The Carara National Park area is one of the top sites for birding in Central America. The reason I say “area” rather than just talking about the national park itself is because there is so much more to birding Carara than just sticking to the protected zone. Don’t get me wrong, the forests of the national park are the main, well deserved attraction but you would be letting yourself down if you limited birding to the trails at Carara.
It seems odd to say that about a place where one can watch Streak-chested Antpitta, Baird’s Trogon, and many other species but yes, there is still more to see!
Nearby roads also provide access to slightly different habitats above the park, to mangroves, seasonal wetlands and coastal habitats around Tarcoles, and dry forests on the other side of the river. The end result is a mega tropical ecotone that has played host to literally hundreds of bird species. As one might guess, this means that you just can’t ever go wrong when birding the Carara area.
Given the fantastic birding in and around Carara, it seems odd that so few accommodations for birders area available. There are a couple of hotels and many more options around Jaco but fewer than expected so close to the national park. One of the best of those few places for birders is Cerro Lodge. A cozy place around ten minutes drive from the entrance to the national park, this excellent site is situated within a mosaic of tropical dry transition forest, open fields, and second growth just above the floodplain of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. This combination of habitats give the place a healthy selection of birds, several of which are not found in the limits of the national park.
Such as White-lored Gnatcatcher.
Fruiting trees bring in Scarlet Macaws, Yellow-naped Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons and several other species, many of which can be seen right from the deck of the outdoor restaurant. Part of the reason some of these and other birds are present is a result of reforestation undertaken by Cerro Lodge, and, over the years, the owner has also made additional improvements to provide guests with a more comfortable, better birding experience. The most recent addition is one that I wish every birding site had, an observation tower!
It’s not a big one but then again, thanks to it being placed on a hill, it doesn’t have to be. The new tower at Cerro provides an excellent view of distant mangroves and adjacent forest. I have only been there once but these were some of my impressions and expectations:
The Cerro Lodge area has always been good for this uncommon, odd, long legged raptor but the tower really ups the ante for seeing it. Basically, it just provides more area to search for it and since a couple pairs live in around Cerro, there’ s a really good chance you will see it. It might be far off or it might be close but keep looking and you have a really good chance of finding it (yes, we did see one).
The tower also seems ideal for finding other raptor species because it has everything a raptor counter likes; a wide open view over good habitat for better observation of perched raptors and birds in flight. In addition to the Crane Hawk, we also had both caracaras, Bat Falcon, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and vultures. It should also be good for Plumbeous Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Hook-billed Kite, Gray-headed Kite, and perhaps a surprise or two.
Flyby parrots and other species
The tower is pretty much superb for flybys of macaws and parrots. We had close views of Scarlet Macaw and Yellow-naped Parrot among five other species. Yes, that does make for good photo opps!
Given Cerro’s location near a river and mangroves, many other birds also fly past, some flying to and from wetlands, others flying out of their roosts in the mangroves. This area can also be good for swifts. I can’t wait to check out the tower in the winter months and during migration!
White-necked Puffbird and other perched birds
As with any tower near good habitat, the one at Cerro makes it easier to see White-necked Puffbird, trogons, and other species of the canopy. Just keep scanning to see what you can find. We had wonderful constant, comfortable views of the puffbird, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Streak-backed Oriole, and other species.
On account of it being endangered and looking so different, this star bird deserves its own bit of information. The tower at Cerro will be the ideal place to look for this bird. That’s great but it’s also bittersweet because I honestly wonder how long we will be able to see this rare species in the Carara area.
Its small population has been slowly but surely declining for several years and in all likelihood, it will unfortunately go locally extinct around Carara. I sure hope not but to be honest, that is what will likely happen because the bird has a very small population, there have been no signs of an increase or it even holding steady, and habitat at Carara is getting drier and thus not as good as it used to be for a species that likely requires a variety of fruiting trees in rainforest all year long.
Even worse, there has been no reforestation of the large cattle farms between the mangroves and the forests of Carara. This barrier can’t do any good for the cotinga and is probably the main factor contributing to its long term demise at this site. Once the bird is gone from the mangroves near Cerro, it won’t be back because the nearest population is too far away. So, in the meantime, we may see a few birds from the tower but I wonder for how long.
Access, comfort, and use
The tower is open to guests of Cerro Lodge but you do have to walk down from the hotel and then up to the tower. It’s not far and they do seem to maintain the trail though so most people should be fine. The tower itself is also only one and a half stories high so there shouldn’t be too much trouble there either. As for the tower itself, it can hold around 8 people or so and has a roof for much needed protection from sun and rain. There are also a couple of places to sit down.
Overall, it looks like a great place to bring a cold drink and some snacks and just relax with the birds. Bring a scope to scan all the way to the mangroves and just keep looking! On a final note, I bet the tower is also good for night birding, I hope to try that out on October Global Big Day, 2019.