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Tips and News for Birding in Costa Rica- July, 2019

Birding in Costa Rica soon? Already looking at Snowcaps

and Speckled Tanagers?

Want to look at these and hundreds of other birds? If you nodded or thought “yes” for any of the questions above, this blog post is for you. Check out these tips and news items for birding Costa Rica in July, 2019.

Rain?

Expect at least some. Although a short dry season often occurs during July, we may have already experienced those sunny days in late June. It’s going to rain and maybe even a lot but that won’t ruin any birding trip to Costa Rica in July. Quite the contrary, occasional rain and cloudy weather are better for prolonged bird activity than the hot, sunny, cicada days of the dry season.

If it does pour down a deluge for hours, don’t ford any streams and be careful with flooding. A few of the areas more prone to excess water are Upala, Parrita, some sites near Ciudad Neily, and other flat areas adjacent to rivers (aka floodplains…). During lashing bouts of very heavy rains, it’s also a good idea to avoid driving route 32; landslides are typical on this mountain road.

Oilbirds

This enigmatic, odd bird of a bird visits Costa Rica every year during the wet season and at least one was recently seen in the Monteverde area. Difficulties in detection make it impossible to give an accurate estimate of the number of Oilbirds that come to Costa Rica but good places to look are the cloud forests of Monteverde (the best place- take guided night hikes in the Monteverde Refuge), and high elevation forests in the Talamancas. They have also been seen on Irazu.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird

This mega, crow-sized cotinga is always rare and difficult to see but it might be slightly easier in July. I saw one in June and others have been seen in the Pocosol area of the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, and at Arenal Observatory Lodge. These sightings are probably of birds moving into foothill forests after breeding at higher elevations. Bird the foothill zone and keep umbrellabirds in mind at fruiting trees and when encountering groups of toucans and other large birds.

Ferry Birding

I think birding from the ferry is always worth the ride and especially so during the rainy season. It’s easy to do and despite the constant barrage of silly dance music on the boat back to Puntarenas, birdwise, it’s always interesting. Don’t expect a lot but keep watching, you might see storm-petrels, some odd rarity, or a Brown Noddy (as Mary and I did a couple of weeks ago).

Where to go birding in Costa Rica

It’s hard to say which sites are best right now because the birding is great all year long wherever good habitat occurs. However, a birder can’t go wrong with these suggestions:

Dry forest sites– Visit sites from Carara to Guanacaste in July and you might wonder about the “dry” in tropical dry forest. Everything is wet and green and the birds are singing and this is why it’s such a fun time for visiting this important habitat. Although there is more vegetation to hide the birds, frequent song can still make them easier to find and the birding can be good all day long. Another bonus of dry forest birding right now is that most species can also be found along any number of roads that pass through a patchwork of forest and farms. Those would be birds like Crested Bobwhite, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-necked Puffbird, Yellow-naped Parrot, White-throated Magpie-Jay, and many others.

The best sites are places like Santa Rosa National Park, Horizontes, and any number of roads that pass through patches of dry forest.

Rincon de la Vieja– An excellent site at any time, July might be the best month to visit this wonderful park. There isn’t as much wind, uncommon Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows are easier to find, and the same bunch of excellent bird species are just as present now as other months.

Foothill rainforest sites– See Bare-necked Umbrellabird… Along with that species, now can also be a great time to find Yellow-eared Toucanet, White-crowned Manakin, more tanagers, and lots of other species hanging in the foothill zone.

It depends on how you want to bird– As with any place, what you see depends on how you want to watch birds, what you want to see. For example, birders who would rather relax with tanagers and toucans at a lodge can do just that at any number of places. Birders who want to see as many birds as possible and don’t mind hiking in rainforest can do that at Tirimbina, Curi-Cancha, and various other parks and reserves. No matter how you want to bird or what you would like to see, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica can help. Purchase this book to get the most comprehensive information about finding birds in Costa Rica while also supporting this blog.

Forget the mid-summer birding doldrums, July birding in Costa Rica is great! I hope to see you here.

