponds. However, if you do visit during low tide, you can still check out some of the birds on the mud flats of the Gulf. Since this site has little shade and is rather extensive, walking it could be a good way to die from heat stroke. Therefore, a vehicle is definitely required and it’s needed to reach every corner of the salt ponds in any case. You may have to search a fair bit to find the birds. Keep in mind that the drive in is also good for dry forest and open country species.

Visiting Classic Chomes last autumn paid off big time with a major flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. They were in this lagoon near the beach. This and an adjacent lagoon are two of the more productive ones for birds.

Punta Morales, Ensenada, and other sites on the Gulf of Nicoya

Located near Chomes, Punta Morales has become a new classic for shorebirds. As with Chomes, the birds come in to the salt ponds during high tide. At times, thousands of shorebirds and terns can be seen on the dikes and feeding in the pools. This site is also easier to reach and likewise provides access to mangroves and some dry forest habitats.

Ensenada has similar ponds used by shorebirds during high tide but doesn’t usually host as many species or individuals. Nevertheless, since this wildlife refuge also offers lodging, it’s a good spot to combine an overnight stay with shorebirding and dry forest birding.

There are also other intriguing salt and shrimp pond sites on the Gulf of Nicoya, the best known being the ponds near Colorado. Interesting birds can occur at any such ponds, a normally pelagic White Tern was seen at one such area on the other side of the Gulf a couple years ago!

Shorebirds at Cocorocas, Punta Morales.

Mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya during low tide.

Rice Fields

These pseudo wetlands vary when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but can be worth a look, especially if there are muddy wet fields present. As one might expect, these are the places to look for American Golden-Plovers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Upland Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, and Long-billed Dowitcher. Other shorebirds can also occur and there can be large concentrations of them in the Tempisque basin. Although some of the best rice fields in this area are inaccessible, some good ones can still be birded on the road in to Palo Verde. Mega for Costa Rica Curlew Sandpiper has been found in this area and who knows what else might show?

Other good rice fields to check are the ones on the road to Playas Coco and Hermosa, rice fields near Jaco and Quepos, and, especially, the ones in the wetland area known as Coto 47. This latter site in particular holds a lot of promise and has been reliable for Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

Rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa- lots of good stuff have occurred here including Baird’s and Upland Sands, and Aplomado Falcon.

Other Wetlands

Some other wetland sites can also be good for shorebirds, notably Cano Negro, the El Silencio wetland on the road to the VillaBlanca cloud forest, any number of wet pastures and fields, remnant wetland areas in the Coris-Bermejo area near Cartago (mostly inaccessible), and exposed mud flats at the Cachi reservoir (mostly visible from Ujarras).

Wet puddles and the edges of lakes and ponds in paramo and highland areas can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper.

The El Silencio wetlands.

Some Special Birds to Look For

These are a few of the more interesting shorebirds and megas that could show.

Surfbird– Uncommon during migration, any sites in the Gulf of Nicoya are good for it and they can also show on exposed rocky areas anywhere on the Pacific coast.

Wandering Tattler– Rare but winters and migrates through the Pacific coast, only on exposed rocks washed by waves. Check enough such sites and you will eventually find one.

Long-billed Curlew– Rare in Costa Rica but regular in winter at Punta Morales, the Colorado area, and Chomes. Numbers vary but there are probably three to ten birds present each year.

I was happy to get my year bird in January.

Hudsonian Godwit– A sweet one to add to your country list but a long shot because studies have shown that most probably skip over Costa Rica when flying from stop over sites in Colombia and Mexico. Nevertheless, there must be a few that touch down each April and May, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Josh Beck, Kathi Borgmann, Susan Blank, and I saw our bird at Chomes on April 24th, 2014.

American Golden-Plover– Several pass through but rather few stop. Watch for it at any shorebird sites during migration.

Pacific Golden-Plover– Very rare but this one might actually be slightly more regular than expected. The reason I say this is because this past February, one was documented out of a group of six (there were only photos of the one so we can’t say for sure if the others were also Pacifics but based on the date and the observer’s comments, it seems likely). They were in rice fields of the Tempisque basin; some of the least visited yet most productive shorebird areas in the country. The other reason why this species may be more regular is because few birders in Costa Rica are aware that this species is even possible and thus haven’t had it on their RADAR. When the photos of the recent Pacific Golden Plover were circulated, most people said it was an American Golden Plover (not as if it’s an easy identification to start with).

