The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.
It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.
Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:
Close to the Airport
For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.
Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.
Further from the Airport?
Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.
Some Place with Green Space
There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.
Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…
Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat
A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.
Start and End the Trip at the Same Place
If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.
With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at email@example.com
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.
Usually I go birding in more places and more often than I have been doing. In the year of the pandemic, for a fair percentage of the global birding community, I am guessing that’s par for the course. Whereas I would normally be birding once a week and guiding trips here and there at least a few times a month, since March, my birding endeavors have been placed on hold. The big pause button was and is pressed down by an assemblage of closures, restrictions, and associated economical effects. The good news is that birds are everywhere, I can still connect with the avian side of nature by way of Blue-and-white Swallows perched just outside the window, and by waking up to the calls of bobwhites, the warbles of Blue Grosbeaks, and various songs of other neighborhood birds.
But there’s so much more out there to see (!), to personally discover. What biological madness is happening in those nearby cloud-covered mountains? Is there a weird and rare Sharpbill accentuating a mixed flock on the other, wetter side of the hills? Can Solitary Eagle still exist in Costa Rica? A good place to check would be the other side of those mountains out the back window, on the wild and Caribbean side of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Does the massive black-hawk persist over there or has it already succumbed to the effects of climate change (a victim of life cascades brought to deadly drought by warmer, drier weather)?
I haven’t had a chance to dedicate time to look for Solitary Eagle, Sharpbills, nor much of anything else but at least I can still make plans for the eventual search. Thanks to a local, resident world birder, recently, I did have a chance to look for some birds. We were after more than Sharpbills and Solitary Eagles and knew that our chances at finding our very rare targets were as slim as a Sharpie’s tarsi but you can’t have homemade-made cake unless you bake it, can’t reach the hidden peak unless you climb it.
With parrotlets, ground-cuckoos, and piprites on the mind, we spent a day and half searching for some bird cake at the Albergue Socorro. Encountering such rare and unreliable species in a short amount of time can’t be expected but the more you try the better your chances and given driving times to destination, the beautiful lower middle elevation rainforests of Socorro seemed like a good place to bring our bins.
In our brief window of birding, we did not find the super rare ones but I can’t say that it was for lack of trying. Following a strategy of covering as much ground as possible to increase chances of encountering an antswarm or hearing our targets, we walked on moist, bio-rich trails through beautiful forest, kept going on a road that bisects an excellent area of forest, and walked a bit more. Although the focus was on a search for rare birds, during those walks, we still saw and heard plenty of other things. Early morning on the Las Lomas trail saw us move beneath massive rainforest trees with crowns obscured by a an abundance of vegetation; the aerial “soil” of the canopy. We were accompanied by the upward, tripping songs of Tropical Parulas above and dry ticking of Golden-crowned Warblers below.
While keeping an eye on the trail for gnomish antpittas, we heard and saw a mouse-like Tawny-throated Leaftosser, had glimpses of candy-beaked Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, stood still and listened to the low frequency calls of a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.
The chips and calls of Silver-throated and other tanagers were a constant and we had close encounters with less brightly-colored Plain Antvireos. Despite having to navigate the clutching branches of two fallen trees, we walked that trail back out to the open rocky road and kept searching. There were Crested Guans honking like mutant geese, Swallow-tailed Kites riding the currents overhead, and Tufted Flycatchers calling and quivering their tails at the side of the road.
The bird with a way too long name (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant) was also present in fair numbers, we saw a few of them.
Calling White-throated Spadebills managed to stay hidden but a tail-pumping Zeledon’s Antbird was cool (as always),
and it was nice to see the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.
Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner was one of the “better” (and expected) birds. A natural born acrobat, this smallish foliage-gleaner does above-ground skulkingas it forages in bromeliads and other aerial vegetation like a big chickadee (sort of).
Another good one was White-vented Euphonia, a bird that is sometimes very common in this area. Even in poor lighting, this little bird can reveal its identification by its tail wagging behavior.
On the raptor front, we enjoyed a view of a perched White Hawk against the green, Short-tailed Hawks above, and, maybe best of all, were treated to an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle in flight.
The target birds might not have shown but we can’t say that we didn’t try and in doing so, we still enjoyed some much appreciated avian cake during the trying days of a pandemic. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Albergue Socorro, one of many exciting birding spots in Costa Rica that are already open and ready to safely accept guests. I hope I can visit again soon.
The Carara National Park area is one of the top sites for birding in Central America. The reason I say “area” rather than just talking about the national park itself is because there is so much more to birding Carara than just sticking to the protected zone. Don’t get me wrong, the forests of the national park are the main, well deserved attraction but you would be letting yourself down if you limited birding to the trails at Carara.
It seems odd to say that about a place where one can watch Streak-chested Antpitta, Baird’s Trogon, and many other species but yes, there is still more to see!
