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10 Best Birds from Birding in Costa Rica, 2020

According to the unwritten universal rules of birding, the best birds of the year are always the birds we see. That’s the default and it promotes positive living by placing the focus on appreciation but let’s be honest, yesterday’s House Sparrows just can’t compare with the Evening Grosbeaks of today, or three years ago, or even twenty years back.

Whether by appearance, frequency of occurrence, or personal choice, some birds can’t help but be more exciting than others.

In Costa Rica, thanks to a list of 900 plus species, there’s birds like the White-crested Coquette and lots of other excitement things to choose from.

Each year ends with a fine number of impressive sightings and in 2020, despite driving restrictions and closures, local birders still managed to connect with a healthy assortment of stand-out species. This is no doubt related to higher numbers of local, dedicated birders with cameras who spend more time in the field and thank goodness for that because if not, we would have missed the following best Costa Rica birds of 2020:

Waterfowl- Duck, Duck, Goose!

Sometime in spring, back when the closures were about to happen, Carlos Solano found a country first Red-breasted Merganser in a Caribbean coastal lagoon at the edge of Limon! I did not get a chance to see this major country tick but thankfully, lots of other birders did.

Around the same time, a female, second country record of Hooded Merganser turned up at Lake Arenal! Found by Ever Villegas, the first record in 2010 was a surprise, this second one even more so. With more eyes in the field, hopefully we will be in for more sightings of vagrant piscivorous ducks.

Speaking of other ducks, Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences and CaraCara found a mega rare White-cheeked Pintail this year in the Las Pangas area of southern Costa Rica.

As for the goose, that happened with the recent crazy sighting of an Orinoco Goose on the Tarcoles River. Found by Lori Haskell on a Jose’s Crocodile River Tour boat trip, luckily, the bird has stayed around and been seen by many other birders. I suspect that it’s a local escape but who knows? I hope it sticks around long enough for me to see it too.

Masked Duck

They live in Costa Rica and are seen every year but since I finally connected with this nemesis species in 2020, I have to mention it for personal reasons.

Tahiti Petrels

These cool tropical pelagic species are also regular in Costa Rican waters but I never heard of anyone seeing a flock of them! On a trip to Cocos Island, Serge Arias, Tom Shultz, Shelley Reeves, and others documented several of these petrels along with many other exciting species in a trip organized by Serge. He is organizing more birding trips to Cocos, there might be room!

Ruff (Again)

A Ruff was once again found and seen by several local birders at Las Pangas in southern Costa Rica, and in marshes of the Tempique basin in northern Costa Rica. Could there be more than one individual?

A Ruff from Israel.

Hudsonian Godwit

No, we don’t get this one often! According to information about birds fitted with transmitters, during Hudsonian Godwit migration, most “Hudwits” fly from the rich deltas of western Colombia all the way to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. These power flyers mostly skip over Costa Rica but once in a while, maybe even every year, a few birds make a stop on the Pacific coast of this birdy nation. Birders have to be in the right place at the right time, this year, in May, one was found in mudflats near Paquera.

Gray-hooded Gull

We have very few records for the country but maybe it shows up more often than we realize? In 2020, a Gray-hooded Gull was found by McKoy Umana at Punta Morales. As luck would have it, Mary and I arrived shortly thereafter and had excellent looks at this country mega.

White-crowned Pigeon

With a Caribbean coast, you might expect this species in Costa Rica. But, we since we don’t have any islands on the Caribbean coast, this island-loving pigeon species is a rare find indeed. I suspect it occurs here and there along the coast more often but with so many inaccessible areas to search, the few birds that may be present go unseen. Last year was good for this rarity in Tortuguero as was 2020.

Burrowing Owl!

Not new for the country list but given its century plus absence, without a doubt, bird of the year. Found by Beto Guido and some other, lucky, local birders at an open habitat hotspot near Orotina in early December, it unfortunately was not seen the following day despite 60 or so birders intently searching for it.

Since the owl happened to be found in a spot heavily checked by birders that also looks like many other spots, I figured more are probably around. It could be one or two or even five more birds but since they have huge areas of suitable habitat to choose from, who is going to find them? As luck would have it, an experienced guide did find the same or a different individual at Palo Verde National Park! I bet a few more are out there, I hope we get a chance to look for them.

Gray-headed Piprites

Yes, a resident species but yes, also one of the most difficult and little known birds in Central America. Sites near Rancho Naturalista can be good for it and once in a while, a piprites occurs on the trails of this classic birding eco-lodge. In 2020, a Gray-headed Piprites showed up at Rancho and has been reliable for several months. Several local birders finally connected with this rare species, we sure hope it sticks around!

