I can’t believe that it’s November. It was easier to accept that part of the calendar while living in Niagara Falls, New York. After Halloween, the surroundings abruptly changed from a russet Autumn brown with golden highlights, to a gray, half-lit world with cold lead waiting in the atmosphere. Taking an hour of the afternoon daylight out of the picture was a contributing factor to that gray scene but really, everything seemed to be dipped in some brand of liquid gray. The oaks and other deciduous trees had gone to their annual sleep, and the bird scene was dominated by large numbers of ducks and gulls fleeing from the winter that had already grasped the north.
Those cold winds, and rafts of Canvasbacks on the river also signaled another point on the calendar, that of the Christmas Count season. Do you think we birders really look forward to hearing Bing Crosby at every corner and discussions over unlabeled coffee cups? At least I don’t. While I do look forward to seeing family and friends, savoring home-baked Christmas cookies, and watching my daughter get really excited about Christmas, I also anticipate the annual counts. I’m not sure why we get so crazy about them in the north.I mean, you can see a lot more birds in much more pleasant green surroundings at other times of the year. But, even if we only saw ten birds up north, it would still be a key birding day of the year. Do we want to see if we can best last year’s count? Do we want to test ourselves? Enjoy a special bird-holiday with good birder friends? End it with egg-nog or maybe a fine, micro-brewed beer? Yes to all of the above and in Costa Rica, it’s even better because this is when we can actually see more birds!
Christmas Counts in Costa Rica are a celebration, sponsored events, and of course we look forward to them with gusto. We get a chance to see friends that we never run into the rest of the year, to see how many hundreds of birds can be recorded in the count circle, and to push the “limits of machine and man” (maybe not but that partial quote from “Red Barchetta” by Rush is nevertheless inspirational). Well, if you would like to participate in any counts in Costa Rica this year, here are a few tips:
- Sign up now: Like a concert, the counts are very popular, and some might have limited number of participants. Sign up today and say that you would love to help out. The AOCR publishes a list of the counts, and count contacts every year.
- Don’t try to do all of them: Since some are on the same date, this will be impossible anyways. Or, try to do as many as you want but keep in mind that each one is almost like an adventurous Big Day. Just tell yourself to keep going and break out the chocolate.
- Be ready for rain: But isn’t this the dry season? On the pacific slope, yes. On the Caribbean slope, welcome to the wet. Instead of snow, we get generous amounts of rain. Like a Christmas present for the forest ecosystems, the precipitation soaks the mountains and Caribbean slope (La Selva, the Aerial Tram, and several other places). Just be prepared and go with the flow, 300 plus bird species are usually recorded anyways, and you can go after rarities found during the count on the following day.
- Consider not staying in national park barracks: Some counts offer the possibility of lodging . If you don’t mind sleeping in an open, noisy dormitory warmed by tropical heat, then you might like it. But, if you would rather go for a good night’s sleep, look for other accommodation.
- Cliff bars and Gatorade: Many counts provide participants with a lunch. But, just in case you don’t like it, Cliff bars can help save the day. Since the counts also take place during the good olde Yule tide, rewarding oneself with chocolate and/or brownies is also in order (this is a celebration after all). Gatorade also helps during a long, hot, humid day of non-stop birding.
- Get the shirt!: Because who doesn’t like a birding event shirt? It helps us recognize fellow members of the tribe when we aren’t carrying binos (like at a coffee shop, the DMV, funeral, etc), and makes for a nice souvenir. Most counts give you a cool shirt, get one!
- Buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”: It will help you get ready for any degree or level of birding in Costa Rica, and it’s now available on Kindle!
This year, sadly, my counting in Costa Rica might be restricted to just one event. So it goes with odd timing, travel, and obligations. If you do any counts, have fun, I hope to see you at the one I do!
Last weekend, I had a memorable day of birding near the Pacific port town of Puntarenas. The high point was a much awaited lifer in the form of Arctic Tern (a pretty rare bird in Costa Rica, this year some have shown up on the Pacific coast). If there was a low point, I suppose it was the heat but even that wasn’t so bad. Although many of the birds we look for in that area are migrant terns, shorebirds, and other species seen in the USA, the dry habitats, open fields, and mangroves always turn up a bunch of other resident species.
Throw in some scanning at Puntarenas and you also have a chance at a storm-petrel or some other super cool pelagic. If you feel like fitting in Chomes, Morales, and other places near Puntarenas into a birding trip to Costa Rica, these are some tips:
- High tide is a must: During low tide, a couple thousand shorebirds, terns, and other waterbirds forage far and wide on giant mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. This translates to most of the birds being distant silhouettes or in some inaccessible corner of the gulf. When that open muddy land disappears, they move into the shrimp ponds and salt ponds at Chomes, and other sites adjacent to the coast.
- Watch the birds fly into the gulf: Since high tide was pretty early (and we birded en route), we were witness to the low tide exodus of birds from Chomes and Morales. Although we couldn’t get good looks at most because they flew by in fast motion flocks, often zipping overhead, the experience was nevertheless spectacular. This happened while we were checking out the beach as flocks of hundreds of shorebirds suddenly appeared without warning. Most that we could identify seemed to be Semipalmated Plovers, Western and other small sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and several Willets, Whimbrels, and Marbled Godwits. The most interesting species were American Oystercatchers, and three Long-billed Curlews.
