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Puntarenas, Costa Rica- A Hotspot that Merits a Bird Observatory

From time to time, I have been asked if there are any vagrant traps in Costa Rica. In birding lingo, this translates to wondering if there are any particular sites that concentrate lost migrant birds. I usually respond that yes, as one might expect from a lone island in the vast waters of the Pacific, Cocos Island acts as a vagrant trap (Eastern Phoebe has occurred along with annual records of various other vagrants). I then mention that the Caribbean Coast can be good for occasional species that are rare for Costa Rica, and that the southern area of the Nicoya Peninsula may have some tendency to attract rare warblers.

However, since the rare vagrants for Costa Rica tend not to be birds that visiting birders would prefer to see, unless a birder wants to add Northern Parula or White-eyed Vireo to their Costa Rica country lists, they don’t prioritize visits to such places.

Even so, birding on the Caribbean coast and southern Nicoya Peninsula is always fun, migration season or not!

Other than Cocos Island, we might not have a Cape May, Scilley Isles, or Eilat, but we do have Puntarenas.

This old port settlement doesn’t bear witness to the massive numbers and types of migrant species like the aforementioned legendary sites, but it does seem to bring in enough to merit more serious bird observation than has occurred. As with other good sites for bird migration and vagrant species, Puntarenas is an area of land near or surrounded by water. Places like this can be excellent for migration because they tend to attract waterbirds that use coastal habitats, small birds that get concentrated in coastal areas because they would rather not risk flying over water, and seabirds that can be pushed toards shore by weather systems.

Puntarenas is essentially a sandspit that juts into the sea. The area just to the north hosts mangroves, the area to the south is the outer Gulf of Nicoya, and the tip of Puntarenas points directly into the junction of the inner and outer parts of the Gulf. Although it doesn’t seem to be situated on a major flyway for passerines, it does attract an interesting number and variety of seabirds (and maybe more passerines than we think).

There is enough avian action happening at Puntarenas to merit much more focused birding than the site sees and it would be a wonderful spot to establish a bird observatory. Here’s why:

A Meeting of Currents

Puntarenas marks a point where currents from the inner and outer Gulf of Nicoya meet and mingle. This mixing of waters is evident while watching from the area of the lighthouse and may be why this same site can turn up everything from storm-petrels to jaegers, various terns and gulls, Brown Noddy, and many other birds. They aren’t there all the time but enough to merit seawatching from this spot.

As with so much other birding, mornings seem to be best and the birds that occur vary by season but scoping from this spot is always worth it. Even if nothing seems to be happening, wait long enough and some interesting bird will appear or fly past. At least this has been my experience while seawatching from the tip on every single occasion. For example, while my partner Marilen and watched from the point for an hour yesterday afternoon, we had a couple Brown Boobies along with a flyby of two migrating Franklin’s Gulls. Various Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns were also moving through and lounging on the choppy water. I’m sure other birds were out there but probably weren’t visible as they floated among the whitecaps.

On other occasions, I have seen three species of storm-petrels, Galapagos Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, and various other species.

Vagrant Seabirds

Perhaps because of that meeting of currents, this site can also turn up vagrant seabirds, I am sure more than get reported. For the past few years, a Western Gull found its way to Puntarenas and has apparently decided to stay for good. At least, it hasn’t migrated yet and why would it with such a regular and easy food source at the small fish processing plants in town?

Recently, while birding with a friend to look for that very gull, we ended up stumbling upon a very rare for Costa Rica Pacific Golden-Plover (!). Luckily, it stayed long enough for many other local birders to see it too.

Watching the plover in Puntarenas.

The most unusual bird know of that has appeared at the point was a Christmas Shearwater seen by Johan Kuilder Ineke van Leeuwen, and Adela Rufatti and myself in june, some years ago. This bird seemed to appear out of nowhere as it literally floated right in front of us at the point. Given the dynamic nature of this site, no doubt, other unusual seabirds occur from time to time along with more expected species including Least Tern, Sabine’s Gull, and jaegers, and so on.

