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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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