Tomorrow I will guide a small group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica at one of my favorite and most frequented sites when birding Costa Rica- Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park.
I have walked the trails through the old growth foothill forests of this Caribbean slope site on countless occasions since 1992 but that never takes away from the excitement I feel before each visit. I can’t help but look forward to walking into the mossy forest, breathing in the scented, humid air, peering up into the high, epiphyte laden canopy, and carefully listening for avian life.
I don’t deny that these feelings are partly related to my first impressions of the place. On my first visits, I saw striking target birds such as King Vulture, White Hawk, and White-necked Jacobin, the shy Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and amazing mixed flocks of glittering tanagers. It’s easy to see how I could be biased about birding here but I’m also the first to admit that it can be as challenging as playing Jeopardy with Alex Trebek, or as painfully slow as watching a 500 meter sloth race.
I often hear Black and Yellow Tanagers and Cinnamon Woodpeckers somewhere up in the canopy but the dense vegetation hides them or they just don’t venture close enough to see, understory birds are for the most part, shy ventriloquists that detest the limelight, the Lattice-tailed Trogon “laughs” while you search the abundant foliage in vain, and mixed flocks appear to follow a frustrating policy of traveling deep into the forest (and out of sight) as soon as they are detected.
Yes, the birding is challenging at Quebrada Gonzalez, but it’s invariably rewarding IF you spend an entire day there. The mixed flock that stayed behind the curtain of leaves in the morning might cross the trail in plain view in the afternoon. Lattice-tailed Trogons could reveal their square-tailed selves by hover-gleaning for fruit. An Olive-backed Quail-Dove might scurry along the trail up ahead, and a horde of fantastic tanagers just might come down from lofty branches to feed on berries at eye level.
There are also other, more fantastic possibilities such as Black-crowned Antpitta deciding to come out and play on the trail, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo snapping its bill at an antswarm, Bare-necked Umbrellabird making an appearance, or a Tiny Hawk pretending to be a thrush as it perches high up in some rain forest tree.
All of these and more are possible- I wonder what we will see tomorrow?
The perceived scarcity of raptors (non-owl raptors) when birding Costa Rica is a recurring topic of conversation between birders whom I guide and myself. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the following questions and observations:
“We haven’t seen many raptors other than Black and Turkey Vultures”.
“We have seen motmots, lots of hummingbirds, some tanagers, and a bunch of flycatchers. We haven’t seen any of those antpittas or antbirds though (another common theme), and very few raptors”.
“Where the heck are all of the hawks”?
With a field guide (that new classic, “the Garrigues and Dean”) that illustrates 53 (!) species of vultures, hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons, it’s no wonder this is a recurring topic of conversation.
I can’t recall if I wondered the same thing during my first trip to Costa Rica but I know that my raptor list had more holes than a Swiss cheese festival when I boarded the plane back to New York.
The raptor list for Costa Rica is certainly robust so where is the thrush-sized Tiny Hawk, the pint-sized Barred Forest-Falcon, the hefty Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and that king of the rain forest canopy, the monstrous Harpy Eagle when taking a birding tour in Costa Rica?
Well, all I can say is that they are out there, but there are some factors that explain why we don’t see raptors as often as we do north of the Tropic of Cancer. In no particular order, the reasons for the perceived paucity of raptors when birding Costa Rica is:
1. High diversity=natural rarity. Instead of the raptor scene being dominated by a pair of Buteo species, two Accipiters, a couple of falcons, and a scavenger or two, Costa Rica has a much larger variety of raptors that occupy more specific niches. This means that most species occur at population densities that are lower than birds of temperate zones and are therefore naturally rare. This is demonstrated by raptor lists after two weeks of birding in Costa Rica. A fairly typical count after a two week visit to 4 main sites during the high and dry season might be:
Turkey Vulture- lots
Black Vulture-even more
King Vulture-1 (yay!)
