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What to Do When You Want to Go Birding in Costa Rica But Can’t…Yet

Want to go birding in Costa Rica? I do and I live here! I usually start the day with some “lite” birding from the back balcony every morning, today a Ringed Kingfisher perched nearby for the first time as a Barred Antshrike, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and Cabanis’s Wrens called from the vegetation.

When I get the chance to do so, I travel further afield and submerge myself in the tropical birding experience. That bird immersion means venturing into tropical forest or other habitats just around dawn and taking it all in; parsing out the distant mournful calls of Collared Forest-Falcon, listening for the first hints of woodcreepers, and watching the avian scene come to life.

It’s a natural show that requires, demands attention, I like to lose myself in it but I also love to share it with visiting birders. These odd days, although some birders are in Costa Rica, the number is much less than it would be; its the same for so many other places and understandable. The dynamic will eventually change but for those who would love to be here now, especially during these frozen days of February, here are some ideas for things to do when you can’t bird in Costa Rica (or elsewhere for that matter):

Study a field guide

Get out a field guide or buy one and start studying. Read it from start to finish even if it takes a few months. Pick out the birds you like the most, study field marks, and keep doing that because some day, you will be here and you will be better prepared for birding in Costa Rica.

Ready to see a Baird’s Trogon.

Listen to birds sounds, play with a birding app for Costa Rica

Studying bird sounds isn’t for everybody but with plenty of time to kill before the trip, why not? Even if you don’t feel like memorizing the differences between Little and Great Tinamous, its still fun to listen to their tremulous calls, listening to birds that occur in Costa Rica helps you get ready for that eventual birding time in Costa Rica.

The best way to listen to and study sounds is with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I know, I am a co-founder of the app and work on it but since it now has sounds for more than 900 species and images can be viewed while listening to vocalizations (unlike a few other apps), I stand by that statement. The app can also be used to help prepare for a trip by studying and checking out birds filtered by region, habitat, family, and other factors.

Learn about the habitats in Costa Rica and the best sites for birding

Learn about tropical rainforest, cloud forest, tropical dry forest, and other habitats in Costa Rica. What are those habitats like? Which birds live there? Where can you experience the fantastic birding in those amazing places? There’s a lot of information out there but given the tendency for Google to turn up results biased for SEO, searching will turn up some answers but maybe not the best of information.

Books like the Neotropical Companion are always a good read, there is information about bird habitats on the Costa Rica Birds app, and you just might find a thing or two at this very blog. If you want to know about the best sites for birding, and how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, you will find more than enough information to prepare for any birding trip to Costa Rica in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Check out a virtual birding tour for Costa Rica

Virtual live birding is an exciting, new way to give a hint of what the birding is like in Costa Ric and help you get ready for a trip. Not to mention, its also a great way to support local guides, many of whom are also involved in conservation in Costa Rica.

Think about doing a trip

Its never too early to start planning a trip to Costa Rica, and its definitely not early to start thinking about one now. The best birding trips are planned months in advance and even if you aren’t sure of the exact dates for the trip, the planning will eventually pay off. Look into plane tickets, think about dates, pick your target birds, and think about the pros and cons of group tours versus small tours versus birding on your own.

Support organizations and policies that protect bird habitat

Because intact ecosystems are good for birds, biodiversity, and people. There are several to choose from including The Children’s Eternal Rainforest and the Cerulean Project.

Costa Rica might seem impossible or far off but the birds in Costa Rica are closer than you think. As the travel situation improves, coming to Costa Rica will take shape and before you know, you might find yourself looking at tanagers, motmots, and quetzals.

And Squirrel Cuckoos!

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5 Essentials for Birding on Your Own in Costa Rica

Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Think about it because although you might not feel good about traveling to watch quetzals today, in a couple of months, vaccination rates might change your mind.

Quetzals are always a good excuse to travel, even when they try to hide.

