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5 Beautiful Benefits of Relaxed Birding in Costa Rica

Birding isn’t just watching birds. It can be a fun and stress-free outlet, an educational journey, and a personal challenge. However, no matter how many birds you see, no matter how you experience birds, birding is always a key way to relax and connect with your natural surroundings. A relaxed birding trip is when you go birding but you also sample and enjoy local cuisine, maybe spend some time in the pool, maybe spend more time in one bird-rich place to watch bird at your own pace.

Costa Rica is ideal for relaxed birding. It’s a place where relaxation and nature connection go hand in hand, especially for birders with non-birding partners. Beautiful tropical scenery and an incredible number of birds make this friendly country ideal for a relaxed birding trip.

The following are 5 additional benefits of relaxed birding in Costa Rica:

Beautiful Garden Birds

In Costa Rica, you don’t have to go far to see a lot of exotic, beautiful birds. Some photographers visit this birdy country and take pictures of a couple hundred species without setting one foot on a single trail. Stay in the right gardens and fruiting trees can host euphonias, tanagers and other small species.

Emerald Tanager is regular at the Arenal Observatory Lodge!

Incredibly, stunning Golden-hooded Tanagers are also regular garden birds!

Flowering bushes and other plantings attract hummingbirds. The Violet-headed Hummingbird is one of several glittering species regular at many sites in Costa Rica.

More Protected Habitat Makes for Easier Birding

Costa Rica is such an excellent place for easy-going birding because there’s a lot of easily accessible and protected habitats. Even better, several quality eco-lodges are found within or next to such protected areas. It’s why Costa Rica is an easy place to see large birds like Great Curassow and Crested Guan,

A male Great Curassow.

and even critically endangered mega species like the Great Green Macaw.

In general, more habitat means more birds without having to go on long, muddy hikes.

Fun for the Non-Birding Partner

Relaxed birding works very well when visiting Costa Rica with a non-birding partner. This type of birding means that you can get in fantastic birding in the morning and enjoy the rest of the day doing fun things with your partner. It can also mean birding for most of the day while your partner does other activities. There’s always plenty of fun stuff to do in Costa Rica.

Birding Boat Trips

Don’t feel like going on a long, hot hike? You aren’t alone! Boat trips in the right places are an excellent substitute. Float down a tropical river and you can see everything from waterbirds to trogons, raptors, and a roosting Great Potoo.

Look close and find the Great Potoo!

You Still See Lots of Great Birds

This is probably the best thing about relaxed birding in Costa Rica. When a well planned, easy going birding tour in Costa Rica stays in the right key places, many species are seen right at the lodge, even birds like trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, and literally hundreds of other species.

To learn more about carefully planned, fun and relaxed birding tours in Costa Rica taking place in January, 2023, contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com

I hope to see you here!

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Harpy Eagle Seen in Costa Rica, July 21, 2022

The official list of the Bird of Costa Rica boasts more than 900 species. That much biodiversity in a place the size as West Virginia or Denmark makes for a heck of a lot of birds to see. Go birding in Costa Rica and you’ll see a lot of them too, probably watch trogons, motmots, tanagers and maybe three dozen hummingbirds. However, one of the birds you aren’t so likely to see is one of the birds we all want to see the most. That special, evasive bird is the Harpy Eagle.

Rainforest habitat in Boca Tapada, Costa Rica, a place where Harpy Eagle still occurs in Costa Rica.

A bird true to its name, the Harpy is a taloned monster, an apex predator of the rainforest. Reaching a length of three feet, the bird is literally larger than life. Pairs of this magnificent eagle of eagles use extensive areas of forest replete with monkeys sloths, and other prey items. It’s one of the top birds of the world but sadly, the Harpy is not an easy bird to see. Unlike many other raptors, this eagle rarely soars. Similar to forest Accipiters, forest-falcons, and cats, it uses stealth to catch prey, lurking under cover until it sees its chance to quickly fly and use massive claws to snatch animals by surprise. Factor in a large territory and it’s no wonder the Harpy is tough to see, even in rainforest that supports healthy populations of the eagle.

The Harpy is a recurring topic of conversation among local birders because very few have seen one in Costa Rica, we don’t know if any breeding pairs still occur, and, every birder who has not seen a Harpy must see one. Honestly, like the Resplendent Quetzal, the Harpy is a bird species every birder deserves to eventually witness. I wish there were funds and special programs developed with this goal in mind, to help birders experience the Harpy Eagle, help them make a pilgrimage to meet this life goal.

At the moment, birders do the Harpy trip to eastern Panama or the Amazon. They are taken to known nesting sites because that situation is by far the most reliable way to see this stealthy canopy predator. If we knew of a Harpy nest in Costa Rica, oh that would be major game changer. It would be aboost for tourism, it would help all of us local birders finally lay eyes on this elusive bird in this birdy nation. Until then, all we can do is keep looking for them in the right places. On July 21st, 2022, the right place ended up being a section of road in northern Costa Rica.

On that fateful day, a group of tourists happened to make local headlines when they chanced upon an adult Harpy Eagle while driving along the main road between Mirador de Pizote and Boca Tapada. It’s a road I have traveled several times, the main road that goes to Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque Lodge, and other birding spots in that area. The sighting was a welcome surprise but I’m not surprised it happened where it did. It’s exactly where one would expect to see a Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica.

