There are 6 species of toucans in Costa Rica and birders visiting Costa Rica will be pleased to learn that most of them are fairly common! Colorful, big, and bold, these fancy birds are larger than life. On account of their fantastic appearance, these big-beaked birds have acted as inspiration for characters on everything from cereal boxes to marketing for a number of tropical destinations (Costa Rica included).
In Costa Rica, these surreal and wonderful birds occur in nearly every type of forested habitat. Three species live in the lowland tropical rainforests on the Caribbean slope. They include the bird with the rainbow-colored bill, the Keel-billed Toucan,
the Yellow-throated Toucan (formerly known as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and the Black-mandibled Toucan),
and the Collared Aracari.
Just above the lowlands, the elusive Yellow-eared Toucanet lurks in the foothill and lower middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope.
Not nearly as common as the other toucan species, pairs of this special bird prefer to forage inside the forest and rarely come into the open. Some of the better spots for them are forests in the Arenal area, Volcan Tenorio, and the foothills of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Higher still, we have a chance at seeing the beautiful Northern Emerald Toucanet. Smaller than other members of its family, this pint-sized green toucan is a common denizen of highland forests. Listen for its barking call and you might see one.
It helps that they also visit fruit feeders!
On the Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris also occur in forests of the Nicoya Peninsula and in some parts of Guanacaste. They share some space with Keel-billed Toucans in areas of moist forest, including sites in the Central Valley.
In the Central Valley and southern Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris are replaced by the flashy Fiery-billed Aracari. This near endemic is especially common in areas with humid forest. It shares such places on the south-Pacific slope with the Yellow-throated Toucan.
Although these toucan species occur at many sites, the places where they are most common are areas with extensive tropical forests replete with large trees used for nesting and as food sources. Since toucans are also omnivorous, their populations fare much better in high quality habitats that can provide them with plenty of fruit and small creatures. In Costa Rica, that would mean larger areas of mature tropical forest.
This is why we tend to find more toucans in Costa Rica in places like the Osa Peninsula, lowland and foothill rainforests in the Sarapiqui region, near Boca Tapada, Rincon de la Vieja, Monteverde, and forests in Limon province. More toucans usually means more of other wildlife because good numbers of these real life cartoony birds are indicative of healthy tropical forest that likewise provides habitat for hundreds of other birds, plants, and animals.
Such sites can be good places to look for manakins, cotingas, tinamous, and many other species that require healthy forest, including two species that prey on toucans; Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles.
To find more toucans and the best places to see birds in Costa Rica, use this Costa Rica bird finding guide. I hope you have a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica and hope to see you here!
Tis the high season for birding in Costa Rica. Higher numbers of optic-associated folks began to arrive in December, more arrived in January, and by February, birders have become a common occurrence at hotels, in national parks, and on quiet country roads. Yeah, make no doubt about it, right now is high time for birding in Costa Rica. You can be entertained by birds in Costa Rica at any time of the year but it’s hard to beat escaping some of the winter’s cold frozen fingers while watching the long tail coverts of a quetzal stream behind it in crazy, colorful flight.
The influx of birders will continue right on through March. If you happen to be one of those lucky bino wearing people, these recent Costa Rica birding highlights will get you psyched for your trip. Some are from recent birding I was involved with, others stem for other reports. I hope all of them help with your birding time in Costa Rica:
Bright colors, loud voices, and odd shapes, who doesn’t yearn to see cotingas? In Costa Rica, they aren’t easy but if you go to the right places, you can get lucky. If you are headed to Rancho Naturalista, you will be in the right place for one of the toughest cotinga in Costa Rica, the Lovely one. Recently, a male Lovely Cotinga has been showing at Rancho just about every day. This is likely the same bird that visited this classic birding lodge on several occasions over the past couple of years. Up your cotinga odds by hiring one of Ranch’s excellent local guides.
The lovely cousin of the Lovely, the Turquoise Cotinga, has also been showing in patches of rainforest around Perez Zeledon as well as its stronghold in the Osa Peninsula. It can also be seen at Rincon de Osa but recently, the birds around Perez have been more reliable. Check eBird to do a cotinga stakeout or hire a good local guide.
As for the white cotingas, the Snowy is frequenting its usual Caribbean lowland strongholds while the endangered Yellow-billed is most easily seen at Rincon de Osa, in the Sierpe mangroves, and from the tower at Cerro Lodge right around 7:30 to 8:15 in the morning.
Resplendent Quetzals are waiting for you at most cloud forest sites. They aren’t common but if you go to the right place and know how to find them, you have a very good chance of seeing this mega spectacular bird. Recently, I have seen them calling and displaying at a site near Varablanca, on the Providencia Road (one of the bext spots), and in the Dota Valley.
Megas at the San Luis Canopy
The San Luis Canopy (or the Parque de Aventura de San Luis) might be off the main birding routes but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the better birding hotspots in Costa Rica. Seriously. How else to describe a place that has been good for Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, and Ochre-breasted Antpitta along with tanagers, hawk-eagles, hummingbirds, and more? You have to descend and ascend steps and cross canopy bridges but there are some serious birding prizes at the end of this cloud forest rainbow.
Owls and Potoos Oh My!