Roadside Hawk (2)
Gray Hawk (4)
Broad-winged Hawk (4)
Double-toothed Kite (1)
White-tailed Kite (1)
Plumbeous Kite (2-they went to Cerro Lodge)
Crane Hawk (1-Cerro Lodge again)
White Hawk (1)
Barred Hawk (1)
Common Black-Hawk (4)
Red-tailed Hawk (2)
Crested Caracara (4)
Yellow-headed Caracara (6)
Laughing Falcon (1)
As you can see, the species number is fairly high (18) but few individuals. I should add that this is a pretty conservative count and if one goes to certain sites, uses a guide, and specifically looks for raptors, several more species should be seen.
2. Most Costa Rican raptors are forest species. Not only does this mean that they are harder to see in appropriate habitat (because all of those trees and epiphytes are in the way), but it also means that unless you bird areas with fairly large tracts of primary forest then you won’t have a chance at watching cool stuff like Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, Barred Hawk, or Semiplumbeous Hawk among others.
3. Not all raptors soar. The Red-tailed Hawks, buzzards, falcons, and kites of the north spoil us into thinking that all one needs to do to see a raptor is look up into the sky…..and there they are (!) beautifully soaring and calling up in the blue saying, “Here I am in all my raptorial glory! Watch as much as you like and study my subtle shape to master raptor identification!”
If only the raptors in Costa Rica (and elsewhere in the neotropics) were so extrovert and unashamed! Other than vultures, soaring raptors in Costa Rica are far and few between and the ones that do regularly soar either don’t do it that often or spread their wings as part of their hunting strategy and therefore “hide in plain sight”. Among regularly soaring raptors that are often seen with vultures that kettle up into the hot mid-morning sky are Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. The first two are seen just as often in their preferred edge habitats while the Short-tailed is one of the birds that attempts to “hide in plain sight” by flying so high that it becomes a speck way up there in the clouds.
Of course there are also the massive migrating flocks of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks that pass through but they don’t linger to show off. A good number of Broad-winged Hawks stay for the winter but they don’t seem to get kicks out of soaring around to show off their splayed primaries. What? You aren’t of the opinion that raptors get their kicks, their cheap thrills, demonstrate their joie de vie from soaring around on widely splayed wings? You might change your mind after watching American Swallow-tailed Kites for a few hours.
4. Many Costa Rican raptors hunt with surprise and ambush tactics. The problem for birders is that this effective strategy only works when your prey can’t see you which means that the forest-falcons and other forest raptors are naturally inconspicuous. Very short birders who do sloth imitations in the Osa Peninsula might get lucky (or very UNlucky) and attract a Harpy Eagle but in general, one has to be as attentive and disciplined as a fire-walking Shaolin monk and/or just get lucky in catching a glimpse of raptors inside the forest.
You can and do see raptors when birding Costa Rica but no, don’t expect to see them soaring all over the place. Hire a birding guide who knows how to find them and go to the right places, however, and you will fill in a bunch of those gaps in the raptor list.
In general, areas with extensive forest are your best bets. Some of the better places in Costa Rica for seeing a good variety of diurnal raptors in no particular order are:
Carara National Park and vicinity. The variety of forested and open habitats make the area around Carara a consistently good place for raptors. Cerro Lodge and vicinity is good for Plumbeous and Gray-headed Kites, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Osprey, and both Caracaras. The nearby national park also has these and Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, King Vulture, and Collared Forest Falcon are regularly seen.
The Osa Peninsula. The extensive forests of the Osa and Corcovado National Park offer the remote chance of glimpsing Harpy and Crested Eagles, a fair chance at all three hawk-eagles and Tiny Hawk, and a good chance at seeing White Hawk, Common and Great Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, and several other species.
Cano Negro. Cano Negro is a waterlogged, protected area with low rain forests and open country. This adds up to lots of raptors including species that are uncommon in Costa Rica such as Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kite, and Harris’s Hawk.
Braulio Carrillo National Park. Spend the mid-morning hours in the parking lot at Quebrada Gonzalez and you have a good chance of seeing King Vulture, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Barred Hawk, and a fair chance at White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite and all three hawk-eagles. You might also see Bat Falcon and Tiny Hawk.