Nearby roads also provide access to slightly different habitats above the park, to mangroves, seasonal wetlands and coastal habitats around Tarcoles, and dry forests on the other side of the river. The end result is a mega tropical ecotone that has played host to literally hundreds of bird species. As one might guess, this means that you just can’t ever go wrong when birding the Carara area.
Given the fantastic birding in and around Carara, it seems odd that so few accommodations for birders area available. There are a couple of hotels and many more options around Jaco but fewer than expected so close to the national park. One of the best of those few places for birders is Cerro Lodge. A cozy place around ten minutes drive from the entrance to the national park, this excellent site is situated within a mosaic of tropical dry transition forest, open fields, and second growth just above the floodplain of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. This combination of habitats give the place a healthy selection of birds, several of which are not found in the limits of the national park.
Such as White-lored Gnatcatcher.
Fruiting trees bring in Scarlet Macaws, Yellow-naped Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons and several other species, many of which can be seen right from the deck of the outdoor restaurant. Part of the reason some of these and other birds are present is a result of reforestation undertaken by Cerro Lodge, and, over the years, the owner has also made additional improvements to provide guests with a more comfortable, better birding experience. The most recent addition is one that I wish every birding site had, an observation tower!
It’s not a big one but then again, thanks to it being placed on a hill, it doesn’t have to be. The new tower at Cerro provides an excellent view of distant mangroves and adjacent forest. I have only been there once but these were some of my impressions and expectations:
The Cerro Lodge area has always been good for this uncommon, odd, long legged raptor but the tower really ups the ante for seeing it. Basically, it just provides more area to search for it and since a couple pairs live in around Cerro, there’ s a really good chance you will see it. It might be far off or it might be close but keep looking and you have a really good chance of finding it (yes, we did see one).
The tower also seems ideal for finding other raptor species because it has everything a raptor counter likes; a wide open view over good habitat for better observation of perched raptors and birds in flight. In addition to the Crane Hawk, we also had both caracaras, Bat Falcon, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and vultures. It should also be good for Plumbeous Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Hook-billed Kite, Gray-headed Kite, and perhaps a surprise or two.
Flyby parrots and other species
The tower is pretty much superb for flybys of macaws and parrots. We had close views of Scarlet Macaw and Yellow-naped Parrot among five other species. Yes, that does make for good photo opps!
Given Cerro’s location near a river and mangroves, many other birds also fly past, some flying to and from wetlands, others flying out of their roosts in the mangroves. This area can also be good for swifts. I can’t wait to check out the tower in the winter months and during migration!
White-necked Puffbird and other perched birds
As with any tower near good habitat, the one at Cerro makes it easier to see White-necked Puffbird, trogons, and other species of the canopy. Just keep scanning to see what you can find. We had wonderful constant, comfortable views of the puffbird, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Streak-backed Oriole, and other species.
On account of it being endangered and looking so different, this star bird deserves its own bit of information. The tower at Cerro will be the ideal place to look for this bird. That’s great but it’s also bittersweet because I honestly wonder how long we will be able to see this rare species in the Carara area.
Its small population has been slowly but surely declining for several years and in all likelihood, it will unfortunately go locally extinct around Carara. I sure hope not but to be honest, that is what will likely happen because the bird has a very small population, there have been no signs of an increase or it even holding steady, and habitat at Carara is getting drier and thus not as good as it used to be for a species that likely requires a variety of fruiting trees in rainforest all year long.
Even worse, there has been no reforestation of the large cattle farms between the mangroves and the forests of Carara. This barrier can’t do any good for the cotinga and is probably the main factor contributing to its long term demise at this site. Once the bird is gone from the mangroves near Cerro, it won’t be back because the nearest population is too far away. So, in the meantime, we may see a few birds from the tower but I wonder for how long.
Access, comfort, and use
The tower is open to guests of Cerro Lodge but you do have to walk down from the hotel and then up to the tower. It’s not far and they do seem to maintain the trail though so most people should be fine. The tower itself is also only one and a half stories high so there shouldn’t be too much trouble there either. As for the tower itself, it can hold around 8 people or so and has a roof for much needed protection from sun and rain. There are also a couple of places to sit down.
Overall, it looks like a great place to bring a cold drink and some snacks and just relax with the birds. Bring a scope to scan all the way to the mangroves and just keep looking! On a final note, I bet the tower is also good for night birding, I hope to try that out on October Global Big Day, 2019.
Birding has been happening in Costa Rica for decades but very few lodges have been dedicated to the endeavor. One of the very first of those places was Rancho Naturalista, a small, nearly remote site in the foothills east of Cartago. The birding has always been good at Rancho; chachalacas, oropendolas, tanagers, and a wealth of other species visible from the balcony, antwrens and shy birds inside the forest, hummingbirds taking a dip in a quiet stream. Many a guide got started at Rancho and thousands of guests have enjoyed and learned about birds in a welcoming atmosphere punctuated by excellent cuisine.