This part of northern Costa Rica has large areas of intact primary forest connected to larger areas of forest in the Indio-Maiz Reserve of Nicaragua. Based on the amount of habitat and sightings of Harpy in Indio-Maiz, Harpy Eagles should be present in the forests near Boca Tapada; if not a pair or two, then at least occasional wandering individuals. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t we seeing them?

The answer to that question gets back to the fact that Harpy Eagles are very difficult to detect, even in places that harbor healthy populations. Factor in birding coverage being rather limited and Harpy sightings become even less likely. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that more people are visiting the Boca Tapada area, especially Mirador de Pizote, the site closest to where the Harpy was seen. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that more eyes in the field resulted in a Harpy being noticed. The sighting also occured on one of the few spots where forest comes right up to both sides of the road. It looked like a good place for a Harpy to cross the road, a good place for it to sneak through the trees.

Thanks to the local guide who reported the bird, the sighting was made known right away and that same day, several local birders raced there to see if it could be refound. Some of the those same birders also took a boat trip on the Rio San Carlos the following morning. These efforts were worth a try and I’m glad they made the attempt but I wasn’t surprised they did not see the bird. I was rooting for them and hoping they would see it and there were several very experienced guides and birders on board but seeing a Harpy Eagle requires a good deal of luck. Having extensively birded in forests where the Harpy occurs in “good numbers” and knowing how incredibly infrequently myself and other guides saw them, away from a nest, I know all too well how unreliable that bird can be.

A Harpy passes through an area but then where does it go? The bird likely moved to another part of its territory to look for prey. Or, it kept moving around in search of a mate, or, it was somewhere nearby but hidden inside the forest. We’ll never know where that special bird went but the sighting was nevertheless monumental. It shows that, without a doubt, in 2022, Harpy Eagle still occurs in Costa Rica and, it was seen where it was expected.

This sighting is the best of incentives to go birding in the Boca Tapada area, even more incentive to educate local folks about Harpy Eagles and reforest. It might not have been sighted later that same day nor the next but when it comes to Harpy Eagles, that means nothing. A Harpy is a tough bird to see, unless you go birding in places where they could occur, you’ll never see one anyways. The good thing about birding in the places where they do live is that there are hundreds of other cool birds to see too.

A couple days after the sighting, my partner Marilen and I spent a couple of nights in Boca Tapada. We knew we had little chance of refinding that Harpy but it was still good to try, still good to scan the canopy and keep looking. Not to mention, any day birding in lowland rainforest with Green Ibis, Pied Puffbird, Cinnamon Woodpecker, and dozens of other cool birds is always a good time.

For our brief sojourn, we stayed at Las Iguanitas, a small and fiendly place right in the village of Boca Tapada. That worked for us, if you don’t might basic yet friendly lodging for a good price, it’ll work for you too. It was also fun speaking with the owner. He does tours in the area and had some interesting things to say about Harpy Eagle, most of all, possible additional sightings in less accessible spots. He also showed us a Black-and-white Owl that visits the lodge nightly, major points for that!

black-and-white-owl Costa Rica
Black-and-white Owl from another spot in Costa Rica.

Additional choices for accommodation include Mirador de Pizote (a nice little place that caters to photographers), Maquenque Lodge (more upscale, good for families and small groups), Pedacito de Cielo (nice little place, also caters to photographers), and the lodge I have always visited, Laguna del Lagarto (oldest ecolodge in the area, good for groups, photographers, and has trails in excellent habitat).

Birding around Boca Tapada has always been exciting, now, even more so! I can’t wait to get back for more raptor searches. With that in mind, it’s important to mention that a Harpy isn’t limited to the one spot where it was seen. It has a huge range, it could potentially occur along any road or trail with good forest around Boca Tapada. I hope you visit the area too, maybe I’ll see you there.

For more information about Harpy Eagles and finding birds in Costa Rica, please support this blog and get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

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Birding Trip to Costa Rica-5 Honest Expectations

Birding trips to Costa Rica are exciting, eye-opening birding events. The first trip dazzles with a colorful and fantastic barrage of species and most are lifers. Visit a different part of the country and the second trip will be just as exciting as the first. You should also catch up on some of those unseen species from the first trip, maybe a Royal Flycatcher,

maybe a tinamou or a White-bellied Mountain-gem.

White-bellied Mountain-Gem

Subsequent trips can be equally exciting, even when visiting some of the same bird rich sites. The complex nature of tropical birding promises novel experiences and is invariably accompanied by chances of seeing rare species and better views of uncommon birds. Whether stepping onto Costa Rican soil for the first time or the tenth birding trip to Costa Rica, the experience will also be accompanied by expectations, some more valid than others.

As with every birding destination, in Costa Rica, changes can happen to habitats and other aspects of the local birding scene. The following are five honest expectations from the perspective of an insider. I hope they help your birding trip.

Clay-colored Thrush is Abundant, Pale-vented Thrush..Not So Much

Yes, you can expect to see a lot of Clay-colored Thrushes. The national bird, the “Yiguirro” is numerous and present in most edge and garden habitats. It’s less expected in dry areas, inside the forest, and in the highest of elevations but it can show up in all sorts of places. Its ubiquitous nature makes it a good bird to know. See a brown, thrush-sized bird flit to a branch and move its tail after landing? You’ll see a lot of those, most will be Clay-colored Thrushes.

