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The Best Places to See Toucans in Costa Rica are Also Great Places for Birding

There are 6 species of toucans in Costa Rica and birders visiting Costa Rica will be pleased to learn that most of them are fairly common! Colorful, big, and bold, these fancy birds are larger than life. On account of their fantastic appearance, these big-beaked birds have acted as inspiration for characters on everything from cereal boxes to marketing for a number of tropical destinations (Costa Rica included).

In Costa Rica, these surreal and wonderful birds occur in nearly every type of forested habitat. Three species live in the lowland tropical rainforests on the Caribbean slope. They include the bird with the rainbow-colored bill, the Keel-billed Toucan,

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan

the Yellow-throated Toucan (formerly known as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and the Black-mandibled Toucan),

and the Collared Aracari.

This Collared Aracari was at Dave and Dave’s.

Just above the lowlands, the elusive Yellow-eared Toucanet lurks in the foothill and lower middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope.

Not nearly as common as the other toucan species, pairs of this special bird prefer to forage inside the forest and rarely come into the open. Some of the better spots for them are forests in the Arenal area, Volcan Tenorio, and the foothills of Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Higher still, we have a chance at seeing the beautiful Northern Emerald Toucanet. Smaller than other members of its family, this pint-sized green toucan is a common denizen of highland forests. Listen for its barking call and you might see one.

Birding in Costa Rica

It helps that they also visit fruit feeders!

On the Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris also occur in forests of the Nicoya Peninsula and in some parts of Guanacaste. They share some space with Keel-billed Toucans in areas of moist forest, including sites in the Central Valley.

In the Central Valley and southern Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris are replaced by the flashy Fiery-billed Aracari. This near endemic is especially common in areas with humid forest. It shares such places on the south-Pacific slope with the Yellow-throated Toucan.

birding Costa Rica

Although these toucan species occur at many sites, the places where they are most common are areas with extensive tropical forests replete with large trees used for nesting and as food sources. Since toucans are also omnivorous, their populations fare much better in high quality habitats that can provide them with plenty of fruit and small creatures. In Costa Rica, that would mean larger areas of mature tropical forest.

This is why we tend to find more toucans in Costa Rica in places like the Osa Peninsula, lowland and foothill rainforests in the Sarapiqui region, near Boca Tapada, Rincon de la Vieja, Monteverde, and forests in Limon province. More toucans usually means more of other wildlife because good numbers of these real life cartoony birds are indicative of healthy tropical forest that likewise provides habitat for hundreds of other birds, plants, and animals.

Such sites can be good places to look for manakins, cotingas, tinamous, and many other species that require healthy forest, including two species that prey on toucans; Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles.

To find more toucans and the best places to see birds in Costa Rica, use this Costa Rica bird finding guide. I hope you have a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica and hope to see you here!

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San Luis Adventure Park- Birding In Costa Rica At Its Best

Where’s the best birding in Costa Rica? The answer can be elusive; it depends on the observer, what you want to see and how you want to experience Costa Rica birds.

Sunbittern
Birds like the Sunbittern for example.

Even so, by merit of outstanding habitat or propensity to facilitate seeing lots of cool birds (aren’t they all?), some places stand out . One such place has been making the local birding news for the past few months. It isn’t new and the birds I am about to mention have always been there but because the site is not on the regular birding circuit, it has been very much overlooked.

That place is the San Luis Adventure Park and if you can fit it into your birding trip to Costa Rica, by all means do it. San Luis was started some 15 years ago by four local guys who wanted to start a tourism business in beautiful surroundings. They picked a site with cloud forests located between the city of San Ramon and the tourism hotspot of Fortuna. To make a long story short, this ended up being the perfect choice both for their business venture and for local wildlife. Their business has been successful, and on account of being aware of the importance of protecting biodiveristy and fostering a conservation mindset, the birding in the cloud forests of San Luis is as accessible as it is fantastic.

Some reasons why you might want to include the San Luis Adventure Park on your next trip to Costa Rica:

High Quality Middle Elevation Forest

The better the forest, the better the birding. Another way of saying that is that the more mature and extensive the forest, the more diverse and healthy it is. Mature tropical forest composed of massive trees provides the array of microhabitats and food sources necessary to sustain the full complement of bird species that have evolved to live in such habitats. For the birder visiting San Luis Canopy, this translates to chances at seeing large and speciose mixed flocks, Collared Trogon, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Dull-mantled Antbird, and many others (including Sunbittern along the river).