A classic birding site at its best, Rancho Naturalista is always worth a visit, I was fortunate to bird there this past weekend. Thanks to the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I spent the past couple of day looking for Lanceolated Monklet, manakins, and many other birds at and near the lodge. These are some of the highlights and impressions from the past few days:
There’s still no quick way to get there– That’s one thing that hasn’t changed! It’s not Rancho’s fault and the drive isn’t that bad, the twists and turns of roads with traffic just make it seem longer than it actually takes. That said, at least half of the drive passes through some beautiful scenery and you could always stop for birds en route.
The birding starts upon arrival– The good thing about that drive to Rancho is that the birding begins as soon as you exit the vehicle. Park the car, check the Porterweed hedge and you might catch up with Snowcap right then and there. If not, wait a few minutes, it usually shows. Other hummingbirds will be there too and fruiting trees bring in tanagers, euphonias, and other birds to keep the binoculars busy.
The balcony is tough to leave– Feel like watching a troop of Gray-headed Chachalacas and other feeder birds come and go? How about being face to face with White-necked Jacobins, Green-breasted Mangos and other hummingbirds while enjoying some damn fine Costa Rican coffee? Oh yeah, sometimes, it feels like a dream come true, I hope every birder gets a chance to experience it.
The moth light still works– To avoid affecting the moth population, the moth light is only turned on once in a while. The number of birds attracted to it varies by season but it often results in close views of White-breasted Wood-Wren, Red-throated Ant-tanager, woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds of the forest.
Tawny-chested Flycatcher– One of Rancho’s star birds is still present and fairly common both near the lodge and deep inside the forest. Although this decidedly local species can also be seen elsewhere, it’s definitely easiest at Rancho.
White-crowned Manakin– Another star bird of Rancho, you might need to hike to the upper trails but local guides will know where it hangs out. We had great looks of two males up there in beautiful middle elevation rainforest. That walk also turned up Brown-billed Scythebill, White-throated Spadebill, and some other nice birdies.
The Rio Tuis– Several sites can be visited outside of yet near the lodge to look for various species that don’t occur on the trails. Birders head to the Rio Tuis to look for Sunbittern, tanagers, Lanceolated Monklet, and other species. We seriously tried for that monklet but a few morning hours just didn’t do the trick for this extremely elusive puffbird species. The Sunbittern gave a brief showing though, and we saw some tanagers including Black-and-yellow Tanager, Emerald, and Speckled.
Hummingbirds– Between feeders, flowering bushes and hummingbird bathing pools, one might guess that Rancho is especially good for hummingbirds. It sure is, we had 15 species! Snowcap just might have stolen the show although the rest were likewise awesome.
A home away from home– As usual, the cherry on the peak of the birding cake was the welcoming atmosphere at Rancho. A visit feels like going to a home away from home where the birds are always waiting to be seen and everyone is happy to see you. It’s a special place, I hope you visit!
Good birding in Costa Rica doesn’t require hours of bumpy rides and long, hot, triathalon training hikes. While the adventurous birder is welcome to burn calories and sweat buckets, excellent birding in Costa Rica can still be had with much less investment of time and effort. I am reminded of this benefit just about every time I go birding because although I do enjoy exploration that requires long hikes through tropical forest, most of my guiding and birding take place while driving and along very manageable trails. Part of that is because this makes for more feasible, easy guiding but honestly, if you know where and how to look for birds in Costa Rica, you can see a heck of a lot, even quite close to urban areas.
As with birding anywhere, habitat is crucial and that’s why I bring birders to Villa San Ignacio. Most of the grounds feature large old trees (including bird-magnet fruiting figs) and regenerating moist forest that attract a good number of species found in dry and moist tropical forest. It’s a key place to see what much of the Central Valley used to look like and how some areas could eventually look if we just let it grow back.
Situated only 20 minutes from the airport, this hotel also works very well as a place to start and end a birding trip. Since the hotel is also at the edge of urbanization in the Central Valley, good birding can also be had on nearby roads. I was reminded of this during the past couple days of guiding at and near Villa San Ignacio. Some of what I saw and learned:
Productive birding at Villa San Ignacio
As is usually the case when birding in good habitat, the avian activity kept us busy. Red-crowned Ant-tanagers moved through dense second growth accompanied by a pair of Barred Antshrikes, Rufous-capped Warblers, Rufous-breasted Wren and other species. Cocoa Woodcreeper was a surprise and a reminder that Villa is a bit lower than San Jose and thus more biodiverse. Brown Jays screeched from the trees and revealed the presence of a juvenile Gray Hawk which then also began to scream. Back in the dense second growth, we had nice looks at Lesser Greenlet, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Streaked Flycatcher but the best was a female Long-tailed Manakin perched on a vine at close range.