Christmas shearwater

It’s worth mentioning that many of these and other pelagic species are more easily seen from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Two of the most noteworthy birds seen from the ferry have been Costa Rica’s first and only Peruvian Booby, and Inca Tern.

Much Potential, Heavily Visited, yet Underbirded

Given its location and the birds that have been known to occur, this site deserves a lot more attention. No, there isn’t a whole lot of habitat other than marine and coastal birding but extensive mangroves also occur and it is close to some wooded areas. Perhaps most importantly, Puntarenas being a popular destination for locals also makes it an ideal place to promote birding and bird awareness. This factor along with it being a good place to record data on migrant species as well as the endemic and endangered Mangrove Hummingbird make Puntarenas a good candidate for hosting a bird observatory.

Since Puntarenas has also been underbirded, who knows, maybe higher numbers of regular and rare migrant songbirds also occur more than we expect? Hopefully we can set up some form of scheduled and coordinated seawatching at this important and underbirded site.

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The Best Places to See Toucans in Costa Rica are Also Great Places for Birding

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,

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan

the Yellow-throated Toucan (formerly known as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and the Black-mandibled Toucan),

and the Collared Aracari.

This Collared Aracari was at Dave and Dave’s.

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.

Birding in Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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!

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Some Costa Rica Birding News, March 2022

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

Turquoise Cotinga at Jaco

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

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

Other Cotinga News

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

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

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

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

How to See More Hawk-Eagles

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

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

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

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

Want Hummingbirds? Check Flowering Trees

Brown Violetear

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

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

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San Luis Adventure Park- Birding In Costa Rica At Its Best

Where’s the best birding in Costa Rica? The answer can be elusive; it depends on the observer, what you want to see and how you want to experience Costa Rica birds.

Sunbittern
Birds like the Sunbittern for example.

Even so, by merit of outstanding habitat or propensity to facilitate seeing lots of cool birds (aren’t they all?), some places stand out . One such place has been making the local birding news for the past few months. It isn’t new and the birds I am about to mention have always been there but because the site is not on the regular birding circuit, it has been very much overlooked.

That place is the San Luis Adventure Park and if you can fit it into your birding trip to Costa Rica, by all means do it. San Luis was started some 15 years ago by four local guys who wanted to start a tourism business in beautiful surroundings. They picked a site with cloud forests located between the city of San Ramon and the tourism hotspot of Fortuna. To make a long story short, this ended up being the perfect choice both for their business venture and for local wildlife. Their business has been successful, and on account of being aware of the importance of protecting biodiveristy and fostering a conservation mindset, the birding in the cloud forests of San Luis is as accessible as it is fantastic.

Some reasons why you might want to include the San Luis Adventure Park on your next trip to Costa Rica:

High Quality Middle Elevation Forest

The better the forest, the better the birding. Another way of saying that is that the more mature and extensive the forest, the more diverse and healthy it is. Mature tropical forest composed of massive trees provides the array of microhabitats and food sources necessary to sustain the full complement of bird species that have evolved to live in such habitats. For the birder visiting San Luis Canopy, this translates to chances at seeing large and speciose mixed flocks, Collared Trogon, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Dull-mantled Antbird, and many others (including Sunbittern along the river).

Collared Trogon

Access

San Luis isn’t the only site with high quality forest but it’s one of the few places where such habitat is easily accessible. Located on the main route that links San Ramon to Fortuna, it only takes a bit more than an hour to drive there from the airport, or an hour and 30 or 40 minutes from Fortuna. This also makes it easily accessible by public bus.

Some birding is possible from the parking area but the best birding is along the trail. This is a well maintained trail with some areas of steps and several bridges that allow views into the forest canopy. It starts at a deck that often has tanagers coming in to fruit and shortly after, accesses a hummingbird viewing area. Folks with mobility issues won’t be able to do the trail but they can still see quite a few tanagers and other birds from the viewing deck and even from the parking area.

Photos of Tanagers

Speaking of tanagers, this is one of the best sites to get close looks and shots of Emerald, Bay-headed, and Speckled Tanagers.