- Check the short mangroves for Mangrove Rail: This former Clapper Rail lurks in thick, scrubby Black Mangroves. Get there early, scan the edges of this habitat, and you might see one.
- Check the grass for Tricolored Munias: Do this if you feel like ticking this Asian species for Costa Rica. You might also see Dickcissel, White-collared Seedeater, and other grass birds.
- Check the tall mangroves for the specialties: Try a pygmy-owl whistle to bring up Panama Flycatcher, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and maybe even Mangrove Hummingbird. Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail also occur.
- Scan the fields on the way in to Chomes: The huge, bare fields often have Double-striped Thick-Knee, and can turn up Harris’s Hawk and other raptors (like vagrant Aplomado Falcon).
- Try the Lagarto Road: This birdy road connects Chomes with the road to Puerto Morales. It has pot holes and you eventually have to ford a river but for most of the year, the river is pretty low. It also passes by a few salt ponds, and runs through a constant grove of tall shade trees that host family after family of Howler Monkeys. Those trees are also home to various dry forest species including Banded Wren, orioles, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. To reach this road, go to the northern corner of Chomes village, and follow the road north that goes past the cemetery.
- Turn left at the sign that says “camarones frescos”: On the way in to Puerto Morales, watch for a small sign on the right for “camarones frescos”. Turn left to go in and check out some salt ponds.
- Take the road at the bus stop: After checking those salt ponds, go back to the main road, and head back north for a short ways until you see a blue bus stop on the right. Take a right and drive on in to other salt ponds. Hit these at high tide and they can be filled with birds. The mangroves and scrubby habitats also host resident dry forest species.
- Seabirding at the lighthouse in Puntarenas: If you feel like scoping for seabirds, this is the place to do it. Drive all the long way in to the end of Puntarenas and park near the lighthouse. Go to one of the overlooks and scope the water. Morning and late afternoon are best but I have even seen storm-petrels during the middle of the day. Birds tend to come closer to shore at this bottleneck between the outer and inner Gulf of Nicoya. On Sunday, things were pretty quiet but I still managed one Black Storm-Petrel, a few Franklin’s Gulls, and a probable Sabine’s. Unfortunately, that probable sat on the water a half mile away and refused to fly. Just before it went down to the water, I was pretty sure that I saw the distinctive white pattern on its wings BUT it was just too far off to identify the bird from a glimpse.
- Check the beach at Caldera: Especially these days! The mouth of the small river is where Arctic Tern has been seen and thank goodness, it was still there on Sunday! In fact, we saw two along with Common Terns, and Black Terns. We were favored with excellent close looks and direct comparisons with the Commons. Now that’s how you want to see a lifer!
I guess you should also bring plenty of water, stay cool, and deal with the mosquitoes in whichever way works best (excepting the use of a flamethrower).
The tenth month of the year isn’t exactly the choice time to visit Costa Rica. In the late 90s, I visited Costa Rica in October and was greeted by massive amounts of rain. I still saw a lot of cool birds but it was one heck of a wet endeavor. That’s normal although in fall, the Caribbean slope tends to see less precipitation than other parts of the country (unless a hurricane hits Honduras and throws blankets of rain our way). This is one of the reasons why March and other dry season months are high time for birding in Costa Rica. However, for us local birders, October is one of the more exciting times of the year. We learn how to bird under an umbrella, enjoy beaucoup mixed flock action under gray skies, and become adept at evading flooded roads. Seriously, though, it is an exciting time for local birding because the bulk of migrants have come back to town.
The thousands of Baltimore Orioles that spend the winter in Costa Rica don’t come back until October.
As with any big movement of birds, rarities are out there in the mix of common birds. They are feathered needles in a tropical vegetation haystack (and thus pretty tough to find) but they are out there. Birding becomes more exciting with the prospect of vagrant wood-warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and the small chance of something new for the country. This year, although no one has found our first Hammond’s Flycatcher or Black-throated Gray Warbler yet, the country first Roseate Tern did make an appearance! This was actually back in late September but the news wasn’t released until the observers realized what they had seen and put the sighting on the local rare bird alert (AOCR Bird Alarm). What makes this observation even more interesting is that it showed up on the Pacific coast and not on the Caribbean where it was more expected. In fact, this could be the first documented sighting for the eastern Pacific.
We always see lots of other nice birds when hoping for a super rarity. This is a Red-faced Spinetail.
Speaking of terns, several Arctics have also been sighted and photographed. As expected for this species, it’s usually seen far offshore. These ones were seen on beaches and in the Gulf of Nicoya, and this could be another sign of poor foraging conditions out in the pelagic zone.
There have also been sightings of various expected shorebirds from Chomes and the Punta Morales area along with an American Avocet that has been hanging out since last year. I hope it stays for good and survives so we can always see it!
Semipalmated Plover-one of the usual shorebirds.