Plain-capped Starthroat and ground-sparrows
At the edge of the forest, we had excellent views of Plain-capped Starthroat and Blue-vented Hummingbird. On other visits, I have also had Cinnamon Hummingbird and Green-breasted Mango. We also had both ground-sparrows albeit with the briefest of views. The White-eared showed slightly better but the key endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow only revealed its presence with a few call notes followed by a quick flutter to skulk in thick grass.
Good birding on nearby roads
On roads near Villa, good birding is also possible, the main challenge is finding a place to pull off the road. Although that was generally impossible, we were able to stop on a quiet road that passed through a coffee farm with a scattering of trees. The birding was pretty good and I bet it can result in a lot more than we saw during our 30 minute stop. The quaint calls of Blue-vented Hummingbirds greeted us as we stepped out of the car. Shortly after, a flock of White-crowned Parrots flew into a nearby tree and I was surprised to hear the croaking notes of a Keel-billed Toucan. After a bit of maneuvering, there it was, a beautiful bird with a fancy multi-colored beak and within site of the urbanized valley. Not long after I was even more surprised to hear Fiery-billed Aracaris.
Although this regional endemic is more typical of the rainforests on the southern Pacific slope, small numbers also occur in the southern and western parts of the Central Valley (including Villas San Ignacio). After a bit of waiting, two of this exotic beauty fly into the bare tree that already featured the parrots. Our brief stop was rounded out by hearing the ticking call of another Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow and watching three Ferruginous-Pygmy-Owls at close range.
Unexciting to all but grass enthusiasts and birders hell bent on seeing grasspipers, the latter bit is why I was excited to learn about the presence of these farms. I need to be checking them soon, hopefully with my partner because Upland and Buff-breasteds will be flying back this way, some likely already are. There weren’t any sandpipers visible the other day but it was still good to know where we can look for them.
Birding in Costa Rica is best in places with the most complex, developed habitats (large areas of intact primary forest) but some urban areas can still host much more than you think. Villa San Ignacio is one of those places, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about birding and staying at this gem of site.
This past Sunday, Mary and I had a chance to get in a morning of birding near Fortuna. Although we had the Observatory Lodge in mind, instead, we opted for another, lesser known site that we hadn’t visited for some time. Strategically located on a main route to the Central Valley from La Fortuna, Lands in Love makes for an easy stop with delicious vegan cuisine and great birding.
While birding the trails for a couple of hours, we identified 70 species, two of which were key year birds; Tawny-chested Flycatcher and Song Wren.
Lands in Love is a good site for these species as well as many others, the following are some tips and suggestions for birding this little known yet excellent site:
Bird from the Loveats Cafe
Lands in Love has a pleasant cafe on the main road. Drive the route between San Ramon and La Fortuna and occasional, interesting signs appear as the vehicle gets closer to great coffee, vegan Pad Thai and what is likely the best Shakshuka in Costa Rica. Even better, short fig trees next to the cafe attract honeycreepers and other small frugivorous species, and the vegetation out back is good for Black-throated Wren, wintering wood-warblers, and other birds. Sit at a table in the front, and the skies can host anything from Chestnut-collared Swifts to King Vulture and hawk-eagles. A birder might have to wait a while but the birds will eventually show. Cross the street and scan with a scope and White Hawk might be found along with other, much rarer species flying over or perched in the primary forest on a hill visible from the cafe.
Second Growth, then Primary Forest on the Trails
The trail system at Lands in Love includes several loops, most of which pass through primary rainforest that ranges between 600 and 400 meters elevation. Old second growth occurs at the beginning of most trails and offers up excellent birding including chances at actually seeing Thicket Antpitta, Black-crowned Antshrike, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, White-collared Manakin, and various other birds of the forest edge. It can be especially good for flycatchers including Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Northern Bentbill, Slate-headed Tody-Tyrant, and even the rare for Costa Rica, Sepia-capped Flycatcher. Pairs of the rare and near endemic Tawny-chested Flycatcher also occur here and there in areas of old second growth that have plenty of hanging vines.
Hummingbirds also feed on Heliconias including White-tipped Sicklebill, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and various forest species can also show.
In the primary forest, keep an eye out for mixed flocks with Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens. Various other species are also possible including Golden-crowned Spadebill, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, and Song Wren, Black-throated Trogon, and Rufous, Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmots among others.
A birder would be fortunate indeed to run across an antswarm inside the forest at Lands in Love because this is the best way to connect with the rare Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. This species occurs at Lands in Love along with more expected Ocellated, Bicolored, and Spotted Antbirds.