Curlew Sandpiper– Only a few records but given the lack of monitoring, I bet one or even a few pass through each year.

Ruff– See Curlew Sandpiper.

This one is pretty easy to identify.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper– Not on the list yet but at least one flew through here because this species was identified in Panama last year! Lots of Pectorals pass through, I wonder how many Sharp-taileds also migrate through the country? If you see a funny looking Pectoral, take pictures!

Red-necked Stint– Not on the list either and in winter plumage not likely to be noticed. If there is a vagrant one in Costa Rica, hopefully it will have the decency to sport some breeding plumage. Along similar lines, I suppose it’s not out of the question to also mention Common Ringed Plover as a very rare possibility.

A Red-necked Stint I saw in Thailand- note the very unassuming plumage in this old, digiscoped shot.

Bristle-thighed Curlew– Um, isn’t this blog supposed to be about Costa Rica? No, not on the list yet but like the Pacific Golden-Plover, it winters on Pacific islands. It might turn up some day on Cocos Island and who knows, perhaps on the mainland coast?

American Pipit– Not exactly shorebird material but since it would be a great find, has already occurred a few times, and is likely to show in the same habitats as sandpipers and plovers. The same goes for Red-throated Pipit and wagtails- serious long shots for sure but hey, they are possible!

To learn more about sites for shorebirds and other birds in Costa Rica, as well as how to find and identify them (and to support this blog), get my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding News and Recommendations for April, 2017

It’s April and most of the migrants have left Costa Rica. Not all of them, I saw a Hooded Warbler yesterday along with a few Chestnut-sideds, Yellows, and Philadelphia Vireos but the majority have gone back north. In the meantime, it’s been raining more often and the local birds are out and singing. Stay in the Central Valley right now and you will be made aware of that with a chorus of 4 a.m. Clay-colored Thrushes. Visit now and you also have a better chance of connecting with calling Three-wattled Bellbirds up around Monteverde and in the remote and enticing Las Tablas area near Panama.

You might also benefit from knowing the following information:

Pollo Vaquero restaurant

It takes more than bird finding information for a satisfying stay in Costa Rica. If you happen to find yourself hungry and on the road between Ciudad Quesada and San Miguel (you will be on this route if travelling between the Arenal area and Sarapiqui), the roadside Pollo Vaquero restaurant could be your best bet. Somewhere west of Rio Cuarto, eat at this local diner to experience the type of service, good food, and value that used to be commonplace at most “sodas” in Costa Rica. Nowadays, it’s all too common to come across restaurants that charge too much for too little quantities of average fare. Not so for this nice little place. I recommend it very much!

Casona Cafetal restaurant

Sticking to the restaurant theme, this one in the Orosi Valley might be one to avoid if you don’t want to pay more for average food. It’s not bad, the surroundings are pretty nice, and there are Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrows in the surrounding coffee fields but if you do eat here, know that the cuisine is far from incredible despite being available for gourmet prices.

Poas Volcano National Park closed!

Back to much more pertinent news. Yep, sadly, one of the volcanos visible from my house and from much of the Central Valley became much more active on April 14th. Although the volcano has shown small signs of activity now and then, that was nothing compared to the eruptions of recent days. Since that first day of volcanic action, Poas shot a cloud of ash and gas three kilometers into the sky along with some rocks, and the park has been closed. Very unfortunately for birders and a few businesses up that way, the police also blocked off the access road well before the park entrance. I have heard that they moved the barrier up the road since then, and for the sake of the Volcan Restaurant, I sure hope that’s the case. To sum things up, unfortunately, this means that the most accessible high elevation habitat near the airport is off limits for an indefinite period of time.

You can still visit the Colibri Cafe though.

El Tigre marshes no more

Often mentioned in trip reports, the wet fields at this site in Sarapiqui used to be good for various marsh birds including Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. However, a few years ago, they began to dry out, the owners put in cattle, and also appear to be actively draining what the few remaining wet areas. In all likelihood, it will be converted into a pineapple field doused with poison. So, it’s probably not worth it to include this site in an itinerary because it’s basically finished.