Saving the best for last, we have a new Big Day record for Costa Rica! On October 15th, Ernesto Carman (birder, guide, and field biologist working on Unspotted Saw-whet Owls) and Jairo Jimenez birded from the dry habitats and coastal zone north of Puntarenas south to Carara, then up to the slopes of Irazu Volcano, down the road through Braulio Carrillo National Park, and then over to the Las Brisas Reserve near Siquirres. Apparently, the route worked out very well because they got more than 350 species, thus soundly breaking the previous records of 308 and 310 species! I was surprised that they were able to cover so much territory because of traffic problems that typically plague the San Jose area. However, in retrospect, if coming up from Carara, you can sort of skirt southern San Jose on something of a ring road, scoot up to Irazu before reaching downtown Cartago, and get to the Braulio highway by going around the northern edge of the urbanization. Weather also worked out and of course, Ernesto and Jairo know the birds of Costa Rica very well. Check out Ernesto’s account of the Big Day.
Great Green Macaw is one of the standout species among the 300 plus birds they found.
Of course, I am still hoping to break some records with a Big Day. Although the new records of 351 for Costa Rica (third highest in the world), and 425 for Ecuador make that less likely, it will still be fun to try!
Are you coming to Costa Rica for birding? If so, you are doing the right thing. If not, and you are ever so slightly inclined to appreciate the natural world, think about becoming a birder before you board that plane. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor because if you do end up catching the birding bug a week, year, or decade after a vacation in Costa Rica, the thought of being in a place where you can see multiple trogons, motmots, parrots, and literally hundreds of other exotic birds and NOT going birding just might make you sick. Save yourself from future regrets the size of Texas and try to do some birding when visiting Costa Rica.
Stop at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and check out the hummingbirds. Do the same thing at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and go on a rainforest hike with a naturalist guide who is also a birder. If you do end up using quality binoculars at some later point in life, the pre-birder regrets won’t be nearly as bad.
Now that I have made my public service announcement, whether you have already chosen the birding way or are an unrealized pre-birder, these two items could be of interest:
- A checklist of the birds of El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez with abundance- Yes, it also has information about a tour I give to that area but if that doesn’t interest you, no problem, please make use of the checklist. Please use it for inspiration to visit these excellent sites close to San Jose because every day trip will be worth it. By chance, this excellent site is the first place I went birding in Costa Rica (that was in 1992), and continues to be one of my favorites. I kept seeing new birds visit after visit, became intrigued as to why I was not seeing Black-crowned Antpittas hopping around the forest floor, and have witnessed some of the best mixed flocks I have ever seen in Costa Rica. On the checklist, note that most of the birds are uncommon or rare. This is the norm for these sites but means that a full day of birding usually turns up sightings of rare species, and several visits could turn up really tough ones like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, the aforementioned antpitta (gnatpitta), Black-eared Wood-Quail, and other rarities.
- A checklist of the birds of Poas, Cinchona, and other sites down to 500 meters with abundance- Once again, if you don’t feel like learning about the usual day tour that often results in 100 plus species, just scroll down a few pages to the checklist at the end. Since it covers some moist habitats on the Pacific slope, and humid forest from 500 meters to 2,300 meters, it’s a pretty big list. Once again, with so many possibilities, and different habitats with different birds, the route really merits more than a day of birding. It’s also a very easy area to get in some birding on your first and last days in Costa Rica.
The bird species and information about abundance come from several years of personal observations at these sites as well as conversations with other guides and birders. Please feel free to download those pdfs and share them, I hope to see you while birding in Costa Rica.
We all have our favorite spots for birding, even for those of us who happen to live in a country that is basically one big birding hotspot. That’s what Costa Rica is. Find some good forest and there will be a bunch of birds to watch and take pictures of. Even so, if you want to say, for example, look for Black-chested Jay and Sulphur-rumped Tanager while thousands of hawks kettle overhead, you can’t do it in the Central Valley. The same goes for birding around Carara National Park, the Sarapiqui area, or even the Osa Peninsula. To lay the eyes on the birds mentioned above, we need to bring the binoculars to lands south of Limon. This is well off the regular birding route, about 4 hours by car from the vicinity of San Jose, and well worth the trip because the area is fantastic for lowland rainforest birding.
It’s also very good for migrants and this is why I guided a trip to Manzanillo for our local birding club this past weekend. We did indeed see some migrants and quite a few other birds. If you go birding around there, here are some suggestions:
- Birding in uncharted territory: Despite the fantastic birding, very few people go birding south of Limon compared to other areas in the country. It’s just too far off the beaten track for tours and thus receives scant attention from birders nor many mentions in trip reports. This is partly why I love to write about the area when it comes to birding, the other reason is because I love birding down that way. Little coverage means that every visit provides an opportunity to increase the birding knowledge for sites south of Limon and there’s always the chance of finding some really exciting bird. If you bird down that way (something I wholeheartedly recommend), please put those observations into eBird. This is a list of a day at Manzanillo and our list of 102 species from a couple hours on the RECOPE road just outside of Manzanillo.