Does this mean the similar looking Pale-vented Thrush is just as common? No, it does not. That shy species only occurs in foothill and lower middle elevation rainforest and can be quite uncommon.

eBird Sightings for Costa Rica- Not the Final Word

In Costa Rica, eBird is a great tool. It can show where some rare birds have been seen and give some ideas on where to go birding. However, naturally, the handy app only shows data where people have submitted eBird lists.

This is good to keep in mind if you see quality habitat but aren’t sure if the site is worth birding because no one submitted any eBird lists. Always remember- appropriate habitats determine where birds occur, not where people have gone birding.

Speaking of birding in Costa Rica, it’s also worth mentioning that even when bird species are reported in eBird, that doesn’t mean you will see them. Yes, that sort of goes without saying but honestly, many species are naturally rare and/or refuse to play the birding game. It can take a good deal of time to see such anti-social birds, even when birding with an experienced guide. Not to mention, some of those sightings in eBird are errors and quite a number of species are left off of lists because the observer couldn’t identify their vocalizations or didn’t get an adequate view as dozens of birds flash-mobbed their way through the rainforest in mixed flock madness.

In brief, it is good to check out eBird for Costa Rica, but it’s not the final word on where to go and what’s been seen.

Raptors are Infrequent (But be Ready for Them!)

If you have read this blog on previous occasions, you are likely already familiar with the infrequent raptor concept. Same goes if you have already been birding in Costa Rica. We got this amazing raptor list and yet, we don’t see tons of raptors. That’s just the way it is but it doesn’t mean you won’t see them. I know, like, say what? In the classic words of Arnold Drummond, “What you talking about Willis?” (RIP Gary Coleman, one of the coolest 80s kids).

But yes, really, if you bird in the right places and keep looking, you will probably see a bunch of raptors in Costa Rica. It won’t be like birding at home, you’ll have to look for them in the right way or bird with a good guide but those hawk-eagles can happen. Don’t stop looking, you can easily miss them.

Quail-doves, Tinamous, Wood-Quails, Antpittas, and Leaftossers- Quiet and Patience Please

All of these birds look really cool, look like species from our collective birding dreams. Sadly, their shy nature can keep them in those special, imaginary places. They can come into your birding life but you have to look for them in the right places and in the right way. In general, that birding way is the way of patience, habitat knowledge, and quiet footsteps. Mosquitoes buzzing? Resist the temptation to massively slap and destroy them; quail-doves and their terrestrial skulking friends aren’t into loud sudden noises. Instead, let repellent do the work.

Feel the urge to tell a joke, talk about dinner plans or just can’t keep your mouth shut? Before you venture onto that shaded trail, before you move into the realms of the shy forest birds, remind yourself that these birds don’t go for small talk. These birds don’t want to hear a thing. This walk might be your only chance to glimpse a Purplish-backed Quail-dove. Move in silence, you’ll be surprised at what scurries across the path.

Purplish-backed Quail Dove on the trail at Pocosol.

As luck would have it, such ninja-inspired trail stalking goes hand in hand with another major tinamou watching factor- patience. For effective birding in tropical forest, patience is far more than a virture. To see more birds, especially the shy ones, staying patient is a necessity. While birding in rainforest, don’t worry if no birds seem to be present, don’t fret that you aren’t seeing birds. Oh you can bet some are nearby, be patient and don’t let down your guard. Keep looking and ye shall eventually find.

Poor Lighting, Birds in Flight, and Bits and Pieces

None of the above will be surprising for folks who have done plenty of birding. When you bird in Costa Rica, you’ll also see a good number of silhouettes, of small birds waaay up there in the canopy, others zipping in and out of views or only showing a tail, or other small bit revealed through a green mosaic of tropical vegetation.

To further challenge your birding skills, there will also be birds in flight, parrots not showing enough colors, unfamiliar raptors shapes teasing over a distant forested ridge. These are all part of the birding game, winning requires patience and persistence.

I could talk about other things to expect when birding in Costa Rica but will end this post by mentioning the most important expectation of all; that of seeing a heck of a lot of birds. Watch birds in Costa Rica and it’s going to happen. Three days of birding can yield 300 species. A week or ten days can have 400 plus species of birds. Go birding at a slower pace and you’ll still see a lot, still see toucans, parrots, macaws, and more. Make a target list from nearly 1000 species on the Costa Rica birding app and get ready for the trip. Costa Rica is a pretty birdy place.

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Costa Rica Bird Photography with Benefits- Tawny-faced Quail at Laguna del Lagarto

Bird photography in Costa Rica is fantastic. Sure, we could say the same about dozens of destinations and there might be excellent bird photography right in your own backyard but what you might not have birds like

yellow-throated-toucan

Yellow-throated Toucan

and Orange-chinned Parekeet.

You may not have access to a site that offers more than typical feeder species. In Costa Rica, one such top choice for bird photography is Laguna del Lagarto. It’s a place I have blogged about on more than one occasion and with good reason; this classic Costa Rica eco-lodge offers world class bird photography benefits that can be tough to beat, one of those being a chance to capture images of Tawny-faced Quail.

This image was taken at Laguna del Lagarto by local birder, Luis Ricardo Rojas.

Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this beautiful little ground birds, if you haven’t seen many pictures. On account of its shy behavior and dense, dark rainforest habitat, this small quail is one of the most infrequently seen bird species in Costa Rica. However, thanks to the efforts of local birding guide Juan Diego Vargas and Laguna del Lagarto, chances to see Tawny-faced Quail have greatly improved. Even better, not only can you see it, you have a fair chance of getting pictures too!