Collared Trogon

Access

San Luis isn’t the only site with high quality forest but it’s one of the few places where such habitat is easily accessible. Located on the main route that links San Ramon to Fortuna, it only takes a bit more than an hour to drive there from the airport, or an hour and 30 or 40 minutes from Fortuna. This also makes it easily accessible by public bus.

Some birding is possible from the parking area but the best birding is along the trail. This is a well maintained trail with some areas of steps and several bridges that allow views into the forest canopy. It starts at a deck that often has tanagers coming in to fruit and shortly after, accesses a hummingbird viewing area. Folks with mobility issues won’t be able to do the trail but they can still see quite a few tanagers and other birds from the viewing deck and even from the parking area.

Photos of Tanagers

Speaking of tanagers, this is one of the best sites to get close looks and shots of Emerald, Bay-headed, and Speckled Tanagers.

Speckled Tanager

Tawny-capped Euphonia is also regular and when nearby trees have fruit, the viewing deck can also be good for Black-and-Yellow and Blue-and-Gold Tanagers! Both of these special species are also regular on the forest trail.

Hummingbirds

The hummingbird viewing area can host Brown Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing , Crowned Woodnymph, and other species. Once in a while, Snowcap occurs and Green Hermit, Green Thorntail, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Coppery-headed Emerald are regular.

Coppery-headed Emerald
Coppery-headed Emerald is one of several species commonly seen at feeders.

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Whoah! Yes, one of the mega of mega tough birds to see can be encountered at San Luis Canopy! Not every day but often enough to be worth mentioning. Recently, two were seen by many visiting birders as they foraged at an antswarm. Although they didn’t show for Mary and I yesterday (no antswarms were present), I’m sure they will be seen again.

The chances of seeing a ground-cuckoo at San Luis are boosted by local guides who keep an eye out for them on the trails and relay that information back to the front desk. In fact, before we entered the trail, one of the co-owners, Nelson, was very helpful in providing us with information about the latest sightings and told us that if we wanted, we could also wait at the tanager viewing area until their guides could tell us if they were seeing the cuckoos.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird

Whoah! Yes, another major mega occurs at San Luis! Although one or two might be present year round, this very special bird seems to be much more likely and quite reliable from November to January. It can occasionally show near the parking area but is far more likely on the trail. Once again, the local guides let the front desk know where they have been seeing them.

Raptors

As is typical of sites with extensive, quality forest, San Luis can also be very good for rainforest raptors. Over the years, I have seen such species as Barred Forest-Falcon, Bicolored Hawk, White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. This can be an especially good site for the latter fancy raptor, mostly on sunny days when it calls during soaring flight.

ornate hawk eagle
What an Ornate Hawk-Eagle looks like in high soaring flight.

Given its easy access, the San Luis Adventure Park makes for an excellent day trip from the Central Valley, or as a great way to start or end a birding trip to Costa Rica, especially for birders traveling to and from Fortuna. As a bonus, this excellent site is also near other very good areas for birding including Finca Luna Nueva, the Pocosol Station, cloud forests near San Ramon, and Lands in Love. I hope you visit this special place someday, until then, happy birding from Costa Rica.

To support this blog and prepare for your birding trip to Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” – a 700 plus page ebook that acts as a site guide and birding companion for Costa Rica.

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Costa Rica Birding at Cinchona and Route 126: 3 Strategies

Birding as a kid in the 70s and 80s was about using cheap but precious binoculars to look at birds in the backyard, in nearby fields, and at state parks. It was about checking out and studying bird books in the public library and back at home, trying to see the differences among sparrows streaked with differents shades of brown, gazing at photos of Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other birds (in books), and wondering how I could see them.

It was also about seeing how I could reach places outside of my backyard and joining local trips with an older birding crowd. I went on day trips with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Ranbow County Birders to local reserves to look for warblers in May, shorebirds in August, and migrating hawks in early spring. Living in Niagara, we had a fantastic gull trip and were fortunate to have Canadian friends that treated us to 9, even 10 owl species in a day in cold, snowy places. There were different levels of interest but the way we went birding was pretty much the same.