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A Few Tips for Birding Costa Rica around La Fortuna and Arenal

Arenal is the name of a young volcano in northern Costa Rica. When Arenal experienced its explosive rebirth in the 1960s, a plethora of tourism activities based around the volcano were also spawned including soaks in hot springs, hikes to jungle waterfalls, the usual horse back rides, and so on. If you find yourself headed to Arenal because the rest of the family wants to partake in those and other activities, count yourself lucky because the Arenal area is also fantastic for birding. Quality foothill rainforests are accessible at several sites, there are birdy trails very close to town, and the area also hosts a mosaic of habitats to please birders of all ilks. Try these tips to make the most of your birding time around La Fortuna and Arenal:

Visit the Fortuna Nature Trail: Also known as the “Sendero Bogarin” or just “Bogarin”, this oasis is an absolute must visit for ANY birder wearing binos around La Fortuna. Thanks to the dedication, perseverance, and hard work of local guide and naturalist Geovanni Bogarin, you can walk a good, easy trail through second growth and wet areas that host the most reliable Uniform Crakes on the planet, and dozens of other bird species. The presence of everything from Rufous-tailed Jacamars to Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-crested Coquette, and other species is testament to what can happen when you just let the vegetation grow. The fact that most of the trail used to be pasture that now hosts wintering Golden-winged, Hooded, Chestnut-sided, and Mourning Warblers also provides hope for restoration of winter habitat for migrant species. Check out my eBird list from a recent, short visit. Oh yeah, and if you like to take pictures, the feeders can be sort of unbelievable.

wood-rail

This was at the feeder last weekend.

green-honeycreeper

So were these.

white-throated-crake

And White-throated Crake along with around 20 other species.

This trail is just outside of La Fortuna, on the gravel road that runs next to the Backpackers Hostel. I’m not sure what Geovanni charges but please be generous with  donations, he is doing this on his own and for the love of nature.

Visit the Waterfall: Another trail just outside of town, despite the constant stream of tourists both local and foreign, the site will probably surprise you with its excellent birding. The road in passes through birdy fields, second growth, and riparian zones, and the parking lot for the trail can be good for toucans (even Yellow-eared was showing well a few months ago), woodpeckers, and lots of other possibilities. Check the lights near the forest in the early morning for White-whiskered Puffbirds and other birds in search of easy insect prey. On the trail itself (which might not open until 8 a.m.) check for raptors and perched canopy species from the overlook, and watch for antbirds, great mixed flocks, and even Lanceolated Monklet on the steps down towards the waterfall. You might even see umbrellabird, two were recently seen there during this year’s Christmas Count!

This trail costs $10 to enter, and although it consists of steps, you will be walking on metal and concrete ones instead of dealing with treacherous, slippery mud.

view

The view from the overlook.

Bird the hotel grounds: Bird are where the habitat is. Whether the hotel has a garden or some forest, check it out, you might be surprised at what you find.

Bird the road to the Observatory Lodge: This is also the bumpy road that leads to the national park. Although the national park is alright, the road to the lodge and then to El Castillo tends to be excellent and reliable for Bare-crowned Antbird, other antbird species, raptors, and so on and so on. Check the rivers for Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and maybe Sunbittern, and just keep watching. Don’t be surprised if you see a rare Lovely Cotinga at a busy fruiting tree, Bicolored and Semiplumbeous Hawks, and Rufous-winged Tanager.

Access excellent forest at Skytrek, the Observatory Lodge, and Mistico: There are other trails in the area but these have some of the best forest. Mistico has Hanging Bridges and a hummingbird garden with Snowcap. The Observatory Lodge has good trails in good forest with great mixed flocks and chances at many forest birds. Skytrek is pricey but also has good trails through some of the best forest, a couple hanging bridges, and a fair chance at Black-headed Antthrush, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and many other species including rarities like Sharpbill, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and other goodies.

ornate-hawk-eagle

There are healthy populations of Orante Hawk-Eagle around Arenal. Geovanni has even seen it catch a squirrel on his trail!

Enjoy your birding time around Arenal! To see more information about sites throughout the country as well as information to find and identify bird species in Costa Rica, check out my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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Why It’s Important to Study Before a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:

Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.

Ocellated Antbird

Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.

Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.

You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.

What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).

Keel-billed Motmot

Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.

Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.

Some stuff to study:

Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:

-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.

Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.

Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:

– Any other books by Alexander Skutch.

– Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.

-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.

– Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.

eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.

Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:

– A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.

How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.

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Advice for Birding the Cerro Lodge Entrance Road

Cerro Lodge is the place to stay when bathing in the mega-birding in and around Carara National Park. Other options include the oft-used Villa Lapas, the sometimes crowded Punta Leona, the new Macaw Lodge back in the hills on the other side of the park, and at least one hotel right in the middle of tiny Tarcoles. However, none of them share the blend of proximity, and diverse array of birds not found in the park possible around Cerro Lodge.