The problem with seeing Tawny-faced Quail is that this species doesn’t like to be seen. This isn’t one of those birds that will walk into the open, it’s not a bird that takes many chances. In general, small groups carefully move over the forest floor and then freeze at the slightest hint of danger. Since their plumage acts as perfect camouflage in the dark forest interior, you could easily walk right past them and have no idea the bird was sitting still, just a few meters away.

Most birds that live in the understory of the rainforest are tough to see, most are experts at staying hidden. However, most also give whistled songs and calls that reveal their presence. Most do that but much to a birder’s chagrin, the Tawny-faced Quail bucks the trend. This little quail rarely sings and instead of using its voice in the morning, it often waits until dusk and even them, it calls just a few times.

The timing and manner of its song makes this bird incredibly easy to overlook. Even worse, in Costa Rica, this quail seems to sing more often during just two months; May and June. The bird can also be found and heard at other times of the year but based on the experience at Laguna del Lagarto, the most reliable time to see them is definitely during May and June. This is when they call the most and this is when Laguna offers your best chance to see them.

We all know that no bird is guaranteed, anything can happen while birding but I also know that May and June is when most of the local guides have visited Laguna to see and photograph this quail. I know that Laguna has found roosting sites for this bird and have followed careful protocols to make sure every visiting birder sees them. During the past two years, when a roosting quail at Laguna is known, the success rate of visiting birders for seeing this bird has been very high.

Perhaps roosting birds will also be found at other times of the year? Hopefully, but at the moment, May and June are the best months to book a trip to Laguna del Lagarto and photograph this bird. It’s one of several excellent side benefits when visiting Costa Rica for bird photography. Laguna being one of the better places for bird photography in Costa Rica, some of those other benefits include close photo opps for toucans, tanagers, tityras, puffbirds, and a host of additional rainforest species like the stunning Green Honeycreeper shown below. I know I’m looking forward to the next time I visit this special place!

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Thoughts and Tips to See Tiny Hawk When Birding Costa Rica

An impressive number of raptor species occur in Costa Rica. Check the official Costa Rica bird list, count the hawks, eagles, kites, Osprey, and falcons and we hit a respectable 57 species (that doesn’t even include our sharp taloned friends of the night, the owls!). Such a tantalizing total puts Costa Rica on the bucket list of many a raptophile but the high numbers come with a catch. In general, raptors aren’t so common, they aren’t as easy to see as some other places.

semiplumbeous-hawk
To see a Semiplumbeous Hawk, you might need to work a bit.

After a few days of birding, this apparent scarcity of raptors is noticed by most visiting birders. They wonder why, compared to the number of hawks seen in fields and wooded habitats back home, they see so few raptors? Drive through the countryside and there seem to be far fewer hawks than similar drives in France or Ontario. They start to wonder, with so many raptors on the list, where are they?

In Costa Rica, the truth of the matter is that all of those hawks and other raptors are present but high levels of competition among so many different types of animals only leave so much food for each raptor species. Most of the birds on the list have populations in Costa Rica but they occur in low density populations.

Even so, go birding long enough in green space of the Central Valley and you’ll probably see a Gray Hawk flapping its way from one riparian zone to the next. There will be a pair of Short-tailed Hawks soaring high overhead, perhaps a Zone-tailed Hawk rocking its way through the neighborhood, maybe one of those Bicolored Hawks that have learned to catch pigeons. The two common vultures are a given, Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras may fly into view, and you might find a White-tailed Kite hovering over a vacant field.

Bring the binos to lower, hotter places and more species become possible. However, to see those additional raptors, you’ll need to leave the open country and bird near sizeable areas of rainforest. Rainforests host the healthy variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians needed to support populations of hawk-eagles and birds like White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and Gray-headed Kite. Look long enough in the right places and you’ll probably see these cool birds.

Double-toothed Kite

The Tiny Hawk lives there too but unlike so many other raptors in Costa Rica, you can’t expect to see this one. The simple truth about the Tiny Hawk is that it’s especially hard to find. It’s not rare but it’s definitely an odd raptorial bird, one that will give you a run for your birding money.

Around the size of an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird (yes really!), this pint-sized raptor with long, sharp claws makes its living by ambushing small birds in humid forest from Central America south to northern Argentina. With such a large range, you would think it would be seen more often but nope! Many a veteran neotropical birder has only seen Tiny Hawk a few times or has never laid eyes on this challenging bird.

birding Costa Rica

Thinking of my own experiences with the bird, during decades of birding in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, I have probably seen them around a dozen times in Costa Rica, once or twice in Ecuador (one from a ridiculously amazing canopy tower at Yasuni Research Station. Really, it was ridiculous.), and perhaps a few times in Tambopata, Peru. So what’s the deal? Why is it so hard to see? Isn’t it just a tiny Sharpie or Sparrowhawk? Is it just too small?

To answer the latter questions, yes, part of the problem is that the bird is very small. The other part of the problem is that no, the Tiny Hawk is definitely not a small version of a Sharpie or Sparrowhawk. In some ways yes, it does act like those familiar bird predators but in other ways, its got its own Tiny thing going on.