Savanna Sparrow

A slight, streaked little brown bird might not seem exciting but it’s a rare one for Costa Rica! It look like at least a couple of Savannas were seen at La Ceiba, the same spot as the Burrowing Owl. Once again, thanks to dedicated local birders, especially Beto Guido, this rare bird for Costa Rica was seen by many people.

As with every year (and the unwritten rules of birding), there are lots of honorable mentions. These include the Western Gull at Puntarenas, the Aplomado Falcon from Fortuna, the Palm Warbler seen that same day, the Prairie Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler seen in highland sites of the Central Valley, along with the usual Paint-billed Crakes, Bare-necked Umbrellabirds, cotingas, hawk-eagles, and so much more. I hope you make it to Costa Rica in 2021, let’s look forward to more birds in a more positive year!

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5 Essentials for Birding on Your Own in Costa Rica

Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Think about it because although you might not feel good about traveling to watch quetzals today, in a couple of months, vaccination rates might change your mind.

Quetzals are always a good excuse to travel, even when they try to hide.

Since the best birding trips are planned well in advance, looking into information for a birding trip to Costa Rica isn’t just wishful thinking. The time to start planning a trip is now and although these ideas about what to bring to Costa Rica for birding are more for birding on your own, they could also come in handy on any tour:

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

As with visiting any place far from home, a good field guide is worth its weight in gold. You might forget to bring a poncho, you might not be able to shave, in a sudden fit of absent-mindedness, you might even leave the flashlight on the hood of the car or next to the snowmobile. Forget those things and you can still go birding. Leave the field guide on the desk back home and well, I guess you could still go birding but you better go buy a notebook, pencils, and be ready to write some wicked field journals.

There’s nothing wrong with field journals (especially the wicked ones splashed with coffee and filled with illegible notes) but birding is always better when you have some fine reference material. Nowadays, although there are a couple of good books available, I still prefer the good old Garrigues and Dean. Lightweight, easy to use and well done, it’s great for studying before the trip and essential when birding Costa Rica, especially if birding by yourself.

So you can identify endemics like the Yellow-thighed Brushfinch.

Costa Rica Birds App

If you already have a field guide, why use a digital one? That’s a good question but I find that having both a book and a digital field guide is better for any birding trip. It’s fun to look at a book, especially when it has great illustrations and it’s also fun to interact with an app and check out photos of birds in flight, more postures, and so on.

Although you could go with the free Merlin app, it’s nice but it does have its limitations. With the full version of the Costa Rica Birds app, you can also:

  • Study bird sounds for more than 900 species while looking at various images.
  • See images for 926 species on the Costa Rica bird list, even rare species, and information and range maps for a few more.
  • See more accurate range maps.
  • See more up to date information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.
  • Personalize the app with target lists, check birds seen, make notes, etc.
  • Play with the filter to see birds grouped by region, family, and more to use it as a study tool before the trip and make identification easier during the trip to Costa Rica.
  • See 68 additional species not yet recorded in Costa Rica but possible.

These and other features make this app just as useful as a reference guide as it is in the field. To be honest, I will mention that I helped create and still work on this app but since I am a serious birder and want other birders to have the same sort of birding tool that I would like to have, you can bet that it’s going to have as much useful and accurate information as possible. The main downside is that it is currently only available for IOS devices. I would love to find a solution for that, if you know any Android coding birders, please let me know.

A Costa Rica Site Guide

For any trip, you obviously need to know where to go for the best birding. If this is a DIY birding trip, a site guide is imperative. Yes, you could plan the trip just using eBird but although that does show where various sites are and can give an idea of abundance, it won’t provide the types of on the ground details found in site guides. Not to mention, for eBird in Costa Rica, hotspots and other sites tend to be biased for sites visited on tours, and overlooked errors in identification on lists can give false ideas about what is truly present. I would still use eBird for some trip planning but the trip will be much better planned when done in conjunction with other information.

Although changes happen quickly, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica is still mostly up to date and useful for planning a trip (and will likely be updated soon!). It covers all parts of the country, gives ideas for itineraries, and also has insider information for finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica. Designed for birders doing Costa Rica on their own, it also has plenty of useful information for folks on tours. Not mention, every purchase supports this blog platform as a source of information for birding in Costa Rica.

A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella

Don’t forget to bring these items! A flashlight (torch) is handy for more than just searching for night birds. It also comes in handy when the lights go out and when you need to check the ground while walking at night (necessary).

