Recently, a fold-out publication called, “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” was distributed at the Birdfair in Rutland, UK. It’s a boon for birding in Costa Rica, it’s wonderful that it was published, and I hope the hotels and agencies that paid for this marketing product will benefit from it. The ones mentioned as birding hotspots protect habitat, offer good accommodation and services, and are good spots for birding. I would also agree that some in the publication do merit “birding hotspot” status, especially Rancho Naturalista. However, several other fantastic sites for birding were not mentioned, including some that certainly deserve “hotspot status”. This doesn’t mean that the publication is bad or wrong. It mean that there wasn’t enough space to mention every site. Lack of certain sites also stems from the inclusion of the “comfort factor” for designation of hotspots. According to the people who made this publication, quality of service and accommodation were definitely factored into the equation. They also told me that hotspots are meant to refer to regions rather than hotels (those being mentioned as “core sites” for a region). Nevertheless, since “Costa Rica Birding Hotspots” leaves out several important sites for birding in Costa Rica, I feel obligated to set the record straight, or basically give my opinion regarding birding hotspots in Costa Rica:
What makes a place a birding hotspot in a country that already happens to be one big hotspot?
This is a worthwhile question to ponder because yes, since Costa Rica is about the same size as West Virginia, has a bird list of more than 900 species including dozens of regional endemics, and one can reach most corners of the country by driving four or five hours from the center, it’s easy to give hotspot status to the entire nation. Nevertheless, not every site has hundreds of bird species and that usually comes down to presence or absence of habitat. Therefore, extent of habitat (1) should be the primary factor in determining “hotspot” status because basically, in Costa Rica, the most intact forests have the most bird species and the highest number of birds. Protection (2) is another consideration because unsustainable hunting affects populations of tinamous, cracids, wood-quails, raptors, etc. and makes them much harder to see. The other main factor is logistics (3) because although the best highland birding I have seen in Costa Rica was on the trail up to Chirripo, present regulations and challenges rule it out as a feasible birding destination (you won’t see many birds when you have to constantly march uphill). The comfort factor is also something to consider but since excellent birding isn’t contingent upon easy access, and quality lodging, I haven’t given that factor as much weight as the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Publication.
So, with those factors in mind, this is my take on the top sites where a birder is most likely to encounter the highest number of species and regional endemics in a given amount of time, for each region or major habitat:
- Central Valley: When this part of the country was covered in moist tropical forest and wetlands, it was probably fantastic birding and a great place to see Three-wattled Bellbird, Long-tailed Manakin, and many other species. However, since this is the part of the country where people set up house and agriculture, those birding opportunities disappeared 150 or more years ago. As with any area mostly dedicated to urbanization, the birding opportunities that remain are pretty slim. You don’t want to linger for too long in this part of the country but if you have to stay here, try the birding at Zamora Estate Hotel and Xandari. The Bougainvillea is a perennial favorite but both of the sites mentioned are closer to the airport, have more habitat, and thus more bird species. You might also want to stay a bit further afield in the Varablanca area.
- Cloud forest: In my opinion, the Monteverde area wins hotspot status for this wonderful habitat. It’s easy to get to (and will be easier when more of the road is paved), has plenty of infrastructure, is easy to bird, and has lots of great habitat. Bellbirds are easy from March and April to July, the R. Quetzal is reliable, and many other uncommon species are easier in the forest reserves (Monteverde, Santa Elena, and Curi-Cancha) than other parts of Costa Rica and elsewhere, including Highland Tinamou, leaftossers, Azure-hooded Jay, Coppery-headed Emerald, and many other species. Include a trip down to the San Gerardo station and you will also visit one of the best birding sites in Central America. This is an excellent area for Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas, Black-headed and Rufous-breasted Antthrushes, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and many other possibilities including hawk-eagles, and even Solitary Eagle.
- Tropical dry forest: Although many dry forest species seem to be more adaptable than rainforest species, and can thus be seen in edge habitats and riparian zones in much of the northwest (the Tarcoles River and north of there), the best hotspots for this habitat are probably Santa Rosa National Park, Palo Verde National Park, and Rincon de la Vieja National Park. At Rincon de la Vieja, the drive up is good for many dry forest birds while the forests of the park have a nice mix of dry forest and rainforest species including Tody Motmot, various raptors, a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, quail-doves, and the list goes on.
