One of the most common questions about watching birds in Costa Rica is when to watch them. The short and most honest answer is “whenever you can”. Honestly, the birds are here, the resident ones all year long and most can be seen just as well during the winter months as during July and August. Most, but not all…
“When to watch birds in Costa Rica” depends on what you would like to see the most.
If you wouldn’t mind checking out the avian moves of summer birds from the north, bird from November to March and you will get your fill of Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers. Want to add some exciting shorebird migration to the Costa Rica birding mix? Check out shorebird hotspots in April, May, and from September to November.
Take a birding trip to Costa Rica in May or June. If resident birds are your main cup of tea, then you really could visit any time of the year and do well. For much of the rainy season, high bird activity in cloudy weather tends to make up for birding time paused by precipitation. Bird in the winter months and it will be sunnier in many places but wind and sun can also put temporary dampers on bird activity.
Any and every time of year is great for birding in Costa Rica but what about some of the tougher targets?
What about the cotingas, the ground-cuckoos, the birds in the book and on the app that seem mythical, the dream birds. In general, it will always be good for those birds too, you just need to know where to look for them. Take the umbrellabird for example, it can be seen any time of year but is far more likely in lower elevation and foothill forests during the winter months, and more likely in middle elevation cloud forest from March to July.
The bellbird is especially seasonal and certainly easier in Monteverde and other breeding sites from March to July. At other times of the year, look for it in the Pacific lowlands although it can also show elsewhere (check eBird!). As for other cotingas, although the Lovely can migrate to lower elevations from August to February, they are possible in pretty much the same areas any time of year.
Regarding certain crakes and other birds that act like them (hello senor Masked Duck), once again, know the right places and you can find them.
BUT, water levels in summer and fall do make them much easier. I assume there are pockets of wetlands that host Masked Duck, Spotted Rail, and Paint-billed Crake during the dry season but who knows how much those species move around? I mean, once the rice fields are harvested, they have to go somewhere.
I suspect they retreat to remnant wetlands but I bet some also head further afield. Given the natural born wanderlust of those birds, they could go anywhere. As for the global wandering nature of birders, whether you feel the need to explore some corner of Angola while listening to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, or would rather bird closer to home, I can say that anytime is a good time to be birding in Costa Rica. The birds are here, the birding is always great, and no matter when you visit, it’s much easier to bird in Costa Rica than you might think.
But quetzals, when is the best time to see quetzals in Costa Rica?
Although they breed in February and March, bird the right habitat and know where to go and you can see them any time of the year.
Ciudad Neily is a town situated in southern Costa Rica not all that far from the border with Panama. Named after a Lebanese immigrant who opened a store to accommodate the workers of nearby banana plantations, “Neily” has grown to become a small center of commerce for the southwestern corner of Costa Rica. In recent years, thanks to increased local birding coverage, it has also become a beacon for some exciting birding opportunities.
Although the rainforests that grew there a century ago must have been downright amazing, present day birders visit Neily to look for waterbirds in an extensive complex of seasonally flooded fields. Used for growing rice, it is there that a birder should spend time and not in the monotonous oil palms. The rows of palms can have owls and Common Potoos at night but it’s more exciting out there in the wetlands.
In common with so many other wetland areas, the rice fields of Coto-47 (also known as Las Pangas) tend to attract birds that move around in search of such habitats, some of which are lost because they should be in Panama or even South America.
One such vagrant bird recently seen at Las Pangas was the White-cheeked Pintail. Also known as the Bahama Pintail, this lost duck may have come from northern South America or maybe even the Galapagos. Either way, it’s a fantastic bird for Costa Rica and was joined by several other ducks that are common in northern climes but rare in Costa Rica. Those would be ducks like Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon Teal, American Wigeon, and Green-winged Teal all mixed in with several thousand Blue-winged Teals and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.
On a recent trip, try as I did, we did not see the South American duck but we still had fun looking at most of the rare ducks from the north along with droves of herons, egrets, a scattering of Glossy Ibis and other birds.
Shorebirds were present too and with so many places to forage and hide, you have to wonder what might be out there in Las Pangas. Maybe a super mega Temminck’s Stint? Maybe a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Given the habitat, Las Pangas would certainly be a good place to hit the mega bird lottery. The other day, we got lucky enough with a Ruff!