Since the best birding trips are planned well in advance, looking into information for a birding trip to Costa Rica isn’t just wishful thinking. The time to start planning a trip is now and although these ideas about what to bring to Costa Rica for birding are more for birding on your own, they could also come in handy on any tour:

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

As with visiting any place far from home, a good field guide is worth its weight in gold. You might forget to bring a poncho, you might not be able to shave, in a sudden fit of absent-mindedness, you might even leave the flashlight on the hood of the car or next to the snowmobile. Forget those things and you can still go birding. Leave the field guide on the desk back home and well, I guess you could still go birding but you better go buy a notebook, pencils, and be ready to write some wicked field journals.

There’s nothing wrong with field journals (especially the wicked ones splashed with coffee and filled with illegible notes) but birding is always better when you have some fine reference material. Nowadays, although there are a couple of good books available, I still prefer the good old Garrigues and Dean. Lightweight, easy to use and well done, it’s great for studying before the trip and essential when birding Costa Rica, especially if birding by yourself.

So you can identify endemics like the Yellow-thighed Brushfinch.

Costa Rica Birds App

If you already have a field guide, why use a digital one? That’s a good question but I find that having both a book and a digital field guide is better for any birding trip. It’s fun to look at a book, especially when it has great illustrations and it’s also fun to interact with an app and check out photos of birds in flight, more postures, and so on.

Although you could go with the free Merlin app, it’s nice but it does have its limitations. With the full version of the Costa Rica Birds app, you can also:

  • Study bird sounds for more than 900 species while looking at various images.
  • See images for 926 species on the Costa Rica bird list, even rare species, and information and range maps for a few more.
  • See more accurate range maps.
  • See more up to date information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.
  • Personalize the app with target lists, check birds seen, make notes, etc.
  • Play with the filter to see birds grouped by region, family, and more to use it as a study tool before the trip and make identification easier during the trip to Costa Rica.
  • See 68 additional species not yet recorded in Costa Rica but possible.

These and other features make this app just as useful as a reference guide as it is in the field. To be honest, I will mention that I helped create and still work on this app but since I am a serious birder and want other birders to have the same sort of birding tool that I would like to have, you can bet that it’s going to have as much useful and accurate information as possible. The main downside is that it is currently only available for IOS devices. I would love to find a solution for that, if you know any Android coding birders, please let me know.

A Costa Rica Site Guide

For any trip, you obviously need to know where to go for the best birding. If this is a DIY birding trip, a site guide is imperative. Yes, you could plan the trip just using eBird but although that does show where various sites are and can give an idea of abundance, it won’t provide the types of on the ground details found in site guides. Not to mention, for eBird in Costa Rica, hotspots and other sites tend to be biased for sites visited on tours, and overlooked errors in identification on lists can give false ideas about what is truly present. I would still use eBird for some trip planning but the trip will be much better planned when done in conjunction with other information.

Although changes happen quickly, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica is still mostly up to date and useful for planning a trip (and will likely be updated soon!). It covers all parts of the country, gives ideas for itineraries, and also has insider information for finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica. Designed for birders doing Costa Rica on their own, it also has plenty of useful information for folks on tours. Not mention, every purchase supports this blog platform as a source of information for birding in Costa Rica.

A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella

Don’t forget to bring these items! A flashlight (torch) is handy for more than just searching for night birds. It also comes in handy when the lights go out and when you need to check the ground while walking at night (necessary).

A small umbrella is easy to carry and keeps you and your stuff dry. Along with packets of desiccant in plastic ziplock bags, it’s always good to have.

A Mobile Device with Waze

Or at least something with GPS. Google maps will also work but a heck of a lot of locals use Waze. If driving on your own, forget about a paper map, forget about looking for road signs (because they aren’t there and some might be wrong). Stick with Waze or something similar, you will need it!!

You could still visit Costa Rica now (some people are doing just that!) but if you would rather have a vaccine before making the trip, the time to plan the trip is still now. Start learning about the birds waiting for you in Costa Rica today because the departure date will be here before you know it. Get ready for some exciting birding, try to keep it Zen, I hope to see you here!

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Where to Kick Off a Costa Rica Birding Trip- Insider Tips

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 information@birdingcraft.com