Not all birds are common. It’s not long after opening our first field guide that we discover this punch in the gut fact (Ivory-billed Woodpecker! Wow, what a…bird…that I can’t see.) In North America, the elevator/bipolar feelings of up and down can also occur after become aware of the majestic Whooping Crane, or maybe the way too range restricted Kirtland’s Warbler, or that smart beauty of the Texas hill country, the Golden-cheeked Warbler. In Europe, it depends on where you plan on birding but the feelings of discovery and angst tend to happen after reading about the Aquatic Warbler, or maybe gazing at illustrations of the White-backed Woodpecker. Be prepared to scream and/or cry after reading about the Slender-billed Curlew though. Or, just smashing something, you might opt for killing your television.
In Costa Rica, we also have our share of rare birds. I guess that would be a given for any country with a list of over 900 species. Some just gotta be rare, I mean, there’s only so much room for so many birds, right? Yeah, that is part of the equation and with drier conditions resulting in decreased productivity in forest ecosystems where everything seems to compete with everything else for food, sadly, many a bird seems to be even rarer than just ten years ago. Time to smash yet another appliance or instrument or whatever in frustration.
However, some species have always been on the uncommon side of the birding coin even in the best of habitats. Whether because they are too picky, require equally rare ecological circumstances, or are no longer privy to the types of habitat they require, those choice, less adapted species are far and few between. Each bioregion in this small country has its short list of rare birds, it’s no coincidence that they tend to be the ones that get missed during short visits to Costa Rica. Although most highland species are fairly common, there are a handful of cool birds that can be a true, honest pain to see. These come to mind:
Also known as “the ground-dove” because it’s the one that so many world birders always hope to see and never do. Also one of the closest things we have in Costa Rica to a bleeding-heart (if you don’t know, just search for “bleeding heart dove” but be aware that you may need some self restraint so as not to buy plane tickets to the Philippines). It might not actually be as fancy as one of those amazing bleeding heart doves but our’s is special nonetheless. In fact, so special and tough to see that it might be the official antithesis to the Rock Pigeon. The birds are up there, somewhere in the mountains, but they don’t seem to be common and may prefer hiding in dense cover most of the time. The best way to see this widely distributed mega is to watch for it at bamboo seeding events (I got my lifer this way on Chirripo Mountain, and saw a bunch!), or, better yet, learn the vocalization and listen and watch for it at the edges of forest and riparian zones above 2,000 meters on the way up to Irazu Volcano.
Man were we pleased to see this one!
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
Thanks to the efforts of Ernesto Carman, we know much more about the habits of this elusive bird of the night but seeing it continues to be a perennial challenge. Unlike its northern cousin, this equally adorable owl doesn’t migrate and thus can’t be found with painstaking searches in coconut palms. Pairs occur here and there at high elevations but you have to venture into the cold dark night to maybe, just maybe find one. Like so many other owls, this small species is likewise unreliable. In other words, just because it is calling and easy to see one night doesn’t translate to a repeat performance the following eight o’clock dark. All you can do is try but at least the more time you spend listening and looking, the better your chances. Because of that test of patience and ability to withstand the cold, if you really need to see this one, you might want to dedicate an entire night to looking for it. Bring the flashlights/torches, warm clothing, and spirits to sites above 2,200 meters on Irazu, Turrialba (when it’s not erupting), and the high elevations of the Talamancas. It’s up to you if you want to enjoy your drink before or after seeing this minute mega. Don’t feel bad about opting for before, it might stave off the cold and make up for hours of not hearing a peep.
Look in places like this.
This flycatcher is sort of enigmatic because unlike so many other regional endemics, it’s not common and is a real royal pain to lay eyes on. It masquerades as a hefty Tufted Flycatcher and since they can be seen in the same areas, you have to be careful with identification. It really likes the high spots, like 2,500 meters of higher, and can show up in many a high elevation forested site, it’s just rare! It might not vocalize so much either, maybe because it’s always hunched down and feeling cold, who knows. Watch for it at sites like Paraiso de Quetzales and the upper Dota Valley.
Ooh, as senor Mars might say, “A straight up masterpiece”…well, of a jay that is. Smallish, dressed in the dark shades of a deep night, and preferring gnarled, mature oak forests that eat the light of the sun, this choice bird is nothing but Gothic. Tropical Gothic I suppose. As in Sisters of Mercy Gothic…maybe. The pale throat and eyebrow are its mother of pearl and silver jewelry, the feathers a dark, deep midnight blue cloak. Watch for it in large tracts of mature high elevation forest in the Talamancas. Like the Roble Trail at Savegre, or the trails at Georgina, or roads that lead to Providencia. But, don’t be surprised if you don’t find them during a day of birding. They seem to be genuinely scarce and may require several days of searching, or maybe reading some Edgar Allen Poe or the Dark Tower series on a misty day while seated under a massive old growth oak. If that strategy doesn’t happen to bring in the jays, the day is always magic when a good read is accompanied by the beautiful natural flutes of Black-faced Solitaires, nightingale-thrushes, and ancient oaks caressed by cold mist. Rare magic, especially when those jays finally do appear.
Tropical Gothic Corvid Magic.
Not all finches are created equal. In the case of the Slaty Finch, it sits down there on the lower end of the dull spectrum. But, instead of looking like a techinicolor Gouldian Finch, it garners appeal by just being plain rare. Or not, I mean let’s face it, the bird sort of looks like an extra dull junco. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t want to be seen? Well, you might be better off not wanting to see it because, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do to find it other than listening for its seriously high-pitched song at bamboo seeding events. Whether around bamboo or not, keep an eye out for any dull plumaged birds foraging on the ground. They might be this one. Hope to get lucky with this finch at any high elevation site. If not, just smile at the beauty of Flame-throated Warblers and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers.
This, believe it or not, is a Slaty Finch.
This, is a Flame-throated Warbler. Take your pick.
Vying with the Slaty for the “dullest rare finch in Costa Rica” prize, the Blue Seedeater is another bird more frequently seen at seeding bamboo and hardly ever encountered otherwise. Usually in pairs, listen for its Passerina bunting-like vocalizations (as in the Indigo variety) in cloud forest, even riparian zones on the upper slopes of the Central Valley. Lately, one reliable spot has been sites with bamboo up above Coronado.
But what about quail-doves, Highland Tinamou, some of the other birds less frequently encountered? Although those choice gems also present frequent challenges to being found in your focused field of view, they still aren’t as tough as the aforementioned species. To learn about the best places to see birds and Costa Rica along with 700 pages of tips for finding and identifying them, support this blog by purchasing my e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.