Owls and potoos are always present, the main issue is where and how to find them? Here’s a rundown of some good recent spots for these crafty nocturnal creatures:
Great Potoo- As per usual, fairly common in the Caribbean lowlands. Recently, I had great looks at roosting birds in the Cano Negro area; both at the Caiman restaurant and in the Las Cubas area (hire Chambita to guide you!).
Common Potoo- These birds aren’t all that common in Costa Rica but do occur in many open and edge habitats. I have had recent, fantastic views of birds near Jaco and around La Gamba. Cano Negro is another of several great spots.
Spectacled Owl- This large owl occurs in many lowland foothill sites, especially (and perhaps appropriately) at ecolodges. I have had good recent looks at Quinta de Sarapiqui, while taking Cope’s tour, and at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge. They also occur in many additional spots.
Black-and-white Owl- One has been roosting on the Bogarin Trail, the birds at the Arenal Observatory Lodge are also still being seen, and one often visits the restaurant at Laguna del Lagarto.
Crested Owl- A couple have been showing very well on Cope’s tour and I also had them calling at Hotel Quelitales, Rancho Naturalista, and at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge.
Mottled Owl- There has been a roosting, extremely well hidden bird at Curi-Cancha and others are commonly heard and seen at many other sites.
Striped Owl- This uncommon species can show up at any number of open, wet habitats and is usually seen perched on a power line.
Screech-owls- Although not rare, all of the Megascops species in Costa Rica can be elusive unless they vocalize. Some of the better spots for Tropical have been at Talari Mountain Lodge, and around La Gamba. Pacific occurs in Cano Negro and most dry areas where large trees are present. Middle American has been showing on trails at Arenal Observatory Lodge as well as other lowland Caribbean sites. There is a supposed roost of Bare-shanked at Curi-Cancha and it continues to be common at most highland sites. The “Choco” has also been vocal at and near Esquinas Ranforest Lodge but its propensity to call from dense vegetation makes it tougher to see than the other Megascops.
Pygmy-owls- Ferruginous is common and easy in edge and open areas of the northern and Pacific lowlands and foothills, Central American has been showing well at Laguna del Lagarto, and Costa Rican has been ocassionally showing in its usual best haunts.
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl- This most challenging of owls continues to be a challenge but some have seen it around Paraiso Quetzal and the upper part of the Dota Valley.
I have already mentioned this birding hotspot and with good reason; the birding is simply fantastic. Having an owner who is also a birder makes all the difference. This is why we had great looks at Green-fronted Lancebill, close Sooty-faced Finch, and saw various cloud forest species on the trails. On our one morning there, I also heard both Crested and Mottled Owls near the cabins and although they failed to appear during our brief visit, Scaled Antpitta and Black-breasted Wood-Quail have become regular from the blind on the birding platform. We topped off our morning with views of Barred Hawk and Hook-billed Kite. I can’t wait to go back!
This excellent birding oasis has become a new classic hotspot. Roosting Black-and-white Owl, Uniform Crake on the trail (which we saw!), White-throated Crakes, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and American Pygmy Kingfisher around the trail entrance…that’s some quality birding! Not to mention motmots, jacamars, and occasional visits by a juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle, this place is easy birding that rocks.
Alma del Arbol in the Dota Valley, Stella’s Bakery in Monteverde, and Casa Tangara dowii on the road up Cerro de la Muerte.
All of these spots combine great food and drink with great birding. Alma del Arbol is a small restaurant/cafe/bistro in San Gerardo de Dota. Located across the street from Savegre at Batsu, one of the best bird photography hotspots in Costa Rica, this well run gem of a spot has a delicious, fusion menu and some desserts to die for.
Stella’s is a landmark bakery and cafe in Monteverde that serves excellent, creative cuisine and some of the best desserts in Costa Rica. Given the euphoric delicousness generated by the brownies, it’s probably good that I don’t live near this special place.
Casa Tangara dowii is a wonderful spot to have lunch accompanied by locally brewed beers and cloud forest birds. Designed with birders in mind, owner Serge Arias (who also runs Costa Rica Birding Hotspots) will make you feel very welcome. Our group sure did, another place I can’t wait to go back to!
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
During your visit, make sure to check Rincon de Osa for cotingas, raptors, and other species.
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).
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!
Birding as a kid in the 70s and 80s was about using cheap but precious binoculars to look at birds in the backyard, in nearby fields, and at state parks. It was about checking out and studying bird books in the public library and back at home, trying to see the differences among sparrows streaked with differents shades of brown, gazing at photos of Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other birds (in books), and wondering how I could see them.
It was also about seeing how I could reach places outside of my backyard and joining local trips with an older birding crowd. I went on day trips with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Ranbow County Birders to local reserves to look for warblers in May, shorebirds in August, and migrating hawks in early spring. Living in Niagara, we had a fantastic gull trip and were fortunate to have Canadian friends that treated us to 9, even 10 owl species in a day in cold, snowy places. There were different levels of interest but the way we went birding was pretty much the same.
