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Guided Birding or Birding Costa Rica on Your Own- What’s the Difference?

There are a lot of birds in Costa Rica. More than you think. Some information says 800 plus species and that’s a heck of a lot but the real total is more like 930. Yes! Around 930 species have been identified in a place the size of West Virginia. Those crazy numbers translate to a lot of birds waiting to be seen, always more birds to look for, even after several visits.

Red-headed Barbet male
The Red-headed Barbet is one of those birds.

I’m often asked how many bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or which birds I’m missing. Other than some pelagic species, not much although I have seen a bunch of birds on the Costa Rica list elsewhere. That is, I still need various species for my country list, birds like Black-throated Blue-Warbler and Botteri’s Sparrow for example.

This makes my lifer possibilities pretty slim but I’m still excited every time I go birding in Costa Rica and how not- there’s always lots to see; dozens of birds to listen to while walking beneath huge rainforest trees draped with epiphytes, interesting seabirds to scan for from rough beaches on the Caribbean and the scenic tropical bays of the Pacific. There’s also high mountain birding punctuated by dawn quetzals and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers undulating through October airs.

It’s always good!

On my first trip, even though I had studied the field guide for months in advance, the biodiversity still blew me away. I suppose it still does, the more you get into it, the more you discover. When I visited Costa Rica in 1992, I didn’t hire a guide but if I could go back in time, I probably would. Even so, it’s worth asking if you need a guide when birding in Costa Rica. It’s worth considering birding on your own. Trip funds play a basic role but answers about guiding also depend on additional factors:

How You Prefer to Experience Birds

If you don’t mind birding in a group, or even prefer that birding dynamic, a guided tour is a must. With dozens of companies to choose from, it can be hard to know which tour is best. Before signing up, think of your needs, what birds you would like to see, how you want to experience them, and go from there.

For example, if birding for you means some relaxed birding in the morning and taking it easy the rest of the day, you might want to avoid tours with descriptions like “constant birding”, “non-stop birding”, or “we don’t stop until we see the bird”. Such tours might still be able to accommodate a more relaxed birding style but you’re better off delving into the itinerary and speaking with a company well before sending a deposit.

If the group thing is not your slice of birding pie, touring with other birders isn’t going to work. You can still hire a guide though and you’ll have them all to yourself. That can be a very good thing, you’ll get personalized attention and see more birds, especially shy ones. However, without any shring of cost, you of course pay more for the personalized experience.

streak-chested antpitta Caribbean subspecies
Having the guide to yourself may give better chances at seeing shy birds like the Streak-chested Antpitta.

If cost is a factor, one solution is doing a few day tours during the trip instead of having a guide the entire time. Of course, the other main option is doing birding on your own. If you do go your own way, though, do it knowing that you’ll likely miss some species as well as possibly missing out one some little known hotspots. Contraringly, birding on your own does open the door to exploration. Get off the beaten track and you might find your own birding hotspots, might find a rare bird or two.

How Much You Want to See

This is probably the biggest difference between guided birding and birding on your own. Studying before a trip will help in finding more birds and also enhances the experience but no amount of studying can compare to being guided by a highly knowledgeable, local birding guide. The best guides don’t just know principal vocalizations for their local complement of species, they also know many lesser known calls and songs, behaviors, habitats, and sites. These factors along with knowing the lay of the land adds up to more bird species including better chances at rare and little known birds.

With all of that in mind, if you want to see as much as possible, and/or see certain rare species, hiring the right guide is an essential part of the trip. Sure you could still chance it and might do alright but a top local guide will boost your birding opportunities.

How Much Time You Have

This third factor is just as important and is tied into the number of birds you want to see. If you have all the time in the world, you have plenty of time to find and identify a good number of birds in Costa Rica. If you only have a day or a week of birding at different sites, a good guide makes a huge difference. That doesn’t just go for Costa Rica either but anywhere in the world.

Unfamiliar Birds

white-whiskered puffbird

This is another main factor that comes into play when birding with or without a guide, especially on a first birding trip to the Neotropical Region. Most of the birds will be more than species you have never seen. They will be completely different and nothing like the birds from home (unless your local park has trogons, puffbirds, and antthrushes). Most birds won’t be remotely familiar and this will be fun but if you go birding on your own, it can also be confusing. You might find yourself wondering where certain birds are and how to see them.

Peace of Mind

Another advantage of birding with a local guide is simply peace of mind. Bird with a guide and common worries associated with language, cultural differences, where to eat, stay, and visit are neatly wooshed away. The same goes for worrying about bird identification, finding certain species, and so on.

Should you hire a birding guide in Costa Rica? Although what I have written above seems to make a case for that, I’m just being honest about the benefits of hiring a guide. You can still bird without a guide and see a lot of birds but whether birding in Costa Rica or elsewhere, birding with a good, local guide does make the trip easier.

If visiting Costa Rica for birding, whether taking a tour to Costa Rica or birding on your own in Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” will enhance your trip. Get it to see identification tips, where to go birding, prepare for your trip, and to support this blog. As always, I hope to see you here in Birdlandia!

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Some Costa Rica Birding News, March 2022

As March comes to an end, so does another high season for birding in Costa Rica. Quite a few trips happen in April and birders will still be visiting in the coming months but most folks are here from January until the end of March. With that in mind, whether headed to Costa Rica soon or at a later date, here’s a bit of birding news to help with your trip.