- High Elevations: Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to find excellent high elevation birding in Costa Rica due to ease of access of several protected areas. Poas is an easy fix for high elevation endemics, and can be better for Black Guan and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher than the high Talamancas. However, the best sites for high elevation birding are indeed located in the Talamancas on Cerro de la Muerte. Savegre is often mentioned as the place to go because they have a great, well-earned reputation, comfortable accommodation, and good habitat with good birds. However, if you can’t afford Savegre, you can still see the same birds by staying at other lodging in the area and birding from the main road in San Gerardo de Dota, birding on the road to Providencia through Quetzal National Park, and birding the trails behind La Georgina. Toucanet Lodge and Paraiso de Quetzales also deserve mention.
Learn about more hotspots next week…
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Chomes. I birded Costa Rica’s top shorebird site last week. I wish I could bird there every day because, as with any important hub for migration, birds come and go, probably on a daily basis. What flies in the day after you visit? Heck, what flies in later the same day? I wish we knew! This is the place that probably sees visits by a lone, lost Red-necked Stint, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and other vagrants. But, there’s no one there to see them. Heck, if a Red-necked Stint showed up in winter plumage, who would notice it anyways?
Chomes is always exciting because every visit is different. You never know what’s really going to show up but if you visit during high tide during shorebird migration, you can bet that you will see a bunch of those Arctic messengers. Various terns and a gull or two are usually mixed in with the shorebirds, and there are other birds. Here are some thoughts on what to expect during the upcoming birding season:
- A good access road: The road into Chomes leaves from the Pan-American highway. It’s not signed very well (no surprise there), and used to promise a bumpy ride. Yes, “used to” because the road has been drastically improved! Much of the road was graded this past Saturday, and the workers seemed ready to finish the job. At the moment, it is definitely good enough for two-wheel drive cars, including the tracks into the shrimp ponds. Heavy rains could change all that but they aren’t likely.
- Too dry on the way in: Speaking of rains, we wish that more water would fall in Guanacaste and Chomes. The current El Nino effect is keeping things dry and since that’s actually global warming, it’s only going to become drier. Although we didn’t survey birds on the drive in, I can’t help but get the impression that there are fewer birds around. No surprise there since the life-giving rains have not lived up to ecological expectations. The riparian zones might be the best places to check for dry forest species along with sites in the foothills.
- Huge agricultural areas: Immense fields have been a part of the Chomes picture for years and they probably explain why the road has been fixed. I don’t know what they will be used for but if it happens to be pineapple, just drive on past. Pineapple fields are basically filled with poison and thus have almost no birds (or other life for that matter). If something else is planted, scan for thick-knees, Harris’s Hawk, and other open country species (Aplomado Falcon has been seen there in the past).
- Shorebirds during high tide: Some plovers and sandpipers are there during low tide but the numbers don’t compare to high tide. Check the tides and schedule accordingly because a lot of birds come here to roost and feed when the nearby Gulf of Nicoya is filled with water. On Saturday, we had hundreds of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and lesser numbers of other species including a rare Long-billed Curlew. This is the eBird list.
- Collared Plovers on the beach: You can also pick out a few on the ponds but this past visit had a dozen or so on the beach. Nice close looks!
- Mangrove Rail: This secretive species has always been present in the scrubby Black Mangroves but it’s of course always hidden. Go early in the morning and look in spots where the scrubby mangroves are in shallow water and wet ground. When the edges of the mangroves dry out, the rails seem much harder to find because they are probably hanging out in the middle of the mangroves. These are the short mangroves that grow in the ponds.
- Mangrove birds: I was surprised that we saw so few mangrove species this past visit. Most of my past birding at Chomes has resulted in easy looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, and various other species including chances at Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Try the taller mangroves on the road to the beach and on the track next to it for all of these.
- Bobwhite and hordes of roosting White-fronted Parrots in the evening: You can also get Spot-bellied Bobwhite during the day but it seems easier in the evening. A covey or two can show up anywhere on the road to the beach. The parrots fly in by the hundreds.
- Hot weather, bugs, and no services: I almost forgot to mention these fun factors! That vehicle you are in is your terrestrial lifeboat, especially if it has air conditioning. Be prepared, use the restroom before birding at Chomes, and scope from the shade!
Hope to see you at Chomes!