A trip usually started with a meeting time and place that tended to be a McDonald’s parking lot. That way, folks could use the restroom, get a coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast. Before GPS and associated modern digital wayfaring, the big golden arches came in handy as an easy and obvious point of reference. From our meeting spot, the trip leader would convoy us to our morning birding stops and we would watch birds, talk about how to identify them, and maybe look at some through scopes. We would check out field marks in field guides, maybe a Perterson or a Golden Guide. After the Nat. Geo. became available, that fantastic storehouse of updated birding knowledge took center stage. It was a huge help with identification, especially with gulls and shorebirds. We would bring our own lunches and at some later point, say our goodbyes and head back home.

This was how most birding trips were. It was birding without digital cameras, apps, nor any access to broader, collated information about sightings and advanced identification. In other words, birdwatching was just that; watching birds, and there was a big emphasis on field identification. There had to be. The birding community was still figuring out how to identify all sort of things and didn’t have any immediate picture taking devices to check the birds we had seen. Sometimes, people would bring print-outs of articles on identification. When Kenn Kaufman’s book on advanced bird identification was published, that fantastic resource also found a place in the car. Birding was often about getting good looks as fast as you could, knowing what to look for, taking notes and maybe making field sketches.

Since those pre Internet days, birding has evolved and expanded into a many-faceted hobby. The birding spectrum includes everything from watching birds to simply watch them and not worry much about their names, solely taking pictures of birds, and using every technolgical resource on hand to race and see as many species as possible. People also watch birds for other reasons but no matter how you go with the birding flow, in Costa Rica, everyone is welcome at the birding table.

Birds like the stunning Crimson-collared Tanager are waiting for you.

Costa Rica has enough birds and birding sites to please every aspect of the hobby. One of several choice areas to visit for any degree of birding or bird enjoyment or bird photography is Cinchona and Route 126. Situated around an hour or less from San Jose, this route provides access to several habitats, each of which have their fair share of birds. Cinchona is the name of a small settlement on that road where a small restaurant with a wealth of birds is located. It’s called the “Cafe Colibri” or “Mirador San Fernando“.

More than a dozen hummingbird species, tanagers, Black Guan, quetzal, Flame-throated Warbler and other highland endemics, Cinchona and Ruta 126 has enough birds and birding sites to please all aspects of birding. These are three strategies for a day of birding in this area, each tailored to a distinct manner of birding:

Focusing on Birds in Costa Rica and Not Much Else

I admit, this is the birding I have usually done, the birding I prefer to do because it pushes me to concentrate on my surroundings, to listen and look closer and become enveloped by natural surroundings. This type of full scale birding makes for some nature connection at its finest. If you bird like this on Ruta 126 and Cinchona, there are a couple of ways to start your long yet exciting day.

If you can’t sleep, at some pre-dawn hour, drive up the road towards Poas Volcano as far as you can go. Listen and look for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Dusky Nightjar. Keep an ear out for the less common tooting whistles of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and be aware that Unspotted Saw-whet might also occur up there (it has yet to be documented from Poas but you never know..).

Roosting Bare-shanked Screech-owls near Poas. This species is a common bird of highland habitats in Costa Rica.

From dawn to 9, get in roadside high elevation birding in that same area before making your way to Varablanca. Keep an eye out for Black Guan, quetzals, silky-flycatchers, and just about everything else. Make sure to stop at the Volcan Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and a snack while watching the hummingbird feeders. Still need Scintillant Hummingbird? Maybe Magenta-throated Woodstar? Check out the Porterweed bushes in the parking lot for the Corso farm.

When you reach Varablanca, make the turn towards Sarapiqui, drive downhill for a little bit and turn right on the San Rafael Road. Bird forest patches there and watch for Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and various other cloud forest species.

At some point, head back to Ruta 126 and keep driving downhill. You could make stops at the Peace Waterfall to look for American Dipper and and other species, and at one or more overlooks to watch for Ornate Hawk-Eagle and other soaring raptors.

Ornate Hawk Eagle is uncommon but regular in this area.

Arrive at Cinchona just before noon. If you visit on a weekend, the cafe could be crowded. From January to March, it might also be crowded with birders. Find a table, order some food and enjoy the avian show.

While keeping an eye out for both barbets, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem, don’t forget to check the undergrowth and nearby vegetation for surprise birds like a quail-dove or two, Middle American Leaftosser, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species. Make sure to support this important, birder friendly place with a donation.

