It was sometime post midnight when I heard the call of a pauraque. Common in many places but only when the places have enough green space with a healthy supply of insects. The local matrix of cement, somewhat poisoned coffee farms and second growth make this bird decidedly uncommon up in this neighborhood.
Nevertheless, a few persist and that call in the night marked my first bird of 2021. Common Pauraque being first on the year list was in line with it typically being the first bird on Big Days. I’ll take it! Subsequent days have brought more birds including a hundred plus species during a day of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. In general though, my 2021 birds of Costa Rica have been “backyard” birds. “Backyard” because we really don’t have one but birding from the balcony looks onto a perfect scene for these parts; a bird oasis riparian zone.
That line of trees and bushes is a fine way to begin any day in Costa Rica, at least if you have to sling the bins in an urban zone. Lately, with windy, sunny weather keeping the local birds quiet and sheltering in the vegetation, you also have to get out there early. It’s worth it, a fine variety of species can show and they change from day to day.
Yesterday morning was one of the better days. For whatever reason, the birds were more active and showing in some bare branches out back. They paraded through one by one and even the skulking Barred Antshrikes and Carolinish Cabanis’s Wrens made brief appearances.
As I scanned the treeline out back, Brown Jays and a Gray Hawk called in the background, Red-billed Pigeons made display flights and a few White-winged Doves zipped through sky space (I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks).
A pair of Ringed Kingfishers gave their steady, grackle-like smacking call as they flew over the urban creek and as usual, I wondered how they manage to persist in this mostly urban area. Equally interesting was the group of 7 Giant Cowbirds that undulated out from a nearby cattle farm. Where do they go for the day? How far do they travel?
I scanned the swallows but so far, no rare Violet-greens (it’s a good year for them in Costa Rica), only the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows. A few Vaux’s Swifts joined them and a screaming flock of 70 plus Crimson-fronted Parakeets demanded attention.
I also saw a few distant White-fronted Parrots, yes, they range into the Central Valley along with similarly named but quite different White-crowned Parrots. Down in the bushes, I was pleased to see a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!
Where did they spend the summer? Could they have warbled from the forest patches of Niagara County? Called from the beautiful woods of Pennsylvania? The same could have been wondered about the 6 Baltimore Orioles that moved through, one bright adult male, the remaining birds females.
As if on cue, other migrants also appeared; a Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo that could have shared woods with the grosbeaks and orioles. More borealy-inclined Tennessee Warblers came through and a pair of Blue Grosbeaks perched in view. The Blue Grosbeaks aren’t migrants but the next bird was, a multicolored male Painted Bunting! That one is possible here in the winter but not as expected as in lower elevations.
Always a pleasure to check out the colors on that beautiful little bird, it reminded me of first learning about it from some sort of cards or maybe a cereal box as a kid. I still recall standing in the kitchen in the house on Augustus Place sometime 1977 and seeing a picture of that bunting. Knowing about that bird was incredible then and it’s still marvelous to look at one so many years later.
Down in the bushes, the local Rufous-capped Warblers and White-eared Ground-Sparrows called and Grayish Saltators appeared. A Squirrel Cuckoo swooped into view, Common Tody-Flycatchers vocalized out back and as usual, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees tried to take the spotlight. Finish the morning activity off with a few Blue-gray Tanagers and nervous Clay-colored Thrushes and that was a typical wrap for a brief morning of birding in Costa Rica.
Many more birds are possible, I’m surely forgetting some from yesterday. It will be interesting to see what the coming days bring in 2021.
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.
According to the unwritten universal rules of birding, the best birds of the year are always the birds we see. That’s the default and it promotes positive living by placing the focus on appreciation but let’s be honest, yesterday’s House Sparrows just can’t compare with the Evening Grosbeaks of today, or three years ago, or even twenty years back.
Whether by appearance, frequency of occurrence, or personal choice, some birds can’t help but be more exciting than others.
In Costa Rica, thanks to a list of 900 plus species, there’s birds like the White-crested Coquette and lots of other excitement things to choose from.
Each year ends with a fine number of impressive sightings and in 2020, despite driving restrictions and closures, local birders still managed to connect with a healthy assortment of stand-out species. This is no doubt related to higher numbers of local, dedicated birders with cameras who spend more time in the field and thank goodness for that because if not, we would have missed the following best Costa Rica birds of 2020:
Waterfowl- Duck, Duck, Goose!