One of those birds is White-throated Magpie-Jay- we had these and others near Cerro.

Part of Cerro’s appeal comes from the birdy entrance road. This unassuming dirt road passes through open areas with scattered trees, second growth, and part of a river floodplain that results in a host of good birds. Whether staying at Cerro or not, this road is worth some serious binocular time. A couple of hours on that road that week reminded me of its worth as a site unto itself, here’s some advice on birding it :

  • Make time for this site: If you have plans to enter the national park, check out the road from 6 until 7 (opening time for the park during the dry season), or until 8 (opening hour at other times of the year). Or, if you have an extra day of birding, spend a full day on this road. Like every high diversity site, the more you bird it, the more you find, especially since the habitats also seem to act as a corridor between mangroves, other forest, and the park itself.

It’s also good for lots of common and edge species like this Lineated Woodpecker,

and Rose-throated (not) Becard.

  • Quality birds: If someone ever tells you that all birds are “quality” or that every bird is the same, they are either masquerading as a birder, or don’t know the difference between “common” and “rare”. Quality birds are the ones we don’t see that often, can’t really be seen elsewhere, or happen to be major targets because they look so cool. In other words, endangered and rare species, endemics, and stuff like Double-striped Thick-Knee. In the case of the Cerro Lodge road, it hosts a bunch of those quality species including the cool and crazy thick-knee.

Its cool, its crazy, its got thick knees and hypnotic golden eyes.

  • Double-striped Thick-knee: This target seems to be more frequent on the entrance road than in the past. Check for it in one of the first open pastures, and in the pastures in the floodplain. We saw 6 last week.
  • Crane Hawk: The road is one of the better places in Costa Rica to see this odd raptor. Watch for it flopping its way through the trees in the canopy or near the ground anywhere along the road. It also soars on occasion. We had rather distant looks at two different Crane Hawks.
  • Other raptors: Hang out on this road long enough and you have a chance at a pretty good variety of raptors. The long sight lines and birdy habitats offer chances at such other species as Gray-headed, Hook-billed, and Plumbeous Kites, occasional Harris’s Hawk and Pearl Kite (in the floodplain), Short-tailed, Broad-winged, Gray, Roadside, Zone-tailed, and Common Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, and both caracaras. Even Tiny Hawk has nested on the road in the past!

Short-tailed Hawk is one of the most frequently seen raptor species in Costa Rica.

  • Owls: Cerro is known as a site for Black and white Owl and this species can also show on the road along with Mottled, Striped, Barn, and Pacific Screech Owls. Not to mention, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is common during the day.
  • Swifts: Spot-fronted and Black Swifts are sometimes seen from the road in the morning along with more common White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts.
  • Psittacids: This can be a great area for parrots, parakeets, and their kin as they visit fruiting trees and move to and from roosting and foraging sites. The numbers and species vary throughout the year but lucky birders might see every possible species in one morning, mostly as flyovers. If not, it’s still pretty normal to see Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots, and Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets.
  • Good variety of dry forest species: Expect several dry forest species, including Black-headed  Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s and Brown-crested Flycatchers, occasional Stub-tailed Spadebill, Banded and Plain Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Stripe-headed and Olive Sparrows, Painted Bunting, and so on.

This is a good site for Nutting’s Flycatcher-  it looks almost exactly like the local variety of the Brown-crested but check out the small bill.

  • Keep an eye out for the cotinga: Last but not least, Yellow-billed Cotinga moves through this area, maybe even once or twice a day. The size of this population is very small (and, sadly, will likely disappear from the Carara area within ten years) but the few remaining birds are seen now and then near Cerro Lodge and in trees near the floodplain.
  • Bring a scope: It comes in handy when checking out distant crowns of trees and open areas.
  • Check the small marsh at the edge of the floodplain: It’s been so dry, this small wetland might not even be around when you visit. But, if so, check it for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other expected wetland species, possible American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and rarities like Masked Duck and maybe even a rail or two.

How to get there: From the turn off to Jaco on the Caldera highway, drive five minutes and watch for the turn off to Guacalillo on the right. Go a bit further and watch for the Cabinas Vasija on the left. The road will start going down a hill and shortly after comes to the entrance road to Cerro Lodge (the next road on the right). Be careful, it’s easy to miss!

