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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills middle elevations

Excellent Birding Off the Beaten Track at Albergue Socorro

Virgen del Socorro is one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites. Whether staying in the San Jose area or the Sarapiqui lowlands, this forested canyon is an easy one to two hour trip with access to foothill and middle elevation habitats. It’ a good site for White Hawk, Collared Trogon, and several other species that frequent the transition between lowlands and highlands. One of the things birders also notice when visiting Virgen del Socorro are the forested hillsides, especially upstream from the main road through the canyon. If only we could get into those forests! Maybe we would find quail-doves, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and other rare species. The right situation for many high quality species is there, the only problem being that main recurring issue frequently faced by birders in tropical places- that of access.

White Hawk

Much to our twitching frustration, the high quality forests visible from the canyon road don’t have any roads that go through them, they don’t have any trails. Well, they don’t if you stick to the road through the canyon. Stay at Albergue del Socorro, though, and access is granted. This small “lodge” is actually a small dairy farm that has opted in on ecotourism. The owners are serious about protecting the forests in and around their farm, offer a few shared cabins as accommodation, and serve excellent local country fare. Stay there and you will be supporting birder friendly people who are committed to protecting the forests of the Socorro area. Top that support off with excellent middle elevation birding, and a stay at Albergue del Socorro becomes an enticing addition to every birder’s Costa Rica itinerary. More information about this excellent site:

Trails through mature forest

The lodge has a few trails, one of which passes through excellent mature forest on its way to a waterfall. The other trails are shorter loops that pass through forest and a few open areas. No matter which trail you take, Jose, the owner, will be happy to accompany you. Although rain limited our time on the trails, based on what I saw, they should be good for quail-doves, mixed flocks, and could host several rare species.

Birding on the road is good too

If you feel like sticking to the road in front of the lodge, you will still be in luck because the birding is typically good and can result in White-crowned Manakin, many tanagers, euphonias, Spotted Barbtail, and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner among many other less common species. In the past, I often had Lattice-tailed Trogon on the section of road just above the lodge. It should still be present although maybe now more regular on the Albergue trails.

Serious birding potential

The combination of high quality forest, connection to Braulio Carrillo National Park, and an elevation of around 1,000 meters is ideal for coming across a wide number of rare and uncommon species. Quail-doves, Lovely Cotinga, and all three hawk-eagles have been identified at or near Albergue in recent years, and I would be very surprised if goodies like Lanceolated Monklet, the ground-cuckoo, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Sharpbill, and many other megas were not present. It should also be a good place for Solitary Eagle to make an appearance. That massive black-hawk has been recorded around there in the past, and since the area does link up to Braulio, it seems like a good spot for it to be seen again. Even during the rain, we watched several Crested Guans, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Swallow-tailed Kites, White Hawk, Bat Falcon, tanagers, and other species just outside the rooms.

Crested Guan

Ideal for small groups

Given the accommodation (limited but cozy and clean), this site is better for single travelers, couples, and small groups.

Three ways to get there

There are three different routes to take, all of which require four wheel drive just before reaching the lodge. You might make it to the lodge with a regular, small vehicle but then again, you might not! Keep in mind that since these three routes also have great birding, you might want to give yourself extra time for the trip. The most common route people take is the one that passes by the Waterfall Gardens, the Cinchona Cafe Colibri, and then goes through the Virgen del Socorro canyon. The one issue with this route is a bridge that looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing. To avoid that possibility, try one of the other two routes! If you feel like some adventurous birding on a somewhat rough road that passes next to some nice cloud forest, take the turn off for San Rafael de Varablanca and follow that main road all the way down to the lodge. This road also has lots of good birding potential. If you would rather do the easiest route, take the turn off at the San Miguel cemetery and follow that up to the lodge, enjoying good foothill birding on the way. If I had a four wheel drive vehicle, I would opt for driving one of those routes in and another on the way out. Do that with enough time for several hours birding each way and you could end up with a seriously good list.