Dave and Dave’s Nature Park

On a much brighter note, the site formerly known as the Nature Pavilion just keeps getting better. The father and son team continue to give natural history and tree planting tours, and have recently set up a feeder situation that brings in toucans and other large frugivores. Macaws (both Great Green and Scarlet) also visit from time to time to feed on seeding and fruiting trees. Although there are fewer birds at the feeders at the moment (typical for April and May), they do have an accessible nest of a Royal Flycatcher, and there’s always a chance at Sunbittern on the river. Hopefully, we will hear about available roosting owls in the near future, they told me they were actively looking for them!

White-necked Jacobin- a typical shot from Dave and Dave’s

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at Finca Steller

Finca Steller acts as the field headquarters for the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, is accessible from the village of El Tigre, and sounds like it offers some excellent birding opportunities. Open from 8 to 4, there are trails, and a recent video was taken there of a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo! Given that this low density high quality indicator species is present, I would expect a lot more from this “new” site.

That’s all for now, as always, lots of birds to see, places to explore, and plenty of easily accessible, excellent birding. Hope to see you here!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope preparing for your trip

Comparing Cano Negro and Tortuguero

There’s more than one way to watch a bird. When I was a kid, I stared out the window of cars and buses, constantly scanning distant tree tops, fields, and other aspects of urban and rural landscapes that rushed on by. In the summer, the sweet smell of hay fields was accompanied by Eastern Kingbirds that perched on fence lines and sallied into the air , beautiful orange-bellied Barn Swallows coursing over fields, sudden bright yellow American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers in flight, hawks on high perches or telephone poles, a Belted Kingfisher perched on a wire over a river, and other roadside avian sights. Since then, I have seen a few good birds from trains, even pulling lifers like Sharp-tailed Grouse and the one and only funky Lewis’s Woodpecker while traveling through western situations, but, as one might expect, the most productive birding is a consequence of your own two feet.

Being in control of our own mobility facilitates searching branches and other vegetation for the inconspicuous. We can listen for target birds and head in that direction, or just hang out and wait for stuff to show. It also makes it easier to access more sites but there are still a few habitats denied to those on the ground. Until someone invents some futuristic water walking device, even the closest of pelagic zones is a no go to the walker. The same goes for most wetlands, including rivers, lakes, and marshes. Sure, you could wear waders and hope that you don’t step into some bottomless quick sand while floundering through muck and mud but no bird is worth being eaten by the marsh. Those wetland situations are where boats come into play and you will need one when birding a few sites in Costa Rica.

Some fine boat birding at Tortuguero.

The two main ones that come to mind are Cano Negro and Tortuguero. Cano Negro is essentially a wetland area more associated with Lake Nicaragua than the Caribbean lowlands. You do get some species from that bio-zone but it’s also why you can see things like Nicaraguan Grackle, Limpkin, and Snail Kite. Tortuguero, on the other hand, is mostly composed of swampy coastal rainforest where the “roads” are canals and rivers. Both sites can be birded without a boat but you would be missing a lot if you stuck to dry land. Although they have their similarities, Cano Negro and Tortuguero also differ in some ways. Here are some thoughts that stem from comparing the two:

Sungrebe!

In this respect, both sites are similar. Spend two days birding from boat at either site and you have a very good chance of seeing the sole New World representative of the Finfoot family.

Great Potoo

The big-headed night bird is regular at both sites.

Great Green Macaw

Not at Cano Negro but doing quite well at Tortuguero with several birds recently feeding on Beach Almonds in the village!

Cano Negro has more kingfishers

Perhaps from fish being more concentrated and maybe being less affected by pesticides, one usually sees a lot more kingfishers at Cano Negro. All of the same can also be seen at Tortuguero but they are more common in Cano Negro.

Jabiru 

Although the king of New World storks has been seen at Tortuguero, it’s far more regular at Cano Negro, especially during the dry season.

Marsh birds

Cano Negro wins in this regard too but that’s because it actually has freshwater marshes whereas Tortuguero kind of doesn’t.

Thanks to help from Daryl Loth, owner of Casa Marbella, that didn’t stop us from seeing Least Bittern!