El Copal. The vantage point from the balcony of the lodge is perfect for raptors in that it provides an ample view of a forested ridge. Barred Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk are regular while other species such as Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, and Ornate Hawk Eagle could also make an appearance.
El Ceibo ranger station, Braulio Carrillo National Park. I haven’t been to this site located well off of the beaten path on the western side of the national park since 1994 but it looked pretty darn good for raptors at that time! White Hawk was easily viewed as it hunted for toads at the forest edge, Bat Falcon was in the area, I got my lifer Barred Forest-Falcon in the forest (pure chance though and could happen at any number of sites), and the view from the ranger station overlooked a large area of forest.
While I was standing at a bus stop last week and wishing that I could spontaneously fabricate wormholes suitable for quick and easy transport up into the much more birdy mountains, the “seet” call of a migrant warbler caught my attention
Like a secret whisper in the darkness, it was saying, “Here I am. Once again, I made it back down to the land of permanent summer without getting eaten by Sharpies, Merlins, or psycho members of the Ardeidae family. I avoided the hypnotic light traps of tall buildings and towers, and found enough food and shelter along the way to survive the elements. I made it but the journey isn’t finished yet. Now, I need to find more cover than this single Mimosa tree. It’s flowers attract a bunch of arthropodic delights and I am small enough to stay hidden in its leafy branches but even a lightweight like myself can’t survive with just one tree. Oh, and there’s also that human standing across the street. He’s making me nervous because he is staring my way with fixed eyes like a predator. I better go flit and keep myself out of sight!”
Yes, I was staring the way of the warbler. How could I not? Since I am an adamant and faithful birder as opposed to being a bus-watcher or addicted to text messaging, that warbler was the most exciting thing around! I suspect it was a Yellow because they migrate early, are common winter residents in the Central Valley, and make a “seet” call like the one I heard. Without binoculars to magically turn it into an identifiable creature, though, I can’t say for sure that it was a small, yellow, sweet-sweet singing insectivore of boreal, damp shrubbery.
Such is the serendipity of migration. You can wait at a bus stop and suddenly spot a Blackpoll Warbler, cuckoo species, or even a big-eyed nighthawk in a nearby tree. Looking up, away from the Earth, you might espy a steady stream of swallows winging their way south. Costa Rica and Panama are so small that they could reach Colombia by nightfall. Will they fly past that wonderful haunt of Colombian endemics known as Santa Marta Mountain? They are headed to the sea of forest known as the Amazon as are Eastern Kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Alder Flycatchers. I wish I could go with them but I don’t mind staying in Costa Rica. I started migrating here myself in 1992 but I eventually traded the long trips for permanent residency after becoming addicted to tropical forests.
A glimpse into my addiction.
The fact that a lot of northern birds make Costa Rica their winter home eases my longing to walk beneath the forever canopy of Amazonian forests. Yellow Warblers (like the one I probably heard at the bus stop) love to spend the winter in Costa Rica. Spish in any lowland to middle elevation second growth and they will come calling.
Yellow Warblers are super common winter residents in Costa Rica.
Do the same in mangroves and Prothonotary Warblers hop up onto exposed roots to brighten the swampy gloom (a lot like their breeding grounds).
Prothonotary Warblers are so darn aquatic.
Chestnut-sided Warblers, though, are the bane of Costa Rica birders during the winter. These eye-ringed, wing-barred Dendroicas love to show up just when you think you have spotted something potentially exciting because they hang with mixed flocks, are found away from mixed flocks, can be seen in the shadows of the forest, and flit around second growth. In other words, they pop into view just about everywhere you go in Costa Rica so get ready to see a lot of them if you plan on birding Costa Rica during the winter.
Broad-winged Hawks will soon fly over in massive kettles as they head south. Quite a few stay, however, like the one pictured below, to become the most commonly seen raptor during the winter months.