Speckled Tanager

Tawny-capped Euphonia is also regular and when nearby trees have fruit, the viewing deck can also be good for Black-and-Yellow and Blue-and-Gold Tanagers! Both of these special species are also regular on the forest trail.

Hummingbirds

The hummingbird viewing area can host Brown Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing , Crowned Woodnymph, and other species. Once in a while, Snowcap occurs and Green Hermit, Green Thorntail, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Coppery-headed Emerald are regular.

Coppery-headed Emerald
Coppery-headed Emerald is one of several species commonly seen at feeders.

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Whoah! Yes, one of the mega of mega tough birds to see can be encountered at San Luis Canopy! Not every day but often enough to be worth mentioning. Recently, two were seen by many visiting birders as they foraged at an antswarm. Although they didn’t show for Mary and I yesterday (no antswarms were present), I’m sure they will be seen again.

The chances of seeing a ground-cuckoo at San Luis are boosted by local guides who keep an eye out for them on the trails and relay that information back to the front desk. In fact, before we entered the trail, one of the co-owners, Nelson, was very helpful in providing us with information about the latest sightings and told us that if we wanted, we could also wait at the tanager viewing area until their guides could tell us if they were seeing the cuckoos.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird

Whoah! Yes, another major mega occurs at San Luis! Although one or two might be present year round, this very special bird seems to be much more likely and quite reliable from November to January. It can occasionally show near the parking area but is far more likely on the trail. Once again, the local guides let the front desk know where they have been seeing them.

Raptors

As is typical of sites with extensive, quality forest, San Luis can also be very good for rainforest raptors. Over the years, I have seen such species as Barred Forest-Falcon, Bicolored Hawk, White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. This can be an especially good site for the latter fancy raptor, mostly on sunny days when it calls during soaring flight.

ornate hawk eagle
What an Ornate Hawk-Eagle looks like in high soaring flight.

Given its easy access, the San Luis Adventure Park makes for an excellent day trip from the Central Valley, or as a great way to start or end a birding trip to Costa Rica, especially for birders traveling to and from Fortuna. As a bonus, this excellent site is also near other very good areas for birding including Finca Luna Nueva, the Pocosol Station, cloud forests near San Ramon, and Lands in Love. I hope you visit this special place someday, until then, happy birding from Costa Rica.

To support this blog and prepare for your birding trip to Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” – a 700 plus page ebook that acts as a site guide and birding companion for Costa Rica.

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Mixed Flock Birding Tips for Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the Flock

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

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

Know the Flock Leaders Before You Go Birding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Notes and Look at Field Guides After Watching the Flock

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

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

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

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High Season Costa Rica Birding Highlights, 2022

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.

Birding Costa Rica

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:

Cotingas!

birding 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.

Quetzals

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

A bridge 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!

Great Potoo

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.
"Choco" Screech-Owl
One of the few pictures of the undescribed local race of “Choco” Screech-Owl. I took this picture in 2016 at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge.

Hotel Quelitales

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!

Bogarin Trail

Uniform Crake

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!

I could mention more birding highlights but isn’t that always the case? Visit the right places for birding in Costa Rica and it’s going to be more than good. Use the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica to get ready for your trip. To get connected with the best local guides, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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A Day in the Life of a Gray Hawk in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is home to a wide variety of raptor species but most are scarce or rare birds of forested habitats. Not so for the Gray Hawk. This tropical relative of the Red-shouldered Hawk is one of our more common raptors, in many places, the de-facto urban hawk.

Gray-Hawk

Go birding in remnant green space or edge habitats in many parts of Costa Rica and it won’t take long to see a Gray Hawk. One or two might soar high overhead or you might glimpse a bird as it moves from one patch of trees to the next. Quick flaps and a glide, you might be reminded of a chunky Accipiter. It often calls, listen for its clear whistled song.