Similar to the small, well-known Accipiters of the north, the Tiny Hawk also hides in dense vegetation so it can dash out and ambush its avian prey. However, unlike the slightly larger Accipiters, it rarely if ever soars and that makes a huge difference. Just imagine if Sharpies never soared, if they didn’t migrate? Think of how often you would see them. Probably still more than a Tiny Hawk but not nearly as much as you normally do.

Those attributes make the Tiny Hawk a tough one to watch and a much more difficult bird to study. Based on scant observations of behavior and its small size, at first, the hawk was hypothezied to be a hummingbird specialist. However, as more Tiny Hawk observations have been made, as more birders have documented its behavior, the truth about this species has come to light; hummingbirds do not make up a large part of its diet.

In 2021, Alex J. Berryman and Guy M. Kirwan investigated this idea and determined that no, as one might expect from a small Accipiter, the Tiny Hawk does not limit its diet to hummingbirds. It will catch them when it can but it also catches a variety of passerines and other small birds. Interestingly enough, although I have only seen Tiny Hawk with prey on two occasions, both were of passerines; a Shining Honeycreeper and a Scarlet-rumped Tanager.

Speaking of animals that hunt other animals, don’t let the name fool you. Like weasels and other pint-sized predators, for its size, the Tiny Hawk packs a ferocious punch. It’s every bit as voracious as a Sharpie, as tough as a Sparrowhawk, and has been seen taking birds nearly as large as itself, notably, Great Kiskadee and Golden-green Woodpecker (!). In a sense, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, we see similar feats of depredation from another group of birds that act a lot like a Tiny Hawk, the pygmy-owls. As with many raptors, they will catch whatever they can get away with catching.

The Tiny Hawk acts more or less like a Sharpie that never soars, like a pygmy-owl or small cat that uses its small size to stay hidden until it sees its chance. However, it’s still an odd bird. In fact, as it turns out, it’s not actually an Accipiter. What? But it has Accipiter as part of its name! Perhaps, but not for long, there are recommendations to give this bird and the related Semicollared Hawk their very own genus. Molecular and skeletal studies have revealed that these mini raptors are not closely related to other small Accipiters. They form a group related to but separate from them, a group that also includes the Lizard Buzzard of Africa.

Yes. As testament to the old lineages shown by many a raptor, somewhere, way back when, the ancestor of the Tiny and Semicollated Hawks separated from the ancestor of the Lizzard Buzzard! And, before then, the ancestor of those birds separated from the ancestor of the Harpagus “kites” (that would be the Double-toothed and the Rufous-thighed). Perhaps that explains why the Lizard Buzzard has a dark mark on the throat and why it sort of looks sort of like something between a Doubke-toothed Kite and a Tiny Hawk? Those data likely also partly explain why the Tiny Hawk looks different from the Accipiters. It has a slightly different shape, one not shown in many field guides.

The illustrators were probably basing their drawings on the Accipiters they were familiar with and we can’t blame them, the Tiny Hawk is not an easy bird to see and when many field guides were illustrated, few images of Tiny Hawk were available. The real shape of this fun little raptor is more along the lines of a pint-sized raptor with a short tail and almost “Passerinish” look. It’s notable that the Tiny Hawks shown in “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, and in “Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama” by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer are accurate depictions of this bird.

Getting back to the Lizard Buzzard, this cool bird is plumaged rather like an adult Gray Hawk although those features are surely convergent adaptations for the tropical semi-open habitats preferred by these and other species with similar gray-barred plumage. The plumage of the adult Tiny Hawk also shows fine gray barring and is likely an adaptation that helps camouflage the bird in dense vegetation. As for the young birds, unlike various other, larger raptor species, their plumage does not mimic the adult plumages of large raptor species (such as juvenile Bicolored Hawk and juvenile Hook-billed Kite resembling adult Collared Forest-Falcon among other examples).

Instead, curiously enough, juvenile Tiny Hawks have a rufous plumage. Did this trait evolve to resemble a thrush or other non-predatory bird and thus help them surprise the small birds they prey on? When you see a young Tiny Hawk perched high in a tree, that’s sort of what it looks like. But if so, why don’t the adults have rufous plumage too? Perhaps the adult plumage works better at catching prey in more situations. Who knows but it’s interesting to note that various pygmy-owls, a bird that, once again, hunts very much like a Tiny Hawk, also have morphs with similar rufous coloration.

All of this is interesting from an evolutionary perspective but what about seeing a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica? What about watching one go after an unwary Bananaquit? As previously eluded to, laying eyes on this special little bird isn’t the easiest of tasks but as with so many other aspects of tropical birding, there are tricks to up your birding odds. Try these tips to see Tiny Hawk while birding in Costa Rica:

Bird in the Right Places for Tiny Hawk

Yes, you could check eBird sightings and that will help but when birding Costa Rica, always remember that first and foremost, birds live in the right habitat, they aren’t restricted to places where people have eBirded. The right place for a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica is any area of lowland or foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope and, on the Pacific slope, humid forest from around Carara south to Golfo Dulce area. Yes, even around Carara. It’s not as regular there but small numbers probably occur from time to time around Macaw Lodge, Cangreja, and other, more humid sites in the area.

Tiny Hawk habitat.

Some years ago, I thought there were some spots that were better for this bird in Costa Rica than others. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. As long as rainforest or foothill forest is present, it seems like the Tiny Hawk can turn up in any number of places with similar degrees of frequency.

