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.
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.
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.
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”.