Turquoise Cotinga at Jaco

Topping this latest bit of Costa Rica birding news is the occurrence of a male Turquoise Cotinga near Jaco. Although this fantastic near endemic does naturally occur in that area, it is much more easily seen in the Osa Peninsula and other sites in southern Costa Rica. The bird has been frequenting a fruiting tree in the rice fields on the road to the Rainforest Aerial Tram (the Teleferico). It’s impossible to say how long it will stick around but who knows, with some birding luck, it will be joined by another male or female. If you go for it but don’t see this feathered beauty, consolation could come in the form of the good birding typically found at that site.

If you aren’t visiting the Jaco area and want to see Turquoise Cotinga (and of course you do) not to worry, there are other, more reliable sites for this mega. A couple of the best are around San Isidro del General, forest in the Osa Peninsula, and, for more adventurous birders, forest in the northern side of Carara near Macaw Lodge.

Other Cotinga News

The equally turquoise, purple, and coveted Lovely Cotinga is still being seen at or near Rancho Naturalista. Other good sites for it include the Tenorio-Bijagua area, El Copal, and other sizeable areas of middle elevation forest on the Caribbean slope. Forest at around 1,000 to 1,400 meters elevation seems to be especially good for this choice species.

Snowy and Yellow-billed Cotingas are also being seen in their usual haunts. If birding the Carara area, the best way to see the few remnant members of the local Yellow-billed Cotinga population is by watching for them from 7 to 8:30 in the morning from the tower at Cerro Lodge, along the Cerro Lodge Road, or from the Crocodile Bridge. Likewise, you may see them in those same areas between 3 and 4:30 p.m. These are the times when this endangered species moves between the Tarcoles mangroves and the rainforests of the national park.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird has been showing at Curi-Cancha, I wonder if a few additional birds might be frequenting the beautiful cloud forests of the Santa Elena Reserve?

Thanks to its frequent seriously loud voice, the Three-wattled Bellbird is much easier to locate and see than the other cotingas. This is also a good time of year to marvel over the male’s bizarre, worm-like wattles. Watch for it in the Monteverde area and sites near San Ramon (contact Ignacio at Nacho Tours!).

How to See More Hawk-Eagles

Hawk-eagles are like big, hefty goshawks with cool plumage patterns and a penchant to give distinctive whistled calls while soaring high above tghe tropical forest. That seems to make sense because if I could fly, I mean, I think I would do the same thing. Can you imagine the view?!?. Knowing about that behavior is one way to see more of them. The other big factor is knowing where they occur. In general, both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles live in large areas of rainforest and cloud forest. The Black also occurs in patchy forest and may even prefer this type of habitat.

As for the Black-and-white, based on the decrease in sightings of this species in Costa Rica over the past twenty years, it has certainly declined and disappeared from various areas. Since this species doesn’t seem to vocalize as much as the other hawk-eagles, and tends to hide in plain sight by soaring high overhead, it being somewhat overlooked can’t be entirely discounted. Even so, this large bird and reptile specialist does seem to have declined. Amazingly, it might even be gone from the Osa Peninsula. Given fairly recent declines in populations of medium and large birds that it requires as a food source, populations of this hawk-eagle in Costa Rica aren’t likely to bounce back any time soon.

A Black-and-white Hawk Eagle flying high into the sky.

At present, the best sites to look for it in Costa Rica are in the forests of the Amistad National Park north and west of San Vito, and Veragua and other forested sites near Limon. Other areas to check include the forests of Sarapiqui, northern Costa Rica, and around Braulio Carrillo National Park. As a bonus, there is one bird that has been frequenting the Bosque del Nino area north of Grecia (!). Keep an eye out for it when birding Poas!

Want Hummingbirds? Check Flowering Trees

Brown Violetear

Hummingbirds don’t always visit feeders. Lately, there haven’t been as many hummingbirds at Cinchona but there have been more flowering Ingas and other trees that our favorite little nectivores are probably feeding on. Yesterday, while birding near Albergue del Socorro, the chipping calls of lekking Brown Violetears were a constant, common sound and I heard a few other hummingbird species that have been absent from the feeders at Cinchona. Look for flowering trees and work on your hummingbird identification skills. Keep an eye out for the likes of coquettes, thorntails, goldentails, and other species.

To know where cotingas and other birds have been seen, eBird is a good go to source. Even so, keep in mind that in Costa Rica, there’s a lot of excellent habitat that sees few if any eBird visits. The birds are there too, go there and you will see some of them, maybe a lot of them. However, even then, it helps to know how to look for uncommon birds like cotingas and hawk-eagles. Get ready for your birding trip to Costa Rica and support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page ebook with tips and site information to find every species in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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Mixed Flock Birding Tips for Costa Rica

Mixed flock…bird wave…sudden bird bonanza. Three terms for the same wonderful situation but be forewarned; this birding experience may leave you speechless, it might leave you stunned and when birding in Costa Rica, you can expect it.

Personally, I prefer the term “mixed flock”. I don’t know why, I must have read it somewhere, it’s just what I have always called it. To be clear, this esteemed birding situation is when several species are seen flocking and foraging together. Contraringly, a mixed flock is NOT when birds come in to a pygmy-owl call and not when you see a few different heron species in the same part of the Tarcoles River. It IS when a bunch of tanagers convene on a fruiting tree and ESPECIALLY when those same tanagers are seemingly accompanied by a few woodcreepers, antwrens, flycatchers, and other birds.

