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5 Essentials for Birding on Your Own in Costa Rica

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

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

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

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

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

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

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

Costa Rica Birds App

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

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

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

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

A Costa Rica Site Guide

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

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

A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella

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

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

A Mobile Device with Waze

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

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

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Finding Birds Costa Rica 2021

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 information@birdingcraft.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.

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Strategies for Target Birds in Costa Rica

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.

Barred Antshrike
Barred Antshrike in Costa Rica- I always enjoy seeing this bird out back.

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:

eBird

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.

Learn Habitats

Bat Falcon habitat, tropical forest

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.

Lattice-tailed Trogon

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.