A trip usually started with a meeting time and place that tended to be a McDonald’s parking lot. That way, folks could use the restroom, get a coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast. Before GPS and associated modern digital wayfaring, the big golden arches came in handy as an easy and obvious point of reference. From our meeting spot, the trip leader would convoy us to our morning birding stops and we would watch birds, talk about how to identify them, and maybe look at some through scopes. We would check out field marks in field guides, maybe a Perterson or a Golden Guide. After the Nat. Geo. became available, that fantastic storehouse of updated birding knowledge took center stage. It was a huge help with identification, especially with gulls and shorebirds. We would bring our own lunches and at some later point, say our goodbyes and head back home.
This was how most birding trips were. It was birding without digital cameras, apps, nor any access to broader, collated information about sightings and advanced identification. In other words, birdwatching was just that; watching birds, and there was a big emphasis on field identification. There had to be. The birding community was still figuring out how to identify all sort of things and didn’t have any immediate picture taking devices to check the birds we had seen. Sometimes, people would bring print-outs of articles on identification. When Kenn Kaufman’s book on advanced bird identification was published, that fantastic resource also found a place in the car. Birding was often about getting good looks as fast as you could, knowing what to look for, taking notes and maybe making field sketches.
Since those pre Internet days, birding has evolved and expanded into a many-faceted hobby. The birding spectrum includes everything from watching birds to simply watch them and not worry much about their names, solely taking pictures of birds, and using every technolgical resource on hand to race and see as many species as possible. People also watch birds for other reasons but no matter how you go with the birding flow, in Costa Rica, everyone is welcome at the birding table.
Costa Rica has enough birds and birding sites to please every aspect of the hobby. One of several choice areas to visit for any degree of birding or bird enjoyment or bird photography is Cinchona and Route 126. Situated around an hour or less from San Jose, this route provides access to several habitats, each of which have their fair share of birds. Cinchona is the name of a small settlement on that road where a small restaurant with a wealth of birds is located. It’s called the “Cafe Colibri” or “Mirador San Fernando“.
More than a dozen hummingbird species, tanagers, Black Guan, quetzal, Flame-throated Warbler and other highland endemics, Cinchona and Ruta 126 has enough birds and birding sites to please all aspects of birding. These are three strategies for a day of birding in this area, each tailored to a distinct manner of birding:
Focusing on Birds in Costa Rica and Not Much Else
I admit, this is the birding I have usually done, the birding I prefer to do because it pushes me to concentrate on my surroundings, to listen and look closer and become enveloped by natural surroundings. This type of full scale birding makes for some nature connection at its finest. If you bird like this on Ruta 126 and Cinchona, there are a couple of ways to start your long yet exciting day.
If you can’t sleep, at some pre-dawn hour, drive up the road towards Poas Volcano as far as you can go. Listen and look for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Dusky Nightjar. Keep an ear out for the less common tooting whistles of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and be aware that Unspotted Saw-whet might also occur up there (it has yet to be documented from Poas but you never know..).
From dawn to 9, get in roadside high elevation birding in that same area before making your way to Varablanca. Keep an eye out for Black Guan, quetzals, silky-flycatchers, and just about everything else. Make sure to stop at the Volcan Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and a snack while watching the hummingbird feeders. Still need Scintillant Hummingbird? Maybe Magenta-throated Woodstar? Check out the Porterweed bushes in the parking lot for the Corso farm.
When you reach Varablanca, make the turn towards Sarapiqui, drive downhill for a little bit and turn right on the San Rafael Road. Bird forest patches there and watch for Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and various other cloud forest species.
At some point, head back to Ruta 126 and keep driving downhill. You could make stops at the Peace Waterfall to look for American Dipper and and other species, and at one or more overlooks to watch for Ornate Hawk-Eagle and other soaring raptors.
Arrive at Cinchona just before noon. If you visit on a weekend, the cafe could be crowded. From January to March, it might also be crowded with birders. Find a table, order some food and enjoy the avian show.
While keeping an eye out for both barbets, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem, don’t forget to check the undergrowth and nearby vegetation for surprise birds like a quail-dove or two, Middle American Leaftosser, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species. Make sure to support this important, birder friendly place with a donation.
Post Cafe Colibri, watch for perched Bat Falcon and soaring raptors as you continue driving downhill. For the rest of the afternoon, you can’t go wrong with birding Virgen del Socorro (four wheel drive), Mi Cafecito, and lower foothill birding on the San Miguel-Socorro Road. Checking streams could yield Faciated Tiger-Heron and other nice birdies.
Finish off the day by relaxing at Albergue del Socorro or further on in the Sarapiqui lowlands with a cold beer, or dinner, or counting the 100 plus species you have seen.
Bird Photography in Costa Rica
You still want an early start but unless you want to take a stab at capturing images of night birds, pre-dawn birding won’t be necessary. You might even want to stop for breakfast at Freddo Fresas. That way, you can also set up in their gardens just across the road.
Although you can do bird photography on the road up to Poas, if you can, I suggest saving high elevation photography for places like Batsu or other spots in the Dota Valley. Whether you stop at Freddo Fresas or not, you may want to check out the hummingbird bushes in the parking area of the Corso farm and ice creamery. Further on, make your way down Ruta 126 towards Sarapiqui and on to Cinchona and spend a good few hours there. Make sure to buy lunch and also give them a donation of at least $10 per person. They may also charge a small photography fee. Whatever you do, please do what you can to support this important, fantastic, locally owned place. They have suffered tragedies, worked very hard to rebuild after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, and have supported birding and bird photography for many years.