A Back-faced Grosbeak at El Zota. One of several species commonly seen in mixed flocks when birding Costa Rica.

After many a quiet minute stalking though the rainforest, a mixed flock is a welcome burst of birding excitement, your chance to see one new bird after another in quick succession. If it happens during your only visit to a particular habitat or site, that mixed flock can also act as your one big break, your main chance at seeing a satisfying bunch of birds. The birding challenge is real but don’t panic! Keep calm, be quick with the binos and try these tips:

Mixed Flocks can Happen Anywhere but the Mega Flocks are in Mature Humid Forest

Some may dispute this statement but I stand by it. Yes, mature second growth can also entertain with groups of flocking birds and I have seen forest edge in the Caribbean lowlands doing the avian bounce but then again, that particular edge was the border of a large area of mature rainforest. I doubt there would have been as much variety in a smaller patch of woods.

When it comes down to it, remember that while birding tropical forest habitats, although you may find a mixed flock in second growth, you’ll find a lot more birds in large areas of mature forest. The higher degree of complexity generated by massive trees, vines tangles and profuse vegetation translates to a higher variety of specie and when they flock together, the result can make for some life goal birding madness.

The mega mixed flocks of Costa Rica can’t compare with those of the Amazon but I’ve seen a few that come close; notably in foothill rainforests birding on the Manuel Brenes Road, in the Osa Peninsula, and a couple other places. The mega mixed flock is a good thing to keep in mind while walking through quiet mature forest. Be ready for it because, at some point, the birding will pick up and things could get giddy.

Follow the Flock

A mixed flock doesn’t just move through and that’s all she wrote. They can and do move fast but at some point, the birds will slow down and work that forest, work it to the bone.

Like a classic house track, mixed flocks don’t stop moving. You gotta keep up, find the mixed flock groove, and you will eventually catch that Sharpbill, see most of the birds. Listen for the flock, try to find it and then stay with the birds as long as you can. But don’t leave the trail, potential hidden vipers and getting lost aren’t worth it.

Know the Flock Leaders Before You Go Birding

Even birds have leaders, choice birds followed for survivalist reasons. Anthropomorphisms aside, there are certain vocal species that act as nucleous species of a flock. Know what they sound like and you will find the flock. It also pays to know what they look like but since hearing birds is everything in the tropical forest, it pays to learn their calls.

In Costa Rica, the erstwhile mixed flock leader of foothill rainforest (and lowland rainforest of the Pacific slope) is the White-throated Shrike-Tanager. This stand out oriole-looking, flycatcher-like tanager is so associated with big mixed flocks, it deserves an invisible crown. Find it in mature forest and you will find birds. But be prepared, on some lucky days, there could be a mind-blowing bonanza of avian life being led by this bird wave king/queen combination.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager
The mixed flock king is in the house.

In Caribbean lowland rainforest, I’m not sure if there is similar royalty but there are noisy species that often occur with other birds. A couple of the stand outs are Black-faced Grosbeak and White-shouldered Tanager.

Up in the middle elevation cloud forest, mixed flocks are fairly common and can come in many sizes. Keep checking the Common Chlorospingus and listen and look for mixed flock standards like Lineated Foliage-gleaner and Spotted Woodcreeper.

In the high elevations, check the groups of Sooty-capped Chlorospingus and listen for the likes of Yellow-thighed Brushfinch and Buffy Tuftedcheek.

Take Notes and Look at Field Guides After Watching the Flock

If I was limited to mentioning just one tip, it would be this one. No matter how well or little you know the birds creeping up branches and flitting in the foliage, whatever you do, do not stop watching them to look in a field guide. The same goes for taking written notes. I know, the temptation is real but so are the consequences and those would be missed birds.

A mixed flock in tropical forest won’t behave like birds back home (unless your birds come in quick moving groups of a dozen or more species that can move on past in nearly every level of a dense forest with a tall canopy). When a flock appears, if you don’t stay focused and try to see as much as possible, if you take eyes off the bird action to look up one or two birds in a field guide, the other 20 will likely move right on out of view. Try to see as much as you can, keep looking, and take mential notes. After the birds have moved out of reach and the forest has gone back to being humid and seemingly unreasonably quiet, that is the time to jot down notes and check out your field guides to the birds of Costa Rica.

Mixed flock action is waiting in Costa Rica. To learn more about birding mixed flocks, the best places to experience them, where to go birding in Costa Rica and more, support this blog by getting How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page companion for birding this beautiful country. As always, I hope to see you here!

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A High Octane Birding Itinerary for Costa Rica

Birding itineraries can take many forms. They can range from easy-going, relaxed trips that put more emphasis on sampling local culinary delights to focused birding jaunts where sacrifices to see as many species as possible are the norm. Such sacrifices include proper food, proper sleep, maybe feeling the creeping fingers of hypothermia, you know, that sort of thing.

As one might expect, the latter type of trip makes for an exhausting, exciting, mind-numbing adventure. Given that such birding trips require propious energy and concentration, they are perhaps more suited to the younger crowd (or birding ninjas).