A small umbrella is easy to carry and keeps you and your stuff dry. Along with packets of desiccant in plastic ziplock bags, it’s always good to have.

A Mobile Device with Waze

Or at least something with GPS. Google maps will also work but a heck of a lot of locals use Waze. If driving on your own, forget about a paper map, forget about looking for road signs (because they aren’t there and some might be wrong). Stick with Waze or something similar, you will need it!!

You could still visit Costa Rica now (some people are doing just that!) but if you would rather have a vaccine before making the trip, the time to plan the trip is still now. Start learning about the birds waiting for you in Costa Rica today because the departure date will be here before you know it. Get ready for some exciting birding, try to keep it Zen, I hope to see you here!

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Finding Birds Costa Rica 2021

Finding birds in Costa Rica is pretty easy. Look outside and there they are; Red-billed Pigeons powering past, Great Kiskadees yelling from a tree, Palm Tanagers perched in, you guessed it, a tall palm. Look around and there’s lots more; a screeching flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets (!), a Yellow-headed Caracara flapping overhead, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, caroling from a guava.

In Costa Rica, Crimson-fronted Parakeets are often seen in cities.

Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a Lovely Cotinga (I mean it is lovely, what are you gonna do…).

We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what we each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also why I first visited Cost Rica in 1992 and why so many birders eventually make their way to this birdy place.

At the moment, few birders are visiting Costa Rica but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.

One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more become available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Costa Rica because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Costa Rica birds in 2021:

Learn about Habitats

One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Costa Rica is just like seeing more birds everywhere, planet Earth. To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Costa Rica, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:

  • Lowland rainforest– Lowland areas on the Caribbean slope and south of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (where the Crocodile Bridge is) on the Pacific slope.
  • Middle elevation rainforest and cloud forest– Many areas between 800 and 1,700 meters.
  • High elevation rainforest– Above 1,700 meters.
  • Tropical dry forest– On the Pacific slope north of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles including much of the Central Valley.
  • Wetlands– Large wetland complexes such as the Cano Negro/Los Chiles area, Palo Verde National Park and other parts of the Tempisque River floodplain, and the Coto 47/Las Pangas area near Ciudad Neily. Of course, other smaller areas of marsh exist and are important for many birds.

On the micro-scale, it also means knowing where micro-habitats occur:

  • Foothill rainforest– Rainforest from 500 to 800 meters.
  • Paramo– Treeline and tree-less habitats above 3,000 meters.
  • Mangrove forest– Mangroves that grow in estuarine habitats, mostly on the Pacific slope.
  • Different types of edge habitats– Various birds occur in different stages of second growth and open areas.
  • Lagoons and forested swamps– These occur in various parts of the Caribbean lowlands, and locally in the Osa Peninsula.

Try to get an idea of where those habitats are found and start learning about the suites of birds found in each habitat. Allocate birding time in each habitat and you will see an excellent variety of birds. If you have target species, research where those birds occur, think about how easy or tough they are to see, and have high hopes, or take the Zen approach and accept that you might not see a Slaty Finch.

Information and search options for major habitats will be on the next free update of the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.

Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare

Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might to see so and so species. To give an idea of abundance, Clay-colored Thrush would be a “1”, maybe even “-1”, White Hawk might be a “5”, Sharpbill a “7”, and Speckled Mourner a “10” or “10 plus” (or “only in your dreams”).

Make Reservations for Cope

A visit to Cope’s bird oasis and fantastic experience is recommended. But, because Cope likes to provide a high quality experience, as with many a gourmet experience, you need to make a reservation. I can help arrange that, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Don’t Expect to See Everything

Heck, that goes for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it Zen and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that many a bird species in Costa Rica is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.

Consider Hiring a Local Guide

And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Costa Rica such as cotingas or Ocellated Antbird, or even the coveted bizarre Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Costa Rica, although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at uber rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.

Go Birding in the Summer

Yes, as in the months of June, July, and August. This is an excellent time of the year for birding in Costa Rica. As long as you don’t mind missing out on wintering species, you will see a lot and maybe even more than during the dry season. No, I don’t think it will rain too much either but I do know that consistent cloudy conditions will boost bird activity.

These tips are probably similar to ones I have mentioned in other posts about finding Costa Rica birds and other places but heck, they still hold true and 2021 won’t be any different. Need help planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Want to see a few hundred lifers and have exciting birding every single day? Whether you could go for some happy avian madness or more relaxed birding while staying at a beautiful, relaxing “home base”, I would love to help.