Post Cafe Colibri, watch for perched Bat Falcon and soaring raptors as you continue driving downhill. For the rest of the afternoon, you can’t go wrong with birding Virgen del Socorro (four wheel drive), Mi Cafecito, and lower foothill birding on the San Miguel-Socorro Road. Checking streams could yield Faciated Tiger-Heron and other nice birdies.

Finish off the day by relaxing at Albergue del Socorro or further on in the Sarapiqui lowlands with a cold beer, or dinner, or counting the 100 plus species you have seen.

Bird Photography in Costa Rica

You still want an early start but unless you want to take a stab at capturing images of night birds, pre-dawn birding won’t be necessary. You might even want to stop for breakfast at Freddo Fresas. That way, you can also set up in their gardens just across the road.

birding Costa Rica

Although you can do bird photography on the road up to Poas, if you can, I suggest saving high elevation photography for places like Batsu or other spots in the Dota Valley. Whether you stop at Freddo Fresas or not, you may want to check out the hummingbird bushes in the parking area of the Corso farm and ice creamery. Further on, make your way down Ruta 126 towards Sarapiqui and on to Cinchona and spend a good few hours there. Make sure to buy lunch and also give them a donation of at least $10 per person. They may also charge a small photography fee. Whatever you do, please do what you can to support this important, fantastic, locally owned place. They have suffered tragedies, worked very hard to rebuild after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, and have supported birding and bird photography for many years.

Post Cinchona, keep an eye out for perched and soaring raptors on the drive downhill. The next best stop for photography would probably be Mi Cafecito. Although photo options vary, the area of the canyon overlook can have toucans, guans, tanagers, and other species at fruiting trees. Be careful on that cement trail, it can be very slippery!

After Mi Cafecito, head to your hotel in the Sarapiqui lowlands. To maximize photo opps, you may also want to skip Mi Cafecito altogether and visit Dave and Daves, or just shoot at your hotel.

Dave and Daves

Easy-Going Birding in Costa Rica

If you just feel like seeing whatever you can see, you should still get up early but you won’t need to rush out the door. If you are staying at a place like Villa San Ignacio, enjoy some nice easy birding in their gardens before and during a tasty breakfast. After that, drive up towards Poas and stop at Freddo Fresas to visit their gardens and perhaps buy some strawberry bread for an afternoon snack.

After checking out the gardens, continue on towards Varablanca and start driving downhill towards Sarapiqui on Ruta 126. Stop at one or two overlooks (with small parking areas), scan for flying raptors, and enjoy the scenery. Further on, if you feel like seeing various rescued wildlife in a somewhat zoo-like setting in beautiful surroundings and nice trails, visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there is an entrance fee). If not, continue on, make an optional stop at the Peace Waterfall and then visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.

The Cafe Colibri is a fantastic, reliable place for getting good shots of Silver-throated Tanager.

Pick a table, order some food and drinks, and enjoy the birds. Take your time and keep watching, see how many species you can find! You might also want to browse their souvenirs and pick out some quality organic chocolate before easing on down the road. Please give a donation to help support this special place.

Further downhill, if you feel like walking a short trail in foothill rainforest, visit Mi Cafecito and walk to the overlook (be careful of slippery trail conditions). This place is also an excellent spot to take a coffee tour. After Mi Cafecito, continue on or head back to your hotel.

No matter how you watch birds, in Costa Rica, there’s a heck of a lot to see. For example, on the route mentioned above, over the years, I have seen more than 330 species. You won’t see all of them there in one day, but you can expect to see a lot and if you visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, the norm has been close, prolonged views of fantastic tropical bird species.

To learn more about birding routes in Costa Rica, sites, and how to find and identify more birds, prepare for your trip with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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10 Full Days of Fantastic Birding in Costa Rica January-Feb., 2022 – One Spot Left!

The Costa Rica birding season will be here soon. For some lucky folks, it’s already happening. Those fortunate birders have been enjoying the benefits of birding in Costa Rica with views of everything from shy Yellow-breasted Crakes to mega Bare-necked Umbrellabird and hawk-eagles. The usual magnificent mix of glittering hummingbirds and tanagers are also being seen along with

Resplendent Quetzal– a true world mega.

Would you like to start your year of birding with ten days full of fantastic birds in Costa Rica?

How about seeing Costa Rica hummingbirds like the Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

Violet Sabrewing and chances at more than 30 other species.