For more information about how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, the most comprehensive bird-finding guide for the country.

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The Real Birding Hotspots in Costa Rica Part Two

In continuation, this is my take on birding hotspots for major habitats in Costa Rica (see part one for the three main factors used in determining hotspots):

  • The Central Pacific area: We could also just call this “Carara National Park and vicinity” because that is the main hotspot for this part of the country. In fact, this mega-ecotone is such a crossroads of biodiversity, it’s a strong candidate for being the top birding hotspot in Central America. Few other places can claim a list of around 600 recorded species within such a small area as well as regional endemics, uncommon forest species, and so on. Carara and nearby has it all; quality, protected forest, a variety of major habitats (lowland rainforest, dry forest, open areas, mangroves, lowland river, estuaries, and seashore) with a subsequent huge variety of species, and easy access. If there are any downsides to birding the Carara area, they would be the limited opening hours for the national park (7 to 4 during the high season and 8 to 4 in the low season), and the damn heat. That said, easy solutions to those disadvantages come in the form of good birding just outside the national park, and using a combination of air conditioning, lightweight clothing, and cold drinks. There are a few choices for lodging with Cerro Lodge being a stand out for quality birding, photo opportunities, habitat restoration, and proximity to the national park. Villa Lapas also offers similar advantages for the birder, and other choices for lodging a bit further from the park are The Macaw Lodge and Punta Leona.

    The Black-headed Trogon is one of 5 trogon species possible around Carara.
  • The Southern Pacific: Although the forests at Carara are essentially part of the southern Pacific bioregion, there are a few very good sites rather far from Carara that also deserve hotspot status. Good birding can be had around Manuel Antonio National Park and several sites around Dominical but the best birding is found on and near the Osa Peninsula. Outside of the Osa, the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge and vicinity is a major birding hotspot. This is one of my favorite sites in the country simply because you can see a huge variety of species, including many uncommon birds.  Bird the road through La Gamba and you might see Crested Oropendola, Brown-throated Parakeet, Scrub Greenlet, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and several other birds that can be tough in Costa Rica. If the remaining rice fields have not been converted to oil palm plantations, you might find Paint-billed Crake and rare vagrants. Flowering trees can have everything from Veraguan Mango to White-crested Coquette, and once you reach the rainforests at the lodge and in Piedras Blancas National Park, it’s fairly easy to see four trogon species, several wrens, antbirds, woodcreepers, and so on with chances at the endemic Back-cheeked Ant-Tanager, and Uniform Crake. Check out the 158 species I had during a fairly casual day of guiding in this area.

    The Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager only occurs in and around the Osa peninsula.
  • The Osa: The good birding in the South Pacific doesn’t stop at Esquinas. There are several excellent sites on the Osa peninsula, including two of the best birding lodges in the country; Bosque del Rio Tigre and Luna Lodge. Both of these are comfortable lodges with fantastic birding and excellent guides with the best local gen you could hope for, and have primary forest connected to the forests of Corcovado National Park. Many of the same species as Esquinas can also be found at and near these sites. Although the birding in the national park is great, problems with access exclude Corcovado from hotspot status. Other great birding sites in the Osa can also be found at stations run by Osa Conservation, at Lapa Rios, Bosque del Cabo, and lodges in the Drake Bay area. Rincon de Osa also deserves mention since it’s the most reliable site in the world for the highly endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga.
  • Caribbean foothills: Somewhere between cloud forest and lowland rainforest, the wet foothill forests of the Caribbean slope are very important habitat for hundreds of bird species. In addition to providing a home for Lattice-tailed Trogon and other foothill specialties, these forests are also an important refuge for many lowland forest birds that no longer occur in large areas of the deforested Caribbean coastal plain. There are several good foothill sites to choose from, the most accessible being El Tapir and the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station in Braulio Carrillo National Park, sites around Arenal National Park and Bijagua, and Rancho Naturalista. Rancho in particular, is a classic birding lodge with various feeders, excellent guides, and excellent gen for the lodge and surrounding areas. Near Rancho, El Copal merits a mention because the birding is some of the very best in the country but it’s not as accessible nor as comfortable as Rancho. The same can be said about the Pocosol Research Station, a fantastic site located in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest on the route between San Ramon and La Fortuna. Past La Fortuna, excellent birding can also be had on the grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge. Further north, sites near Bijagua also offer high quality forest with equally high quality birding including fair chances at Tody Motmot, Lovely Cotinga, uncommon raptors, and much more.