I have done such trips, have sweated by fair share of electrolytes and been bitten by ants, I’m not sure I would be so keen on doing them again. I enjoy all the wondrous facets of birding but I don’t feel the need to get too crazy to see birds. I don’t think you have to. Bird the right way, get in the Zen birding mode and you’ll do alright. Focus is important, working with local guides can help, and coffee is paramount (organic dark chocolate ispretty good too…).

With all of that in mind, I would like to present an idea for some high octane birding in Costa Rica. This itinerary can be done the crazy way or with more time on your hands. Either way, I carefully constructed it to see a solid number of uncommon or rare species that frequent highland habitats and the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. It’s chock full of endemic/near endemic birds, this is how it goes:

Start in the Central Valley

No, not the birdiest of places but do it to save travel time to and from the airport and have a chance to look for Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow the day of arrival and the next morning. While checking for this endemic towhee, you will also run into various other common birds. Keep an eye on the skies for swifts, even Spot-fronted and White-chinned are possible (although they are a challenge to identify when flying high and being silent).

Stay in the right place and you could also pick up various dry forest species.

Irazu

Head to the mountains! Actually, a big volcano with some nice birds on top. On the way, try for Grass Wren and then spend the afternoon on the Nochebuena trails to look for Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and other high elevation species. Additional specialties include wood-partridge, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, and maybe Blue Seedeater too. If you enter the national park or bird in nearby paramo, you can also try for the junco and Timberline Wren Stay until it gets dark and you could look for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl too. If so, dress for November weather!

Hotel Quelitales

After Irazu, head to this newish site; a real hotspot with chances at Scaled Antpitta, Crested Owl, and other nice middle elevation birds! Hummingbirds are fantastic and the food and lodging are pretty darn good too. This is also a good base for birding Tapanti National Park.

Rancho Naturalista

After Quelitales, go to Rancho, one of the classic birding lodges of Costa Rica. It’s still really good and is an excellent place for Tawny-chested Flycatcher, Bicolored Hawk, and many other birds including Sunbittern and Snowcap. The elusive and weird piprites may be present as well as Lovely Cotinga. If not, they could be at other nearby sites. Other possible places in the area fit for lower budgets (and comfort) but with excellent birding include El Copal and La Marta.

One of the coquettes from Rancho…

With this itinerary, Rancho will also be your main chance for Caribbean slope species. To see some marsh and low elevation birds, do day trips to the Angostura area and sites between Turrialba and the lowlands.

Cerro de la Muerte

It’s time to head back into the mountains! Go up to the Cerro de la Muerte area to check the birding in the high elevation rainforest. There are several places to do this and see birds like Resplendent Quetzal, Spotted Wood-Quail, and all the highland endemics. The toughest ones are the pygmy-owl, the pewee, and the jay. Peg-billed Finch can be tough too.

The General Valley

Descending Cerro de la Muerte, Bosque Tolomuco can offer up some fine middle elevation birding. Further down, differents sites in the valley can turn up Turquoise Cotinga, Rosy Thrush-Tanager and lots of other new birds for the trip. If you have enough time, you can also try for Ocellated Crake, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, and a few other specialties of the savanna habitats near Buenos Aires.

San Vito and or Ciudad Neily

If you want birds for your Costa Rica list like Lance-tailed Manakin and Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, you will need to visit San Vito. That’s not a bad thing, the birding is exciting and excellent! If you have enough time, the trip is worth it. If not, a trip to Panama or northern Colombia will get you a few of those same specialties.

Whether going to San Vito or not, Ciudad Neily is worth a visit! Not necessarily the town but you should visit the nearby open wetlands. This newish hotspot can turn up any number of odd rarities, can provide a good chance at Masked Duck, Paint-billed Crake and other rails, and local birds for Costa Rica like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Savanna Hawk, and some other species.

Masked Duck
Masked Duck from Costa Rica

Golfo Dulce

Just up the road from Neily are sites in and around the Golfo Dulce including the Osa. Pick some good ones and you can harvest a bonanza of southern Pacific endemics along with many other species of forest and edge habitats. The owling can also be very good (and provides your best chance at the local variety of Choco Screech-Owl (likely a distinct undescribed species), and Common Potoo is present.

The Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager only occurs in and around the Osa peninsula.

During your visit, make sure to check Rincon de Osa for cotingas, raptors, and other species.

North-Central Pacific

It’s a long drive from the Osa but now that we have a good coastal highway, the trip is worth it. There are also several good stops for food. I personally love Pizzatime and Bageltime (?) in Uvita but that might just be me missing some good old NYC pizza and bagels. Other nice food options also exist especially in the Jaco area.

Aside from food, as you make your way north, once you cross the Tarcoles River, there are several opportunities for dry forest species. Shorebirds are also possible especially at Punta Morales or Chomes (where Mangrove Rail also awaits).

Monteverde

To cap off the trip, spend some time in the cloud forests of the Monteverde area. You will have seen some of those birds at Quelitales but not all of them! Spend a couple nights there to connect with Ruddy Woodcreeper, bellbird (in season), and lots of other birds. You could also hike to more rugged sites on the Caribbean side of Monteverde to try for umbrellabird, Sharpbill, and the monklet.

After Monteverde, head back to the airport zone and celebrate a fantastic, mega birding trip with appropriate drinks and meals. How many birds will you see? That all depends on how much time you have and if you go with an excellent local guide. If all goes well, 500 species are possible but even if you don’t reach that high water mark, the birding will still be fantastic. Get ready for your fantastic Costa Rica birding trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

Soon, I will be doing a trip somewhat like this, I’ll let you know how it goes!