Scarlet and Great Green Macaws

along with several other parrots and parakeets including

the endangered Yellow-naped Parrot.

While birding rainforests entertained by the haunting whistled songs of tinamous, antbirds, and woodcreepers, there will be chances to see such stunning tropical birds as

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Broad-billed Motmot

Broad-billed Motmot

Chesnut-colored Woodpecker

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Gartered Trogons and much more.

In cloud forest, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers await

along with cute Collared Redstarts

and Yellow-thighed Brushfinches.

Yellow-thighed Brushfinch

Boat rides in bird rich wetlands can have crakes,

the unique Sungrebe,

and the near endemic Nicaraguan Grackle.

Tropical dry forest offers another fantastic suite of birds to watch including stunners like the Turquoise-browed Motmot

Black-headed Trogon,

and Long-tailed Manakin.

On the tanager front, Costa Rica is blessed with beauties like the Crimson-collared Tanager,

Scarlet-rumped Tanager,

Emerald Tanager

Emerald Tanager

Speckled Tanager

Speckled Tanager

Red-legged Honeycreeper and more.

Toucans? Oh, there will be toucans too…

Keel-billed Toucan Laguna Lagarto

Hundreds of birds are waiting including the beauties shown above. Many will be seen (maybe 400 of them) on a fantastic birding tour in CostaRica scheduled for 10 days in January and February, 2022. Carefully designed by local experts to maximize bird variety at key sites, lucky participants will visit such hotspots as the Sarapiqui rainforests,

Cinchona,

Cinchona is a good site for the White-bellied Mountain-gem, a local regional endemic.

high elevation cloud forest,

the incredible wetlands of Cano Negro,

birding Costa Rica

the fantastic rainforests of Arenal,

and the Carara area.

The new Universal Trail at Carara.

If you are or know of a woman birder who would love to experience the fantastic birding of Costa Rica and be willing to share a room with another woman birder on this trip, send an email today to information@birdingraft.com

Fantastic tropical birding is waiting in Costa Rica, I hope to see you here!

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A Few Changes at San Luis Canopy and the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe

Birding sites come and go. Some get better, others become off limits or, in too many worse case scenarios, are converted to housing or sterile pineapple fields. As Joni Mitchell reminded us, new parking lots can also happen and while those frozen patches of tar might make a Ring-billed Gull cackle with glee, other birds would opt for trees.

Thanks to recent guiding, I visited two classic birding sites in Costa Rica and noted a few changes that have happened at both of them. Not to worry (!), the changes are neutral or for the better at the Colibri Cafe in Cinchona and the San Luis Adventure Park. Here’s what to expect:

The Cafe Colibri (aka Mirador de San Fernando, aka Cinchona, aka Cinchona Cafe, aka awesome spot to get mind blown by tropical birds)

Although a parking lot did happen at the cafe, fortunately, it did NOT pave over any bit of paradise. Having nudged my vehicle into undefined parking spaces at the Colibri Cafe for years, I can attest to the new parking area being an improvement. Even better, for kids and domestic animal lovers of all ages, the parking area is now accentuated by a pair of braying donkeys.

As birders are entertained by the occasional loud, toothed voices of corralled mules across the road, they now also have more seating room on the birding deck.

The deck removed a very small part of the garden but it shouldn’t really affect the birds and more space was needed anyways. The new set up also makes it easier to watch the main feeder, a star fruit buffet featuring such beautiful attendees as the Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Silver-throated Tanager, and eye-pleasing species.

The hummingbird scene hasn’t changed, it still provides the chance to witness Brown Violetears extending their “ears”, Coppery-headed Emeralds sputtering and flashing the white in the tails, Green Thorntails doing their best wasp imitation, Violet Sabrewings acting large, purple, and in charge, and more.

violet-sabrewing

I should also mention that the menu is still the same albeit with the addition of flavored coffees available from a flavored coffee machine (which, if my mochaccino was any indication, could be better).

From the very mouth of the owner, the current fees for bird photography are 1500 colones for a bit of time and 2500 for a few hours. Since this is still a pittance, if you visit, please be generous and donate accordingly to this classic, birder friendly spot. My eBird list from September 13, 2021.

The San Luis Adventure Park (aka San Luis, aka San Luis Canopy, aka dream close looks at tanagers)

Over the years, this neat little place nestled in cloud forest on the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna has grown. Although the owners haven’t paved over anything, a bit of habitat has been removed. It’s nothing substantial and won’t affect the birds too much but it does affect the birding, at least a little bit.