Post Cinchona, keep an eye out for perched and soaring raptors on the drive downhill. The next best stop for photography would probably be Mi Cafecito. Although photo options vary, the area of the canyon overlook can have toucans, guans, tanagers, and other species at fruiting trees. Be careful on that cement trail, it can be very slippery!
After Mi Cafecito, head to your hotel in the Sarapiqui lowlands. To maximize photo opps, you may also want to skip Mi Cafecito altogether and visit Dave and Daves, or just shoot at your hotel.
Easy-Going Birding in Costa Rica
If you just feel like seeing whatever you can see, you should still get up early but you won’t need to rush out the door. If you are staying at a place like Villa San Ignacio, enjoy some nice easy birding in their gardens before and during a tasty breakfast. After that, drive up towards Poas and stop at Freddo Fresas to visit their gardens and perhaps buy some strawberry bread for an afternoon snack.
After checking out the gardens, continue on towards Varablanca and start driving downhill towards Sarapiqui on Ruta 126. Stop at one or two overlooks (with small parking areas), scan for flying raptors, and enjoy the scenery. Further on, if you feel like seeing various rescued wildlife in a somewhat zoo-like setting in beautiful surroundings and nice trails, visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there is an entrance fee). If not, continue on, make an optional stop at the Peace Waterfall and then visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.
Pick a table, order some food and drinks, and enjoy the birds. Take your time and keep watching, see how many species you can find! You might also want to browse their souvenirs and pick out some quality organic chocolate before easing on down the road. Please give a donation to help support this special place.
Further downhill, if you feel like walking a short trail in foothill rainforest, visit Mi Cafecito and walk to the overlook (be careful of slippery trail conditions). This place is also an excellent spot to take a coffee tour. After Mi Cafecito, continue on or head back to your hotel.
No matter how you watch birds, in Costa Rica, there’s a heck of a lot to see. For example, on the route mentioned above, over the years, I have seen more than 330 species. You won’t see all of them there in one day, but you can expect to see a lot and if you visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, the norm has been close, prolonged views of fantastic tropical bird species.
Birding sites come and go. Some get better, others become off limits or, in too many worse case scenarios, are converted to housing or sterile pineapple fields. As Joni Mitchell reminded us, new parking lots can also happen and while those frozen patches of tar might make a Ring-billed Gull cackle with glee, other birds would opt for trees.
Thanks to recent guiding, I visited two classic birding sites in Costa Rica and noted a few changes that have happened at both of them. Not to worry (!), the changes are neutral or for the better at the Colibri Cafe in Cinchona and the San Luis Adventure Park. Here’s what to expect:
The Cafe Colibri (aka Mirador de San Fernando, aka Cinchona, aka Cinchona Cafe, aka awesome spot to get mind blown by tropical birds)
Although a parking lot did happen at the cafe, fortunately, it did NOT pave over any bit of paradise. Having nudged my vehicle into undefined parking spaces at the Colibri Cafe for years, I can attest to the new parking area being an improvement. Even better, for kids and domestic animal lovers of all ages, the parking area is now accentuated by a pair of braying donkeys.
As birders are entertained by the occasional loud, toothed voices of corralled mules across the road, they now also have more seating room on the birding deck.
The deck removed a very small part of the garden but it shouldn’t really affect the birds and more space was needed anyways. The new set up also makes it easier to watch the main feeder, a star fruit buffet featuring such beautiful attendees as the Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Silver-throated Tanager, and eye-pleasing species.
The hummingbird scene hasn’t changed, it still provides the chance to witness Brown Violetears extending their “ears”, Coppery-headed Emeralds sputtering and flashing the white in the tails, Green Thorntails doing their best wasp imitation, Violet Sabrewings acting large, purple, and in charge, and more.
I should also mention that the menu is still the same albeit with the addition of flavored coffees available from a flavored coffee machine (which, if my mochaccino was any indication, could be better).
From the very mouth of the owner, the current fees for bird photography are 1500 colones for a bit of time and 2500 for a few hours. Since this is still a pittance, if you visit, please be generous and donate accordingly to this classic, birder friendly spot. My eBird list from September 13, 2021.
The San Luis Adventure Park (aka San Luis, aka San Luis Canopy, aka dream close looks at tanagers)
Over the years, this neat little place nestled in cloud forest on the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna has grown. Although the owners haven’t paved over anything, a bit of habitat has been removed. It’s nothing substantial and won’t affect the birds too much but it does affect the birding, at least a little bit.
As San Luis has expanded ever so slightly, various fruiting trees that were located just behind and next to the buildings have been removed. It’s a shame because those very trees made it easy to watch a wealth of tanagers from the parking area, Blue-and gold included. Not all of the trees were cut down, several are still there, just not as many visible from the parking area. Even so, I can’t honestly blame the owners for removing a few trees.