Sometime in spring, back when the closures were about to happen, Carlos Solano found a country first Red-breasted Merganser in a Caribbean coastal lagoon at the edge of Limon! I did not get a chance to see this major country tick but thankfully, lots of other birders did.
Around the same time, a female, second country record of Hooded Merganser turned up at Lake Arenal! Found by Ever Villegas, the first record in 2010 was a surprise, this second one even more so. With more eyes in the field, hopefully we will be in for more sightings of vagrant piscivorous ducks.
Speaking of other ducks, Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences and CaraCara found a mega rare White-cheeked Pintail this year in the Las Pangas area of southern Costa Rica.
As for the goose, that happened with the recent crazy sighting of an Orinoco Goose on the Tarcoles River. Found by Lori Haskell on a Jose’s Crocodile River Tour boat trip, luckily, the bird has stayed around and been seen by many other birders. I suspect that it’s a local escape but who knows? I hope it sticks around long enough for me to see it too.
They live in Costa Rica and are seen every year but since I finally connected with this nemesis species in 2020, I have to mention it for personal reasons.
These cool tropical pelagic species are also regular in Costa Rican waters but I never heard of anyone seeing a flock of them! On a trip to Cocos Island, Serge Arias, Tom Shultz, Shelley Reeves, and others documented several of these petrels along with many other exciting species in a trip organized by Serge. He is organizing more birding trips to Cocos, there might be room!
A Ruff was once again found and seen by several local birders at Las Pangas in southern Costa Rica, and in marshes of the Tempique basin in northern Costa Rica. Could there be more than one individual?
No, we don’t get this one often! According to information about birds fitted with transmitters, during Hudsonian Godwit migration, most “Hudwits” fly from the rich deltas of western Colombia all the way to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. These power flyers mostly skip over Costa Rica but once in a while, maybe even every year, a few birds make a stop on the Pacific coast of this birdy nation. Birders have to be in the right place at the right time, this year, in May, one was found in mudflats near Paquera.
We have very few records for the country but maybe it shows up more often than we realize? In 2020, a Gray-hooded Gull was found by McKoy Umana at Punta Morales. As luck would have it, Mary and I arrived shortly thereafter and had excellent looks at this country mega.
With a Caribbean coast, you might expect this species in Costa Rica. But, we since we don’t have any islands on the Caribbean coast, this island-loving pigeon species is a rare find indeed. I suspect it occurs here and there along the coast more often but with so many inaccessible areas to search, the few birds that may be present go unseen. Last year was good for this rarity in Tortuguero as was 2020.
Not new for the country list but given its century plus absence, without a doubt, bird of the year. Found by Beto Guido and some other, lucky, local birders at an open habitat hotspot near Orotina in early December, it unfortunately was not seen the following day despite 60 or so birders intently searching for it.
Since the owl happened to be found in a spot heavily checked by birders that also looks like many other spots, I figured more are probably around. It could be one or two or even five more birds but since they have huge areas of suitable habitat to choose from, who is going to find them? As luck would have it, an experienced guide did find the same or a different individual at Palo Verde National Park! I bet a few more are out there, I hope we get a chance to look for them.
Yes, a resident species but yes, also one of the most difficult and little known birds in Central America. Sites near Rancho Naturalista can be good for it and once in a while, a piprites occurs on the trails of this classic birding eco-lodge. In 2020, a Gray-headed Piprites showed up at Rancho and has been reliable for several months. Several local birders finally connected with this rare species, we sure hope it sticks around!
A slight, streaked little brown bird might not seem exciting but it’s a rare one for Costa Rica! It look like at least a couple of Savannas were seen at La Ceiba, the same spot as the Burrowing Owl. Once again, thanks to dedicated local birders, especially Beto Guido, this rare bird for Costa Rica was seen by many people.
As with every year (and the unwritten rules of birding), there are lots of honorable mentions. These include the Western Gull at Puntarenas, the Aplomado Falcon from Fortuna, the Palm Warbler seen that same day, the Prairie Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler seen in highland sites of the Central Valley, along with the usual Paint-billed Crakes, Bare-necked Umbrellabirds, cotingas, hawk-eagles, and so much more. I hope you make it to Costa Rica in 2021, let’s look forward to more birds in a more positive year!
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.
I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.
In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.
Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.
But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:
The Perils of Plane Travel
For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?
According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.
As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.
Entering the Country
As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.
Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!
“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:
Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”
Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.
Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.
The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica
That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.
Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.
As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,
mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,
quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!
The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.
Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.
On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.
This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.
As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.
Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.
Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!
A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.
Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.
As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.
I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!
Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.
The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?