I felt compelled to write this post after guiding a short trip to Albergue Socorro last weekend. Although we got rained out on Sunday morning, we still recorded more than 130 species while birding at and near the lodge. I look forward to going back, especially to do bird surveys on their trails just after dawn.

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Intact, Mature Forest Equals More Understory Species

More mature forest means more birds. The copious number of individual birds, a good number of species, and near constant avian action in second growth can trick us into viewing edge habitats as the best places to bird. While the thick, successional growth at the edge of rainforest does host a number of species, including several canopy birds, mature forest still hosts more. Yes, bird the edge, but don’t neglect those long quiet walks inside the forest because that’s where you need to go for the biggest mixed flocks, most of the uncommon, rare, and spectacular species, and a host of peculiar understory birds.

Many understory species are especially dependent on healthy, mature forest probably because they have become adapted to living in a dim, shaded environment that hosts a complex, structured matrix of vines, small palms, and other understory plants. Since they share that dark maze of bushes, heliconias, and shade plants with various snakes, frogs, bugs, and other life forms that compete with, flee from, and try to eat each other, most of the understory birds are also naturally rare. We could also just as well say that they live at natural, very low densities and this is why we can walk on a trail for some time and find very few birds. The other reasons why we find so few birds in the forest interior is because they need to keep their presence on a serious down-low to avoid being noticed by predators, and because several prefer to forage in mixed flocks (another, additional means of avoiding depredation). At least that means that if you find the mixed flock, you also find a bunch of those shy understory birds.

I was reminded of these factors during recent birding/guiding at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, and in the buffer zone at El Tapir. As is typical for these sites, we did find a few Checker-throated Antwrens and some other understory species that were foraging with them while walking on the trails. The antwrens give themselves away with a sharp alarm call or by giving their song; a short series of high-pitched, easy to ignore notes. While they forage in dead leaves, other birds also give quiet calls or reveal their presence by shaking a leaf or two. The whole thing is always a quiet, seriously inconspicuous endeavor and because of that, you can bet there are more birds out there, just staying out of sight. While watching the antwrens, we also heard Streak-crowned Antvireo, and saw Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers. In such flocks, other typical species include White-flanked Antwren, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers.

The hyper Tawny-faced Gntawren is usually also present, foraging near the ground, all the while looking very much like some out of place Asian tailorbird species.

Since other, rarer species are also possible, it’s worth it to stick with that flock as long as you can. But don’t leave the trail because there are other things lying in wait on the forest floor.

This nice sized Fer-de-Lance was a reminder of that possibility. Since it was next to the trail, it was easy to see and even easier to avoid. If this venomous snake sits in the leaf litter, you probably won’t see it. Although the chances of stepping on one after leaving the trail are slim, I would rather eliminate even that small chance by keeping to the trail.

Other cool understory species include antbirds, leaftossers, and grail birds of the understory like Black-crowned Antpitta and the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo. Although we did find a random Bicolored Antbird, try as we did, the gnatpitta and ground-cuckoo were both elusive along with the antswarms that act as the most likely situations to find such megas. However, before getting rained out in the afternoon, we did manage to connect with close views of a cool Northern Schiffornis.

After this odd brown bird came in, it opened and closed its mouth and sort of swayed back and forth.

Maybe the ground-cuckoo will show next time. You never know when it will happen and this is why a careful, quiet walk in mature forest is essential when birding in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Some Nice Finds on Global Big Day, 2017

Last Saturday, May 13, more than 20,000 birders went birding and put their results into eBird. It was the third Global Big Day and the biggest one yet. If the day would have been a competition (and some countries did sort treat the day as such) Colombia took first place with more than 1,400 species identified, Peru came in second, and Ecuador was third. Surprisingly, the highest list came from northern Argentina (and thus highlighting the biodiversity in this less birded area), and Costa Rica had the highest total for Central America. Thanks to some last minute organizing and a good number of local birders getting on board, this small country finished the day with more than 640 species.

Birding in Costa Rica during Global Big Day, 2017.