The canopy is high but if you find a fruiting tree, stay with it for a while. In addition to the three expected species of toucans, Yellow-eared Toucanet can also show and even Bare-necked Umbrellabird is possible (perhaps only from June to January). Various tanagers can also occur and fallen fruits might attract quail-doves. Olive-backed is the most likely species although Purplish-backed and even Violaceous are possible.
Trails too Rough? Bird the Forest on the Loop Road
The only downside to the trails is that they haven’t been maintained that much. This means that one or more of the bridges over creeks need to be replaced and that the trails themselves aren’t really suited for folks who have trouble with balance or walking. The upside is that a good number of species can be seen right along the loop road through the property and as the forest adjacent to the road continues to grow, the birding will only get better. In addition to edge species, many forest birds can also occur including antbirds, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, all three Cracids, and others. The loop road also has a few overlooks useful for checking the canopy and watching for raptors in flight. Not to mention, flowering bushes can also attract various hummingbirds, even Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, Blue-chested Hummingbird, and Blue-throated Goldentail!
Other Species to Watch For
Lands in Love has a lot of potential for birding, including chances at many rare and uncommon species. Some of the birds to look for:
Cracids– Frequent at many sites in Costa Rica, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, and Gray-headed Chachalaca are present and often seen at Lands.
Raptors– Most of the rainforest raptors have been seen at Lands, the most frequent being King Vulture, White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Semiplumbeous Hawk is also regular and both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles also make regular appearances. I suspect that Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle could also show from time to time and I have also seen Gray-headed and Hook-billed Kites. Perhaps scanning with a scope from the Loveats Cafe will eventually yield sightings of a distant Crested Eagle or Solitary Eagle? Lots of luck needed for those megas BUT both have occurred in the forest complex visible from the cafe. I can’t help but wonder if Crested Eagle might also pay a visit to the mostly inaccessible primary forests below the lodge.
On the falcon front, Laughing and Bat are regular, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon has been recorded in the forest and both Collared and Barred also occur.
Tawny-faced Quail– I don’t know if this rarity is present but I think there is a fair chance that it does live in the lower, mostly inaccessible forests. There may be a trail that reaches this most exciting part of the property.
Sunbittern and Green Ibis– Both of these choice birds can occur on the small bodies of water on the hotel grounds, the Sunbittern also along the river.
Owls and other Night Birds– Crested and Black-and-white have been seen near the restaurant and rooms, Mottled and Spectacled also probably occur somewhere on the property, and Middle American Screech-Owl likely occurs in the forest. As for other nocturnal species, Short-tailed Nighthawk can be seen at dusk and perhaps Great Potoo also occurs?
Motmots, puffbirds, and jacamars– This is an interesting site for motmots. Lesson’s has been recorded along the loop road, Broad-billed and Rufous are regular in the forest, and Keel-billed has also been seen perhaps more in the areas of second growth. The best puffbird on site is Lanceolated Monklet. Although it seems to not be as regular as in the past, it likely still occurs in and near the forested canyon. White-fronted Nunbird might also be present inside some parts of the primary forest, it would also be worth looking for the very rare Great Jacamar (Rufous-tailed is fairly common).
Black-crowned Antpitta– No sightings or sign of this mega that I know of (I have tried for it several times) but based on the elevation and habitat, it might be present perhaps in the lower more remote part of the forest.
Lovely Cotinga– Another one that could make an appearance, it will be most likely seen from the Loveats overlook. It seems that this rare species could also visit the forests around the hotel. If any cotingas are still present in the area, I would expect sightings from June to January when they are more likely to move to lower elevations.
Wrens– As with other foothill sites that have a blend of primary and secondary forest, Lands is a great place to see several species of wrens including White-breasted Wood-Wren, Bay, Black-throated, Stripe-breasted, Band-backed, Nightingale, and Song Wrens (along with House for the trip list).
Wood-Warblers and other migrants– Although migrant species can show up in all sorts of places, most really prefer quality forest habitats. This is probably the main reason why Lands seems to be such a good site for wintering wood-warblers including Kentucky, Hooded, Worm-eating, Golden-winged, and other species. I have also seen rare for Costa Rica Blue-headed Vireo there and it would be worth checking for Cerulean, thrushes, and other species during migration.
Stay the Night
If I had one final recommendation, it would be to stay the night at Lands in Love because the birding is good enough to merit more than just a morning. To learn more about stays and birding at Lands in Love, contact me at email@example.com .
If you only had four days to go birding in Costa Rica, where would you go? What would you do? For most visiting birders, such circumstances are a non-issue, most people visit Costa Rica for a week or more. However, for those of us with such limitations as jobs, family, and other responsibilities, trips of four or five days might be the only means of checking out the avian scene. Is a four or five day trip worth the flight? I dare say that it was for two serious birders from Ohio during recent guiding.