The past few years, Ruff has been found each winter. I doubt it’s the same bird but more a result of having increased numbers of dedicated, careful birders in the field. Even so, any day with a Ruff in Costa Rica is a fantastic day of birding. This Ruff, the only one I have self-found, was hanging with a handful of Pectoral Sandpipers. Comparing and ticking both dowitchers for the year in the same spot was a bonus.
Another bonus of birding in Las Pangas and other sites near Neily is seeing local species like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Crested Oropendola, Blue-headed Parrot, Streaked Saltator, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and other species. Although the dry season doesn’t seem to be the best time for crakes, visit during the rains and Paint-billed Crake is also fairly easy (!).
Although we dipped on the woodpecker, we saw all the other birds mentioned above along with a Ruff, killer looks at Mangrove Cuckoo, and another cuckoo that is likely a Yellow-billed but just might honestly be a Pearly-breasted Cuckoo. Yes, and that would be new for Cota Rica and I’m not kidding. I’m not sure yet, I’m not sure if Yellow-billed can be entirely discounted but we got good looks, we did not see any rufous in the wings, and I am presently studying the photos.
So, yes, Ciudad Neily is a pretty exciting area for birding in Costa Rica. Add nearby forest to the mix and it only gets better.
One could argue that any day of birding that includes birds is productive but personal birding success also depends on personal birding goals. Last weekend, in keeping with a Zen mindset (to ward off disappointment), I placed the goal bar on a low, bobwhite level rung. In keeping with secret hidden hope, I ventured into places that upped the odds for uncommon birds.
Our first site was the Ceiba Road near Orotina, a place with odd, open ag. habitats that have become a veritable Patagonia level hotspot for rare birds. Merlin, Northern Harrier, sparrows, even an uber rare for Costa Rica Burrowing Owl (!) have been found at Ceiba. As with other sites that attract odd birds, you bird there with extra careful eyes and ears, you bird with the awareness of rare possibilities. Really, one should bird like that everywhere but in the places where multiple rare birds have occurred, it’s easier to keep an open, focused mind.
Our first stop on the Ceiba road was in a riparian zone and as if on cue, we were greeted by the voice of the northern prairie, the calls of Western Kingbirds. An uncommon bird for Costa Rica, this winter seems to be an especially good one for them. Either that or climate change is pushing them into new areas. Either way, hearing and seeing those quintessential birds was a fine, productive start to the day and one that reminded me of road stops in western Kansas, of walking the wide-open, sun-baked Comanche lands in eastern Colorado.
Further down the road, careful birding in the open areas turned up some usual suspects and target birds. There goes the hoped for Pearl Kite perched in a high tree! There goes Mourning Doves moving along a distant treeline! That small falcon in the distant haze was an American Kestrel, another one was harassing a pair of Harris’s Hawks.
It was also instructive to study Bronzed and Shiny Cowbirds at close range. Educational yet worrisome to see so many.
Checking the many White-winged Doves failed to reveal any Eurasian Collared-Doves but it’s always nice to be watching birds.
There were several small birds around too, birds like Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and chipping Yellow Warblers but nothing rare, no lost wood-warblers who should have been gleaning in the breezy palms of the Caribbean.
A birding check of a side road further on turned out to be a good choice when Mary found a Grasshopper Sparrow! We had stopped next to a scrubby field and I was scanning swallows when she mentioned a bird perched on a wire. In Costa Rica, we probably get hundreds of Grasshoppers in the winter but see if you can find them. You will here and there but they aren’t exactly abundant, probably spread out over thousands of acres of pasture and grassy fields.
We had two of them and fantastic looks! The first bird perched so close, we should have had amazing photos; it sat still and refused to move. It would have stayed long enough for a shot too but before we could get the camera ready, it was flushed by the only passerby for miles, an older woman dressed in a green and red outfit that came straight out of the realm of Strawberry Shortcake. She just happened to walk up just at the very moment when we could have taken the picture, right at the exact moment!
Every experience is new and unique, there are no repeats on this shared timeline but how many can say that they missed taking a picture of a Grasshopper Sparrow because it was flushed at just the right moment by someone sort of dressed like a strawberry? And in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica? Like, what are the odds? I’m not complaining, just contemplating the unexpected and reaffirming that life is full of surprises.