A few had to be taken out because they interfered with their zipline operations. Others were cut so they could expand a deck and the restaurant. I wish there could have been a better solution but it’s hard to think of one. Since they still protect a sizeable area of cloud forest, I can think of a lot more enterprises much more worthy of criticism for actual unsustainable and destructive practices.
Not to mention, the deck that was built also happens to be where birders can view tanagers at close range, so there is that. Speaking of the tanager deck, while it used to be freely open to birders, a locked door has been installed and access is now only possible by paying $20 in the reception. If $20 seems too much to view Emerald Tanager at close range, not to worry, you get more for that price! This same fee also provides unlimited access to the San Luis Canopy trail; a maintained series of steps that descends a river and has several hanging bridges.
If you can handle a bunch of steps, hanging bridges, and great birding, this might be the trail for you! It accesses mature cloud forest that can feature close looks at various tanagers, excellent mixed flocks, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, a chance at umbrellabird, and many other species. Since the fee also includes access to a hummingbird garden and close looks at Emerald, Speckled, Bay-headed Tanagers and other birds, I would say that’s money well spent.
San Luis is currently open seven days a week, from 8 until 4. The restaurant is good enough and currently features a typical Costa Rican menu (used to be buffet only). My eBird list from September 12, 2021.
As with every good birding site, I look forward to going back, I hope you make it there too. In the meantime, to learn more about identification tips and birding sites in Costa Rica, get ready for an amazing birding trip to Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy fall migration!
After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.
Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.
They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.
Its why Nicaraguan Gracklesare reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.
Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):
Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua
As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.
Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.
Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.
If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.
Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.
Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game
When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.
Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.
What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?
In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.
If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.
It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!
Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Think about it because although you might not feel good about traveling to watch quetzals today, in a couple of months, vaccination rates might change your mind.
Quetzals are always a good excuse to travel, even when they try to hide.
Since the best birding trips are planned well in advance, looking into information for a birding trip to Costa Rica isn’t just wishful thinking. The time to start planning a trip is now and although these ideas about what to bring to Costa Rica for birding are more for birding on your own, they could also come in handy on any tour:
The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide
As with visiting any place far from home, a good field guide is worth its weight in gold. You might forget to bring a poncho, you might not be able to shave, in a sudden fit of absent-mindedness, you might even leave the flashlight on the hood of the car or next to the snowmobile. Forget those things and you can still go birding. Leave the field guide on the desk back home and well, I guess you could still go birding but you better go buy a notebook, pencils, and be ready to write some wicked field journals.
There’s nothing wrong with field journals (especially the wicked ones splashed with coffee and filled with illegible notes) but birding is always better when you have some fine reference material. Nowadays, although there are a couple of good books available, I still prefer the good old Garrigues and Dean. Lightweight, easy to use and well done, it’s great for studying before the trip and essential when birding Costa Rica, especially if birding by yourself.
So you can identify endemics like the Yellow-thighed Brushfinch.
Costa Rica Birds App
If you already have a field guide, why use a digital one? That’s a good question but I find that having both a book and a digital field guide is better for any birding trip. It’s fun to look at a book, especially when it has great illustrations and it’s also fun to interact with an app and check out photos of birds in flight, more postures, and so on.
Although you could go with the free Merlin app, it’s nice but it does have its limitations. With the full version of the Costa Rica Birds app, you can also:
Study bird sounds for more than 900 species while looking at various images.
See images for 926 species on the Costa Rica bird list, even rare species, and information and range maps for a few more.
See more accurate range maps.
See more up to date information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.
Personalize the app with target lists, check birds seen, make notes, etc.
Play with the filter to see birds grouped by region, family, and more to use it as a study tool before the trip and make identification easier during the trip to Costa Rica.
See 68 additional species not yet recorded in Costa Rica but possible.
These and other features make this app just as useful as a reference guide as it is in the field. To be honest, I will mention that I helped create and still work on this app but since I am a serious birder and want other birders to have the same sort of birding tool that I would like to have, you can bet that it’s going to have as much useful and accurate information as possible. The main downside is that it is currently only available for IOS devices. I would love to find a solution for that, if you know any Android coding birders, please let me know.
A Costa Rica Site Guide
For any trip, you obviously need to know where to go for the best birding. If this is a DIY birding trip, a site guide is imperative. Yes, you could plan the trip just using eBird but although that does show where various sites are and can give an idea of abundance, it won’t provide the types of on the ground details found in site guides. Not to mention, for eBird in Costa Rica, hotspots and other sites tend to be biased for sites visited on tours, and overlooked errors in identification on lists can give false ideas about what is truly present. I would still use eBird for some trip planning but the trip will be much better planned when done in conjunction with other information.
Although changes happen quickly, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica is still mostly up to date and useful for planning a trip (and will likely be updated soon!). It covers all parts of the country, gives ideas for itineraries, and also has insider information for finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica. Designed for birders doing Costa Rica on their own, it also has plenty of useful information for folks on tours. Not mention, every purchase supports this blog platform as a source of information for birding in Costa Rica.
A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella
Don’t forget to bring these items! A flashlight (torch) is handy for more than just searching for night birds. It also comes in handy when the lights go out and when you need to check the ground while walking at night (necessary).
A small umbrella is easy to carry and keeps you and your stuff dry. Along with packets of desiccant in plastic ziplock bags, it’s always good to have.