The northern migrants are definitely on their way, some have already arrived, and will a vagrant or two show up? A few Golden-cheeked Warblers grace us with their presence each year but I would like to find something new for the country like a Hammond’s Flycatcher or Cassin’s Vireo. Although not likely, the vagaries and unpredictability of migration combined with the fact that they reach northern Central America during the winter certainly makes these species a possibility when birding Costa Rica. I just have to get out there and find them!
This post is included in #133 of I and the Bird. Check out posts from other blogs about birds and birding in this edition at the DC Birding Blog.
Birders from up north who associate falcons with aerodynamically shaped, fast-flying awesome birds of regal appearance and open areas come to the neotropics and wonder, “What exactly is a forest falcon? I mean they don’t have the falcon shape and look more like accipiters (according to their illustrations because they are either extinct or don’t live in open habitats). When I listen to them on Xeno Canto, they sound more like a dog or weird yelping thing than a bird. Just what are those mysterious members of the Micrastur genus!”
After coming back forest-falconless from Costa Rica in 1993, I had some of these same questions and felt more determined than ever to find out the truth about forest-falcons. Over the subsequent years, during birding adventures in tropical forests from Mexico to Bolivia, in addition to discovering that you can find re-runs of The Simpsons just about everywhere (I once watched an episode of this epic animated series in a tiny village in eastern Oaxaca that had only seen two, previous non-Mexican visitors), I have discovered a few things about these mysterious birds.
Here is what I have found out so far:
Don’t expect to see them. I’m sorry if that feels like a low blow to the birding psyche but I just don’t want anyone to get their hopes up about forest-falcons. These sneaky raptors often have a strong aversion to being seen. Whether they are extremely shy or just can’t stand binoculars, they would much rather taunt you with ventriloquial calls from dense cover than guffaw right out in the open like the much more reliable Laughing Falcon.
Laughing Falcon- a fairly common, reliable raptor in Costa Rica.
Forest falcons are creatures of the twilight. No, I’m not saying they are vampires, but that these forest raptors are adapted to and most active during the crepuscular hours. Guide books usually mention this so I can’t claim that it was my discovery. The birding literature is are right though because forest-falcons vocalize the most at dawn and dusk.
Forest-falcons are by no means extinct, are fairly common, and just do not like open spaces. Although you hardly ever see them, Micrastur species are quite vocal and you can certainly hear them in most forested areas of Costa Rica. Their vocalizations give you a much better idea of their numbers in addition to making you feel cheated because they so rarely allow you to see them.
They are stealthy, cat-like hunters. Although it’s easy to label forest-falcons as cowardly or unfriendly, their adaptations for hunting are the true reason why they are so hard to see. Like cats, they can’t allow anything to see them because they hunt by surprise. They probably don’t care whether birders watch them or not but they cannot afford to let their prey espy them or they would starve. So, they automatically stick to dense vegetation, keep quiet when moving around, and refuse to soar.
They often hunt in the undergrowth. I have seen very few forest-falcons actively hunting but others have mentioned this in field guides and books on raptors. They also sometimes show up at army ant swarms, and once I observed a Barred Forest-falcon actively hunting in the undergrowth at Luna Lodge in the Osa Peninsula. I was sitting on a log in the forest and was casually watching a family of Chestnut-backed Antbirds go about their business. They hopped around, called, and before I realized it, suddenly disappeared! Maybe ten seconds later, a Barred Forest-falcon showed up. It had quietly flown in and perched on a low branch near the ground. The Micrastur looked this way and that before moving on to another perch near the ground and kept doing so until it vanished into the rainforest. Eventually, the antbirds starting calling again and when back to their terrestrial ways after coming out of hiding.
They do respond to tape or imitations of their calls. Not always, but I have had the most success with this strategy at dawn and dusk during the dry season (maybe they nest then?). Needless to say, if you do use tape, please don’t overdo it. By “overdoing it” I am referring to playing recordings of their songs over and over to get a distant bird to come in and/or then continuing to play its vocalization for several minutes despite having already seen the bird.