The ferry is the poor person’s pelagic. Or one for people with limited time. Or, on some routes, a quick fix for folks who suffer from wave action. However you want to call it, a ferry is an easy way to see birds from a boat, and by “birds” I mean the ones that are especially hard to see from shore. The Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is the easiest way to see some pelagics in Costa Rica and although you can’t count on Pterodromas or other wicked flying denizens of the super deep, the boat does cross one of the richest estuarine gulfs in Central America. I’ve been thinking more and more about that gulf. Like about what lives in those waters and what comes there from the ocean to feed. In terms of birds, it’s pretty darn important. The mud flats are used by resident wading birds and thousands of migrant shorebirds, the mangroves are home to the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird and nurseries for thousands of fish, and the waters provide food for dolphins, tuna, thousands of Black Terns (which seem to be there all year long), and various other seabirds.
It’s the “various others” that draws me to the gulf, especially during these El Nino times. Storm-petrels, Galapagos Shearwater, and Blue-footed Booby have been regular, and many other birds are possible. Thanks to near daily trips and reports by Jorge Zuniga Lopez, we have heard about Sabine’s Gulls, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Costa Rica’s first Peruvian Booby! Since a couple of these were seen the past month, yesterday, I made time for a trip down to Puntarenas to watch from the ferry. I came prepared with snacks, binos, scope, camera, and a vigilant mindset that would hopefully yield new year birds and additions to my Costa Rica list.
My first stops were the cruise ship pier and the lighthouse area in Puntarenas, two spots that can turn up pelagics. The pier had a couple of boobies along with regular terns and Brown Pelicans but I just could’t turn that juvenile Brown Booby into a Red-footed. Over at the lighthouse, scanning with a scope revealed swarms of Black Terns along with one Elegant, and a few Royals and Sandwich Terns. Eventually, I spotted a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters, pretty far off but still identifiable. That point really is the most accessible place to see some pelagics from shore in Costa Rica because it’s close to a spot where the inner gulf meets the outer gulf. You could easily go and see nothing but on one occasion, I could even identify Black Storm-Petrels there with binoculars.
The ferry got underway around 9 and I started seeing birds shortly thereafter. Most were Black Terns.
But, a couple of Galapagos Shearwaters also made an appearance, one right in front of the boat!
Further on, I saw a Blue-footed Booby. Oddly, one of the only boobies seen that day. Other days have resulted in several.
Eventually, scanning the hordes of Black Terns on a drift line turned up a Brown Noddy.
Interestingly, I didn’t see storm-petrels until the return ride to Puntarenas around 11:30 and noon. Unfortunately, none came very close to the ferry but they gave me enough studies to watch several Black Storm-Petrels, one or two Least Storm-Petrels, and just as I was about to give up scanning while the boat moved up and down, one Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel!
Although I didn’t get my Sabine’s Gull nor see any mega rarity, I did pick up three year birds (two Storm-Petrels and Least Tern). Once again, I also exited the ferry feeling that I had barely scratched the surface of what can be seen in the Gulf of Nicoya. What flew in after the ferry went past? What happens to be visiting the gulf today, especially the deeper parts? If you have the time, the ferry is easy enough to do. Park the vehicle at Franks Cabinas just north of the ferry ($8 for the whole day), buy a ticket for 810 colones (maybe $1.50), and get on board. After getting off the ferry in Paquera, just walk right back through the ticket area, buy another $1.50 ticket for the return trip, and scan for birds on the way back. The trip takes an hour and a half. Make sure to get on first and pick a spot right up front on the top deck.
Tags: Pelagic birding
Costa Rica is an easy place for fantastic, tropical birding. Whether the plane touches down in the Central Valley or the airport near Liberia, it doesn’t take long to get into excellent, protected tropical forests with things like curassows, antbirds, trogons, parrots, fancy wrens, and the list goes on. This is why hundreds of birders visit Costa Rica every year, and why I have more than 600 species on my year list (and it’s only August). It also helps to have megadiversity, easy access to good habitats, experienced guides, and birding information that ranges from excellent field guides and birding apps, to a new map with hotspots, and a comprehensive bird-finding guide for Costa Rica.