A Mobile Device with Waze
Or at least something with GPS. Google maps will also work but a heck of a lot of locals use Waze. If driving on your own, forget about a paper map, forget about looking for road signs (because they aren’t there and some might be wrong). Stick with Waze or something similar, you will need it!!
You could still visit Costa Rica now (some people are doing just that!) but if you would rather have a vaccine before making the trip, the time to plan the trip is still now. Start learning about the birds waiting for you in Costa Rica today because the departure date will be here before you know it. Get ready for some exciting birding, try to keep it Zen, I hope to see you here!
Finding birds in Costa Rica is pretty easy. Look outside and there they are; Red-billed Pigeons powering past, Great Kiskadees yelling from a tree, Palm Tanagers perched in, you guessed it, a tall palm. Look around and there’s lots more; a screeching flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets (!), a Yellow-headed Caracara flapping overhead, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, caroling from a guava.
In Costa Rica, Crimson-fronted Parakeets are often seen in cities.
Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a Lovely Cotinga (I mean it is lovely, what are you gonna do…).
We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what we each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also why I first visited Cost Rica in 1992 and why so many birders eventually make their way to this birdy place.
At the moment, few birders are visiting Costa Rica but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.
One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more become available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Costa Rica because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Costa Rica birds in 2021:
Learn about Habitats
One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Costa Rica is just like seeing more birds everywhere, planet Earth. To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Costa Rica, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:
Lowland rainforest– Lowland areas on the Caribbean slope and south of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (where the Crocodile Bridge is) on the Pacific slope.
Middle elevation rainforest and cloud forest– Many areas between 800 and 1,700 meters.
High elevation rainforest– Above 1,700 meters.
Tropical dry forest– On the Pacific slope north of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles including much of the Central Valley.
Wetlands– Large wetland complexes such as the Cano Negro/Los Chiles area, Palo Verde National Park and other parts of the Tempisque River floodplain, and the Coto 47/Las Pangas area near Ciudad Neily. Of course, other smaller areas of marsh exist and are important for many birds.
On the micro-scale, it also means knowing where micro-habitats occur:
Foothill rainforest– Rainforest from 500 to 800 meters.
Paramo– Treeline and tree-less habitats above 3,000 meters.
Mangrove forest– Mangroves that grow in estuarine habitats, mostly on the Pacific slope.
Different types of edge habitats– Various birds occur in different stages of second growth and open areas.
Lagoons and forested swamps– These occur in various parts of the Caribbean lowlands, and locally in the Osa Peninsula.
Try to get an idea of where those habitats are found and start learning about the suites of birds found in each habitat. Allocate birding time in each habitat and you will see an excellent variety of birds. If you have target species, research where those birds occur, think about how easy or tough they are to see, and have high hopes, or take the Zen approach and accept that you might not see a Slaty Finch.
Information and search options for major habitats will be on the next free update of the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.
Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare
Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might to see so and so species. To give an idea of abundance, Clay-colored Thrush would be a “1”, maybe even “-1”, White Hawk might be a “5”, Sharpbill a “7”, and Speckled Mourner a “10” or “10 plus” (or “only in your dreams”).
Make Reservations for Cope
A visit to Cope’s bird oasis and fantastic experience is recommended. But, because Cope likes to provide a high quality experience, as with many a gourmet experience, you need to make a reservation. I can help arrange that, contact me at email@example.com
Don’t Expect to See Everything
Heck, that goes for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it Zen and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that many a bird species in Costa Rica is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.
Consider Hiring a Local Guide
And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Costa Rica such as cotingas or Ocellated Antbird, or even the coveted bizarre Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Costa Rica, although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at uber rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.
Go Birding in the Summer
Yes, as in the months of June, July, and August. This is an excellent time of the year for birding in Costa Rica. As long as you don’t mind missing out on wintering species, you will see a lot and maybe even more than during the dry season. No, I don’t think it will rain too much either but I do know that consistent cloudy conditions will boost bird activity.
These tips are probably similar to ones I have mentioned in other posts about finding Costa Rica birds and other places but heck, they still hold true and 2021 won’t be any different. Need help planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Want to see a few hundred lifers and have exciting birding every single day? Whether you could go for some happy avian madness or more relaxed birding while staying at a beautiful, relaxing “home base”, I would love to help.
Target birding, it’s nothing new, it’s just looking for the birds we want to see. It can be as relaxed as watching for that daily Downy Woodpecker or as extreme as braving the Poseidon swells of the southern Atlantic as you make headway to Inaccessible Island. Although the daily Downy twitch and an incredible seafaring jaunt for the Inaccessible Island Rail are two very different endeavors, essentially, both are still target birding.
When it comes down to it, as long as you have a bird in mind and watch for it more than some other species, you are partaking in target birding. Seasoned birders know that most target birding goes far beyond the familiar branches and brush piles of the backyard and that it typically begins well before stepping out the door. Even if the bird in question is at a local reserve, we don’t want to leave the house until we know where and how to look for it. We don’t want to take the risk because from past experience, we know how easy it is to not see birds.