Since most of the migrants had already left, the local birding community was very pleased at topping 600. Consider that all of these species were found in an area roughly equal to that of West Virginia and it’s quite the impressive total. We are already thinking about next year to see if we can hit 700. As for me, I birded a 60 kilometer route from the Central Valley, up and over the mountains, north to the Sarapiqui Caribbean lowlands, and then back up the mountain to hit highland forests before heading back down into the valley for some dry forest and wetland species. As usual, I did this route with my faithful Big Day birding companion and friend, Susan. Although we ran out of time twarads the end of the day and thus missed out on dry forest species, we were seriously lucky with good weather, especially because a lot of other birders in Costa Rica got rained out during the critical morning hours.

During our long day and night of birding, some of our nicest finds were:

Striped Owl– This was a big one on my radar because a Striped Owl had been calling just about every night for the past two months right near my house. Thankfully, good old “Stripey” decided to participate in the Global Big Day by giving its shrill vocalization as soon as we stopped to listen for it. I can’t say the same for other owls in the valley and mountains but at least the Striped Owl piped up right on cue!

A surprise wetland– Deciding where to greet the dawn on a Big Day is of vital importance because it’s when we have the best chance at the most birds. If it rains, there goes a sizeable chunk of the daily total. If you pick the wrong spot, you probably miss the species that would have put you over your end goal. With all that in mind, we started where the most species were possible; in the Caribbean Lowlands. The site had to be close enough to the rest of our route to save time but also in or next to an extensive area of forest. After scouting and checking Google Earth, I decided on an area just north of Tirimbina where a road cuts through a corner of a large forest block and then passes near a wetland mentioned in eBird. As it turned out, the forest block wasn’t as birdy as expected, nor did the lagoon from eBird have much, but we did luck out with a fine marsh just outside the forest. This was a surprise because I had seen the satellite view of the open area but had assumed that it was pasture. Although some of it did turn out to be grass for cows, most of it was a shallow river bordered by marsh vegetation! Since such habitat is difficult to find and access in Costa Rica, and offers a chance at various additions to the day list, this was a fantastic Big Day surprise.

Our best bird there was Rufescent Tiger-Heron, a rare species in Costa Rica and thus not exactly expected. We also picked up Purple Gallinule and some other water birds as well as various edge species and some forest birds.

Our tiger-heron and one of all three species we found during the day!

Birds before dawn– You never know what will call at night from one day to the next. Next to the march and adjacent forest, luckily, we had a calling Black and white Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, one Uniform Crake (maybe the only one for Costa Rica), and one Great Potoo. No response from Short-tailed Nighthawk or other owls but some good night birds nonetheless.

White-ringed Flycatcher and other lowland specialties–  I had hoped to get the flycatcher but it was particularly sweet to get our only one right from the car, and rather low down. In Tirimbina, we picked up several other nice lowland targets including Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, antwrens, the hoped for White-fronted Nunbirds that live there, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and some others. We also missed several but it was still fun trying for them!

White-ringed Flycatcher

Tanagers in Socorro– These were expected but still nice to get them and weren’t as common as we had hoped. Black and yellow, Bay-headed, Silver-throated, Speckled, and a few other showed, including Blue and Gold and the exquisite Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Blue and gold Tanager

A quetzal in the cloud forest– We always knew it was possible but with limited time to work with, the chances of bumping into one are never really good. As if to make up for the many highland species that were hiding or just keeping silent, a male Resplendent Quetzal fluttered and then flew right across our field of view in an area of cloud forest that is now quite accessible from the San Jose area. Thanks to road work and new bridges, the route that goes from San Rafael de Varablanca towards Socorro and San Miguel is easy going right up to this area of forest. Beyond that, the road requires four wheel drive but you might not need to go much further for some really good birding because this area of forest is connected to Braulio Carrillo National Park. Since it’s not that far from the homestead, I hope to check it out from time to time.