But, for folks who feel like getting away from easily accessible sites such as Carara National Park and the foothill rainforests around Arenal, Costa Rica plays host to several remote, little birded areas. These are the places that tend to have the most intact forests and could host populations of Crested Eagle, Red-throated Caracara, Gray-headed Piprites, and other decidedly uncommon birds. The only problem is that the reason why they host intact forested habitats coincides with the reasons why they are visited by very few birders. Why trudge through mud and rain for a chance at a few rarities around Rara Avis when you can still see lots of other birds around Sarapiqui? Why explore sites around Laguna del Lagarto when you can just spend your time in the Arenal area? Why take a boat ride up a river to reach an indigenous community when you can dine on wonderful Italian cuisine and relax in a pool near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca?
When it comes down to it, if you don’t go, you don’t know what’s really there. However, if you check out Google Earth, you will have an idea of the amount of forest in those hidden corners of Costa Rica, and intact forest is key for 99% of those rare species you are probably missing. Yorkin is one such place. To have an idea of where it is located, check out Google Earth or a map of Costa Rica, and go to the far, eastern corner where Sixaola marks the border with Panama. From there, trace your way up that river past the town of BriBri, then take the first river to the east. This is the Yorkin River, it marks the border, and is where I went with the Birding Club of Costa Rica this past weekend. I hadn’t been there before but based on the location, and amount of forest, it looked like a place that could turn up any number of rarities and maybe a new bird or two for the Costa Rica list.
These are some observations and highlights from that trip:
- Not as hard as you think: Well, at least getting there. It takes around four hours to drive to BriBri from the San Jose area, and another 15 to 20 minutes to reach the village of Bambu. In Bambu, you have to look for the boat drivers at the only store there (look for a fairly large thatched roof structure on the east side of the road). If you have a vehicle, they will show you where to leave the car. Then, when all is ready, you get on a motorized dugout canoe, and head up-stream for an hour. Upon arrival, your host from the Yorkin women’s ecotourism project will show you to your lodging, and so on. It takes a while but it’s fairly easy and reminded me of trips to ecolodges in the Amazon basin.
- Be ready for the boat ride: Although the voyage is straightforward and thus fairly easy, you might want a small cushion for your seat on the boat, and will definitely want to bring something for the rain. It rains often and the boat doesn’t have a roof. That said, the drivers will put your stuff in plastic bags if you like. It’s pretty tough to bird from the boat but keep the binos at the ready because you motor through good forest for most of the ride and I would not be the least bit surprised if Harpy and Crested Eagles live in that area. In fact, I bet they do. They wouldn’t be exactly common but you never know when one might be perched in view.
- Bird before you get on the boat: Speaking of birding from the boat, actually, it’s worth it to bird around Bambu and from the departure point for the boats. Without too much effort and in very little time, we had a Snowy Cotinga, Lesser Nighthawks, Pearl Kite, White-lined Tanager, toucans, and several other species. Scanning the forest canopy with a scope from the edge of the river would also be worthwhile.
- Bring rubber boots: After optics, this should be the most important item on your packing list. The trails are pretty muddy! Bring the boots, you will be wearing them most of the time.
- Pack light, pack for hot, humid, wet conditions: There’s not a lot of room on the boat, so try to pack light. The weather is hot, humid, and rainy most of the time, so pack accordingly and use dry bags!
- Not much electricity: Solar panels provide electricity, but it might not be enough to charge your devices. Maybe, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a place to hang out with “devices”. It’s more of a place to explore, hike muddy trails, look for rare birds, and learn about BriBri culture.
- Lodging is basic: In case you expected something else, don’t. The lodging is basic but clean and with mosquito nets. I saw a couple of scorpions in my room so shake out your stuff before putting it on! That said, scorpions can find they way into just about any ecolodge in the lowlands.
- Bugs?: Not that bad when we were there. Very few mosquitoes, and a few biting flies here and there. Use repellent and you will be fine.
- Food: Basic, home-cooked stuff and it’s great! Portions might seem small but they usually offer seconds if you need it, and you can always bring energy bars (essential adventure birding, eatable accessories in any case).
- But what about the birds?: There is a fair sampling of edge species around the village but the best birding is a tough hike up to nearby ridges. Bird around the lodging and you will see common stuff but you might also find a Uniform Crake (I heard two of them), see some good birds on the trail near the river (like Yellow-eared Toucanet, who knows what else is possible?), and can look for soaring raptors that fly above the ridge.