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How to See More Antpittas When Birding in Costa Rica- Part One

Antpittas aren’t your averge garden bird. At least not unless your backyard borders Andean cloud forest and other places haunted by these most special of plump birds. Many people (that means non-birders too) have heard of sparrows, pigeons, larks, and a host of additional avian groups but antpittas? Yeah…maybe not so much. Ask your average person about antpittas and you may find that such discourse is a good way to elicit looks of confusion, nervous laughter, or maybe even offending someone. Don’t be surprised, it’s what people do when presented with odd language that sounds completely bizarre.

We can’t blame them, after all, the word “antpitta” is likewise confusing to birders who have never seen pictures of antpittas. Ask your backyard birding Uncle Billy about them and he might respond that last time he checked, ants were insects. If he has been studying Birds of the World or scrolling Flcker for colorful bird pictures, is prone to mansplaining and has never birded outside of the confines of his garden, he might also add, “Oh, you mean pittas! Now that’s a beautiful bird. You need to see a pitta, they only live in…Singapore. Go there, there’s tours to see them, you should sign up for one. Oh, and bring your binoculars and a camera, you can’t go on a tour without those. You could learn a lot about birds, there’s a guide that will help you.”

In response, after calming the urge to punch him in the arm, you could mention that yes, you are aware of those jewels of the forest floor but that actually, no, you weren’t referring to them or insects. You had anther bird in mind, the one you had even mentioned..antpittas.

Ochre-breasted-Antpitta

If you still managed to harbor enough patience and good will to continue conversing with your uncle, you could then show him a page or two from a field guide, birding app, or search results that demonstrate some choice members of the Grallaria genus. Who knows? Such a kind gesture might open his eyes and mind to antpittas and if he reacts like many other birders do, his eyes will go wide, he may say things like, “Well I’ll be darned!”, “It’s a football with legs!”, or even “What the hell is that thing…what is it?!?” No matter what his exclamation at the discovery of the antpitta, he will then want to go and see them.

This is because once people who use binoculars learn about antpittas, most really, really want to experience them. One might assume that birders would prefer to ogle the iridescence of tanagers, fill their eyes with eagles, and enjoy the fairy moves of hummingbirds. Therein lies some truth but birding is so much more than the fancy side of avian life. Attraction is also found in unexpected appearances, in birds that hop right into your imagination.

In the case of antpittas, they jumpstart your sense of wonder by looking like forest gnomes wearing feathered capes, by mournfully whistling at you from the depths of the rainforest, and by rarely letting you see them. The taming of antpittas with worms has erased some of that antpitta fantasy but it hasn’t made a dent in their popularity. If anything, feeding them has brought these odd birds into the birding spotlight, has made more people aware that these weird and wonderful creatures exist.

In Costa Rica, we are blessed with 5 antpitta species and although you won’t find any antpitta feeding stations, there still are ways to see them. This post is numero one in a short series about antpittas. Let’s start with the megaist one of the bunch:

Black-crowned Antpitta

Actually in a related but separate bird family (the Conophagidae) and therefore more properly known as a “Gnatpitta“, this fancy bird is one heck of a mega. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why it’s a “mega” is because you don’t see them.

Black-crowned Antpitta digiscoped Costa Rica
A Black-crowned Antpitta I digiscoped some years ago in Costa Rica.

Despite being big enough to take on a chicken in a fair fight, this gangstapitta is also adept at avoiding birders. Sadly, it does it all the time and not by merit of its skulking prowess. It’s also honestly uncommon and seems to have declined in the few sites where used to chuckle at passing birders (seriously, listen to it chuckle). As with so many other birds and climate crisis life in general, this decline is likely associated with consistently drier conditions that have resulted in less things to eat.

With that extra bit of scarcity factor in mind, seeing this special bird in Costa Rica has become that much more difficult. Since this Pittasoma is also regular at sites in Panama, most save a date with it whle birding there. However, since the ones most often seen in Panama are another, distinct subspecies, connecting with it in Costa Rica is worth the effort.

If that’s the case, why isn’t it seen on birding tours in Costa Rica? As in any tours? The answer is basically “other birds” and “logistics”. While a tour could see Black-crowned Antpitta on one or more of the regular circuits, making that happen would take up time more easily dedicated to seeing many other birds much easier to see and photograph. It can take hours, even days to find (or majorly dip) one of these birds.

The Costa Rica Pittasoma equation is further complicated by logistics. The sites where the bird is regular are off the regular tour track and most aren’t very suitable for group tours. Until we find accessible and reliable places for the antpitta in northern Costa Rica, tours will need to detour or focus on southern Costa Rica.

Given the excellent birding near and south of Limon, that’s not such a bad idea! The best option for a group tour would probably be Selva Bananito while more indepedent birders could stay in any number of places near Cahuita or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and look for the antpitta at Kekoldi and other suitably forested sites. The best places seem to be streams and other wet and muddy areas in primary rainforest and adjacent old second growth. As with other antpittas, even then, the bird isn’t easy to find but your chances improve if you can quietly scan for it on forest trails at dawn and in the late afternoon, and listen for its distinctive vocalizations.