The tour was focused on maximizing time in the field and seeing as many species as possible along with looking for a few choice targets. Since we only had a few days to work with, we couldn’t really bird in more than one or two regions. Therefore, we concentrated on the area with the most chances at lifers and a nice, fat speciose list; the Caribbean slope.
Since we also had to drive through the highlands and stay one morning in the Central Valley, this also gave a chance for a different suite of species on Poas, and a bonus morning of birding at Villa San Ignacio. Given the significant number of bird species that these sites added to the overall experience, birding on Poas and at Villa was a good choice.
The following gives an idea of how things went while birding in Costa Rica from June 14 to June 18:
Poas and Cinchona
After meeting at the airport and picking up the Suzuki Vitara from Vamos Rent-a-Car, we drove to the high elevations of Poas. The birding was rather brief and quetzals refused to play but we did see flyby Barred Parakeets, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, both silky-flycatchers, nightingale-thrushes, Sooty Thrush, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and several other highland endemics.
For whatever reason, Cinchona was not nearly as productive. Most of the hummingbirds were there and the cafe provided much appreciated, delicious, home-cooked cuisine but the barbets and toucanets had taken an afternoon break from the fruit feeders. On the rest of the drive to the lowlands, we also saw Bat Falcon and White Hawk among a few other nice birds and were greeted by a flyover Green Ibis at our hotel in the Caribbean lowlands.
The Sarapiqui Lowlands
Quinta de Sarapiqui was our base for the next three nights, a good choice for birding the lowlands and doing a morning trip to mid-elevation sites at Virgen del Socorro. The hotel accommodated with early morning coffee and if we had wanted, would have also arranged early breakfasts. Given their feeder photo action, it’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time at the hotel but we had too many other birds to see further afield.
During one full day and an afternoon in the Sarapiqui area, we did well with 150 or more species. The first morning at the edges of the La Selva reserve gave us several key species including fantastic Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-fronted Nunbirds, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Pale-billed, and Rufous–winged Woodpeckers, woodcreepers, antshrikes, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-necked, Pied, and White-whisked Puffbirds, and more!
We stopped for a tasty lunch at the riverside restaurant, Rancho Magallanes and birded onward, taking a road near Quinta that accesses a wetland and lowland rainforest.
The wetland was rather quiet as was the birding in sunny conditions for the rest of the afternoon BUT fantastic close looks at Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle made up for the low activity! One of the rarer raptors in Costa Rica, this hawk-eagle is very difficult to find, we had one soaring with vultures and watched it for as much as we wanted. We also picked up a few other lowland species and had brief looks at Scarlet Macaws but came up short with target Great Green Macaw and Snowy Cotinga.
Since that area can also be good for night birds, we stayed until dark. As dusk grew, a Great Potoo called and we saw Short-tailed Nighthawk fly overhead. I then found the potoo and we watched as it sallied from a high snag before flying overhead on long, silent, owlish wings. Next on the list was a Vermiculated Screech-Owl that showed well followed by a Mottled Owl that came in and also gave great looks! Four nocturnal species in less than 40 minutes. This was outstanding and can’t be expected on every visit but does show how good this site can be for night birds. No luck with Black-and-White Owl on the drive back to the hotel but I bet we could have found one if we would have stayed out for another hour or two (not what we wanted after birding from dawn to dusk).
Virgen del Socorro
Realizing that we could see a lot more species by visiting Socorro, we spent a morning up that way. Highlights included views of Dull-mantled and Zeledon’s Antbirds, Nightingale Wren, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Emerald Tanager, White-vented Euphonia, and some 120 other species.
I had hoped for lunch at Mi Cafecito but since this site was busy with some folkloric activity that included loud music, we drove back into the lowlands. At a new restaurant in La Virgen that also mentioned trails and views of the river, we checked out birdy gardens and the river. It looked ideal for birds like Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Snowy Cotinga, and the macaws but a birder doesn’t see much during the sunny 2 p.m. doldrums, at least we didn’t.
Our last full day in the Caribbean lowlands began at the hummingbird hotspot of El Tapir. The main target, Snowcap, did indeed make an appearance and showed very well as did a few other hummingbird species. No luck with the coquette but the birds we saw in the forest may have made up for not seeing that exquisite little hummingbird. On the first trail, some foliage in movement revealed a serious mega, Bare-necked Umbrellabird! It wasn’t that close to the trail but it was big enough to get some clear looks at the oddly shaped head and red skin on the neck. It appeared to be a young male. Over on the other trail, Ocellated Antbirds took center stage as we checked out an antswarm! For a moment, I thought, “If a ground-cuckoo shows up, this could be the best visit I have ever had to El Tapir, ever”, but the ants weren’t that active and we didn’t see much else.