- Ridge birding: Since most of our group did not want to climb up a steep, muddy, slippery hill, we barely touched the surface of the best habitat. Frustrating,but that’s the way the ball bounces. However, from what little I saw, if you can manage it, the hike is worth it. We had views into the canopy of the forest and distant fantastic forests of the Amistad International Park, and were just getting into good primary rainforest. We didn’t have enough time to properly bird it but our local guide, Myriam, recognized the calls of White-fronted Nunbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and maybe even Great Jacamar. Others have seen Black-crowned Antpitta up there (and might be one of the best places for it in Costa Rica), and a local birding guide told me that he had seen Lovely Cotinga, toucanets, antbirds, and other forest species. I am pretty sure that piprites is possible as well as most other rare and uncommon forest species. Another indication of wild habitat was Myriam mentioning that Jaguar comes down near her house once every four months, according to her, when someone is pregnant.
- Cacao birding: Cacao is one of the most important crops for this area and is what grows around the entire village area. It’s not the best for birds but still hosts a fair variety of species, especially near the bridge and forest. Some of the stand-outs that we recorded were Yellow-eared Toucanet, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, and Olive-backed Quail-Dove.
- School birding: One of our best sites was the vicinity of the school. It overlooks the river, is next to a stream, and affords views of two forested ridges. Since it’s also blessed by a breeze, this is a great area to hang out on a hot afternoon. We had White-whiskered Puffbird and other species by the stream, Snowy Cotingas and a few Crested Oropendolas across the river, and, best of all, good views at King Vulture (common here), Black Hawk-Eagle, flocks of migrating Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and, best of all, two sightings of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. I think many other species are possible on the forested ridges, maybe even Lovely and perhaps Blue Cotinga, and maybe a chance at the really big eagles and Red-throated Caracara.
- Night birds?: I had high hopes for several nocturnal species but all we got was a Mottled Owl. However, we didn’t get in much night birding, especially in better habitats so I still think that most expected species should be present. Myriam was familiar with both potoos as well as all expected owl calls, and maybe even Rufous Nightjar.
- Few large birds: Big birds like guans and Great Tinamou are around but much more rare than other sites in Costa Rica. Even toucans stayed away from the village, and we suspected that this was due to at least some sort of hunting pressure. Those birds are still present but frequent the forest, and are easier to see at other sites in any case.
- The local people: Our hosts were welcoming, very friendly, and very nice. Interacting with them was a wonderful addition to the trip and something I hope to repeat on a future occasion. They are also very tough and accustomed to walking for kilometers through muddy, hot conditions. You can’t walk around on your own but that wasn’t a problem. I just told Myriam where we wanted to go and she took us. However, if you just want easy trails, make sure to tell her because she didn’t think twice about walking on steep and muddy trails (but always warned us of trail conditions).
If I visit Yorkin again (and I hope I do), I would spend at least two full days in the primary forests on the ridges, and probably spend the rest of my time scanning the canopy and skies for raptors and cotingas. I would also spend more time scanning from the river, and even seeing if the boat could stop along the river to scan the canopy from shore. If you go, please leave a comment about your trip!
Costa Rica is a dream for any aficionado of topography. Before you ask yourself if there really are people who dig topography, let me assure that there indeed are. Most of us like a mountain scene or two (partly why those Ricola commercials are so memorable), and when I lived in the flatlands of Illinois, I met more than one person who was surprisingly enthused about any change in topography. “Topography!” they would exclaim as we drove over a bit of escarpment. I don’t bemoan that excitement in the slightest for I too am an aficionado of abrupt changes in elevation!
In Costa Rica, you are better off being a fan of a crumpled, up-lifted landscape because that describes most of the country. That’s ok. That’s a good thing. That’s also partly why we have so many birds that occur nowhere else but Costa Rica and Panama. It’s also why we have a bunch of birds that normally live in the Andes. AND, it also makes it easy to leave the urban zone behind and head up into the mountains to one of the closest, best spots for birding near San Jose.
Varablanca is just 40 minutes to an hour from the San Jose area and it’s an easy place to see a good variety of highland birds. Most birders don’t go there because they save their mountain birding for Cerro de la Muerte (aka Savegre, the Dota Valley, Quetzal Paradise). While there is more habitat up that way, Cerro de la Muerte is also 2 and a half to 3 hours from San Jose. The proximity of Varablanca makes it an easy, honest option for a first night in country, and I know of at least one local birding tour company that does stay in Varablanca for the first night of most tours.