But wait, that’s not all! Luckily, in common with some other challenging understory species, this bird loves to follow Army Ants. If you find an ant swarm in good habitat for the gnatpitta, keep waiting and try to stay with the ants until the antpitta makes an appearance. The nice thing about this birding hat trick is if the antpitta doesn’t show, you will still a bunch of other cool birds, maybe even a darn R.V. G. Cuckoo.

Finding this special antpitta is never easy but you can’t go wrong looking in the right places; in the homes of antpittas, the birding trends towards the awesome end of the spectrum.

To be continued…

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Reminders and Reasons to Visit Cinchona When Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has so many fantastic sites for birding, it can be a challenge to know where to go. How to pick the sites for your best birding experience? The answer depends on how you want to connect with birds, what you want to see, and budgets for time and money.

I’ll leave a more thorough treatise of such questions and answers for future posts. In the meantime, I would like to focus on a site that would be tough to leave off of any birding itinerary for Costa Rica. This special spot is one of the classic birding sites in Costa Rica, a location that has made a positive impact on thousands of birders (as well as non-birders), the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

Also known as the Cafe Colibri and the Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando, I have often written about the benefits and beauty of this site. Even so, no birding spot is static, especially ones like Cinchona where tropical forest is growing back with a vengeance. Check out these reminders and reasons to include a visit to Cinchona during a birding trip to Costa Rica:

Regenerating Forest Can Grow Fast

Before the 2009 earthquake, the Cafe Colibri was a two story structure situated next to mature, fairly intact forest. At least that’s sort of how I recall it. I do know that more birds were present and even umbrellabird was seen every now and then (!). Tragically, more than 30 people died in the the 6.6 earthquake, it destroyed the two story structure that was the original Cafe Colibri, an adjacent, similar establishment, and much of the adjacent forest.

Although the disaster was a terrible blow to Cinchona in every possible way, since 2009, regarding the Cafe Colibri, it has been rebuilt on the original foundations, and the forest has been steadily growing back. It will take decades before trees reach their previous heights but as the vegetation has grown, more birds have returned, including species that are more dependent on forest.

With that in mind, when visiting the Cafe Colibri, keep an eye out for such birds as Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Sooty-faced Finch, and other species. These species have been occurring with more frequency and it wouldn’t be all that surprising for shy birds like Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, and foliage-gleaners to eventually make appearances. Let’s hope so!

Ornate Hawk-Eagle!

While visiting Cinchona yesterday, the owner and matriarch of the Colibri Cafe mentioned that an interesting bird had been seen. I wondered what it might be, maybe some different tanager at the feeder? Much to my surprise, she showed me a picture of a subadult Ornate Hawk-eagle!

A pair of this fancy, powerful raptor live rather close to Cinchona but they seem to mostly stick to forests away from the main road. It’s not that often that one is seen in the canyon and usually not perched in one of the remnant, bromeliad covered trees visible from the Cafe Colibri. As the habitat improves, we can only hope that this becomes a more regular occurrence.

Still Great for Hummingbirds, Maybe Even Better

Cinchona has always been a hummingbird hotspot. Time of year and weather conditions can have an effect on the number of birds and species but a visit is always warranted, especially when 7 or 8 species of hummingbirds can be accompanied by fresh, delicious Costa Rican coffee. Even better, this past year, yesterday included, the uncommon and local Black-bellied Hummingbird has become regular at Cinchona. There might be a delay for the bird to appear but it’s hard to find fault with a wait highlighted by close views of Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violetear, Lesser Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem!

The barbets are nice too…

More Parking Spaces…and Donkeys

The Cafe Colibri now has paved and delineated parking spots on both sides of the road that make it that much easer to enjoy this special place. For whatever reason, the other side of the road also has a corral with a couple of donkeys (if you feel like ticking off the “hand feeding of mules” box on your list of things to do during a birding trip to Costa Rica).

Every Visit Helps a Local Business that Loves Birds, Birders, and Conservation

Supporting the people who support birders, birds, and bird awareness is just as important as being treated to exquisite views of Green Thorntails. Please support the Cafe Colibri by enjoying a meal and leaving a generous donation.

If traveling to or from Sarapiqui on Route 126, make sure to visit one of Costa Rica’s first classic birding sites, the Cafe Colibri. If planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, see which places to visit and prepare for your trip with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Benefits of Slow Birding in Costa Rica

Birding is “just” watching birds, plain and simple. As long as you are paying attention to birds, watching or listening to birds to enjoy, appreciate, identify, or study them, that’s birding. Slow birding is, as one might imagine, taking your time with birds, doing the birding thing more like a patient puffbird or heron than a fast and furious Big Day Merlin.

The Merlin might be the antithesis of slow birding.

These are some of the benefits of slow birding in Costa Rica, of practicing stillness, patience, and the general way of the Sloth as you watch the birds:

Careful Patience Pays Off in the Rainforest

Take a brisk hike through rainforest and you will see a lot of plants. Some other things, leafcutters, but mostly plants. Slow it down, even stand in place for a while and birds are eventually revealed. The same goes for other animals, insects, and countless other denizens of the tropical forest.

Be patient like a waiting heron and you will see more because everything is in hiding, including the birds. A bird can’t take any chances when they live in a place where highly camouflaged predators lurk in the leaves, where so many other animals are always looking for an easy meal. They hear you coming down the trail and may retreat or keep still until you walk on by. Wait around, though, and they might get used to you, realize that you aren’t really a threat. That’s when the birds start to become active again, begin to call and forage because although staying hidden keeps a bird alive, so does eating. Be patient and wait for birds to forage, for a tinamou to step onto the trail for tanagers to move through your field of view.