Based on these experiences with Forest-Falcons, talking with other birders, and reading about them, here are some suggestions about the best ways and places to see them in Costa Rica arranged by species:
Collared Forest-Falcon: The largest forest-falcon, it’s also the most common and widespread Micrastur when birding Costa Rica (and many other places). About the size of a Cooper’s Hawk, they occur in open woodlands in regions with dry forest as well as in dense tropical rainforest. They sometimes range up into the cloud forest but in Costa Rica seem to be most frequent in dry and moist forests of the Pacific Slope. The most reliable way to seem them when birding Costa Rica is to locate a calling bird during the pre-dawn or dusk, and call them in. Watching for them along the river trail at Carara National Park or in gallery forest of the northwest also yields more frequent sightings than elsewhere in Costa Rica.
A Collared Forest-Falcon photographed in dim, morning light on the river trail at Carara National Park, Costa Rica.
Slaty-backed Forest Falcon: This is a tough bird to see no matter what country you visit! I heard them once in awhile in the Peruvian Amazon but saw them on very few occasions. They often vocalized during the pre-dawn hours and the best strategy to see them is to locate a calling bird at this time of the day and call it in. The one bird I have seen in Costa Rica was a wonderful, vocalizing individual that called from the understory and let me watch him for several minutes at La Selva during the Christmas count of 1995. They probably still occur at La Selva but I haven’t heard of any being recorded there for a while so one can’t expect to see them at this famous Costa Rican birding site. Other, more likely locations to get this species when birding Costa Rica are at sites with extensive, lowland Caribbean slope rainforest such as Laguna del Lagarto, Hitoy Cerere (where I have heard them), and near Gandoca-Manzanillo.
Barred Forest-Falcon: This small forest-falcon is fairly common in humid forest in Costa Rica from the lowlands up into the cloud forest. They seem to be more common in hilly areas but are always tough to see. Like the other two Costa Rican forest-falcons, locating a vocalizing individual in the pre-dawn darkness or during the morning and calling it in is probably the most reliable way to see one when birding Costa Rica. They also show up at antswarms and attack hummingbird leks (I witnessed an unsuccessful attempt on a lek of Brown Vieoletears once in Braulio Carrillo National Park) so if you come across either of these in Costa Rica, just sit back and quietly hang out for a while- you may see a Barred Forest-Falcon. I don’t think there is any best site for this species when birding Costa Rica but searching for them in any humid forested, hilly site during the pre-dawn hours will increase your chances of seeing one. By humid-forested, hilly areas, I mean places like Braulio Carrillo National Park, Monteverde, Tapanti National Park, the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol, Las Heliconias, and El Copal.
No, I’m not doing it. I have spent a fair amount of time in the Amazon in Ecuador and Peru but hardly ever left the trail. I ventured off the track once in Tambopata, Peru to get excellent looks at a dark morph Crested Eagle being harassed by Casqued Oropendolas (they are apparently fearless because of their natural head protection) and although we only walked 50 meters off the track, we had somewhat of a hard time refinding the trail!
Therefore, I was pretty impressed to read that a guy from Leicester, England and a Peruvian have been making their own trail through the heart of the Amazon for the past two years. I saw this inspirational and adventurous news item about these guys walking the entire length of the Amazon River at the CNN website.
It takes more than two years because we are talking about a 4,000 mile hike! Unlike Forest Gump, Ed Stafford (and his Peruvian hiking partner, “Cho”), didn’t have the luxury of easy-walking roads. No, they had to climb down the rugged eastern slope of the Andes while following the source of the Amazon River, bushwack their way through dense tropical forests, wade through countless swamps, and get sliced by razor grass.
It’s an amazing trip they have undertaken but it’s such a shame that neither of them are birders. I mean these guys have covered, on foot, some of the most birdy, biodiverse terrestrial habitats on the planet. Costa Rica has fantastic birding but diversity is even higher in most of the areas they traversed. If they had done a running survey of all the birds identified along the way, I am sure they would have more than a 1,000 species under their belts. As they tromped through the grassy paramo at high elevations, they probably flushed sierra-finches, seedeaters, canasteros, and cinclodes, would have seen Mountain Caracaras and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles flying around, would have noticed Red-crested Cotingas and colorful mountain-tanagers.