The Cope Experience
After a couple of hours at El Tapir, our fortune continued when we made the short drive to Cope’s place and were immediately greeted by another choice species, White-tipped Sicklebill! We had arrived at just the right time because the bird flew in, fed for about one minute, and then left for good. The feeders weren’t all that active but as usual, the birding was replete with close, satisfying looks at Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and various other species.
Over in the woods, the fine birding continued with scope views of Spectacled Owl and nice looks at Honduran White Bats roosting under a Heliconia leaf. We searched the forest for Crested Owl to no avail but did have excellent views of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle! Semiplumbeous Hawk also vocalized but wouldn’t come close, probably to avoid the hawk-eagle.
Before moving on, Cope said, “Let’s go check the old spot for Crested owl. I haven’t seen it there for some time but it’s worth a look.” We waited in the air-conditioned vehicle as Cope looked for the owl. After a few minutes, he returned and motioned us to follow him- a good sign! Sure enough, there they were, and not just one Crested Owl, but a pair with a juvenile!
To finish off the experience, we swung by a Great Potoo nest to digiscope a juvenile.
Although we could have seen more, by 2 p.m., it was time to drive back to the Central valley. As luck would have it, I noticed something perched on a snag as we drove the main road through the rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. No, it couldn’t be..but it was! An adult Ornate hawk-Eagle! Our third and final hawk-eagle in Costa Rica and in just three full days of birding.
Villa San Ignacio
On the last morning of the tour,we birded the grounds of Villa San Ignacio. The habitat at the hotel lived up to expectations with more than 50 species recorded from 6 until 8. Although endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow was a no show, we did see White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Lesson’s Motmot, Plain-capped Starthroat, White-fronted Parrots, Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-white Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, and various other additions for the trip.
After that final sweet morning of birding, we dropped off the car and said our goodbyes. The final count was nearly 300 bird species identified. Although some of those were inevitably heard only, three hawk-eagles, antbirds, and an umbrellabird sort of made up for it!
The birding was focused and we didn’t stop for any siestas but even if you wanted a more relaxed trip, three days in Costa Rica could still turn up a heck of a lot of species. Interested in a quick trip to Costa Rica? Want to see quetzals and more? Stay at hotels ideal for birding? I can help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Costa Rica might be small in size but it’s big on biodiversity. Like jam-packed with life, actually. Leave the perimeter of the airport in the Central Valley and it doesn’t take more than an hour’s drive to reach cloud forest, or rainforest, or dry forest, or a combination of habitats with literally hundreds of bird species therein. The best junction of life-zones in this birdy country is directly south of San Jose, on the other side of the mountains, and offers everything from Great Tinamou to Roseate Spoonbill, five species of trogons, and more. Situated where rainforest meets dry forests that are divided by a river and adjacent seasonal wetlands, Carara National Park and vicinity is a goldmine for birds. Honestly one of the best sites for birding in Central America, this hotspot is a must for any birding or natural history visit to Costa Rica, a first time visitor will be in for some seriously mind-blowing birding (unless you don’t really care for a hundred of more lifers in a day), and there is no better place to base oneself than Cerro Lodge.
Scarlet Macaws frequently perch in trees at Cerro Lodge.
Located just west of the Tarcoles River and around seven kilometers from the national park entrance, Cerro is close enough to the park for quick access yet far enough to also offer a different suite of birds. Whereas much of the national park protects humid rainforest that provides a home for such key species as Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon, Red-capped Manakin, Riverside Wren, Scarlet Macaws, and much more, the lands around Cerro Lodge are a mix of tropical dry forest, pastures, second growth, and seasonal wetlands. Combine these two sites and the bird list grows to more than 400 species.
The view along the entrance road of the Tarcoles River and the rainforests of Carara National Park in the background. This is a good spot to see Scarlet Macaws and parrots in flight.
To give an idea of the major sort of birding involved around Cerro Lodge and Carara, during a typical day of guiding that starts at Cerro, follows with a a visit to the national park, and takes in a few other nearby sites, we often finish with 140 to 150 species. Sometimes more, and that includes a leisurely stop for lunch where we scan for a few seabirds!
Starting the birding at Cerro is a good way to enjoy breakfast while enjoying flybys of various parrots, parakeets, and Scarlet Macaws, occasional raptors that may include Crane Hawk and Gray-headed Kite, distant (sometimes closer) looks at the mega Yellow-billed Cotinga, Striped Cuckoo, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, and many other birds. Bird your way up the entrance road and a good variety of edge and dry forest species make it onto the list. Once you reach the national park, dozens of humid forest species are in store for the rest of the morning, and the more you bird the patches of forest, second growth, mangroves, and wetlands around Tarcoles and nearby, the more birds make it into your field of view. Although there are too many to mention, some of the choice species can include Olivaceous Piculet, mangrove birds, King Vulture, White Hawk, Yellow-naped Parrot, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Charming Hummingbird. It’s one of those areas where the more you bird, the more you really see because such a large number of species are possible.