The slow birding day only gets better when a Speckled Tanager pops into mind blowing view.

Slow and Attentive Birding is Highly Productive Birding

Birding on the slow and easy doesn’t mean mindlessly standing around and looking at your phone or casually strolling down a trail as you check your photos. Productive slow birding is moving slow so you can be attentive to your surroundings. Standing still and moving slow gives you the time needed to scan every bush, check every branch, and listen for every peep.

This is especially useful in tropical forest because so many birds hide in plain sight. A suspicious rock might actually be a tinamou. There could be trogons and other frugivores lurking near fruits in the canopy. Puffbirds and other sit and wait predators might be watching you from a forest perch. Have a birding passenger pay attention while driving on the road to Poas and they might even see a quetzal silhouetted in the mist (as happened a few weeks ago!).

Slow Birding is also Easy-Going Birding

Be attentive and you will see more but if you would rather hang out back at the lodge and have a coffee or cold beer while watching chachalacas and aracaris, that’s slow birding too. If that means relaxing while casually watching the birds that fly into view, there’s nothing wrong with that. This type of birding can come with the benefits of savoring local cuisine, quality coffee, and views of toucans and trogons.

Slow Birding in Costa Rica Works With the Tropical Birding Dynamic

The dynamic nature of birding in Costa Rica always makes for exciting birding. Watch the edge of the forest over the course of a morning and new birds keep popping into view. Go back the next day and more birds show up. Walk a trail and it can go from being frustratingly still to a forest suddenly moving with tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species.

These are just a few examples of the tropical forest dynamic; a situation where most birds occur in low density populations, where many birds move in mixed flocks, and where various species concentrate at fruiting trees. When you go slow with the birding from one spot, species after species may appear as they move through your field of view. Move slow and attentive and you might have a better chance of finding that mega mixed flock or an antswarm. Take it slow and easy and you also see more than birds because of course, there’s always more than birds to birding.

To learn more about some of the tricks to seeing more birds in Costa Rica, check out How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Prepare for your birding trip to Costa Rica by making target lists and listening to sounds of more than 800 species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Some day, I hope to see you here!

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The Rocky River Heron

Joan Jett of Blackhearts and The Runaways fame first sang, “I love rock and roll so put another dime in the jukebox baby!” Weird Al’s twist on that classic 80s rock tune says, “I love rocky road! So weren’t you gonna buy half a gallon baby?”

When visiting California Gulch or some roads in Costa Rica or so many other off beat places we go for birds, the song gets changed to, “I love rocky roads so put another wrench in the toolbox baby!” However, if the Fasciated Tiger-Heron could croon, if that rocky river loving bird could put words to the tune, it might say, “I love rocky flows so put another fish in the eddy baby!”

If you ever wondered what the Fasciated Tiger-Heron does, that lyric just about sums up how it spends most of its time. Unlike so many other herons, this species doesn’t visit marshes, doesn’t wade in estuaries or fly along any ocean shore. It doesn’t even stalk the shallows of slow, steady-flowing tropical lowland rivers. In the nations where our rocky river bittern ranges, those habitats are used by the related Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and the Rufescent Tiger-Heron. At some period in evolutionary history, we can only assume that in occupying and become more adapted to rocky forested rivers, the ancestor of the Fasciated became the bird that it is today.

Like other Trigrisoma herons (the tiger-herons), the Fasciated is a fair-sized bird with a thick, and powerful neck, sharp beak, and medium-length legs. In other birding words, its more or less shaped like a bittern, like a compact, modern dinosaur. However, unlike bitterns, the Fasciated and other tiger-herons don’t bother to hide themselves in the grass, don’t make any noises that sound like a water pump.

No, these birds are too rough and tough characters for any of that quaint country stuff. More in keeping with their dino ancestors, tiger-herons stalk where they wish, make growling noises that sound like some scary predator of the night, and eat baby crocodiles. At least the Bare-throated and Rufescent eat young crocs. The Fasciated doesn’t but I bet that’s only because saurians don’t inhabit the bird’s cold, rocky river habitats.

In fact, the Fasciated is so adapted to rocky streams and rivers, it just can’t seem to live anywhere else. Ranging from Costa Rica through much of the tropical Andes, the Fasciated Tiger-Heron uses rocky streams and rivers that flow through forested landcapes. As one might gather, this special heron also has a morphological feature or two that help it survive in its rushing river home. A bit stockier than other herons, like a feathered goat, it has shorter legs that may help it find better balance on slick river rocks. Its slightly blunter bill might help it catch more crayfish or other prey items peculiar to its cold, splashing home.

Although it’s far from being the only heron that patiently waits in place to eventually catch unwary prey, the Fasciated T. seems to be especially adept at practicing stillness. This river bird stands in place for so long, it can seem more like a garden statue, just another rock in the river than an actual living bird. With water constantly rushing and splashing past it, the heron seems to be making some natural Zen statement. Compared to herons of lowland tropical places, keeping still for long periods of time might be a necessary adaptation to catch enough food in places with fewer prey items. Being “Zen” also probably helps to avoid predators as does another of its characteristic features; its cryptic plumage.