As San Luis has expanded ever so slightly, various fruiting trees that were located just behind and next to the buildings have been removed. It’s a shame because those very trees made it easy to watch a wealth of tanagers from the parking area, Blue-and gold included. Not all of the trees were cut down, several are still there, just not as many visible from the parking area. Even so, I can’t honestly blame the owners for removing a few trees.

A few had to be taken out because they interfered with their zipline operations. Others were cut so they could expand a deck and the restaurant. I wish there could have been a better solution but it’s hard to think of one. Since they still protect a sizeable area of cloud forest, I can think of a lot more enterprises much more worthy of criticism for actual unsustainable and destructive practices.

Not to mention, the deck that was built also happens to be where birders can view tanagers at close range, so there is that. Speaking of the tanager deck, while it used to be freely open to birders, a locked door has been installed and access is now only possible by paying $20 in the reception. If $20 seems too much to view Emerald Tanager at close range, not to worry, you get more for that price! This same fee also provides unlimited access to the San Luis Canopy trail; a maintained series of steps that descends a river and has several hanging bridges.

If you can handle a bunch of steps, hanging bridges, and great birding, this might be the trail for you! It accesses mature cloud forest that can feature close looks at various tanagers, excellent mixed flocks, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, a chance at umbrellabird, and many other species. Since the fee also includes access to a hummingbird garden and close looks at Emerald, Speckled, Bay-headed Tanagers and other birds, I would say that’s money well spent.

San Luis is currently open seven days a week, from 8 until 4. The restaurant is good enough and currently features a typical Costa Rican menu (used to be buffet only). My eBird list from September 12, 2021.

As with every good birding site, I look forward to going back, I hope you make it there too. In the meantime, to learn more about identification tips and birding sites in Costa Rica, get ready for an amazing birding trip to Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy fall migration!

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Strategies for Target Birds in Costa Rica

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.

Barred Antshrike
Barred Antshrike in Costa Rica- I always enjoy seeing this bird out back.

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:

eBird

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.

Learn Habitats

Bat Falcon habitat, tropical forest

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.

Lattice-tailed Trogon

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.

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Species to See While Birding in Costa Rica: Golden-naped Woodpecker

There are many ways to watch birds. Do we just watch the birds seen through the back window? Maybe not even worry about how they have been named or classified? Do we make plans to learn where certain wood-warblers have been seen and then carry out miniature private expeditions to find them? Maybe some of us venture into the pre-dawn of the marsh to meet the rising of a sun flecked with the silhouettes and calls of whistling-ducks. Some of us might even go much further afield, taking boat trips straight into the open ocean to reach the deep waters, the places where pelagic birds might wander into view. We may also travel to other continents to see birds, take multi-day trips to witness as much of what the avian world can offer.

Birding is birding is birdwatching no matter how you do it but it’s OK to prioritize some species. To be honest, when traveling, it would be a shame not to make efforts to see birds not possible in other places. These are the endemics, the very near endemics, and the species that are just easier to see at one place than another. In Costa Rica, we have several such birds, one of them is a woodpecker.

The Golden-naped Woodpecker is as smartly dressed as its name sounds.

Although this species also lives in western Panama, it is quite nearly restricted to the humid forests of southern Costa Rica. Ranging from Carara National Park to the border, seeing it in Panama seems to typically require a rather difficult trip to the last sizeable patch of lowland rainforest in western Chiriqui.

In Costa Rica, although it is readily seen in many places, it also seems to be more or less restricted to areas of mature rainforest. It can range into second growth but in my experience, for the most part, the Red-crowned Woodpecker takes its place in such edge and open habitats.

Red-crowned Woodpecker,

As with many of the southern Pacific endemics, the Golden-naped Woodpecker seems to be most common in the forests of the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce. It can be seen elsewhere but is certainly most frequent in places with the highest amounts of rainfall and is likely declining because of hotter, drier weather.

Although it takes the place of the Black-cheeked Woodpecker in the rainforests of the Pacific slope, the Golden-naped might even be more closely related to the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker of the Amazon. Or, more likely, it and the closely related Beautiful Woodpecker of Colombia are sort of “bridge” species between the Yellow-tufted and Black-cheeked. No matter what its evolutionary provenance may be, like the Black-cheeked, the Golden-naped Woodpecker does the photographer a favor by visiting fruit feeders as well as foraging in low fruiting trees.