- Check out the Carbon Dos Road: I did, but it was just for an hour and well after dawn. This road provides access to the Fila Carbon above Cahuita, a forested ridge that probably has the jay, the tanager, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and lots of other good birds. From our brief scout, we found good access to the edge of nice rainforest, and some good views of the forest canopy. Although we didn’t see any cotingas, it looks like a good area to check for Snowy and maybe even Lovely, and could turn up many other species. We saw loads of Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, other migrants, and had a fair number of resident species. Our eBird list.
- Bird the Puerto Vargas entrance to Cahuita National Park: This was another brief stop and another place I would like to bird at a more bird-friendly time of day. Tall forest flanks the side of the road, it’s smartly placed on the coastal migration route, and is probably good for Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and many other birds including the jay. We dipped on those but what could we expect from a 15 minute stop?
- Check out the Puerto Viejo Botanical Garden: This is one of the best spots to bird in the area because it provides some access to good forest. Although it doesn’t open early, you can still get in some very good birding on the muddy trail next to the entrance. The trail is unmarked but obvious. It can be followed to a stream and then across the stream and up the ridge if you like. If you don’t want to cross the stream, you can see several birds right around the entrance. We did that and although we couldn’t find a Spot-crowned Antvireo, we did have good looks at Dot-winged, White-flanked, and Checker-throated Antwrens, Chestnut-backed Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Canada Warbler, Plain Xenops, and so on.
- Visit during migration: Although this area is good for resident species any time of the year, it really is most exciting during migration. I know, most birders from Canada and the USA don’t come to Costa Rica for Eastern Kingbirds and Prothonotary Warblers but it’s always cool to see flock after flock of kingbirds flying overhead like oddly shaped swallows, and who can get tired of seeing twenty or more Scarlet Tanagers in one day? It’s also a good occasion for studying Eastern Wood-Pewee and Red-eyed Vireo; these two species migrate through in the thousands. Of course we can’t forget about the river of raptors. Huge kettles of hawks, kites, and Turkey Vultures are always hard to overlook.
- Bird at your hotel: Most of the lodging between Puero Viejo and Manzanillo is located in old, shade cacao plantations and rainforest. The shade cacao acts pretty much like forest and although it seems like several understory species are rare or not present, most of the canopy birds are. I like the fact that the birding can be great right around the hotel because then, you don’t have to rely on 8 to 4 national park hours, paying entrance fees, and the birding is much more accessible.
- Check the rivers and streams: Although they aren’t common, Agami Heron, Sunbittern, Sungrebe, Green Ibis, and uncommon kingfishers all occur in the area.
- Get in some night birding: This past trip, the night birds just weren’t calling so we did not find Great Potoo, nor Spectacled, Crested, and Black and white Owls. However, we did hear one Mottled Owl and one Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and on past trips, I have had all of the above in one night on the main road between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo!
- Keep an eye out for rarities from Panama and take pictures: I have heard credible reoprts of White-tailed Trogon and Blue Cotinga from this area (both of which would be new for Costa Rica). It seems like Rufous-crested Coquette, and Flame-rumped Tanager might also occur as vagrants. Take pictures of any unusual birds and let me know at email@example.com.
- Make the trip: Consider visiting this area if you want easy, nice lowland forest birding around and near your hotel. With plenty of beaches, this is also a nice place to bring the family (although know that Puerto Viejo is a definite, busy, backpacker party town).
Hope to see you birding in Manzanillo, Costa Rica!
More than 900 species of birds have been identified within the boundaries of Costa Rica. Would you like to learn more about them? Have you ever wondered what they would say? Do you have a sense of humor? If the answer is “Yes”, “Si”, or “Oui”" to all of the above, then the Costa Rica Birds Project is for you!
“It gets cold up here. But, that’s how I like it and I don’t and won’t live anywhere else. That’s also why I can’t stop moving around. If I do, I freeze. Don’t believe me? Take a seat on the cold, wet 2,700 meter ground and see how it feels. I know, those “snowbirds” like the yellow ones with the black cap scoff and chatter that I have no idea what cold is but I say to them, “Try hanging out in the paramo for a night and see what happens”! I wouldn’t do it!”
-Collared Redstart, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.
“The squirrel had it coming. I make no apologies. It’s my feeder and there it was….munching down that rice like it had to hibernate. Hibernate my feathered a#s. We might live in the mountains but it ain’t exactly snowing. I warned him. I stared him down with my intimidating eyes. He ignored me. Big mistake. We Acorns don’t take lightly to being ignored. I laughed and then I attacked! I felt my beak connect and the rodent hit the dirt. Victory!”
-Acorn Woodpecker, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.
“I can’t help it if I have big feet. The other birds try not to stare but I can see it in their eyes, that hesitating manner when they get close, and the whispers. Yeah, I always hear the whispers. “Freak”, they say in hushed tones. Hey, talk all you want. I’m not the one who can’t find food in the forest litter. A couple scratches with my feet and boo-yah! I always find a grub, bug, or some undescribed invertebrate for lunch.”
-Large-footed Finch, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.
“Blackbird! No, Sooty Thrush! I might look like some distant relative but I am my own bird. Enough said.”
-Sooty Thrush, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.