As they slipped their way down through the wet, mossy cloud forests of the eastern Andes, the voices of tapaculos certainly “yelled” at them from the bamboo-choked undergrowth, they were serenaded by the whistles of antpittas, and would have seen fruiting trees and shrubs festooned with glittering tanagers and plump fruiteaters (a type of cotinga).
Further down in the foothills, as the nearby river grew in volume and the air became warmer, they were surely serenaded by the rattles of antbirds, trills and calls of little known flycatchers, ringing songs of wrens, and haunting melodies of tinamous that issued from the shadows of the tall forests.
As they reached the lowland forests, they probably ran into more stinging and biting insects, became even more drenched in sweat, were accompanied by the lazy drone of cicadas, and could hear the ringing notes of toucans that yelped and croaked from the impossibly high canopy. The dawn chorus would have been fantastic (my high count for Tambopata was 130-140 species of birds heard during 2-3 hours in the morning) with trumpeters and forest-falcons starting things off while it was still dark, various woodcreepers chiming in soon after, and then a whole auditory shebang of leaftossers, antbirds, atillas, understory and canopy flycatchers, feathered etc..
If they kept their eyes open to the birds around them, with the wilderness areas they crossed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they they have seen more than one Harpy Eagle; an immense flying thing with banded tail in the canopy (what my first looked like), a massive, winged predator with a freshly killed brocket deer on the ground, or a huge, fearless eagle gripping a branch with scary looking talons.
They probably saw most of the river island specialists, and even though they are non-birders, probably do recall hearing and seeing hundreds of parrots and macaws that make their home in that fantastic sea of rainforest we call Amazonia.
At the CNN site, I was kind of surprised to read comments that criticized them for doing “such a foolhardy thing”. The only people they put in danger were themselves and since they are about to finish their looooong walk through the jungle, it looks like they were prepared in any case. I applaud Ed and Cho for doing this although it’s too bad they aren’t birders!
With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica
I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.
Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.
On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.
The view from Heliconias Lodge.
I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.
Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.
I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).
White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.
My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.
This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.
Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:
Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.
Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.
American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.
Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.
Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!
Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.
Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.
Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.
Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.
Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.
Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.
Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.
Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.
I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.
The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.
Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.
If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:
It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.
Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.
Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.
Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).
I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).
During much of the year in Costa Rica, the song of the Striped Cuckoo is a common part of the auditory scenery. I hear them near my house singing from scrubby fields around the coffee plantations. I hear them call from the tangled second growth of deforested areas in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific Slopes. It seems like any humid place in Costa Rica below 1,400 meters with enough edge habitat supports a population of Striped Cuckoos.
They get overlooked though, because they tend to skulk. Like Anis, Roadrunners, and most of those Old World Coucals, the Striped Cuckoo is a terrestrial cuckoo species. It will ascend into the subcanopy of some edge trees or get up on top of some bush when it sings (and thank goodness because otherwise we would hardly EVER see them) but usually, it creeps around in dense, tropical undergrowth where it does who knows what. Sometimes, you can get lucky and see one take a dust bath on some blazing hot, lowland tropical track, or see one spread its wings and flash its black alulas. Is this a mechanism to catch more grasshoppers? To attract a mate? Evidence of madness? Who knows!
What I do know is that at least their song is pretty easy to imitate and often gets them to show themselves.
A Striped Cuckoo coaxed out into the open at El Gavilan in the Sarapiqui lowlands.
Striped Cuckoos love to raise their crest….
and lower it….
and raise it, over and over. It’s pretty cool to watch so I apologize for not having a video of it.
Here’s a frontal view of the same Striped Cuckoo.
When birding Costa Rica, listen for their clear, two noted whistle that might remind you of a Bobwhite, the first note lower than the second. They also have a longer song with a few lower notes that follow the second note.