Scan the Treetops in the Early Morning and Late Afternoon

Get out there early and check the treetops, check them well. Do the same in the late afternoon. These are the times when Tiny Hawk is more likely to perch in the open, usually on a high branch. If you see a funny looking “thrush”, look twice, use the scope, it might be a Tiny Hawk.

As an aside, if small birds are making a ruckus at any time of day, take a close look, they might be upset about a Tiny Hawk. I saw that happen once in Manzanillo, the small size of the hawk made it easy to overlook, helped it blend in with the small birds that were mobbing it (at a healthy distance!).

Peripheral Birding around Mixed Flocks

Tiny Hawks may follow and catch unwary birds in mixed flocks. When encountering a mixed flock, keep an eye out for any lurking birds at the edge of the flock, especially if the lurker suddenly flies into the flock. Likewise, if you hear the birds give an alarm call, keep looking, keep watching to see if you can get lucky with a Tiny Hawk sighting.

Forest Clearings and Edges with Fruiting Trees and Hummingbird Activity

Whether because it’s easier to see birds or because Tiny Hawks prefer such situations, small clearings or places with scattered trees adjacent to forest seem to be good places to see this challenging bird (Nectar and Pollen is an ideal situation for this bird). Get a good vantage point and keep watching, check any thrush-like bird that suddenly comes into view. If small birds are active around fruiting and flowering trees or some other food source, there could easily be a Tiny Hawk lurking nearby. Keep watching and be ready for any sudden movement followed by alarm calls.

A good situation for Tiny Hawk.

Follow these tips and yo might find a Tiny Hawk. It’s a challenging bird, I won’t promise anything but if you do look for Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica, rest assured, you’ll still see lots of other birds.

To learn more about the best sites for birding in Costa Rica, support this blog and get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. I hope to see you here!

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Easy Going Birding in Costa Rica = 14 Hummingbirds, Black Guan, and More

Some of the best birding in Costa Rica is easy-going, relaxed birding. Although a definition of “best birding” is subjective and related to (1) what a birder wants to see and (2) how they want to do their birding, when the results of an easy morning of birding include several hummingbirds and various regional endemics (including uncommon and threatened species), that’s pretty darn good.

When birding in Costa Rica, you really don’t need to take long jungle hikes to see lots of great birds. To see a fantastic variety of species, visiting remote areas isn’t vital, nor is testing the limits of a rental vehicle’s suspension. It does help to know where to go birding in Costa Rica, know the best places to visit, and how to see those birds but you won’t have to buy any trekking boots.

Don’t get me wrong, expedition birding has its advantages too and I love being immersed in remote forest birding but Costa Rica offers much easier options. One of the best is the Poas and Cinchona area. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again; roadside birding from the Central Valley to Poas and along Route 126 can turn up an astonishing number of birds (a quick tally of birds that have occurred resulted in 500 species!). More than 100 are rare, various elevations are involved, and 50 of those birds are only present during the winter but that still leaves lots of birds to look for on any visit, any time of year. On a recent morning of birding with very limited walking, some birding highlights included:

14 Hummingbird Species

All were seen from the vehicle or at the Mirador San Fernando (the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe). They included such sweet birds as

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

Fiery-throated-Hummingbird

Scintillant Hummingbird

scintillant-hummingbird

and the uncommon Black-bellied Hummingbird.

Black-bellied Hummingbird
At least you can still see Black-bellied Hummingbird and other hummingbird action in the rain.

14 hummingbird species are a good total but amazingly, on the route we took, further effort can turn up at least 7 or more additonal species.

Large-footed Finch and Other Highland Endemics

In the high elevation areas of Poas Volcano, bird activity was somewhat hindered by cold rain. Even do, we still had excellent looks at regional endemics like Large-footed Finch, Sooty Thrush, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Flame-throated Warbler along with various other montane species.

Large-footed Finch doing its foraging thing in the leaf litter.

The Large-footed Finch is a towhee-like bird that needs cool, wet forest habitats. Like so many other bird species on Poas, it only lives in Costa Rica and western Panama.

Coffee with Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and other Great Birds

We spent around two hours at Cinchona and had excellent birding. Most of the usual species came to the fruit feeders including “the Cinchona trio” of Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and Red-headed Barbet.

The hummingbirds were also very active and gave us multiple close views of species like Green Thorntail, Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing and others.

As a bonus, a Barred Hawk soared into view, Black Guan showed at the feeder, and two juvenile Buff-fronted Quail-Doves occasionally appeared on the ground below the feeder.

There’s nothing like accompanying quality coffee with constant tropical birds at Cinchona!

Costa Rica is made for birding. Whether taking the easy birding route or exploring remote locations, fantastic birding is in the cards. See “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” to learn about the best sites for seeing more birds in Costa Ricaa nd prepare for your trip. I hope to see you here.

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Costa Rica Birding News and Recommendations- June 27, 2022

It’s June in 2022. Looking to escape for a week or so? Birds in Costa Rica are pretty cool…

Speckled Tanagers are pretty cool.

If you expect to be birding in Costa Rica soon, the following information will help with your trip:

Route 32 is Temporarily Closed

This would be the main, busy and important highway that links the San Jose area to Guapiles and Limon. In birding terms, it’s the main road to such excellent sites as Cope’s Place, Nectar and Pollen, Centro Manu, and the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station. Before you fret about not being able to go birding at those promising hotspots, fortunately, Route 32 isn’t the only way to get there.