    A Crowned Woodnymph from Rancho Naturalista.
  • Caribbean lowlands: Historically, the Caribbean lowlands were cloaked in fantastic ranforests.  and the birding must have been spectacular. Stories of that level of birding still exist in the form of tales told by researchers who worked in La Selva during the 70s. They tell of seeing Great Jacamar, hearing about Harpy Eagle sightings, and bearing witness to an abundance of birds, frogs, and other rainforest wildlife rarely encountered in present times. However, this was before massive deforestation changed the ecological landscape of the Caribbean lowlands and the difference in birding is notable. Good birding can still be had at several sites but the best lowland birding is found in areas with connection to the most intact lowland habitats. Such sites also tend to be difficult to access and is why Hitoy Cerere, Veragua, and much less accessible sites fail to make it onto hotspot lists. If you can get there, expect excellent lowland birding. If not, then some very good alternatives are Laguna del Lagarto, the Sarapiqui area, and sites near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo.

    Great Green Macaw- a signature species of the Caribbean lowlands. This bird was just outside of La Selva.
  • Laguna del Lagarto might be the best birding hotspot for the Caribbean lowlands because the ecolodge offers a fine combination of comfort, good service, and great birding. Visit and you will be asked when you want to see Agami heron, roosting owls, or other birds they know about. Watch from the porch and you can photograph toucans, parrots, and other birds that visit an excellent feeder. You might also see raptors, King Vulture, Scaled Pigeon, toucans, or Snowy Cotinga in nearby treetops. Inside the forest, you might find White-fronted Nunbird, antbirds, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and even Tawny-faced Quail. Since those forests are also connected to the extensive lowland rainforests of southeastern Nicaragua, maybe Harpy Eagle or Red-throated Caracara will make an appearance?
  • That said, if you can’t make it to Laguna del Lagarto, the easiest accessible lowland rainforest is in the Sarapiqui area. Take the early morning birding tour at La Selva for an excellent variety of birds along with great birding on the entrance road to the research station. Stay at La Selva or more comfortable ecolodges like Selva Verde, the Quinta Inn, Sueno Azul, or Tirimbina for good birding on the grounds of the hotel. The reserve at Tirimbina is especially good and can be visited by non-guests of the hotel for a fee although the opening hours are a bit limited. Time should also be made for a boat trip on the Sarapiqui to see Green Ibis, look for Sungrebe, roosting potoos, Sunbittern, and other birds.
  • The forests south of Limon can also be excellent for birding and are very easy to access. Much of the habitat around Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo is a mix of lowland rainforest and old shade cacao plantations. Most lowland species seem to be present including Purple-throated fruitcrow, Great Potoo, Green and Rufous Kingfisher, and Tiny Hawk, the birding is often very good right around the hotel, and the area is excellent for migrants.

    A birdy track near Manzanillo.
  • Wetlands: There are two top wetland areas in Costa Rica. These are the wetlands of the Tempisque floodplain and the Cano Negro area. Palo Verde National Park is the main site in Tempisque but there are a few other privately owned wetlands as well. Bird Palo Verde for Jabiru and many other wetland species, and a good selection of dry forest birds including Thicket Tinamou. Jabiru is also possible at Cano Negro along with Sungrebe, Great Potoo, Black-collared Hawk, and various other wetland species. Remaining forests at Cano Negro are also good for a fair variety of lowland rainforest species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, and Bare-crowned Antbird. If visiting Cano Negro, make sure to also take a boat ride in the Medio Queso wetlands near Los Chiles. This is the best area for Pinnated Bittern, Spotted Rail, Least Bittern, Nicaraguan Grackle, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and several other rare species.

    A Nicaraguan Grackle displays at Medio Queso.

Visit Costa Rica and you will find good birding in lots of places. Visit the hotspots mentioned in these two posts and you will be visiting the best sites in the country. Make the most of any birding trip to Costa Rica by hiring an experienced birding guide.

To support this blog and find the most comprehensive information about birding sites in Costa Rica, get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book that will enrich the birding experience in Costa Rica at every level.