Even better, with reforestation efforts, the birding is also good enough right at Cerro Lodge to see a very good variety of species on the grounds and on the road in front of the lodge. Spend a day there and don’t be surprised to see Collared Forest-Falcon, White-necked Puffbird, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and Blue-throated Goldentail just outside your room.
White-throated Magpie-Jay at the feeder. Feeder action varies throughout the year but sometimes sees visits by this species and Fiery-billed Aracari.
In addition to fine birding and photo opportunities at the lodge, other benefits of staying at this excellent birding lodge include:
Great service– Staff listens to guests and strives to meet their needs. Need breakfast early? Want to know when the owls are showing? ASk the staff.
Great meals– More than plenty of good food.
Air-conditioned rooms– Needed as Cerro Lodge is situated in one of the hotter parts of Costa Rica.
Tour arrangements– The desk can arrange boat tours and other activities.
Pool– Nice to have when visiting with non-birding family or partners. This also shows the birding view from the restaurant.
Owls on site– Sometimes, Black-and-white Owls forage around the restaurant and near the cabins. They typically come out after eight p.m. Pacific Screech-Owl is also resident and Spectacled, Mottled, and Striped Owls also live nearby.
Having seen what Cerro has become since it opened, as with many a successful tourism venture, I can honestly say that the owner has taken the time to listen to the wants and needs of guests and has made substantial investments in changes accordingly. So far, the result has been a win for both the comfort of guests and the health of the ecosystem at the lodge.
Want to go birding at Cerro Lodge? Have any questions about target species and photo opportunities? Send me an email at email@example.com, or leave a comment. I can answer your questions and set up your trip.
Arenal is the name of a volcano in northern Costa Rica that exploded some decades ago. After that initial fiery, geological shout-out, the inner furnaces of the mountain kept right on burning, and, in doing so, the resultant natural incandescence has acted as a beacon for tourism ever since. Add numerous hot springs, waterfalls, and other natural beauty to the local mix and La Fortuna has become quite the bustling place where people from various countries show off the latest in khaki shorts and sandals as they waltz down the limited thoroughfares of the town. A wide variety of accommodation is available there and nearby, and many have names that pay homage to the conical mountain that punctuates the view.
One such place is also one of the first to have offered rooms to folks looking for volcanic fun. A former Macadamia farm, the Arenal Lodge offers a perfect view of the volcano, nice rooms, and a cozy reception and dining area with beautiful wooden floors. But…birds? No, I have not forgotten that this is a birding blog, there are birds too! In fact, more than enough for this welcoming hotel to act as an excellent base to work from, or just stay at, while birding in Costa Rica around Arenal.
I had heard about some of the birds at the Arenal Lodge from friends who had done Christmas Counts there. The most interesting one was a possible Great Jacamar, in Costa Rica, a very rare bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. Since this iridescent beast of a bird also requires plenty of high quality habitat, its presence is a sign that lots of other feathered ones are also there (an umbrella species if you will). Although I didn’t hear or see one during a recent morning of guiding at the Arenal Lodge, we still had fun birding and I left the area feeling that it certainly has birding potential. That means that it’s worth visiting to look for the jacamar as well as lots of other uncommon and rare species. Many are likely present, these are some of my highlights and impressions:
Fine roadside birding– Upon entering the lodge grounds, guests then make their way up a lengthy road until they finally reach the rooms and reception. That road goes through old second growth, forested riparian zones, and open areas, all of which have lots of birds. We had more than 100 species during the morning, just along the road.
It was nice to see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat.
The road to Arenal Lodge.
Mixed flocks– As with many a site in Costa Rica, this one has some nice mixed flocks. Although I bet larger assemblages of birds occur on a regular basis, we were still pleased with bird groups that showed the likes of Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, honeycreepers, and tanagers, the best being the uncommon Rufous-winged Tanager.
Quality birdies– That is, birds that maybe aren’t seen as often or just look cool. Some of these were Zone-tailed Hawk, a heard Great Curassow, Crested Guans, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Black-crested Coquette, Spotted Antbird, Song Wren (and other members of the wren family), Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, toucans, and so on.
A good base for birding the Arenal area– If you feel like birding away from the lodge, the Peninsula Road and its Bare-crowned Antbirds and nunbirds are nearby, Fortuna is a short 15-20 minute drive, and other sites are within easy striking distance.
Although the Bare-crowned was too skulky for a shot, Great Antshrikes performed for the camera at a Peninsula Road antswarm.
Given the good birding, scenery, and beauty for a fair price, I would stay there while visiting Arenal. I hope to bird there again some time soon, hopefully to do some bird counts on the grounds and see if we can locate that Great Jacamar.