Until the highway is fixed (it could easily be a week or more), you’ll have to take a more circuitous route. The birding upside is that one of those routes is the road that passes by Cinchona. This road, Route 126, is very birdy and scenic but if using it to reach the aforementioned sites, it would make for a very long day trip from the Central Valley. It will be much easier to visit those sites as a trip from lodging in or near the Sarapiqui area.

Red-headed Barbet and Silver-throated Tanagers are often seen at Cinchona.

This important route was closed a few days ago after heavy rains caused a small landslide. Steep slopes and wet weather converge to make such road problems a regular issue on Route 32. Unfortunately, on this occasion, continuous heavy rains resulted in a major landslide; maybe the biggest I have ever seen on Route 32.

It will eventually be fixed but could take a while. With that in mind, if you need to travel to Limon, you might want to consider Route 10 as an option.

Heavy Rains

Route 32 isn’t the only part of Costa Rica recently affected by heavy rains. There has been some localized flooding and a few other roads have also had problems. For the most part, most roads are open but since that could easily change, make sure to use Waze to stay updated about road closures and conditions during your time in Costa Rica.

The rains also present obvious challenges for birding but one advantage is higher bird activity during pauses in precipitation. Seriously, the birding can be fantastic in the mornings and when the rain stops.

Lovely Cotinga at Arenal Observatory Lodge

In June and July, some individuals of this species move to elevations lower than their upper middle elevation breeding grounds. A recent sighting of a female in the gardens of the Observatory Lodge was a reminder of this behavior. These days, birders should scan treetops in any foothill and middle elevation forest on the Caribbean slope for the turquoise blue of male Lovely Cotinga and the pale, dove-like aspect of the female. They aren’t exactly common but you could find one.

If you don’t have cotinga luck, you might sitll see a Green Thorntail.

Better for Rails and Masked Duck (aka Duck-billed Pseudo-Rail)

Now that the rains are here, rails and Masked Ducks are more accessible. Seeing them still requires a considerable amount of time and effort but they are much easier now than the dry season. Lately, local birders have been watching Paint-billed Crake and Spotted Rail in the Las Trancas rice fields, and Masked Duck has been seen at a private wetland site in Guanacaste. Paint-billed Crake has also been showing in its usual Coto 48 haunts and could also be found in other suitable wetlands. Rice fields on the Pacific slope are good places to look for this gallinulish crake but they can also appear in any number of marshy areas. Masked Duck could easily be lurking in those same spots.

A Pelagic Trip Might be Nice

As with pretty much everywhere, pelagic trips in Costa Rica are always exciting. At this time of year, it’s possible that rainy weather may bring more nutrients into coastal waters that in turn, attract more birds. I’m not sure if that is the case but I do know that I’ve seen more interesting pelagic species from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry at this time of the year than in the dry season.

Head further from shore and you have a fair chance of seeing Tahiti Petrel and some chance of connecting with Christmas Shearwater in addition to regulars like Wedge-rumped, Black, amd Least Storm-Petrels, and Wedge-tailed and Galapagos Shearwaters. NOT TO MENTION, you could also have some serious powerball birding luck and see something like the country first Salvin’s Albatross that was spotted in late May!

Costa Rica is wet and rainy right now but the birding is still fantastic. Plan your birding trip to Costa Rica with rain in mind and stay updated on road conditions and you’ll do fine. I hope to see you here!

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

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

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

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

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

It’s always good!

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

How You Prefer to Experience Birds

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

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

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

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

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

How Much You Want to See

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

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

How Much Time You Have

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

Unfamiliar Birds

white-whiskered puffbird

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

Peace of Mind

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

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

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

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A Fine Morning of Caribbean Lowland Birding in Costa Rica

The first guide for the birds of Costa Rica was a book written by Alexander Skutch and Gary Stiles, and illustrated by Dana Gardner. Published in the late 80s, this tome helped kick off birding tourism in Costa Rica and although its use in the field has been largely replaced by The Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean, and the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, it still contains a wealth of information.

More suited for reference than use in the field, in Stiles and Skutch, in addition to detailed species accounts, we also learn about different regions and habitats. One of those regions is known as the “Caribbean Lowlands”, a part of the country that actually has very little in common with islands like Cuba or Puerto Rico. However, since this eastern section of Costa Rica does border those beautiful waters, the name has stuck, at least for birding.

It would be equally justified to refer to this part of Costa Rica as the “Eastern Lowlands”, the “Eastern Lowland Rainforest”, or, in the birding realm of things, “Green Macawlandia”. “Rainforest Wonderland Birding” would also work- that pretty much sums up the general birding experience in these warm and humid lowlands. They are lots of birds to look for, including exotic species like toucans, antbirds, puffbirds, and potoos. Bring binocs to the right places and you could see well over 100 species in a day.

Yesterday morning, I was reminded of the fine birding to be had in the Caribbean Lowlands during a couple hours around Chilamate. These were some highlights:

Both Macaws and Other Parrots Too

Seeing flyby Scarlet Macaws is always a gift. Such views have become commonplace on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica, and are regular in some parts of the Caribbean Lowlands. They only get better when you see a pair of perched Critically Endangered Great Green Macaws shortly after. Witnessing the raucous calls and flights of Mealy, Red-lored, White-crowned, and Brown-hooded Parrots was also pretty nice. Throw in views of Crimson-fronted, Olive-throated, and Orange-chinned Parakeets and the morning becomes a fine birding experience indeed.