This longer song sounds more like the much rarer Pheasant Cuckoo. By the way, if you ever see a Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica, PLEASE let me know right away because there are very few sites known for this species in the country. The only regular site seems to be savannas near Buenos Aires although they have also been recorded from Carara in scrubby habitat near the crocodile bridge, around Esparza, and close to the Panamanian border near San Vito.
Why they are so rare in Costa Rica is another of those neotropical, bird distribution enigmas. I mean they aren’t too difficult in cloud forest near Valle Nacional, Oaxaca, are regular in Metropolitan Park, Panama, and are found in the Amazon of southeastern Peru (where I used to hear them just about every darn morning but never saw them!). Based on where they have been found, I suspect that their rarity in Costa Rica has something to do with them not liking the high amount of precipitation that falls here.
So, Pheasant Cuckoos are tough to see but they should at least vocalize if around so seem to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica as opposed to just being ridiculously shy and mute.
No picture of the Pheasant Cuckoo yet! One day though, I’m going to do surveys and run around the country whistling like a Pheasant Cuckoo until I figure out where they occur.
Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.
So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?
Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be! These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.
Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.
Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.
For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.
Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.
Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.
For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.
Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.
Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.
In systematic order…
1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs, it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.
2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range. Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.
3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.
4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).
5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.
6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…
7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.
8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.
9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.
10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.
11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).
12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.
Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!
Up north in the temperate zone, black birds are a common part of the avian landscape. In North America, American Crows and Common Grackles are some of the most frequently seen bird species in many areas. Birders in Europe can hardly miss seeing Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, and Blackbirds (a thrush). In Costa Rica, there aren’t any crows. Instead, there are birds that occupy similar niches (Brown Jays and Great-tailed Grackles), and birds that are crow-sized and somewhat shaped like crows (oropendolas).
When birding Costa Rica, birders will also see plenty of four species with black plumage. These four bird species are the Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Groove-billed Ani, and Melodious Blackbird. All are common edge species of lowland and middle elevations that make their home in deforested areas and often live around towns. Although their black plumages are fairly similar, they have different shapes that help with their identification.
Since they occur in so many places, I won’t even say where you can see them when birding Costa Rica. I will talk about their identification, though, because a number of birders seem to have trouble in separating them.
1. The first on our list is often the first bird that people see in Costa Rica upon exiting the airport- the Great-tailed Grackle. This large, noisy bird has become amazingly adapted to living with people. A scavenger and opportunist of beaches, riversides, and wetlands, urban environments apparently mimic these open habitats because Great-tailed Grackles seem to be right at home as they forage on city streets, pick at garbage, and sing crazy songs from trees in a busy park. A large, black bird with a long, wedge-shaped tail seen when birding Costa Rica will be the male of this common species.
2. Melodious Blackbird. I wouldn’t call their vocalization melodious, but they are pretty darn vocal. Birders will hear their ringing song in most deforested areas of the country. This is pretty impressive considering that the Melodious Blackbird entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua only since the 1980s. This common, black-plumaged bird has a very generic bird shape. They sometimes occur in flocks but are most often seen as pairs perched together at the top of a tree in edge habitats. An American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird sized, all black bird with a medium length tail, flat head, and longish beak seen when birding Costa Rica will almost certainly be this species.
3. Bronzed Cowbird. With deforestation, this has become a very common bird species in Costa Rica. Like its northern cousin with the brown head, the Bronzed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of a number of other birds. Unlike the Brown-headed Cowbird, few studies have been carried out to ascertain how its nesting behavior affects local bird species. When birding Costa Rica, if you see a small group of dark birds in flight that resemble “winter finches”, you have seen Bronzed Cowbirds. Their dumpy body and shortish bill gives them this finch-like appearance. When seen close up, they look kind of cool with that red eye.
4. Groove-billed Ani. The Smooth-billed is also pretty common in southwestern Costa Rica (and replaces the Groove-billed there), but the Groove-billed Ani is the one encountered the most because it has a larger range. These animated cuckoos are always fun to watch with their odd, parrot-like bills, short wings, long tails, and interesting social behavior. If you catch them in good light, their plumage can also show beautiful greenish and blueish iridescence. Similar in size and shape to the Great-tailed Grackle, Groove-billed Anis have shorter wings, are lankier, and have that short, arched bill.