You won’t see them inside rainforest or cloud forest but bird the edges and semi-open habitats and a Gray Hawk will eventually appear. Its also one of the more regular raptors of roadside wires (along with the rightly named Roadside Hawk). These small-medium raptors persists because they don’t require much more than habitat with enough small lizards, birds, and other creatures to feed on, large trees for nesting, and nobody shooting them. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons they occur in much of Costa Rica’s Central Valley?

From what I have seen in the riparian zone out back and while birding other bits of rich remnant green space in the Central Valley, I figure a Gray Hawk’s day in Costa Rica goes somewhat like this.

As its gets light outside, a Gray Hawk watches for movement from its curtain of leaves. Will a lizard creep into view? Has some large katydid neglected to find cover in time? Maybe a small bird looks tired or a bit too slow. There are more of those more catchable birds when the vireos and kingbirds are moving through, that’s the best time to catch them but a bird never knows, hungry raptors have to be ready to literally seize any opportunity.

Seeing nothing of promise, the adult Gray Hawk flies to its next hidden perch. A Tropical Kingbird twitters and flies after it, kiskadees calls and other birds give the alarm. They would have to be much slower to catch but they aren’t taking any chances. A few Brown Jays pick up the alarm and join in with their own raucous calls. Big enough to intimidate, the Gray Hawk races to find cover before the big, long-tailed birds can bother it. The hawk is in luck, the jays also need to find breakfast and so they move on. Not that they could directly hurt the hawk but they could certainly scare away prey and give the raptor more stress than it needs.

Watching from its new perch, it scans the sunny edge of a large patch of bamboo. The bamboo was imported from Asia but it can still host something to eat. This fine morning, it looks like breakfast may take the form of a Spiny Lizard. The lizard didn’twant to leave cover but it didn’t have much of a choice. It needed that sunny spot, needed to recharge its cold blooded bio batteries so it could find something to eat and run from being eaten. All it could hope was that its coloration would keep it hidden. Unfortunately for the lizard, the bright sun was lighting it up, turning it into an unwritten sign that said, “Free Meal Here!”.

The hawk saw that sign and didn’t hesitate to make its move. With straight, steady flight, the bird flew in and thrust its legs out. Still too cold to react, the lizard was caught and pierced with talons. It died while carried away to a neaby perch; where the hawk enjoyed its breakfast.

After resting, rising warm air encouraged the Gray Hawk to take flight and soar high above its territory. It could see a green sliver among a mosaic of fields and rocky looking housing. Once in a while, it flew over that rocky stuff but not that often, there wasn’t usually much to catch there. The green thread ran up to a larger area of trees but that place was already taken by a pair of Gray Hawk who objected to its presence. At least this patch of green, this bit of area with food could sustain it, at least for now.

High above it flew and called in the warm skies, always hoping to find a mate. No other Gray Hawk called back on this day but it might eventually happen. In the meantime, the raptor flew back down to a favored patch of tall Eucalyptus. It was another tree that would have been foreign to the hawk just 200 years ago but not anymore. They made a fine perch, an excellent vantage point to watch for unwary birds, lizards, and rodents.

Watching from the tall Australian trees, the Gray Hawk could see large noisy things moving dust, throwing the dirt into the air. It was a spot that used to have some trees and bruchh, a place where it had caught food, where bobwhites and Blue Grosbaks had sang. The area had given it a little extra breathing room. Not any more. It was being changed to more of those rocky things and it was bereft of green.

Looking in the other direction, the hawk noticed a small bird on the ground, an Inca Dove that fluttered wrong. Automatically noting a bird that might be in trouble, something that could be easy to catch, the hawk’s attention was immediately focused on the dove. It readied itself for an attack.

This was automatic, it needed to eat and if it didn’t catch it, something else would, maybe one of the Short-tailed Hawks that also hunted this area. As the dove continued to flutter, the Gray Hawk made a quick, straight lfight at it and easily caught it with its sharp talons. It wasn’t every day the hawk caught a dove. This one had some sort of problem. Maybe it was too old, maybe sick, either way, nature doesn’t hold any place for the weak. The hawk almost never caught a dove but this day, this bird was an easy invitation and the hawk gladly came to dinner.