“Tiny. Tiny and kick ass. That’s what I am. Those two legged creatures are so fascinated by my antics. “Like a bug” they say. They can’t get enough. Losers. I’m all about feeding, fighting, having a little bath, feeding, courtship, feeding, getting busy, feeding. Hell yeah, that’s what it’s all about! Thug life in the mountains.”
-Volcano Hummingbird, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.
Watch for more posts about the Costa Rica Birds Project on Facebook soon!
In the northern hemisphere, September takes on several meanings. For kids and parents, it’s new shoes, a clear plastic protractor (at least it used to be), notebooks, and other school supplies. For millions of people in the USA, it means that Monday nights will once again be dedicated to football. For the birder, it also means migration.
Millions of wood-warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and shorebirds are on the move. While we watch football, YouTube, or sleep, they race through the night on their way to wintering sites where the summer never ends. Go birding on the right morning and you might see hundreds of migrant birds. If you live in the right place, you might even see them in your backyard. It’s also important to go birding because accompanying those thousands of common and expected birds, are a few species that should be elsewhere. At this time of year, somewhere in the northeast, there are always a few Black-throated Gray -Warblers, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and other species of the west whether birders find them or not.
In Costa Rica, it’s a similar situation, and two weeks ago, the chance at seeing one of the those rare vagrants was enough to send me on a four hour drive to the northwest. The bird in question was an Aplomado Falcon, I have seen them elsewhere but laying eyes on one in Costa Rica would be a seriously sweet tick for my country list. The bird had been seen at the same site for at least two weeks, there was nothing keeping me at home, and my friend Johan Kuilder was up for the trip. So, instead of some birding closer to home, off we went at 5:30 a.m. for the hot, windy dry lands of Guanacaste.
The destination was the rice fields on the road to Playa Panama but there were other birds to look for en route, especially because we would be passing near the best shorebird sites in the country during high tide.
With that in mind, we figured that a quick check of the Cocororas salt ponds would be worth it. The only “problem” was too many birds for a quick check!
Although we didn’t turn up any rarities, Johan got a lifer, I got a couple of year birds, and it’s always fun to hang out with the shorebirds. Shortly after, we were back on the highway and heading north towards a hoped for rendezvous with an adventurous falcon. On the way, we made another stop, this time at a turf farm! Every birder in the know knows that a turf farm in fall is always an opportunity for excitement. In Costa Rica, it’s the same situatation and we were hoping for the same exciting birds. However, although the conditions looked perfect, we didn’t see any golden-plovers or grasspipers. At least Pectoral Sandpiper made it onto the year list though, and it was interesting to see several Collared Plovers in the grass.
After that, we made a bee-line to our destination, the Finca Trancas, or rice fields on the road to Playa Panama. Getting there was easy enough, and there are plenty of places to look but we did not find the falcon. Either it was doing some serious hiding, or it had left the building because I scoped every tree, hedgerow, and the ground in search of that bird. Since others also checked that site that day and came up zero for the falcon, I think we were two days late. Hopefully, it will show up again there, at Palo Verde, or maybe even Chomes (according to eBird, a juvenile was also seen on that date in 2010).
Despite the missing Aplomado Falcon, all was not lost because there were plenty of other interesting birds to see while searching for the raptor. Back along a vegetated canal, we were entertained by hundreds of Dickcissels. Flock after flock of these mid-western migrants moved along the canal in nervous flocks, a few birds calling the whole time. There were at least a thousand that fed in a tall, grassy field next to the canal!
Bank and Cliff Swallows foraged over the open fields and a Zone-tailed Hawk made an appearance. On the other side of the main road, we found a small group of Solitary Sandpipers, herons, and, best of all, two Jabirus in flight!
Scanning the fields failed to turn up grasspipers or other interesting birds but we did see a Harriss’s Hawk soar overhead, saw a juvenile White-tailed Hawk, and had nice looks at Tricolored Munias.
After a quick stop at the nearby catfish ponds (mostly dry and a locked gate) and the German Bakery (good stuff), it was time to head back home. We arrived by 5 p.m. and although we missed the falcon, we realized how feasible it was to do a short day trip to that area and see some really cool birds at the same time.
In continuation, this is my take on birding hotspots for major habitats in Costa Rica (see part one for the three main factors used in determining hotspots):
- The Central Pacific area: We could also just call this “Carara National Park and vicinity” because that is the main hotspot for this part of the country. In fact, this mega-ecotone is such a crossroads of biodiversity, it’s a strong candidate for being the top birding hotspot in Central America. Few other places can claim a list of around 600 recorded species within such a small area as well as regional endemics, uncommon forest species, and so on. Carara and nearby has it all; quality, protected forest, a variety of major habitats (lowland rainforest, dry forest, open areas, mangroves, lowland river, estuaries, and seashore) with a subsequent huge variety of species, and easy access. If there are any downsides to birding the Carara area, they would be the limited opening hours for the national park (7 to 4 during the high season and 8 to 4 in the low season), and the damn heat. That said, easy solutions to those disadvantages come in the form of good birding just outside the national park, and using a combination of air conditioning, lightweight clothing, and cold drinks. There are a few choices for lodging with Cerro Lodge being a stand out for quality birding, photo opportunities, habitat restoration, and proximity to the national park. Villa Lapas also offers similar advantages for the birder, and other choices for lodging a bit further from the park are The Macaw Lodge and Punta Leona.