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Easy, Highland Birding in Costa Rica at Varablanca

Costa Rica is a dream for any aficionado of topography. Before you ask yourself if there really are people who dig topography, let me assure that there indeed are. Most of us like a mountain scene or two (partly why those Ricola commercials are so memorable), and when I lived in the flatlands of Illinois, I met more than one person who was surprisingly enthused about any change in topography. “Topography!” they would exclaim as we drove over a bit of escarpment. I don’t bemoan that excitement in the slightest for I too am an aficionado of abrupt changes in elevation!

In Costa Rica, you are better off being a fan of a crumpled, up-lifted landscape because that describes most of the country. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. That’s also partly why we have so many birds that occur nowhere else but Costa Rica and Panama. It’s also why we have a bunch of birds that normally live in the Andes. AND, it also makes it easy to leave the urban zone behind and head up into the mountains to one of the closest, best spots for birding near San Jose.

A trail at Poas Volcano Lodge.

Varablanca is just 40 minutes to an hour from the San Jose area and it’s an easy place to see a good variety of highland birds. Most birders don’t go there because they save their mountain birding for Cerro de la Muerte (aka Savegre, the Dota Valley, Quetzal Paradise). While there is more habitat up that way, Cerro de la Muerte is also 2 and a half to 3 hours from San Jose. The proximity of Varablanca makes it an easy, honest option for a first night in country, and I know of at least one local birding tour company that does stay in Varablanca for the first night of most tours.

Lately, I have been spending more time up that way guiding and watching birds at the Poas Volcano Lodge. Here are some recent highlights and observations from Varablanca, Cinchona, and Poas:

  • If it’s raining, go to Cinchona: It might be raining there too, but I have escaped the water on more than one occasion by heading to a lower elevation. The other plus side for Cinchona is still being able to watch birds come to the feeders even if it happens to be raining.

    Note the sign.

    There be barbets and a toucanet on that feeder.
  • Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.

    Black-cheeked Warbler.
  • Black-thighed Grosbeak: Although it often moves to lower elevations in rainy weather, it seems to be fairly common at Poas Volcano Lodge and in the general area.
  • Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher: The general area always seems good for this cool endemic. It sounds like a cricket and usually hangs out in the crowns of tall trees. The Black and yellow is also fairly common around Poas.
  • Don’t discount quetzals and guans: The R. Quetzal is far from common around Poas but it is there. Hang out long enough at the Volcan Restaurant (please support their buisiness and donate generously for the feeders), and there is a fair chance that one will show. Find a fruiting avocado and you might also see one or two. Black Guan is more regular, especially in the forest along the road to Poas.
  • Prong-billed Barbet: This species is pretty common in this area. It can show up in any spot with forest but if you want really close looks, check out the feeders at Cinchona and Poas Volcano Lodge.

    Prong-billed Barbet.
  • Red-tailed Hawk: Yes, readers from the USA and Canada will be saying, “So what?”. To that, I ask if you think this looks like a Red-tailed from home? It doesn’t sound like one either. I wonder how far genetically removed it is from birds up north? Maybe a little, maybe enough for a split. Varablanca and Poas are good areas to study this highland endemic subspecies.

    Maybe we should call this an Orange-bellied Hawk.
  • Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.

    Ruddy Treerunner.

    The Spangle-cheeked Tanager is another endemic.

    And so is the Large-footed Finch.

When booking your hotel for that first and last night in Costa Rica, remember that birdy Varablanca is just 45 minutes to an hour from the airport.

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How to See Spot-bellied Bobwhite in Costa Rica

We birders like to describe the way we go about watching birds. If we just look at the birds in the backyard and flip through the field guide once in a while, we might say that we are pretty darn casual about birding. If we go on field trips with a local birding group and try to see and identify certain target birds, we are a bit more serious about it. Those of us who look forward to birding at every opportunity, spend way too many hours studying bird songs on Xeno-Canto, and travel to other countries to see new birds instead of relaxing on the beach are probably a bit more than serious about the passion of birding. So those distinctions are great and known among the birding community but what do they have to do with seeing “wild chickens”?