Although I always want more birds, I was pleased with our total of around 230 species. I wonder how many more we could get on that route with additional scouting and when there are migrants in the area.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations preparing for your trip south pacific slope

Current Costa Rica Birding Tips for Poas and Carara National Parks

For the past few weeks, most of my birding has taken the form of scouting for the Global Big Day on May 13th. Since I plan on starting shortly after midnight, I will actually be celebrating this modern birding holiday in a matter of hours. Hopefully, all of that scouting and planning will pay off with a Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and enough singing birds to push our total over the 300 species mark. The good thing is that if that doesn’t come to pass because of rain (very likely chance of precipitation) or other factors, it’s still going to be a great day of birding pretty close to the home base.

A view of Poas Volcano- not erupting on this morning.

Since much of that scouting involved the Poas area, I figured that it would be pertinent to give an update on the birding situation around there. Aside from scouting Varablanca, Poas, and Sarapiqui, since I also got in a nice day of guiding at Carara, I figured I would talk about that too.

The Poas situation: If you hadn’t heard, the park is closed because the volcano started erupting a month ago. Although activity has calmed down somewhat, the park is still off limits and probably won’t be opened for several months or even years. That said, don’t write off birding up in those mountains yet because you can still see quite a few good highland birds on the way to Poas and around Varablanca.

The barrier on the road up to Poas just after the Poas Lodge.

At the moment, the road is closed around three to four kilometers from the edge of the national park. This means that although the best highland forests are now off limits, you can still see most species in patches of forest from the village of Poasito up to that barrier, AND, with very little traffic. Unfortunately, Sooty Thrush, Highland Tinamou, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and most Peg-billed Finches are now beyond that barrier and therefore inaccessible but you can still see both silky-flycatchers, Prong-billed Barbet, Large-footed Finch at a few sites, and most of everything else including chances at Resplendent Quetzal. Fortunately, the Volcan Restaurant is still open as is Freddo Fresas; two sites with hummingbird feeders and riparian zones.

Try Varablanca: The area of Varablanca is very much open and accessible and because it’s around 45 minutes from the airport, continues to be a good site for a first or last night on a Costa Rica birding trip. Accommodation options include Poas Volcano Lodge, Poas Lodge, The Peace Lodge, and a few other spots. A fair number of highland species can be seen around accommodation, in riparian zones on the route towards Barva, and in the area between there and Socorro.

Carara: The Carara area is always good for birds no matter when you visit. Now is especially nice because the wet weather has resulted in lots of singing birds, good activity, and temperatures a bit more comfortable than the blazing Carara furnace from February to April. On my recent trip, we had Crane Hawk and good looks at Collared Forest Falcon on the Cerro Lodge road, several singing Northern Bentbills on the national park forest trail, excellent looks at Golden-crowned Spadebill at the bridge,

This is what a Golden-crowned Spadebill looks like.

good looks at vocalizing Long-tailed Woodcreeper (future split), trogons, excellent point blank views of Streak-chested Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and other expected species. What we didn’t have were many hummingbirds, nor many parrots. We still had plenty of macaws but very few other members of that esteemed family.

One of the close Streak-chested Antpittas, hopefully these will be recorded during the Global Big Day.

Hope to see you in the field. To learn about more sites for birding in Costa Rica as well as how to find and identify birds in this biodiverse country, see my e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It can be purchased through Kindle as well as PayPal, just follow the link. I will transfer the book within 24 hours of confirmation of purchase.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

Good Birding at Santa Rosa National Park

Costa Rica boasts several types of forest habitats and we birders rejoice in this multi-ecosystem situation. The nation-wide mosaic of rainforest, cloud forest, temperate forest, dry forest, and other microhabitats is partly why we have such a plethora of bird species in such a small area. Walk a trail through dripping cloud forests at Monteverde one day and you can catch up with highland endemics like the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Ruddy Treerunner, and Prong-billed Barbet. Drive down to the Pacific lowlands the next day and those species are replaced by Plain-capped Starthroat, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and other avian reps of the tropical dry forest.

The Plain-capped Starthroat is indeed quite plain.