Check a stream for this heron species and you might need to do a double take. Look carefully at the river with binoculars and don’t be surprised if one of those many “rocks” turns into a bird that was hiding in plain sight. Coupled with its art of being still behavior, the mottled gray plumage of the adult helps it blend in remarkably well with the surrounding river rocks and rushing water. The orange and black plumage of the juvenile is another story and raises the question of why the adult seems to be more camouflaged than young birds; a situation typically the other way around.

If you feel like pondering such questions while birding Costa Rica, come visit and scan rocky rivers and streams in rainforest for Fasciated Tiger-Herons. On account of the bird’s natural stealth and likely low density populations, it might take a while to find one. But don’t give up! Think like the heron, check the river with care because you can bet that the birds are somewhere on that waterway. They might be standing just around the bend, or keeping still on the other side of a big river rock, being Zen, hiding in plain sight.

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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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Why Get a Field Guide for Costa Rica Now?

With the world on hold, now might not seem to be the ideal time to plan a birding trip. It might not appear to be the best moment to buy a field guide, look into tours, and figure out which birds a birder wants to see the most.

The Ornate Hawk-Eagle is high on the target list of many a birder.

Although it’s arguably silly to plan a tour for a given date without knowing when the destination will be open, now is actually perfect to think about traveling for birding, buying field guides, and dreaming of target species. Here’s why:

Destinations Will Eventually Open

Any type of limbo can present serious challenges to seeing the end of the tunnel because in the absence of a definite time frame, it’s that much harder to envision when something will happen. We think of the future and it seems to be blocked by black velvet paintings of uncertainty, by what ifs and unforeseen problems. When that happens, we need to sit back, have a tequila or eat a donut or whatever you need to do to ground yourself and push the mental curtains of uncertainty aside to be able to look at things through realistic, hopeful eyes. In the case of world travel, it’s more than likely that countries will eventually open back up and when they do, they will be more than eager for visitors. It will be a fantastic time to travel and it will eventually happen. Nothing better to do that be ready for it!

It Pays to be Prepared for a Birding Trip

Speaking of being ready for a trip, birding trips require a special degree of preparation. Yeah, you could jump on a plane to Australia or Fiji at a moment’s notice but you wouldn’t be any bit of ready for the birding. You would have no idea what to look for, what to identify, where to go, nor where to stay. It would sort of be like some happy go lucky nightmare situation. Whether visiting Polynesia, France, or Costa Rica, it’s far better to be over prepared than wondering what you are looking at and lamenting about birds and cool places missed during and after the trip. The more time you have to study, the less stressful and more fulfilling the trip will be. With that in mind, start studying for Costa Rica now to have the best and most satisfying trip possible.

You don’t want to miss seeing an Emerald Tanager.

Get a field guide in advance and you can take as much time as you want to learn about the lifers you will eventually see. Learn about different families of birds, learn how to identify everything from woodcreepers to hummingbirds, pick the birds you want to see the most. In the case of a digital field guide, you can mark target species, study birds by region, by family, make notes, and listen to their songs while looking at images of the birds you hope to see.

Part of the Fun is Getting Ready for the Trip

Not to mention, a big part of going somewhere isn’t just being there for the experience. It’s also getting ready for the trip, looking into places, trying to get an idea, a picture of what to expect. It doesn’t just make for better preparation, thinking about that trip also gives you something to look forward to, life goals to meet, and most of all, birds waiting to be seen. Check out field guides, decide which ones to get and buy them. Once you have that book in hand, that digital field guide on your phone, you are already on your way to Costa Rica.

Time On Our Hands

If anything, during a pandemic, many a birder has more time on his or her hands. It’s a perfect time to look into and study for future trips. Use these days, these months, to get ready for birding far afield.

Supporting Tours is Support for Conservation

I should also mention that looking into tours now and maybe even signing up for one translates to support for conservation. Most birding tours actively support local conservation efforts either directly and/or indirectly. The sooner you can safely reserve or sign up for lodging or a birding tour, the sooner you will be making a difference for people who often act as the front line of protection for tropical forests.

Conservation for endangered species like the Great Green Macaw.

Think Positive!

Most days, the news isn’t exactly on the bright side of the spectrum but that doesn’t change the fact that many vaccines are being worked on, many people are doing their best to make it through this pandemic and safely open as soon as possible, and that this will eventually pass. Stay safe, support conservation and start planning for that trip, the birds will be waiting.

Want to think about birding in Costa Rica? You can’t go wrong with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book with information on where to go birding, what the birding is like in Costa Rica, and how to identify many of the species waiting to be seen.

Fancy birds like the Violet-headed Hummingbird.

As far as field guides go, the book I recommend is the handy and excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean. The size of the book is right as are the excellent illustrations, information and range maps.

Since no modern birding trip would be complete without a digital field guide, I also recommend the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Yes, I do work on it and because we want birders to have a trip of a lifetime, we have made a steady set of improvements since its inception. A birder can now customize their app with target lists, notes on birds, good range maps, and much more. Since the latest update includes information and range maps for every bird on the Costa Rica list, multiple images for 919 species, and sounds for 829 of them, this birding app is just as excellent for reference and planning for a trip as it is in the field (even I use it pretty much every day!).

Start planning a trip to Costa Rica today, birds like this Fiery-throated Hummingbird will be waiting.