We know that if we only focus efforts on the western side of a sewage lagoon, we could miss or “dip” a Green Sandpiper that only prefers the ponds on the eastern part of the dark water treatment stinkplex. From dips of the past, we know that we might need to look for the target bird at a certain time of day. That’s of course how we missed the vagrant Black-headed Gull that only flies past the river mouth at 6 p.m. (we were watching at 6 a.m….).
No matter how earnest your scanning of the cold waters of Lake Ontario might be, if the bird doesn’t go there at 10 a.m., even a Yodabirder couldn’t bring it into a field of view. That need for accurate information is why mild-mannered birders can become temporary experts on the habits of Northern Wheatears, why we can have an incredible thirst for odd, ornitho-information, how we can spend hours looking over and analyzing eBird data. That’s all good (I freely admit to have done all of these things too) but is all of that research necessary when birding Costa Rica? Do we really need to learn about and know the habits of every possible species?
Perhaps not but for those of us with the time to do so, even if we don’t need to know about the habits of tail-wagging Zeledon’s Antbirds, we might still learn as much as we can simply because we love to learn about birds. I know that I love getting insight into the habits of pretty much every bird but does it come in handy?
To answer this latter question, I would say, “Yes” because the more you know about a bird, the more complete the experience when you finally see it. When you finally focus in on a Clay-colored Thrush, as common and bereft of colors as it may be, the experience is enhanced by knowing that this average looking thrush is also the national bird of Costa Rica, that it’s melodies bring the rains, that it’s local name of “Yiguirro” comes from the Huetar culture and shows that this dull-colored bird has made a happy connection between birds and people for thousands of years.
Knowledge is handy, it enhances any birding trip to Costa Rica. It’s not absolutely necessary for seeing target birds but it does enhance a once in a lifetime trip to a birding paradise. With that in mind, this is my take on some additional, effective strategies used to target birds in Costa Rica:
This fantastic tool for bird information also works for Costa Rica BUT it is limited by accuracy, site bias, and the fact that tropical ecosystems are complicated. Don’t get me wrong, it can tell you where any number of species have been seen and I often use it to get an idea about distribution but a fair number of reports should be taken with a grain of salt, locations for various sightings are incorrect, and since a high percentage of visiting birders bird at the same sites, that bias is reflected in the data. It’s not a bad tool to plan for target birds by any means, I would just suggest not solely relying on eBird in Costa Rica to plan your trip (at 10,000 Birds, I wrote a post about tips for using eBird in Costa Rica).
I should also mention that since we now have more reviewers in Costa Rica working to improve the quality of the data, information about bird distribution in Costa Rica on eBird should improve with time.
As with birding anywhere, no matter how many bird lists you have for a given site, you still don’t really know where your target birds are until you know which habitats they use and how to recognize those habitats. This is one of the reasons why we included text and photos about major habitats in the birding app for Costa Rica that I am involved with.
Simple enough, right? Maybe if all you had to do was find mature pine forest but in Costa Rica, the only pines we have are on tree plantations. The birds around here use a much more complex array of habitats, many of them only occur in specific microhabitats like forested streams, Heliconia thickets, or advanced second growth. Heck, for a few birds, we still don’t know what the heck they really need!
If you have a limited number of target species, this is where research can help. Learn as much as you can about the types of microhabitats and elevations used by a mega target like the Black-crowned Antpitta and you will have a better chance at finding one. Learn where various types of quality habitat occur in advance and you can plan a trip that gets you birding in the best places even if some of those sites don’t feature so well on eBird. Some of those places might even have some of the best habitat, the lack of eBird lists probably just means that few people have birded there.
That said, even if eBird does show that a Lattice-tailed Trogon has been reported at some wonderfully forested site, it might not be there when you visit for the following important factor.
Tropical Ecosystems are Complicated
The Lattice-tailed Trogon was there yesterday, how come it’s not there today? The trail looks the same but despite the frustrations of not seeing an uncommon trogon that was photographed on Monday, you did manage to see a Sharpbill on Tuesday! The reason why that trogon wasn’t present might have been because it was visiting another part of its territory, or because most birds of tropical forest are naturally rare (even more so these days because of the detrimental landscape level effects of climate change), or because it found a better fruiting tree, it was there but hidden, or other reasons not obviously apparent to human senses.
The reasons why birding in tropical forests can seem to change from one day to the next are related to why such those same forests host so much life. Basically, they are ecosystems so complex, at first glance, they seem to be some amazing chaotic, out of control profusion of life gone into overdrive. And maybe they are! It’s more likely, though, that tropical forests are amazingly complex systems and webs of life where interactions happen on innumerable facets and fronts. That just means that you can’t always expect the same birds, but that you can ALWAYS expect surprises and exciting birding.
Consider Hiring a Qualified Guide
As with any place, the easiest route to seeing target birds in Costa Rica is by hiring a qualified local guide. By “qualified”, I mean a guide who knows how to look for those birds, where they have been recently seen, and how to find them. It goes without saying that the guide should also know how to identify your target species. There are a number of qualified guides in Costa Rica, to choose the best for your purposes, I would ask them about their experience, see what others might say about them (especially any professional guides from other places), and ask them about chances at seeing target birds. If they say, “Sure, we can see a Harpy Eagle!”, unless a nest is found, they are likely not being honest. If they say, “No, we probably won’t see Speckled Mourner but I know a few places to try and how to look for them”, that’s a good sign.