We did enjoy wonderful close looks and could see how those pale brown whispers of a bird can so easily vanish into the equally whispering habitat of dry brown grass. The Grasshoper Sparrows were a very productive part of that morning and it wasn’t over yet!
Next stop on the birding train was the point at Puntarenas, a place that always offers a chance at interesting seabirds. Despite a stiff wind that hinted at storm-petrels, scanning from the lighthouse didn’t reveal much more than choppy waters. The birds were out there, though, most just a bit too far for identification.
Nevertheless, while scanning the terns, one bird stood out. It was a dark brown bird and flying straight and fast, I thought, “now that has to be a jaeger”. When it veered after a tern and followed its every move, its sea-falcon identification was confirmed and then there was another! The second jaeger had more white on the belly but was the same size and shape. By their tern-pursuing antics, size, shape, and amount of white in the wing, I saw them as Parasitics (aka Arctic Skuas). They perched way out there in the Gulf as people walked past on the sand, oblivious to the drama and scandal stirred up by those high-Arctic visitors.
I was reminded of another productive day some years ago during a BOS trip to the shore of Lake Erie when I saw my first ever jaeger, a Parasitic that burst through our field of view too fast to appreciate. On that day, there were also a few people walking on the sand, oblivious to the drama of migration, of the Sharpies flapping by, of the warblers and Least Flycatchers feeding to keep making their way to Mexico. It’s alright, what is productive for some is of no consequence to others, we all walk our own timelines but if you aren’t watching birds, you don’t know what you are missing!
How many birds are on the Costa Rica list? Although some sources mention somewhere around 870 or so species, the official list of birds for Costa Rica has 923 species. Why the discrepancy? I’m not entirely sure but part of the difference is surely related to bird species having been steadily confirmed and added to the country list.
While most are vagrants, given changes in habitat, distribution, and populations of various species, it’s not out of the question that there could be more of certain vagrants, and that some “new” species could establish breeding populations.
The official list has grown but believe it or not, there’s room for more! In fact, much more than I had expected. After having looked into the most likely additions for Costa Rica, quite a few more species came to mind than I had imagined (and I never even thought about Orinoco Goose but that’s another story). This post is the first in a series discussing birds that may eventually find themselves on the list and is in conjunction with a separate post written by fellow local birder, Diego Ramirez (aka “Mr. Birder”). He wrote a good post about this theme in Spanish, check out, Las Potenciales Nuevas Especies de Aves para Costa Rica.
Although the occurrence of any of these species would be an occasion of extreme rarity, for various reasons discussed below, all of them are possible. While none of these can be really expected when birding Costa Rica, I feel like it’s better to know about what might occur, to have that information available, than potentially overlooking a country first because a Long-toed Stint was assumed to just be a funny looking Least Sandpiper, or that the Black-headed Gull was a weird Bonaparte’s with a red bill.
This is also why the latest free update for the Costa Rica Birds field guide app includes 68 species that aren’t on the list but could occur (photos used in this post are screenshots from this latest update to the app). Despite such a high number of potential species, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had left out at least 3additional species. Expect those on the next update! Without further ado, the following are some birds to keep an eye out for when birding in Guanacaste (expect shorebirds in a future post!):
Yep, the good old Gadwall. A familiar, svelte species for many birders of North America and the Palearctic, it has yet to fly south to Costa Rica. Given its large population and strong possibility of migrating with other ducks, I believe this species is one of the strongest contenders for being the next addition to the list. The marshes of Palo Verde and nearby sites, the Sandillal Reservoir, and the catfish ponds of Sardinal would all be good places to check.
What? Yes and Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean one may have actually seen one in 2003. The Spot-tailed Nightjar is a small nightjar of savannas and other open habitats that has migratory populations in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Where do they go for the winter? No one really knows and it would be very easy for s small, nocturnal bird to go unnoticed during migration, especially if it is silent. Heck, if a few of these inconspicuous nightbirds wintered in Guanacaste, they could also easily go unnoticed.