Access

Since Cano Negro can be accessed by car, whereas reaching Tortuguero requires a ride in a boat, I suppose Cano Negro is somewhat easier to get to. That said, It’s not difficult to reach Tortuguero, even with the public boat, and to see the best of Cano Negro, you have to hire a boat to access the heart of the refuge in any case.

Forest

There is some forest at Cano Negro but Tortuguero easily wins this  hand. Most of Tortuguero is tall rainforest, some of which can be accessed at Cerro Tortuguero and on a trail that parallels the beach. This offers a better chance at seeing Semiplumbeous Hawk, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other forest-based species.

Rarities

It’s a bit hard to judge which site comes out on top in this regard but Tortuguero seems to be ahead when it comes to rarities. The coastal location results in sightings of vagrant gulls and occasional pelagic species as well as a chance at many a rare migrant. I bet that all sorts of really rare species have passed through there unnoticed because we don’t have enough people looking. In that regard, I dare say that the same can be said about Cano Negro. Huge concentrations of birds occur as the lagoons shrink in size, including quite a few shorebirds. I could easily see something like a Ruff, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, or some vagrant stint pop in and out of those wetlands and never be seen.

This Reddish Egret was a rare, fine addition to my year list.

Cuisine

No contest here but then again Tortuguero has been playing host to far more tourists for much longer. Try the Buddha Cafe or Ms. Myriams. Both highly recommended! Very few options at Cano Negro but you will get by.

Good, easy birding 

Fortunately, this most important factor is shared by both sites. You can’t go wrong when birding Cano Negro or Tortuguero, just make sure to book one or more boat rides!

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Spring Birding in Costa Rica

In the northern places where winter chases some of the birds away from their breeding grounds, spring represents a dramatic, obvious, much anticipated change in the natural surroundings. Suddenly, the sun comes back to town, the snows melt, flying, honking skeins of geese come first, and when it gets warm enough, the green spaces play host to the songs and bright colors of breeding warblers, vireos, orioles, grosbeaks, and the other lovely birds of May. Depending on where you live, they come back in April too, and in Costa Rica, that’s also when most of them leave.

 

The migrants that is. Cool, crazy birds like the Great Potoo are here all year long.

The other birds show us spring with an abundance of song while the landscape becomes flush with new, green vegetation. Since a fair part of the country doesn’t really experience a dry season, the change from sleeping brown grasses to robust green fields takes place in the Central Valley and other parts of the northern Pacific slope. In addition to a more verdant landscape and the profuse singing of Clay-colored Thrushes, these are a few other aspects of birding Costa Rica during spring:

It rains more

Spring is really the change over from dry times to the official wet season, and in April, it is marked by heavy rains just about every afternoon. Don’t fret about the rains, though because the overcast weather results in better birding anyways.

Swifts

They were always present, just way up there too high to watch in a satisfactory manner. They do the same swift speck thing in spring but also come much lower just before a storm. When that happens, you might actually see the brown collar on a Chestnut-collared Swift, or markings on the faces of Spot-fronted and White-chinned Swifts. Knowing their vocalizations is still the best key to their identification but the best looks are had at the front of a storm.

Migration

It’s not as diverse or vocal as in the north, but we still bear witness to impressive numbers of birds throughout the month of April. Bird the Caribbean lowlands and coast (think La Selva, Tortuguero, and areas south of Limon) right now and there might be too many birds to look at. Literally millions of Chimney Swifts, Cliff Swallows, Purple Martins, and other birds move in a steady river towards the north along with kettles of Mississippi Kites, and groups of Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks. In the trees and bushes, Red-eyed Vireos race north along with some warblers, Eastern Kingbirds, pewees, and Scarlet Tanagers. Keep watching and you might pick out rarities for Costa Rica like Gray Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, warblers that normally winter in the Caribbean islands, and Black-whiskered Vireo. Add shorebirds to the mix and there are a lot of birds waiting to be seen!

Cowbirds

Like the swifts, these birds are also here at other times of the year but seem to be more obvious during April. Unfortunately, it’s because, like their relatives up north, Bronzed Cowbirds also lay eggs in the nests of other birds. You will see them but I wish we would see less, especially because it seems that they like to parasitize the nests of the endemic Cabanis’s (Prevost’s) Ground-Sparrow.

These ones were courting in a site for the ground-sparrow.

If you happen to be in Costa Rica during April, enjoy the bird show and please enter sightings into eBird!