Golden-naped Woodpecker,
Another image of a female Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

Check this bird out on your next visit to Costa Rica, it’s definitely one that you don’t want to miss!

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A Few Birds to Anticipate Watching in Costa Rica

More than 920 bird species have been recorded in Costa Rica. That would be a hefty list of possibilities for a country but when we are talking about a place roughly similar in size to West Virginia, Wales, or Denmark, yeah, that’s a heck of a lot of birds in a small area! Granted, a good number of those species are vagrants but at the end of the day, the size of the official bird list for Costa Rica hints at nothing less than fantastic birding.

That would be the type of birding where you see lifer after lifer after lifer, where the new birds keep popping up while enjoying more views of trogons, macaws, and toucans.

Black-throated Trogon

It’s birding that includes mega flocks of glittering tanagers, climbing woodcreepers, flitting flycatchers, and other species moving through your field of view.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Spotted Woodcreeper
Tufted Flycatcher

It’s watching an array of iridescent hummingbirds and testing the limits of photography as they zip back and forth.

White-bellied Mountain-gem

Thanks to protected areas in several major ecoregions, the birding opportunities in Costa Rica are both diverse and abundant. In terms of birds to look forward to, there are too many species to mention. Today, these cool birds came to mind:

Motmots

Broad-billed Motmot

Motmots are fair-sized birds that sort of look like rollers. Several have long tails with a racket-like shape and are plumaged in shades of green, blue, and rufous. Most love the shady side of life but since they also perch for long periods, they make great subjects for the lens. Six species occur in Costa Rica, visit the right places with a good guide and you can see all of them.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Crowned Woodnymph

One of the 50 plus hummingbird species that have been recorded in Costa Rica, this sparkling bird is common in lowland and foothill rainforests! On a personal note, I can still recall the first time I saw this species. I was birding the parking area at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park at the end of 1992, looking at the second growth on the other side of the highway. In quick succession, I saw my lifer Buff-throated Saltator, Lineated Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and Crimson-collared Tanager. Then, to top off the lifer cake, this glittering purple and green hummingbird, a male Crowned Woodnymph, zipped into my field of view. I have seen many more since then but that first woodnymph was the best.

Collared Redstart and other highland species

Collared Redstart

Costa Rica has wood-warblers, this ones entertains the eye in the highlands. Like several other birds of the mountains, it only lives in Costa Rica and western Panama.

Macaws and Toucans

Fantastic, large birds, thanks to protection and reintroductions, macaws and toucans are fairly common in various parts of Costa Rica.

Scarlet Macaw
Great Green Macaw
Keel-billed Toucan

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Another fancy tropical bird, jacamars sort of look like bee-eaters, a living carnaval dart or hummingbird on steroids. It’s pleasing to know that the Rufous-tailed Jacamar is common in many parts of Costa Rica and loves the lens.

With 900 other birds on the list, this is a small sampling of birds waiting in Costa Rica. It’s worth mentioning that Resplendent Quetzals are here too. Want to know where to go and get ready for that eventual trip? Please support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, hope to eventually celebrate birds with you in Costa Rica!

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When to Start Planning a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

We are in the midst of a pandemic and in some countries, the number of cases are growing apace. The threats posed by this novel illness make for worrisome times indeed but does it also mean that we can’t make plans for the future? Does it mean that we have to put birding and everything else on permanent hold? First and foremost, we should of course all be very careful and take precautions to avoid being infected with this virus, and do what it takes to avoid infecting others. However, being careful and concerned doesn’t mean that we should forget about taking birding trips.

A birder should look forward to laying eyes on the Northern Emerald Toucanet.

It might seem like this pandemic will never end but it eventually will and even before then, international travel will happen. Protocols to accept visitors are already being formulated in some places including Costa Rica and the government has even stated that the airports will open on August 1st. Yes, this means that the country will re-open (!) but before cracking open that champagne, keep in mind that it’s not a grand opening with a welcome sign visible from the peak of Chirripo Mountain. This is a limited opening for countries that have shown signs of containing the virus. For the moment, this means VIP status for such nations as New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland. By August, though, more countries might get that golden ticket for reentry and there’s a fair chance that more will make it onto the list by October and the end of the year.