Lately, I have been spending more time up that way guiding and watching birds at the Poas Volcano Lodge. Here are some recent highlights and observations from Varablanca, Cinchona, and Poas:
- If it’s raining, go to Cinchona: It might be raining there too, but I have escaped the water on more than one occasion by heading to a lower elevation. The other plus side for Cinchona is still being able to watch birds come to the feeders even if it happens to be raining.
- Black-cheeked Warblers: This species can turn up in any riparian zones or roadside forest with bamboo in the understory.
- Black-thighed Grosbeak: Although it often moves to lower elevations in rainy weather, it seems to be fairly common at Poas Volcano Lodge and in the general area.
- Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher: The general area always seems good for this cool endemic. It sounds like a cricket and usually hangs out in the crowns of tall trees. The Black and yellow is also fairly common around Poas.
- Don’t discount quetzals and guans: The R. Quetzal is far from common around Poas but it is there. Hang out long enough at the Volcan Restaurant (please support their buisiness and donate generously for the feeders), and there is a fair chance that one will show. Find a fruiting avocado and you might also see one or two. Black Guan is more regular, especially in the forest along the road to Poas.
- Prong-billed Barbet: This species is pretty common in this area. It can show up in any spot with forest but if you want really close looks, check out the feeders at Cinchona and Poas Volcano Lodge.
- Red-tailed Hawk: Yes, readers from the USA and Canada will be saying, “So what?”. To that, I ask if you think this looks like a Red-tailed from home? It doesn’t sound like one either. I wonder how far genetically removed it is from birds up north? Maybe a little, maybe enough for a split. Varablanca and Poas are good areas to study this highland endemic subspecies.
- Ruddy Treerunner: Speaking of highland endemics, this and most of the others live in the area as well.
When booking your hotel for that first and last night in Costa Rica, remember that birdy Varablanca is just 45 minutes to an hour from the airport.
The calendar says “August’ but in Costa Rica, the weather mimics so many other times of the year. I look out the window and see the thick blanket of clouds hugging the tops of the mountains. It might rain, it might not, but it’s warm outside and that’s always a given. Unlike the northern temperate zone, this month isn’t the last 30 days of summer. There won’t be any crisp autumn nights ahead either. Much to my daughter’s chagrin, she won’t witness the change of seasons. She might feel differently if she knew that winter is not a Disneyesque frozen wonderland. While the natural magic of soft falling snow and faint crystal frequencies of forming ice could remind one of “Elsa”, the enchantment lasts only as long as your personal comfort. Wade through snow drifts, feel the pain of freezing toes, and come face to face with screaming wind chill, and the wish to grow wings and fly south become tangible. After all, a lot of birds do it once a year, so why not us?
A lot of those migrants fly to and through Costa Rica and some have already arrived. Although several shorebirds appear to have stayed here instead of going north, more have definitely flown down from their northern breeding grounds. A few local birders have made trips to Chomes and seen fair numbers of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and even a Long-billed Curlew. Several have also had encounters with Clapper (Mangrove) Rail, a resident, furtive species that appears to be regular in short Black Mangroves at Chomes and nearby sites in the Gulf of Nicoya.
Other shorebirds are surely around and arriving as well, so, hopefully, more birders can get out there and see what’s happening (I hope I can!).
As far as Passerines go, it’s still too early for the majority of warblers but a few have made appearances, including this year’s first report of Cerulean Warbler. Go to the right places in late August and early September and you have a very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler in Costa Rica. Those places are usually foothill and middle elevation forests on the Caribbean Slope, especially at the Reserva las Brisas. The first Cliff Swallows have also appeared, and many other species will be here in a month.
Birds are also leaving Costa Rica. Go birding here during March and the songs of Piratic Flycatchers are a constant theme. Go birding now and you would be lucky to see one. They have stopped singing and some are probably still around, but most have departed for Amazonia. Two other “summer” breeders will also be gone soon as well. Both the Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher and the Yellow-green Vireo are pretty common species on the Pacific slope from February to about now. I heard both just the other day so know that they are still around but most will be leaving any one of these nights.