Not all birds in Costa Rica look as exotic as quetzals or bellbirds but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch them when birding Costa Rica. The birds talked about above are so common that it will be tough not to watch them.
If you are a birder from North America coming to Costa Rica for birding, you are probably familiar with at least one of the Melanerpes species. Don’t worry, this isn’t some fun, new disease, it’s the name of the woodpecker genus that includes species such as the Red-bellied, Red-headed, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.
Medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly long bills, members of the Melanerpes clan enliven neighborhoods with their drumming, rattling calls, and flopping flight (especially the Lewis’s Woodpecker) in much of southern Canada and the United States. They also occur further south, including on several Caribbean Islands, and of course in Costa Rica.
When birding Costa Rica, there are five Melanerpes species that occur, each more or less occupying a different region or habitat. If you are used to seeing Red-bellied or Golden-fronted Woodpeckers at your feeder or in your backyard, two of Costa Rica’s Melanerpes species are going to look and sound very familiar. These are the Hoffman’s and Red-crowned Woodpeckers.
Hoffman’s Woodpecker only occurs from Honduras to Costa Rica. Within its small range, this is generally the most common woodpecker species and the one you are most likely to see when birding Costa Rica around San Jose and in Guanacaste. Although it is a bird of the central valley and northern Pacific slope, don’t be surprised if you run into the Hoffman’s Woodpecker on the Caribbean slope. It’s still pretty uncommon there and outnumbered by the Black-cheeked Woodpecker, but deforestation has definitely left the door wide open for this edge species.
These are very common birds but it’s always fun to watch woodpeckers. This Hoffman’s was feeding down low at Tambor, on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Replacing the Hoffman’s Woodpeckers to the south is the Red-crowned Woodpecker. When birding Costa Rica, watch for it on the Pacific slope from around Dominical south to Panama. Also watch for orange-crowned hybrids from Carara to Quepos (If you see them, I suppose you could put a half-check next to Hoffmans’ and another half check next to Red-crowned on your list).
It acts a lot like the Hoffman’s and also sounds very similar. They are such common, backyard birds on the Pacific slope of Panama that they should have called it the Panamanian Woodpecker. I mean whoever thought of calling them “red-crowned” must not have noticed that most of the 225 or so woodpecker species have red on their crowns.
This Red-crowned Woodpecker was hanging out at Hacienda Baru,
and this one was roaming the shaded streets of David, Panama near the Purple House hostel (yes, everything there is purple).
If you venture into the forests of the south Pacific slope (and you obviously should when birding Costa Rica), you will hopefully run into the Golden-naped Woodpecker. It ranges from the river trail at Carara south to extreme western Panama (where it is very rare because they exchanged most of the forests there for cattle farms). This beautiful woodpecker is more difficult to see than its zebra-backed cousins because it stays within the forest but you could run into it at a number of places within its range.
This one was along the river trail at Carara National Park. With the white on its back and yellow on its head, it kind of reminds me of Northern Three-toed Woodpecker (a non-Melanerpes but just as cool).
Over on the Caribbean slope, the Black-cheeked Woodpecker replaces the Golden-naped. It’s more common and easier to see than the Golden-naped when birding Costa Rica because it shows less of an aversion to deforestation. You will almost certainly get your fill of this beautiful woodpecker in lowland and foothill forests as well as second growth and edge habitats anywhere on the Caribbean slope.
This Black-cheeked Woodpecker was being conspicuous near Ciudad Quesada.
Our fifth and final Costa Rican Melanerpes species hoards acorns from western North America all the way south to northern Colombia. In Costa Rica, it is a common resident of the high mountain forests and can be seen at a number of sites. These are the avian clowns of the high elevation rain forests (Prong- billed Barbet gets this distinction at middle elevations, and wood rails laugh it up in the lowlands).
This Acorn Woodpeckers was living large at San Gerardo de Dota.