No, I’m not making this up, this is one of the names given to a mystery hummingbird known from one old specimen and referred to as, “Amazilia alfaroensis“. Searches have been carried out yet have failed to refind it. Nevertheless, maybe it’s still out there? If you are birding around the Miravalles Volcano or other sites in northern Guanacaste, keep an eye out for any odd-looking Blue-vented Hummingbirds, especially ones that have blue on the crown. Take pictures, if you find one, you will have refound a critically endangered “lost species”.
This small woodpecker of open habitats could certainly occur at some point in the Upala area. There are sightings of this species from sites near there, just across the border in Nicaragua. If you think you ehar a Downy Woodpecker in that area, it’s very likely a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Given the propensity for parakeets to wander, group up with other parakeets, and possible sightings in Nicaragua close to the northwestern border with Costa Rica, this species should be looked for. If I get the chance to bird up that way, I would look for flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets and carefully check them for birds with green fronts. Flowering trees might be a good food source, and in the southern esge of its range, the Pacific Parakeet might be partial to mangroves.
This one is a long shot but since one was found in Panama, it could certainly occur in Cost Rica as a very rare migrant vagrant. In other parts of its range, this typical kingbird uses a variety of open habitats, often in grasslands with tall trees. With that in mind, a vagrant Cassin’s Kingbird could show up anywhere in Guanacaste and be easily overlooked as a Tropical Kingbird. I would not be at all surprised if a few have made it to Costa Rica now and then.
This beautiful bird is just waiting to be found. It occurs in Nicaragua fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and lives in a variety of scrubby and dry forest habitats. It could also be very easily overlooked as a Streak-backed or Spot-breasted Oriole. Watch for it at flowering trees near the border, look for orioles that have a small patch of gray on the base of a stout bill and no spots on the breast.
Other possible additions could occur in Guanacaste such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and Virginia’s Warbler. It’s a reminder to take a close look and listen at every bird, you really never know what you might find.
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!
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 email@example.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.
Target birding, it’s nothing new, it’s just looking for the birds we want to see. It can be as relaxed as watching for that daily Downy Woodpecker or as extreme as braving the Poseidon swells of the southern Atlantic as you make headway to Inaccessible Island. Although the daily Downy twitch and an incredible seafaring jaunt for the Inaccessible Island Rail are two very different endeavors, essentially, both are still target birding.
When it comes down to it, as long as you have a bird in mind and watch for it more than some other species, you are partaking in target birding. Seasoned birders know that most target birding goes far beyond the familiar branches and brush piles of the backyard and that it typically begins well before stepping out the door. Even if the bird in question is at a local reserve, we don’t want to leave the house until we know where and how to look for it. We don’t want to take the risk because from past experience, we know how easy it is to not see birds.
We know that if we only focus efforts on the western side of a sewage lagoon, we could miss or “dip” a Green Sandpiper that only prefers the ponds on the eastern part of the dark water treatment stinkplex. From dips of the past, we know that we might need to look for the target bird at a certain time of day. That’s of course how we missed the vagrant Black-headed Gull that only flies past the river mouth at 6 p.m. (we were watching at 6 a.m….).
No matter how earnest your scanning of the cold waters of Lake Ontario might be, if the bird doesn’t go there at 10 a.m., even a Yodabirder couldn’t bring it into a field of view. That need for accurate information is why mild-mannered birders can become temporary experts on the habits of Northern Wheatears, why we can have an incredible thirst for odd, ornitho-information, how we can spend hours looking over and analyzing eBird data. That’s all good (I freely admit to have done all of these things too) but is all of that research necessary when birding Costa Rica? Do we really need to learn about and know the habits of every possible species?
Perhaps not but for those of us with the time to do so, even if we don’t need to know about the habits of tail-wagging Zeledon’s Antbirds, we might still learn as much as we can simply because we love to learn about birds. I know that I love getting insight into the habits of pretty much every bird but does it come in handy?
To answer this latter question, I would say, “Yes” because the more you know about a bird, the more complete the experience when you finally see it. When you finally focus in on a Clay-colored Thrush, as common and bereft of colors as it may be, the experience is enhanced by knowing that this average looking thrush is also the national bird of Costa Rica, that it’s melodies bring the rains, that it’s local name of “Yiguirro” comes from the Huetar culture and shows that this dull-colored bird has made a happy connection between birds and people for thousands of years.