After eating the dove, the lesser light of the late afternoon, the noisy chattering of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flying to roost reminded the raptor that it was time to do the same. The Gray Hawk moved back to the shady tree where it had began the day and readied itself for night. This came quickly, it always does in tropical latitudes. Bats eventually chittered and a Mottled Owl barked but the day raptor didn’t pay them any attention, it was already asleep.

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Why is the Black-crowned Antpitta So Rare?

What makes a bird rare? Is it because, like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker or Aquatic Warbler, it is threatened by various factors related to its ecological needs? Is a bird naturally rare because it requires certain types of uncommon habitats or situations? Or, is the species something like a Boreal Owl in not being really threatened but just hard to see?

In complex tropical habitats, birds can be “rare” because of these and additional factors. In the case of the Black-crowned Antpitta, this big understory player is probably affected by all three of the factors mentioned above. Hard to detect, difficult to see, we don’t know much about this northernmost Pittasoma but what we do know is that it’s one of the most challenging species to connect with in Costa Rica.

Even the skulking Thicket Antpitta is easier to see than the Black-crowned Antpitta.

During birding tours to Costa Rica, this cool looking species has the tragic distinction of being one of the least likely birds you will run across. In part, the paucity of sightings is related to few tours actually visiting places where it occurs. However, even then, it can still be a challenge and worse, it seems to be getting rarer with each and every year.

This wasn’t always the case. Although, seeing a BC Pittasoma in Costa Rica has never really been easy, some years ago, it was petty reliable at Quebrada Gonzalez. When the foothill rainforest at this excellent site was perpetually dripping wet, this Pittasoma was regularly heard and seen. At one point, I recall hearing and seeing birds right behind the station and at two different points along the trail. Incredibly, it was a regular bird at this site! You still had to know how to look for it but it could be expected.

Antpitta habitat

That began to change as the forest became hotter and drier. Bit by bit, as the forest at the beautiful forests of Quebrada Gonalez saw longer days with less rain and decreased humidity, there seemed to be a concurrent decrease in the numbers and types of birds. One of the most affected species was the Pittasoma. It still seems to occur on occasion but much much less than in the past.

With that in mind, this is my take on why this mega bird of the forest floor has become much more rare in Costa Rica:

It Needs an Especially Wet Microhabitat in Areas of Intact Habitat

The Black-crowned Antpitta seems to be a bird of very wet forest replete with plenty of streams and muddy, wet soil. At least that’s my impression and those are the only places I have encountered them. I suspect they are adapted to this type of microhabitat because it harbors more of the worms, large insects, and other small animals they feed on. Perhaps there are other factors associateed with this microhabitat they also require?

But that’s not all! It seems that they also need this microhabitat to occur in large areas of intact habitat and even then, they can seem to be absent from what appear to be suitable sites (which hints at this species maybe requiring more specific needs than expected or apparent).

The Pittasoma Mostly Occurs in Less Accessible Places or Does Best in Habitats that Have Beeen Destroyed

The bird is rare but I do think inaccessible areas are part of the situation. Most of the intact foothill forests where it occurs are in less accessible spots, especially in the Talamanca Mountains, its likely stronghold in Costa Rica. Another idea is that the bird might be most suited to the places where foothill forest meet lowland rainforest; places that have been largely destroyed. This idea is supported by more observations of the Pittasoma coming from sites like Hitoy Cerere and Kekoldi.

Additional places to look for it are in Barbilla National Park and less accessible spots in and near Braulio Carrillo National Park.

Top of the Understory Food Chain = Low Reproductive Rate

One of the other main factors that make this species such a rare bird is its likely low reproductive rate. That’s just a guess but given its status near the top of the forest floor avian food chain, I bet this is true. As with many other tropical birds, it may have a long lifespan over which rather few young are successfully raised. This adds up to there being few birds to find over a large area.

