Great spots for birding in Costa Rica aren’t limited to national parks and protected areas.
Don’t get me wrong, many of those special places are excellent and you can’t go wrong with a day of birding in Carara or Tapanti but they aren’t the only sites to enjoy quality birding time.
In Costa Rica, byways that pass through a mix of private lands with varying degrees of protected status can be replete with excellent “road birding”. One such hotspot is the Ceiba-Cascajal Road, a promising area
that has been consistent with generating a fine variety of rare, uncommon, and serious mega species. As with so many other good birding spots in Costa Rica, it also has an excellent sampling of more expected birds.
Situated west of the town of Orotina in the hot Pacific lowlands, the area is dotted with patches of tropical dry forest, riparian zones, pasture, sugarcane fields, and at least one seasonal wetland. The end result is
habitat for a large number of species and most can be encountered from a good gravel road. This country road links the town of Orotina to smaller settlements and the main coastal highway. Additional side roads probably offer up similar good birding but they might not be as maintained as the main route linking Orotina to Ceiba and Cascajal.
Head to Ceiba and you can keep on birding dry tropical forest and other habitats all the way to Bajamar and Guacalillo; classic areas for birding tours in search of dry forest species. Take the Cascajal route and although it might cover a smaller area, there’s still plenty enough habitat for a fine day of birding. From what I have seen, this road also accesses
more interesting habitat; a mosaic of promising wooded areas with big trees and an open area with a seasonal wetland.
Where to look for birds? While there are plenty of birds to see anywhere along on the roadside, this information should give some notion of expectations:
Dry Forest Birds
A good percentage of tropical dry forest species are present. Although you probably won’t find birds that require larger areas of more intact forest, notably Thicket Tinamou, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, there are plenty of Long-tailed Manakins, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Black-headed Trogons, and Striped-headed Sparrows to look at. The more wooded spots and riparian zones will also be good places to look for possible Stub-tailed Spadebill, Royal Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and various other dry forest birds.
One of the many Turquoise-browed Motmots from this road.
Scrubby areas can have Striped and Lesser ground-Cuckoos, Crested Bobwhite, wintering Painted Bunting, and wintering Grasshopper Sparrow (an uncommon, much desired species for local birders), as well as other rare sparrows. Both wooded and scrubby areas occur on various parts of the road.
Wide Open Habitats
When you feel like taking a break from peering into vegetation, scan the open fields for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Southern Lapwing, raptors, swallows, and various other open country species. The thick-knees may be seasonal but even if you don’t see them, there will still be other interesting open country birds to look at including occasional Red-breasted Meadowlark. One such visit to a spot with open fields turned up Costa Rica’s best documented Burrowing Owl!
The sighting prompted Costa Rica’s subsequent biggest twitch which then sadly became Costa Rica’s biggest dip. Did the bird get scared off by too much photography harassment (a growing problem)? That’s always possible but we will never know.
These can occur in a few different parts of the road; one is a low, wet spot in the area with large open fields on both sides of the road, and the other is on the road to Cascajal. This second wetland is particularly interesting as it has some freshwater marsh vegetation and low scrubby growth in wet fields. Although I didn’t see any on a recent visit, the site looks perfect for Wilson’s Snipe and may host uncommon or vagrant wetland species from time to time. I’m eager to give it a good check!
The nocturnal birding on this road can be very productive. Although it may take some time to find the birds, Barn and Striped Owls occur, Pacific Screech-Owl is common in wooded areas with large trees, Mottled Owl is also fairly common in those same spots, Black-and-white Owl sometimes occurs, and Spectacled Owl can show up in the more wooded riparian zones. And those aren’t the only night birds lurking in the dark!
Although uncommon, both Northern and Common Potoo have been found, Lesser Nighthawks are commonly seen in the evening skies,
and Common Pauraques will flush from the track at night. Given the open habitat, it wouldn’t be out of the question to find a rare White-tailed Nightjar and Chuck-will’s Widdow may be found in the winter months.
It’s also a good idea to pay careful attention to any nightjar seen on or perched near the road just in case you find a rare wintering Whip-poor-will or document Spot-tailed Nightjar for Costa Rica. Although not on the official list, some years ago, one may have been seen by Robert Dean and Eduardo Amengual in dry habitat on the road to Monteverde.
Given this possible sighting and its migratory nature, I included it as one of several species to look for on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
The wet, open fields along the Ceiba-Cascajal Road look like a very good place for this mega to occur.
I should also mention if you do go night birding on this road, keep an eye out for snakes. Please watch for any of these shy and over persecuted creatures on the road and be careful to not injure them!
The mosaic of tropical habitats and large dove and rodent population make this road an excellent area for raptors. Keep an eye on soaring birds and check the electric pylons and big trees for perched birds.
Here’s the raptor deal on some of what to look for:
Pearl Kite– Uncommon but regular.
Vultures– Among common Black and Turkey Vultures, keep an eye out for the occasional King and rare Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture in open wet fields.
Osprey- There must be more water in this area than I think because I have often see an Osprey or two flapping overhead!
Hook-billed Kite– Uncommon but present.
Gray-headed Kite– Rare but could occur from time to time in more wooded areas.
Plumbeous Kite– An uncommon summer visitor, more common in the Guacimo-Guacalillo part of the road.
Crane Hawk– Rare but does occur in this area.
Bicolored Hawk– Rare but has been recorded.
Cooper’s Hawk– This is a good area for this uncommon wintering species.
Sharp-shinned Hawk– Another uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.
Northern Harrier– A rare wintering species in Costa Rica, this is a fair spot for it.
Harriss’ Hawk– This road is one of the easier sites for this species in Costa Rica.
Broad-winged Hawk– A common migrant and wintering species.
Short-tailed Hawk– As with many areas in Costa Rica, one of the more commonly seen raptors.
Gray Hawk– One of the most frequent raptor species in Costa Rica.
Roadside Hawk- Another common raptor in Costa Rica, especially in the lowlands.
Zone-tailed Hawk- Uncommon but regular.
Red-tailed Hawk– In the lowlands, occasional wintering individuals occur. This is a good site for migrants from the north.
Swainson’s Hawk– Although most migrate through Costa Rica, some winter in open areas of the Pacific lowlands.
White-tailed Hawk– An occasional visitor to this area.
Collared Forest-Falcon– As with many sites, fairly common but secretive. Easiest to detect when it calls in the early morning and evening.
Laughing Falcon– Fairly common.
American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine– The open fields of this road are good sites for these wintering species.
Bat Falcon– A pair or two seem to be present and can be seen anywhere along the road.
Aplomado Falcon– Yes! Not expected but this vagrant migrant to Costa Rica has been seen at this site and given the open habitat could occur from time to time.
Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras– fairly common.
It’s always fun to see parrots! The three most common species in this area are White-fronted Parrot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, and Orange-chinned Parakeet.
Yellow-naped Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, White-crowned Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet are also regular and even Scarlet Macaw can be seen.
One of several overlooked birding destinations in Costa Rica, in large part, we can thank some local birders for bringing attention to the avian richness and potential of this site, especially Beto Guido, Mckoy Umaña, and others.
I look forward to my next visit, hopefully, one that begins before dawn. To learn more about where to see birds in Costa Rica along with insider tips to look for them, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!