First of all, no matter how you define yourself as a birder, we have to get something straight- the only real, wild chicken is the Red Junglefowl. It does indeed look like a reddish chicken but huskies also look kind of like wolves, and when it comes down to it, the chicken is a domesticated junglefowl. Well, no matter how you want to define a chicken, keep in mind that we don’t refer to wolves as “dogs” and if Aurochs were still around, we wouldn’t be calling those massive hooved beasts “Bessie”.  So, I wonder why, if we don’t keep grouse, tragopans, or bobwhites as pets, do some birders still write them off as “chickens”? This is really just an excuse to ignore those shy ground birds because they can be a royal pain to actually see. However, they still quality as birds and since every bird counts, here is some info on seeing Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite in Costa Rica:

  • Don’t look in the forest: Forested habitats in Costa Rica are inhabited by chicken-like birds but they aren’t bobwhites. Those are the wood-quails and in keeping with grouse, can be a real pain. If you want to see wood-quails, look for them in places like the cloud forests in the Monteverde areas, forests in the Talamancas (like San Gerardo de Dota), and the Osa Peninsula. The bobwhites live in weedy, brushy fields.
  • Coffee fields in the Central Valley: Go birding at the edge of a coffee cultivation and you might see some bobwhites. Pick an area of coffee with few people and no dogs, scan the edge of the trail or road as far ahead as you can see, and they might appear in your field of view. They probably occur up to around 1,400 meters.

    A road at the edge of a coffee cultivation- there are bobwhites in this picture.
  • Scan the edges of roads in the dry northwest: By “dry northwest”, I mean anywhere on the Pacific slope from just north of Cerro Lodge on up to Nicaragua and up to 1,200 meters or so. Keep checking as far ahead as you can see to surprise the bobwhites before they see you and run for cover.

    Use the car as cover and they might come close.

    Bobwhites creeping forward.
  • Early morning, late afternoon: As with almost every diurnal bird, this is the best time to see bobwhites. It’s when they call more often and scurry around in search of food.

    A female bobwhite walks close by.

    Followed by a male.
  • Calling birds: This works if the bird is calling from an exposed spot but if not, don’t expect it to show. They aren’t very responsive to playback of their whistled “bob-white” call either.
  • A few good sites: Spot-bellied Bobwhite can turn up just about anywhere in the Central Valley and in the Pacific northwest wherever weedy fields are present. That said, some of the better areas might be Ensenada, Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road to Palo Verde, and Santa Rosa National Park. In the Central Valley, check any roads that go through coffee cultivations and open, weedy fields.

    Like other wild chicken-like birds, they are adept at being sneaky. Take a careful look in the coffee fields.

To learn more about finding birds and the birding at these and nearly every site in Costa Rica, get How to See, Identify, and Find Birds in Costa Rica.

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Preparing for a Birding Trip to Costa Rica? Get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

When we take birding trips, there are two main books that us birders buy. We all know that those two essentials are (1) a field guide, and (2) a bird-finding book. While some of us forego the bird finding books because we are on a tour or want to save on packing space, most of us usually buy one before the trip. A good bird-finding guide helps with planning, lets us know what to expect, where to go, and ups the excitement level for the trip.

Costa Rica has had its fair share of bird finding guides, including a good one that came out less than ten years ago. However, most bird-finding guides are limited to a certain amount of space because it just isn’t cost-effective to publish a bird-finding tome rather than a heavily edited book with fewer pages. This leaves out many a lesser known yet valuable site as well as a cornucopia of other useful information for planning a birding trip. One solution to the extra pages/publishing conundrum is the E-book; the platform I chose for  “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

More a Costa Rican birding companion than a site guide, this book has been many years in the making. I toyed with the idea of writing something that would present information on finding as well as identifying birds in Costa Rica ever since my second trip there in 1994. As I birded my way around several parts of Costa Rica, such questions came to mind as: If antbirds were supposed to be common, where were they? How do you find motmots, puffbirds, tinamous, and other neotropical birds? Where were all of the raptors? And what about identification of woodcreepers?

This book aims to answers these and many other questions about birding in Costa Rica to help birders of all levels prepare for trips to this country as well as other areas in the neotropical region. It’s also a site guide and although I haven’t included every site in the country, this book is, by far, the most comprehensive birding site guide for Costa Rica. I had hoped to make it available by the end of 2014 but, as it turns out, it just took much longer than expected. However, I am happy to say that this first edition is finally done and available for use on PCs, tablets, and smartphones (once an Adobe Reader app. is downloaded onto the device). Buy this e-book for $24.99 if you would like to see and identify more birds in Costa Rica, and if you would like to support this blog.

A few screen shots from the book:

Information from the second section of the book:

Tips for Identification:

An excerpt from the site guide section:

To order this e-book,

please contact Pat O’Donnell at information@birdingcraft.com.