Hopefully, we can find more accessible sites to see this spectacular bird of wet forest. Sadly, I fear that if/as climate change continues to decrease rainfall and humidity in foothill forests of Costa Rica, the Black-crowned Antpitta will either move upslope or it will continue to decline and maybe even disappear. Populations also occur in Panama (although birds typically seen are of another subspecies) but if the same factors affect the species there, it could become one more of many amazing facets of life eventually obliterated by a long, lethal combination of greed, ignorance, and refusal to accept that long-term sustainable living is of crucial importance.

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A High Octane Birding Itinerary for Costa Rica

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

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

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

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

Start in the Central Valley

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

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

Irazu

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

Hotel Quelitales

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

Rancho Naturalista

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

One of the coquettes from Rancho…

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

Cerro de la Muerte

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

The General Valley

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

San Vito and or Ciudad Neily

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

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

Masked Duck
Masked Duck from Costa Rica

Golfo Dulce

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

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

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

North-Central Pacific

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

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

Monteverde

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

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

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

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Costa Rica Birding News, January, 2022

I can’t believe it’s 2022 but here we are! Time for a new year list, time to make some annual birding plans, maybe time to sit back and enjoy bird and biodiversity no matter where you may bring your bins. Here in Costa Rica, these are a few of the latest birdingworthy items.

Recent Pelagic in the Pacific Finds Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

A recent long range pelagic trip done by Wilfredo of Cabuya Birding didn’t find any new birds for Costa Rica but they did get close looks at an apparent Galapagos subspecies (or species) of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Although this species is expected and has been seen on some previous trips, it is rarely seen and little known in Costa Rican waters. What will they find next?

Recent Pelagic Trip in the Caribbean Finds Manx and Audubon’s Shearwaters

Another pelagic trip in late December found a rare Manx Shearwater in addition to more expected Audubon’s Shearwaters. Since the Audubon’s breeds on nearby islands in Bocas del Toro, they aren’t unexpected. The Manx Shearwater is another matter!

Results Published from Vital Study of Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow

The Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow is a Costa Rican endemic with much of its range in the heavily urbanized Central Valley. Given the seemingly uncommon nature of this bird with a very limited range where many areas of green space are under constant threat, natural history studies have been urgently needed. Now, thanks to years of efforts made by paper authors Roselvy Juárez, María de la Paz Angulo Irola, Ernesto M. Carman, and Luis Sandoval, crucial information needed to conserve this endemic towhee is available! See the paper here.

By following 21 pairs and carrying out various other studies and observations, they deduced territory size, what this bird requires, potential threats, and more. Hopefully, this important information can be used to create adequate plans to conserve this threatened species. Many thanks goes to the authors of this vital study.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird Still Being Seen at Centro Manu!

The umbrellabird that has been spending its non breeding time at centro Manu is still present. Hopefully it will still be there for the next month or so. To try and see it, contact Kenneth at Centro Manu.

Crested Owls with Cope

A day trip with local artist Cope has often been a good way to see roosting Crested Owl. However, because the owls move around, they are never guaranteed. Lately, participants on Cope’s tour have been lucky to see one or two of these roosting beauties. Let’s hope they keep using the same spot for the next two months!

Yellow-billed Cotingas and Tiny Hawk at Rincon de Osa

Yellow-billed and Turquoise Cotingas are still frequenting Rincon de Osa. They aren’t always present but you might find them if you keep scoping from the bridge. Another good spot to check is looking towards the hill next to the mangroves from the edge of the village. In late December, we noticed several males moving through this area.

Another bird to watch for is Tiny Hawk. On a visit in late December, we had two distant birds perched in and near mangroves visible from the bridge.

Crimson-backed Tanagers in Costa Rica

Lastly, an additional bird seems to have definitely made it onto the Costa Rica list. Although the Crimson-backed Tanager seen near Dominical was deemed to be a possible hybrid, views of a bird near Horquetas and another possible sighting elsewhere seem definitive. Based on these sightings, I would guess that this edge species from Panama is probably breeding in a few places somewhere in Costa Rica. How many more are in country? If you see one, please get a picture and eBird it!

More can always be said about birds in Costa Rica but that’s all for now. If you are visiting during the next month or so, I hope to see you in the field. Happy birding!