As far as planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, this also means that birders should definitely start looking into a trip and if you happen to be from any of the three countries mentioned above, you could probably look into a trip for August. Birders from other countries can think about Costa Rica later in the year and especially for 2021. Since the best birding trips are planned far in advance, I would suggest starting to plan that trip now.

Plan on seeing Emerald Tanager among hundreds of other eye-catching species.

Start looking into where you would like to go, start thinking about the type of trip you would like to do, what you would like to see and when you would like to go. Keep in mind that there are many birds to see at any time of the year and Costa Rica will be ready and waiting. I would also love to help you plan your trip, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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How to Find the Best Bird Photography Tour in Costa Rica

It’s November and in Costa Rica, that translates to a transition between the wet and dry seasons. There is some wind and rain and fewer birding tours but visit the country now and you can still have fantastic birding. That’s just pretty much how it goes when birding Costa Rica because whether visiting in November, during the high season, or any other time of the year, with easy access to so many excellent sites, you just can’t help but see a lot.

Including serious beauties like the Red-headed Barbet.

The same goes for bird photography, visit the right sites and the birds will be there. Use the right guide and he or she will help you find and photograph those birds, even the tough ones. Speaking of birding and photography tours, November is also when the pre-tour season kicks into gear. For local birding guides, this means scouting sites both old and new, booking the last available rooms during the high season, and thinking of better ways to help birders and photographers surpass their expectations. This is at least what I do and if I were looking for a bird photography tour, these are the factors I would focus on:

A tour led by professionals with experience in guiding photographers

Not every guide has experience with photographers and even fewer guides have worked with bird photography. Look into reviews and information about past trips. Has the guide and/or company led bird photo tours in Costa Rica? How about other places and how many? If the company has done such tours for at least two or three years and keeps leading more, they are doing something right because they are working in a highly competitive field.

Green Honeycreeper- just one of many stunning birds waiting to be photographed in Costa Rica.

A birding photography tour that visits the right spots and stays at good hotels

Where will the tour go? Is there an accurate and honest description? Check out the hotels in the itinerary, if they resonate with other bird photographers, you will be headed to the right sites. If the birds mentioned don’t jive with what occurs in that area, think twice before booking the tour. If the people associated with and giving the tour stand out as experts in their field, the tour will be the right choice.

Although one could stay at the most luxurious hotels in Costa Rica, these aren’t the best places for bird photography. For the best tour, you want to stay at comfortable, quality hotels for sure but they should also provide excellent photo opportunities right there on the premises.

A Keel-billed Toucan from Laguna del Lagarto- one of the top bird photography sites not just in Costa Rica but in all of Central America.

A tour that spends enough time at the best spots

Quick tours are alright especially if you only have a few days to work with but the most productive photography tours strive spend at least a couple of nights at each spot. This is because since many tropical bird species are naturally rare, numbers and occurrence of various species can vary from one day to the next. Factor in variations in lighting and other aspects of bird photography and at least two days at each site greatly improves the chances of getting excellent shots of more birds.

A tour offered for a good price

Finally, you don’t want to pay too much for a tour (who does?). Fortunately, the best prices for photo tours tend to be offered by local companies because they have less overhead cost. Since very experienced local guides also know where to find key birds and can thus provide a better bird photography experience, going with a quality local company is the way to go.

The best bird photography tour in Costa Rica I know of will be happening this January. Running from January 15th to January 27th, this LiferTours itinerary has been carefully designed by a very experienced top local guide to access top bird photography sites for chances at a wide variety of hummingbirds including

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Violet Sabrewing

and Volcano Hummingbird among other species.

Tanagers like

Bay-headed Tanager,

Crimson-collared Tanager among various others,

and such avian stars as Resplendent Quetzal

Black Guan

Brown-hooded Parrot

King Vulture and many other birds in beautiful natural surroundings. This tour visits such fantastic places as Chachagua Rainforest and the Arenal area, Bosque de Paz, Quetzal Paradise and Savegre, Laguna del Lagarto, and the beautiful Rio Perlas Hotel and will be guided by an excellent, very experienced bilingual local guide. To learn more about the best two weeks of bird photography to be had in Costa Rica during 2020, contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to give yourself a fantastic start to 2020!

Note- I took these images with a bridge camera at sites visited on this tour, just imagine what kind of shots you can get with better equipment!