Two of the most spectacular species about to leave town are the Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites. Migrating groups have been reported and they are headed to the Amazon basin. the birding is great in Costa Rica, but I wish I could fly with them, at least for a little bit. It would be interesting to see if they go to one area for the winter or if they roam over the vast rainforests. It would also be nice to take in a few Amazonian dawn choruses, but only for a little while because I wouldn’t want to miss the rest of fall migration in Costa Rica.
One of the best and most accessible sites for middle elevation birding in Costa Rica is just 30 minutes from Cartago. It’s the place where most birders in Costa Rica see their first Streaked Xenops, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and other decidedly uncommon, middle elevation species that are much easier to see in the Andes. Although these can still be easily missed at Tapanti, it is the most reliable site in Costa Rica for the birds mentioned above (except the antthrush- easier at the San Gerardo field station). Lots of other quality birds also show up in the quality, mossy forests at Tapanti, including Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Sharpbill, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and so on. So, why is it then, that I rarely bird there? After all, it’s pretty close to the Central Valley.
Ironically, the vicinity to the Valley is also what keeps me from going there. You see, it’s near the eastern side of the Valley while I live on the western side. Lack of a good ring road means a trip through the traffic of San Jose and then Cartago to get there, and then again to come back. Hit the rush hour traffic and we are talking two to three hours of slow going vehicles with more than a few people who appear to not know how to operate them. And that’s just one way. So, that’s what keeps me from Tapanti and I wish it didn’t because the birding is always good and the forests are fantastic.
Last weekend, since we hadn’t been there in more than a year, Susan and I decided to visit Tapanti on Saturday. A weekend always means more people in the park but I doubt that it affects birding that much. There was some light rain, but for the most part, we lucked out with cloudy weather and had around 70 species.
I was very pleased with the xenops because in Costa Rica, Tapanti seems to be the only accessible, reliable place for it. A year bird and also one that I needed for the Birding Field Guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama. It was hanging out with a small mixed flock that also had Slaty-capped Flycatcher, some tanagers, and a few other species.
After hanging with the xenops, we headed towards the entrance. It was still too early for the eight o’clock opening time but you can still run into quite a few good birds in that stretch of forest before the gate. We checked the streams for lancebills without any luck, but saw another mixed flock with several expected, small bird species. No rarities but still nice to watch Tawny-capped Euphonias, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, and so on.
Once the park opened, we went in, paid our entrance fees, and birding along the main road to the Pavas Trail. The cloudy weather resulted in lots of activity including Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds. Still none of my other targets (which are pretty rare anyways), but still fun birding in beautiful surroundings.
I figured we would check out the Waterfall/Pavas Trail to look for forest birds. It’s not as steep as the Arboles Caidos, and based on habitat, looks ideal for everything from antpittas to Sharpbill and maybe even Lanceolated Monklet. Although we didn’t find any of those, I bet you could. The thing about tropical birding is that birds can be present but go unseen one day and then be hopping on the trail the next. It also means that it’s worth it to spend several hours of several days in quality forest. You will see new birds every day and probably eventually run into most of the rare species. I bet that would happen on the Waterfall/Pavas Trail, I sure wish I had the time and resources to test that hypothesis with four or five days of surveying that site!
We had more of the same that we had already seen along with heard only Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that showed well but just wouldn’t stop long enough for photos. Even if it had stopped for more than three seconds, the understory was probably too dark anyways. By then, it was around 11, and the rain was starting up so we walked out of the trail and checked along the road a bit higher up. Things were pretty quiet but we had nice looks at a female Black-bellied Hummingbird.
Birding on the way out was likewise quiet so we decided to check out a soda (small diner) just outside the park entrance. The place is called “Los Maestros” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a shame that I didn’t know about the place before I finished my bird finding/Costa Rica birding companion e-book but at least I can mention this special spot now. Los Maestros is up the first small road outside of the entrance to the park with a sign that says “Tapanti Ecoturs”. Go up that road (and watch birds on the way, this is where we had the xenops), and walk up to the small soda on the left. It seems connected to a house but don’t worry about that. The food was surprisingly good and is inexpensive, the view looks suitable for raptors and seeing other birds in the treetops (we didn’t see much because of the rain), the owner has her heart in the right place (she talked about our need to improve the environment, has worked with local kids along those lines, and has a grandson who is a birder), and Black-billed Hummingbirds fed in the Porterweed. A fruit feeder and food scraps on the ground for other birds could bring in everything from tanagers and barbets to Scaled Antpitta. I hope I can somehow convince her to do that…
After lunch, the rain lessened so we gave the entrance to the park one more check. Once again, we ran into another nice mixed flock with several expected species. Nope, nothing rare but you gotta keep trying!