Knowledge is handy, it enhances any birding trip to Costa Rica. It’s not absolutely necessary for seeing target birds but it does enhance a once in a lifetime trip to a birding paradise. With that in mind, this is my take on some additional, effective strategies used to target birds in Costa Rica:
This fantastic tool for bird information also works for Costa Rica BUT it is limited by accuracy, site bias, and the fact that tropical ecosystems are complicated. Don’t get me wrong, it can tell you where any number of species have been seen and I often use it to get an idea about distribution but a fair number of reports should be taken with a grain of salt, locations for various sightings are incorrect, and since a high percentage of visiting birders bird at the same sites, that bias is reflected in the data. It’s not a bad tool to plan for target birds by any means, I would just suggest not solely relying on eBird in Costa Rica to plan your trip (at 10,000 Birds, I wrote a post about tips for using eBird in Costa Rica).
I should also mention that since we now have more reviewers in Costa Rica working to improve the quality of the data, information about bird distribution in Costa Rica on eBird should improve with time.
As with birding anywhere, no matter how many bird lists you have for a given site, you still don’t really know where your target birds are until you know which habitats they use and how to recognize those habitats. This is one of the reasons why we included text and photos about major habitats in the birding app for Costa Rica that I am involved with.
Simple enough, right? Maybe if all you had to do was find mature pine forest but in Costa Rica, the only pines we have are on tree plantations. The birds around here use a much more complex array of habitats, many of them only occur in specific microhabitats like forested streams, Heliconia thickets, or advanced second growth. Heck, for a few birds, we still don’t know what the heck they really need!
If you have a limited number of target species, this is where research can help. Learn as much as you can about the types of microhabitats and elevations used by a mega target like the Black-crowned Antpitta and you will have a better chance at finding one. Learn where various types of quality habitat occur in advance and you can plan a trip that gets you birding in the best places even if some of those sites don’t feature so well on eBird. Some of those places might even have some of the best habitat, the lack of eBird lists probably just means that few people have birded there.
That said, even if eBird does show that a Lattice-tailed Trogon has been reported at some wonderfully forested site, it might not be there when you visit for the following important factor.
Tropical Ecosystems are Complicated
The Lattice-tailed Trogon was there yesterday, how come it’s not there today? The trail looks the same but despite the frustrations of not seeing an uncommon trogon that was photographed on Monday, you did manage to see a Sharpbill on Tuesday! The reason why that trogon wasn’t present might have been because it was visiting another part of its territory, or because most birds of tropical forest are naturally rare (even more so these days because of the detrimental landscape level effects of climate change), or because it found a better fruiting tree, it was there but hidden, or other reasons not obviously apparent to human senses.
The reasons why birding in tropical forests can seem to change from one day to the next are related to why such those same forests host so much life. Basically, they are ecosystems so complex, at first glance, they seem to be some amazing chaotic, out of control profusion of life gone into overdrive. And maybe they are! It’s more likely, though, that tropical forests are amazingly complex systems and webs of life where interactions happen on innumerable facets and fronts. That just means that you can’t always expect the same birds, but that you can ALWAYS expect surprises and exciting birding.
Consider Hiring a Qualified Guide
As with any place, the easiest route to seeing target birds in Costa Rica is by hiring a qualified local guide. By “qualified”, I mean a guide who knows how to look for those birds, where they have been recently seen, and how to find them. It goes without saying that the guide should also know how to identify your target species. There are a number of qualified guides in Costa Rica, to choose the best for your purposes, I would ask them about their experience, see what others might say about them (especially any professional guides from other places), and ask them about chances at seeing target birds. If they say, “Sure, we can see a Harpy Eagle!”, unless a nest is found, they are likely not being honest. If they say, “No, we probably won’t see Speckled Mourner but I know a few places to try and how to look for them”, that’s a good sign.
Accurate Information on Where to Find Birds in Costa Rica
If you hire a qualified guide, they will know where to find any number of target birds and can probably help plan your trip. However, if you would rather plan a birding trip to Costa Rica on your own, trip reports from tours can act an inspiration. This very blog also has plenty of information. If you would like more in-depth information and details on where to find birds in Costa Rica as well as tips for looking for and identifying them, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
Now that vaccines are on the way, it really is time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Which target birds do you have? Tell us in the comments. I can’t promise that you will see them but I can tell you where to find them.
The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.
It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.
Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:
Close to the Airport
For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.
Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.
Further from the Airport?
Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.
Some Place with Green Space
There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.
Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…
Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat
A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.
Start and End the Trip at the Same Place
If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.
With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.
A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.
On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.
On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.
Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.
Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.
Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.
A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.
Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.
With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.
A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.
The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.
When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!
With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.
Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.
With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at email@example.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.
Each October, I organize a trip to the southern Caribbean zone for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Easy access to mature forest always makes for a worthwhile visit but we go during the month of Halloween because this is when we can also catch fall migration. A sky river of swallows, Chimney Swifts, and raptors is a special event but there’s more than enough to see at at any time of year.
Little coverage, lots of habitat, and proximity to Panama always lend excitement to birding in the southern Caribbean. What’s hiding in those mature forests in the hills? Black-crowned Antpittas? Great Jacamars? Some new addition to the country list? Yes. Discoveries are waiting, you just need the time, resources, and know-how to find them.
Last week, we found ourselves doing a bit of exploration in the Playa Chiquita area. Basing ourselves at the lovely Tierra de Suenos, our small group looked for birds at this site for yoga retreats, in the nearby hills, and at Manzanillo. A couple of days is never enough for this bird-rich area but we still had fun! How not when Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common? When there is a nice mix of migrants, Great Green Macaws, and other birds of the lowland rainforest?
A few highlights from the trip:
Birds at Tierra de Suenos
Tierra de Suenos has bungalows nestled in greenery and shaded by massive trees. As one might expect, this makes for a bunch of birds including species like Black-crowned Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, toucans, woodcreepers, and more. Many species are possible and some no doubt wander in from larger areas of forest in the hills behind the lodge. This was surely the case for the Great Jacamar that was heard earlier this year by birder and part owner Jason Westlake!
Breakfast at Tierra de Suenos
Nothing like sharing breakfast time with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers and other rainforest birds. I enjoyed that a well as the tasty, healthy food. The blended ginger and passionfruit juice was simply fantastic, and although I enjoy “pinto” (Costa Rican rice and beans), delicious grilled sandwiches and burritos made for a pleasant change.
Birding the Paradise Road
Some of the best forests near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca occur in the low coastal range behind town. Although much of those rainforests are inaccessible, we can still do a fair bit of birding along a few roads that go up and over the forested hills, one of which has the official inviting name of “Paradise Road”. Located between Playa Chiquita and Cocles, this gravel road passes by the edge of promising mature forest. I have made short visits to this road during the past three trips to the southern Caribbean zone and each time, I drove back feeling like we only scratched the surface.
On this recent trip, we had several Purple-throated Fruitcrows, many red-eyed Vireos and Bay-breasted Warblers, White Hawk, and various other forest species. The best find was a pair of Sulphur-rumped Tanagers! An uncommon and challenging species in Costa Rica, their presence was given away by their distinctive call that sounds a bit like that of a Black-and-yellow Tanager. As is often the case with this bird, our views were limited by their canopy-loving ways but we did see them!
On past trips, I have also had Pied and White-necked Puffbirds and various expected species. The next time I go to this area, I hope to do some serious surveys on this road that include pre-dawn starts.
With tall, old growth trees right on the side of the main road, it’s no surprise that roadside birding between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo can be pretty darn good. Roadside birding on past trips have revealed sightings of many toucans, woodcreepers, and both Rufous-winged and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers. On this trip, we enjoyed Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Great Green Macaws, and several other birds during a memorable early morning stop.
Roadside afternoon birding in Manzanillo was pretty quiet but along the Recope Road, we had some nice looks at Cinnamon Woodpecker, Semiplumbeous Hawk, fruitcrows, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other birds.
Recommendations for Future Trips
Tierra de Suenos is definitely suitable for birders and even better if you enjoy a blend of yoga and birding! If you stay there, ask Jason what he has been seeing, and enjoy the meals! As always, I also suggest making stops at the Italian bakery, Gustibus. Authentic focacia, pizza rossa, and other Italian baked goods, man, this place is good! It’s also an excellent lunch stop for sandwiches and other truly serious treats.
If you do bird down the way of Tierra de Suenos and Manzanillo, keep an eye out for any birds that look odd or out of place. Take pictures, you might end up documenting something new for Costa Rica.