- The Southern Pacific: Although the forests at Carara are essentially part of the southern Pacific bioregion, there are a few very good sites rather far from Carara that also deserve hotspot status. Good birding can be had around Manuel Antonio National Park and several sites around Dominical but the best birding is found on and near the Osa Peninsula. Outside of the Osa, the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge and vicinity is a major birding hotspot. This is one of my favorite sites in the country simply because you can see a huge variety of species, including many uncommon birds. Bird the road through La Gamba and you might see Crested Oropendola, Brown-throated Parakeet, Scrub Greenlet, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and several other birds that can be tough in Costa Rica. If the remaining rice fields have not been converted to oil palm plantations, you might find Paint-billed Crake and rare vagrants. Flowering trees can have everything from Veraguan Mango to White-crested Coquette, and once you reach the rainforests at the lodge and in Piedras Blancas National Park, it’s fairly easy to see four trogon species, several wrens, antbirds, woodcreepers, and so on with chances at the endemic Back-cheeked Ant-Tanager, and Uniform Crake. Check out the 158 species I had during a fairly casual day of guiding in this area.
- The Osa: The good birding in the South Pacific doesn’t stop at Esquinas. There are several excellent sites on the Osa peninsula, including two of the best birding lodges in the country; Bosque del Rio Tigre and Luna Lodge. Both of these are comfortable lodges with fantastic birding and excellent guides with the best local gen you could hope for, and have primary forest connected to the forests of Corcovado National Park. Many of the same species as Esquinas can also be found at and near these sites. Although the birding in the national park is great, problems with access exclude Corcovado from hotspot status. Other great birding sites in the Osa can also be found at stations run by Osa Conservation, at Lapa Rios, Bosque del Cabo, and lodges in the Drake Bay area. Rincon de Osa also deserves mention since it’s the most reliable site in the world for the highly endangered Yellow-billed Cotinga.
- Caribbean foothills: Somewhere between cloud forest and lowland rainforest, the wet foothill forests of the Caribbean slope are very important habitat for hundreds of bird species. In addition to providing a home for Lattice-tailed Trogon and other foothill specialties, these forests are also an important refuge for many lowland forest birds that no longer occur in large areas of the deforested Caribbean coastal plain. There are several good foothill sites to choose from, the most accessible being El Tapir and the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station in Braulio Carrillo National Park, sites around Arenal National Park and Bijagua, and Rancho Naturalista. Rancho in particular, is a classic birding lodge with various feeders, excellent guides, and excellent gen for the lodge and surrounding areas. Near Rancho, El Copal merits a mention because the birding is some of the very best in the country but it’s not as accessible nor as comfortable as Rancho. The same can be said about the Pocosol Research Station, a fantastic site located in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest on the route between San Ramon and La Fortuna. Past La Fortuna, excellent birding can also be had on the grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge. Further north, sites near Bijagua also offer high quality forest with equally high quality birding including fair chances at Tody Motmot, Lovely Cotinga, uncommon raptors, and much more.
- Caribbean lowlands: Historically, the Caribbean lowlands were cloaked in fantastic ranforests. and the birding must have been spectacular. Stories of that level of birding still exist in the form of tales told by researchers who worked in La Selva during the 70s. They tell of seeing Great Jacamar, hearing about Harpy Eagle sightings, and bearing witness to an abundance of birds, frogs, and other rainforest wildlife rarely encountered in present times. However, this was before massive deforestation changed the ecological landscape of the Caribbean lowlands and the difference in birding is notable. Good birding can still be had at several sites but the best lowland birding is found in areas with connection to the most intact lowland habitats. Such sites also tend to be difficult to access and is why Hitoy Cerere, Veragua, and much less accessible sites fail to make it onto hotspot lists. If you can get there, expect excellent lowland birding. If not, then some very good alternatives are Laguna del Lagarto, the Sarapiqui area, and sites near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo.
- Laguna del Lagarto might be the best birding hotspot for the Caribbean lowlands because the ecolodge offers a fine combination of comfort, good service, and great birding. Visit and you will be asked when you want to see Agami heron, roosting owls, or other birds they know about. Watch from the porch and you can photograph toucans, parrots, and other birds that visit an excellent feeder. You might also see raptors, King Vulture, Scaled Pigeon, toucans, or Snowy Cotinga in nearby treetops. Inside the forest, you might find White-fronted Nunbird, antbirds, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and even Tawny-faced Quail. Since those forests are also connected to the extensive lowland rainforests of southeastern Nicaragua, maybe Harpy Eagle or Red-throated Caracara will make an appearance?
- That said, if you can’t make it to Laguna del Lagarto, the easiest accessible lowland rainforest is in the Sarapiqui area. Take the early morning birding tour at La Selva for an excellent variety of birds along with great birding on the entrance road to the research station. Stay at La Selva or more comfortable ecolodges like Selva Verde, the Quinta Inn, Sueno Azul, or Tirimbina for good birding on the grounds of the hotel. The reserve at Tirimbina is especially good and can be visited by non-guests of the hotel for a fee although the opening hours are a bit limited. Time should also be made for a boat trip on the Sarapiqui to see Green Ibis, look for Sungrebe, roosting potoos, Sunbittern, and other birds.