Semiplumbeous Hawk

As the name says, the bird is not entirely plumbeous. It’s not all that common either so it was sweet to scan the treeline and find one of these small rainforest raptors. Even better, the views were accompanied by the sights and sounds of 3 toucan species, tityras, Long-tailed Tyrant, and other rainforest species Bird early in the Caribbean Lowlands and there’s almost too much to look at (just how we like it)!

Semiplumbeous Hawk

Motmots

Early morning in the Caribbean Lowlands is often accompanied by the hooting of Rufous Motmots and the hoarse calls of Broad-billed Motmots. Seeing these shade-loving birds can be another matter but we eventually managed.

Green Ibis

What’s not to like about a noisy bird with prehistoric flavor? We started the day with a bird stalking the lagoons at Quinta de Sarapiqui and wrapped up our early morning birding with another one or two filling the air with their crazy calls.

Green Ibis

Woodpeckers

The tall forests of the Caribbean Lowlands can be great for woodpeckers. In addition to the expected Black-cheeked Woodpecker, we also had Rufous-winged, a high flying Cinnamon, and a pair of Pale-billed Woodpeckers that foraged on roadside posts! We didn’t look for the beautiful Chestnut-colored Woodpecker because we had already seen it the day before.

Pale-billed Woodpecker is in the house.

There were other birds too; toucans, tanagers, White-ringed Flycatchers, and more. Even better, none required any muddy rainforest hikes, nor hardly any walking at all. We had all of this wonderful lowland rainforest while birding from easy roads, hardly even leaving the car. I can’t wait to get back and explore more site around Sarapiqui. To learn more about the best birding sites in Costa Rica and enhance your birding in Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you here.

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Wet Season Birding in Costa Rica: 5 Top Sites

Here comes the rain again, falling and drenching the forests and fields, filling the rivers of Costa Rica. It’s wet as the ocean but it’s all good, it’s what’s supposed to happen. At this time of year, every ecosystem in Costa Rica expects water, needs it to lubricate the wheels and cogs of life and keep them running. Everything needs this humid abundance; orchids decorating cloud forest, massive trees with butressed roots, foliage that feeds bugs that then feed pigeons and guans preyed upon by hawk-eagles.

Sunny skies please the tourist but it’s not the best weather for birding. In Costa Rica, better birding happens on cloudy days, days like now. Go birding in Costa Rica in June and you’ll miss out on northern migrants but you might have a better chance at seeing resident species. At least they can be more active, might even sing more. Right now, the birding is good in all of Costa Rica’s tropical corners. Even so, I wonder, are some sites better during the wet season? Maybe not, but you couldn’t go wrong with birding in these 5 places:

The Poas Area

The upper slopes of this active volcano are always worth a visit. Good highland forest habitats are a quick 45 to 60 minute drive from the airport. Even better, those rich habitats are easily birded, right from the road. When birding Poas, Resplendent Quetzal is possible any time of year but it might be easier in the wet season. Once, I had 6 of the iridescent birds, right next to the road. It was birdingly ridiculous. While looking for one of the top world megas, mixed flocks can also be checked for highland endemics like Flame-throated Warbler, Buffy Tuftedcheek, and Ruddy Treerunner.

Ruddy Treerunner.

As a bonus, Golden-browed Chlorophonias can be pretty common, Black Guan is regular, and many other choice species are also possible.

Rincon de la Vieja

June is when local birders vtrek to the quality habitats of this excellent national park. Their main targets are Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows, two local species more easily seen at this time of year than during the windswept dry season. They sparrow search in natural grasslands located on the back part of the Catarata Escondido trail. It’s a long walk but at least a birder passes through excellent forest. On the way, they might see fun species like Elegant Trogon (a subspecies that might be split from the trogons of Arizona), Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, Tody Motmot and Thicket Tinamou. With luck, an antswarm could host a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

This national park is always good, maybe a bit better during the wet season.

Guanacaste Rice Field and other Wetlands

As the rains fill rice fields and more natural wetlands, they attract birds, lots of birds. In addition to flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, watch for Jabiru, various raptors, and Masked Duck. Most of all, listen and look for Spotted Rail. Rice fields during the wet season are the best time to find this local species in Costa Rica.

The dry forest birding won’t let you down either!

Carara

The rainforests of Carara National Park are wet and buggy in June but the birding is excellent. Use repellent and check the trails for Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, mixed flocks, and more. Cloudy weather also boosts bird activity and keeps things somewhat cooler than the heat of the dry season.

birding Costa Rica

Bring an umbrella for rain and binos for some great birding.

Bellbirds in San Ramon Quetzal Valley and Monteverde

At this time of year, both of these sites are good for Three-Wattled bellbird. Monteverde is better known and has more tourism infrastructure but Quetzal Valley also makes for an excellent day trip. A couple of great guides work in that area and know where to find everything from bellbirds to quetzals and Ornate Hawk-eagle. Email me at information@birdingcraft.com to put you in touch.

As always, in birdy Costa Rica, it’s tough to pick any “top sites”. No matter where you look for birds in Costa Rica, visit good habitat and the birding will entice you. Visit now and although you will witness the rain, you will also see tons of birds. Not to mention, it won’t be as hot and there will be fewer fellow tourists. Enhance your trip with a good Costa Rica bird finding guide. As always, I hope to see you here!