Accurate Information on Where to Find Birds in Costa Rica
If you hire a qualified guide, they will know where to find any number of target birds and can probably help plan your trip. However, if you would rather plan a birding trip to Costa Rica on your own, trip reports from tours can act an inspiration. This very blog also has plenty of information. If you would like more in-depth information and details on where to find birds in Costa Rica as well as tips for looking for and identifying them, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
Now that vaccines are on the way, it really is time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Which target birds do you have? Tell us in the comments. I can’t promise that you will see them but I can tell you where to find them.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”. Christmas! Navidad! The festive season makes those brief December days and long dark nights somehow easier to handle. Or, maybe it’s just that we aren’t two months into the winter season and really tired of looking at gray skies, dirty sidewalk snow, and birdless bare branches. But that stuff is for the northern realms, not for warm and tropical Costa Rica. Around here, in December, we only need worry about how many birds we can find during our annual Christmas Counts!
Yes, this really is the most wonderful time of the year for many of us local birders and it has everything to do with our “conteos de aves”. I know that the annual count is special for many a birder in many places but seriously, here in Costa Rica, we tend to kick it up a notch. Not just a day to get together and count birds, our counts tend to me more like events that bring dozens of birders together whether they are official registered Audubon counts or not.
The Arenal event is one such count. Although it’s not officially registered as an Audubon count circle, we carry out the count in similar fashion and use it to gather data and promote birding in the Arenal area. It actually starts well before the count date with the count organizers contacting hotels and agencies that might be interested in sponsoring the count, registering counters, seeing where various people can stay, and then seeing which person will lead which route along with assigning people to each route. Oh yeah and then there is the catering but I’ll get to that later.
The routes for the Arenal count cover everywhere from the La Fortuna surroundings to the Hanging Bridges, Sky Trek, the Observatory Lodge, Arenal Lake, and even a rafting count on the Penas Blancas River. Basically, fantastic birding everywhere and with every route recording well over 100 species. Sound enticing? It sure is and is why this count sees more than 70 people participating each year.
Participants from 2014.
The first year of the count, 2013, actually had the highest participation with 95 birders in the field. Last year, 71 people were counting birds, probably less than other years because of other counts taking place at the same time. However, even with less participants, we still had 338 species for the count circle, around average. That said, our highest total was 377 species in 2016 and with the right combination of weather and participation, we could certainly record even more.
Regarding species, this one is also exciting because it’s one of the few counts in Costa Rica that finds birds like Uniform Crake, Lanceolated Monklet, Song Wren, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Bare-crowned Antbird on the same day!
Last year, our group got the monklet although it can turn up on at least three or four routes.
Once everything is ready, people confirmed for the annual Arenal count get together in La Fortuna for a meeting held the night before the count. This has taken place at hotels, in a gymnasium, and even at the local market and is vital for socializing with other counters, going over the routes, and seeing a presentation that talks about the official count species and research being carried out in the Arenal count circle. This is accompanied by coffee and cookies as counters try on tee-shirts that show the official count species on the front and logos of count sponsors on the back. It’s always a cool, unique shirt and it ends up acting as valuable marketing for the hotels and travel agencies that support the bird count because believe me, those count shirts get around! I have worn more than one of mine on trips outside of Costa Rica as well as within the country and since the shirts are unique, people do notice and even ask about them.
Over the years, the Arenal count has gotten support from 6 public institutions and 30 private enterprises, I wonder who the lucky sponsors will be this year?
After the pre-count meeting, birders meet up with their respective count leaders to figure out if they should start counting in the middle of the night or wait until dawn. Personally, I prefer to start around 3:30 at beautiful Finca Luna Nueva, the route I usually do. Then, everyone heads off to their respective places for lodging to hopefully get some sleep before count day. On count day itself, the birding is often an exciting blend of fast and furious avian action between bouts of pouring rain.
Last year gave us a break with the weather and because of it, we managed several owls along with a wonderful sunny day of birding.
Counters usually finish up around 4 or 5 and then head to the count dinner. This is typically a catered affair where we are served that Costa Rican staple rice with chicken, refried beans, and some potato chips along with a bit of salad. It’s good birding food and seems to work perfectly after a long, fantastic deal in the field. Some count sponsors are also present and can have tables with optics, brochures, and works of art. Eventually, once it seems as if all are present, we go through the bird list, mentioning each species and each count group raising a hand if they identified the bird mentioned. Stories and locations for rare birds are shared, and another birding event in Costa Rica comes to an end.
These words could never portray the true excitement of this count, a day when we give ourselves over to birding in an excellent area for birding. However, if you can imagine seeing more than 150 species of birds, one species coming after another, trees of toucans, flocks of Red-billed Pigeons, antbirds whistling from the dark understory of rainforest, Red-lored Parrots filling the air with sound as three species of parakeets zip by in screeching flight, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle calling above a tall jade canopy, and sharing this and more with friends, loving partners, and like-minded people, if you can imagine that, this is what the Arenal count is like. It’s happening this year on December 8th, it’s gonna be good!