- The forests south of Limon can also be excellent for birding and are very easy to access. Much of the habitat around Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo is a mix of lowland rainforest and old shade cacao plantations. Most lowland species seem to be present including Purple-throated fruitcrow, Great Potoo, Green and Rufous Kingfisher, and Tiny Hawk, the birding is often very good right around the hotel, and the area is excellent for migrants.
- Wetlands: There are two top wetland areas in Costa Rica. These are the wetlands of the Tempisque floodplain and the Cano Negro area. Palo Verde National Park is the main site in Tempisque but there are a few other privately owned wetlands as well. Bird Palo Verde for Jabiru and many other wetland species, and a good selection of dry forest birds including Thicket Tinamou. Jabiru is also possible at Cano Negro along with Sungrebe, Great Potoo, Black-collared Hawk, and various other wetland species. Remaining forests at Cano Negro are also good for a fair variety of lowland rainforest species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, and Bare-crowned Antbird. If visiting Cano Negro, make sure to also take a boat ride in the Medio Queso wetlands near Los Chiles. This is the best area for Pinnated Bittern, Spotted Rail, Least Bittern, Nicaraguan Grackle, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and several other rare species.
Visit Costa Rica and you will find good birding in lots of places. Visit the hotspots mentioned in these two posts and you will be visiting the best sites in the country. Make the most of any birding trip to Costa Rica by hiring an experienced birding guide.
To support this blog and find the most comprehensive information about birding sites in Costa Rica, get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book that will enrich the birding experience in Costa Rica at every level.
Recently, a fold-out publication called, “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” was distributed at the Birdfair in Rutland, UK. It’s a boon for birding in Costa Rica, it’s wonderful that it was published, and I hope the hotels and agencies that paid for this marketing product will benefit from it. The ones mentioned as birding hotspots protect habitat, offer good accommodation and services, and are good spots for birding. I would also agree that some in the publication do merit “birding hotspot” status, especially Rancho Naturalista. However, several other fantastic sites for birding were not mentioned, including some that certainly deserve “hotspot status”. This doesn’t mean that the publication is bad or wrong. It mean that there wasn’t enough space to mention every site. Lack of certain sites also stems from the inclusion of the “comfort factor” for designation of hotspots. According to the people who made this publication, quality of service and accommodation were definitely factored into the equation. They also told me that hotspots are meant to refer to regions rather than hotels (those being mentioned as “core sites” for a region). Nevertheless, since “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” leaves out several important sites for birding in Costa Rica, I feel obligated to set the record straight, or basically give my opinion regarding birding hotspots in Costa Rica:
What makes a place a birding hotspot in a country that already happens to be one big hotspot?
This is a worthwhile question to ponder because yes, since Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia, has a bird list of more than 900 species including dozens of regional endemics, and one can reach most corners of the country by driving four or five hours from the center, it’s easy to give hotspot status to the entire nation. Nevertheless, not every site has hundreds of bird species and that usually comes down to presence or absence of habitat. Therefore, extent of habitat (1) should be the primary factor in determining “hotspot” status because basically, in Costa Rica, the most intact forests have the most bird species and the highest number of birds. Protection (2) is another consideration because unsustainable hunting affects populations of tinamous, cracids, wood-quails, raptors, etc. and makes them much harder to see. The other main factor is logistics (3) because although the best highland birding I have seen in Costa Rica was on the trail up to Chirripo, present regulations and challenges rule it out as a feasible birding destination (you won’t see many birds when you have to constantly march uphill). The comfort factor is also something to consider but since excellent birding isn’t contingent upon easy access, and quality lodging, I haven’t given that factor as much weight as the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Publication.
So, with those factors in mind, this is my take on the top sites where a birder is most likely to encounter the highest number of species and regional endemics in a given amount of time, for each region or major habitat:
- Central Valley: When this part of the country was covered in moist tropical forest and wetlands, it was probably fantastic birding and a great place to see Three-wattled Bellbird, Long-tailed Manakin, and many other species. However, since this is the part of the country where people set up house and agriculture, those birding opportunities disappeared 150 or more years ago. As with any area mostly dedicated to urbanization, the birding opportunities that remain are pretty slim. You don’t want to linger for too long in this part of the country but if you have to stay here, try the birding at Zamora Estate Hotel and Xandari. The Bougainvillea is a perennial favorite but both of the sites mentioned are closer to the airport, have more habitat, and thus more bird species. You might also want to stay a bit further afield in the Varablanca area.
- Cloud forest: In my opinion, the Monteverde area wins hotspot status for this wonderful habitat. It’s easy to get to (and will be easier when more of the road is paved), has plenty of infrastructure, is easy to bird, and has lots of great habitat. Bellbirds are easy from March and April to July, the R. Quetzal is reliable, and many other uncommon species are easier in the forest reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, and Curi-Cancha) than other parts of Costa Rica and elsewhere, including Highland Tinamou, leaftossers, Azure-hooded Jay, Coppery-headed Emerald, and many other species. Include a trip down to the San Gerardo station and you will also visit one of the best birding sites in Central America. This is an excellent area for Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas, Black-headed and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and many other possibilities including hawk-eagles, and even Solitary Eagle.