The Pacific dry forests of Middle America have been chopped, changed, and over-grazed for centuries. Since it’s easier for people to transform such areas into semi-open habitats typically preferred by the savannah-evolved Homo sapiens, large areas of intact dry forests are rare throughout the globe. As for the forests that naturally occur from western Mexico south to Costa Rica (and at least one area of Panama), birding intact, mature, tropical dry forest has become an anomaly. On the bright side of the bio coin, it seems that most of the birds and many other animals of this biome persist and adapt to fragmented habitats. That said, I can’t help but wonder how well the plants are faring, and if we lost some insects and other species (maybe even birds) long before they could be catalogued.

To see the birds that still frequent the seasonally dry habitats of Costa Rica (there are quite a few), you can get a good sampling of them in patchy habitats from around the Tarcoles area north to Nicaragua. However, if you want to get the whole birding shebang of dry forest species, your best bets occur in the largest areas of dry forest (who would have guessed?). These can be found in parts of the Nicoya Peninsula, and in the Palo Verde, Guanacaste, and Santa Rosa National Parks. As serendipity has it, the easiest one to access is Santa Rosa, and this park is probably also the best site in Costa Rica for dry forest bird species.

The Casona at Santa Rosa National Park.

Located around 30 kilometers north of Liberia, the park has a good, paved 10 kilometer road that connects the highway with the park HQ at the Casona monument and museum. Although it doesn’t officially open until 8 in the morning (typical for most national parks), since the main office is at the Casona, I suspect that one could bird the entrance road much earlier. Although my most recent visit was a short, family oriented one, I still had really good birding even during the middle of the day. See my eBird list from the Casona. Some thoughts and ideas:

Good for ground birds

Forested, protected areas in Costa Rica are often good for terrestrial birds and Santa Rosa is no exception. Unlike many other parts of their Costa Rican range, Thicket Tinamous are not as shy and much easier to see. Patience in the face of mosquitoes is still very much required but if you can hang in there, you stand a good chance of seeing a tinamou with red legs. Two other choice ground species, Great Curassow and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, are also fairly common.

There is a Thicket Tinamou in this picture albeit a much more shy one from the Playa Hermosa area.

Watch from the Casona overlook

I admit, I was hesitant to walk up the steps in the hot lowland climate but the reward was definitely worth it. But, based on my brief, avian rich experience, the next time I visit, I might run up the stairs like Rocky. I hope to go back some day and watch from the overlook for a few hours in the morning, and then again in the later afternoon because the birding there rocks! The hill overlooks a large area of the national park and is one of the closest things I have seen to a canopy tower in Costa Rica. During my recent short watch, I heard one or two Elegant Trogons and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper among various other expected species, saw a Mangrove Cuckoo creeping through a nearby tree, magpie-jays, and other species. Although I didn’t notice any raptors, it should surely be good for that too!

Bird the universal trail

Although the birding is likely similar on the few roads through the park, this trail is accessed from the Casona area, and makes an easy loop on a cement walkway through nice dry forest. Expect Banded Wrens, Elegant and Black-headed Trogons, maybe a Thicket Tinamou, and several other species. The “good” lighting will also be welcomed by birders who have been trying to snap pictures in the much less sensor-friendly rainforest understory.

Focus on the evergreen forest remnant

Located about halfway in on the entrance road, this area is an evergreen spot with tall trees and is marked by a sign that refers to it as a rare remnant of mature tropical dry forest. It definitely looks older and more complex than the surrounding forest, and since it’s a riparian zone, it also hosts more birds. During a five minute stop, although I didn’t hear or see any hoped for camera friendly Thicket Tinamous, it was a treat to listen to the songs of Long-tailed Manakins, Banded Wrens, and Cabanis’s Wrens, see a Royal Flycatcher, and espy a migrating Eastern Kingbird perched in the canopy. Although there are more mosquitoes, there are also more birds, and it’s worth it to spend a good amount of time at this site.

Royal Flycatchers are always nice to see.

The sign.

Since Santa Rosa is connected to evergreen forests at higher elevations, it can also attract some unexpected species. Some years ago, at least one ornithologist may have seen a Crested Eagle! He suspected that the bird may have migrated there from the rainforests in the Guanacaste mountains to take advantage of monkeys and other prey items. It’s worth it to fit Santa Rosa into your itinerary, you are going to like it!