- Tropical dry forest: Although many dry forest species seem to be more adaptable than rainforest species, and can thus be seen in edge habitats and riparian zones in much of the northwest (the Tarcoles River and north of there), the best hotspots for this habitat are probably Santa Rosa National Park, Palo Verde National Park, and Rincon de la Vieja National Park. At Rincon de la Vieja, the drive up is good for many dry forest birds while the forests of the park have a nice mix of dry forest and rainforest species including Tody Motmot, various raptors, a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, quail-doves, and the list goes on.
- High Elevations: Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find excellent high elevation birding in Costa Rica due to ease of access of several protected areas. Poas is an easy fix for high elevation endemics, and can be better for Black Guan and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher than the high Talamancas. However, the best sites for high elevation birding are indeed located in the Talamancas on Cerro de la Muerte. Savegre is often mentioned as the place to go because they have a great, well-earned reputation, comfortable accommodation, and good habitat with good birds. However, if you can’t afford Savegre, you can still see the same birds by staying at other lodging in the area and birding from the main road in San Gerardo de Dota, birding on the road to Providencia through Quetzal National Park, and birding the trails behind La Georgina. Toucanet Lodge and Paraiso de Quetzales also deserve mention.
Learn about more hotspots next week…
To support this blog and find the most comprehensive information about birding sites in Costa Rica, get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book that will enrich the birding experience in Costa Rica at every level.
Chomes. I birded Costa Rica’s top shorebird site last week. I wish I could bird there every day because, as with any important hub for migration, birds come and go, probably on a daily basis. What flies in the day after you visit? Heck, what flies in later the same day? I wish we knew! This is the place that probably sees visits by a lone, lost Red-necked Stint, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and other vagrants. But, there’s no one there to see them. Heck, if a Red-necked Stint showed up in winter plumage, who would notice it anyways?
Chomes is always exciting because every visit is different. You never know what’s really going to show up but if you visit during high tide during shorebird migration, you can bet that you will see a bunch of those Arctic messengers. Various terns and a gull or two are usually mixed in with the shorebirds, and there are other birds. Here are some thoughts on what to expect during the upcoming birding season:
- A good access road: The road into Chomes leaves from the Pan-American highway. It’s not signed very well (no surprise there), and used to promise a bumpy ride. Yes, “used to” because the road has been drastically improved! Much of the road was graded this past Saturday, and the workers seemed ready to finish the job. At the moment, it is definitely good enough for two-wheel drive cars, including the tracks into the shrimp ponds. Heavy rains could change all that but they aren’t likely.
- Too dry on the way in: Speaking of rains, we wish that more water would fall in Guanacaste and Chomes. The current El Nino effect is keeping things dry and since that’s actually global warming, it’s only going to become drier. Although we didn’t survey birds on the drive in, I can’t help but get the impression that there are fewer birds around. No surprise there since the life-giving rains have not lived up to ecological expectations. The riparian zones might be the best places to check for dry forest species along with sites in the foothills.
- Huge agricultural areas: Immense fields have been a part of the Chomes picture for years and they probably explain why the road has been fixed. I don’t know what they will be used for but if it happens to be pineapple, just drive on past. Pineapple fields are basically filled with poison and thus have almost no birds (or other life for that matter). If something else is planted, scan for thick-knees, Harris’s Hawk, and other open country species (Aplomado Falcon has been seen there in the past).
- Shorebirds during high tide: Some plovers and sandpipers are there during low tide but the numbers don’t compare to high tide. Check the tides and schedule accordingly because a lot of birds come here to roost and feed when the nearby Gulf of Nicoya is filled with water. On Saturday, we had hundreds of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and lesser numbers of other species including a rare Long-billed Curlew. This is the eBird list.
- Collared Plovers on the beach: You can also pick out a few on the ponds but this past visit had a dozen or so on the beach. Nice close looks!
- Mangrove Rail: This secretive species has always been present in the scrubby Black Mangroves but it’s of course always hidden. Go early in the morning and look in spots where the scrubby mangroves are in shallow water and wet ground. When the edges of the mangroves dry out, the rails seem much harder to find because they are probably hanging out in the middle of the mangroves. These are the short mangroves that grow in the ponds.
- Mangrove birds: I was surprised that we saw so few mangrove species this past visit. Most of my past birding at Chomes has resulted in easy looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, and various other species including chances at Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Try the taller mangroves on the road to the beach and on the track next to it for all of these.
- Bobwhite and hordes of roosting White-fronted Parrots in the evening: You can also get Spot-bellied Bobwhite during the day but it seems easier in the evening. A covey or two can show up anywhere on the road to the beach. The parrots fly in by the hundreds.
- Hot weather, bugs, and no services: I almost forgot to mention these fun factors! That vehicle you are in is your terrestrial lifeboat, especially if it has air conditioning. Be prepared, use the restroom before birding at Chomes, and scope from the shade!
Hope to see you at Chomes!