On a sobering note, large areas of semi-shade coffee have been cut down on the way to the national park. These areas were very birdy, acted as habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and many other species, and will now be rather birdless. Will the Golden-wings that wintered there survive? Who knows but most probably won’t. Some of the shade coffee is still around but who knows for how long? I suspect that the coffee bushes stopped producing due to drier, hotter weather, so the landowners cut everything down and planted tomatoes and other crops instead. It was a sad reminder of the link between a suddenly warmer world, shifting agriculture, and the subsequent, detrimental effects on biodiversity.
Birding trips to Costa Rica can be scheduled during the dry season but, if you want to see a quetzal and hundreds of other species that live in the highlands and haunt the wet, lowland rainforests, expect precipitation. It might come in the form of a light mist, pouring rain, or birding in the middle of a cloud. Just be prepared for it and everything will be alright. Doubt may grow when the sky neglects to turn off the faucet for a few days but what are you gonna do? Get back on the plane? Hell no! This is Costa Rica! You go birding dammit! You might go crazy but hey, you still gave it the good old college try. You can also follow these tips if you find yourself birding in the clouds or dealing with near constant rain:
- Be Prepared: Don’t let hopes and positive thoughts lull you into complacence about the rain. Dry season or not, when four meters of rain per year is a normal occurrence, no amount of positive thinking will dissipate those clouds. It’s going to happen at some point so be ready for it with an umbrella for the hot lowlands, and a poncho for birding in the highlands. Get enough dry bags for your equipment, and listen to The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” while packing your stuff.
- Bring waterproof binoculars: Most quality binos these days are waterproof and fogproof. If your’s aren’t, seriously consider an upgrade before the trip because this is a must when birding in wet Costa Rica.
- Practice birding with an umbrella: On many occasions, birds are active in light rain and misty weather. Don’t miss birds by venturing back into the hotel during such typical cloud forest weather. Learn how to hold an umbrella and binos at the same time, and see more birds.
- Bird in the pouring rain: When birding in the clouds, don’t be surprised if the water all around you coalesces into soaking, pouring rain. If that does happen, wait under an umbrella for ten minutes or so to see if it lightens up. It’s worth the wait because if the rain does stop or turn back into mist, this is often followed by a sudden burst of bird activity. If the pouring rain keeps coming down, head back to shelter, get a wonderful cup of coffee (always fantastic in Costa Rica), listen to bird sounds on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and watch from there. There won’t be so many birds but a few things might come into view.
- Watch hummingbird feeders: At least the hummingbirds tend to remain active. Enjoy the feeder action from a sheltered spot.
- Head to Guanacaste: If you just can’t take the constant mist and rain any longer, you can always go to the dry habitats of Guanacaste!
Expect rain and birding in the clouds no matter when you go to Costa Rica. Be prepared and you can also still expect a lot of cool birds.
Costa Rica is a fantastic place for close looks at hummingbirds. Feeders and gardens planted with the hummingbird delicacy known as Porterweed bring in most species for soul satisfying views, and hundreds of digital captures.
However, although most birders end up with 30 plus species during a two or three week trip to Costa Rica, most also end up with the same set of missing species. Those blanks usually include White-crested Coquette, White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, and a few other species. One of those usually missing birds is the Green-fronted Lancebill, a rather dull hummingbird with a long, needle-like, oh so slightly upturned bill.
This one can be a pain because it happens to be genuinely uncommon, ignores feeders, and doesn’t even visit Porterweed. Look in those places and you will see lots of hummingbird action but won’t see any lancebills. The lancebill prefers more refined food and places, look there and you might find them. Here are a few tips on finding and seeing this choice Costa Rican hummingbird:
- Cloud forest: Although it can show up in foothill forests, the lancebill is most at home in the cloud forest zone. These are the forests shrouded in mist and draped with moss and epiphytes, and the lancebill lives in them from the Monteverde area south to Panama, and on both slopes between 800 and 2,300 meters.
- Hanging flowers: This odd hummingbird doesn’t have that long bill for nothing. Its bill seems to be adapted to clumps of tubular, hanging red or pink flowers because this is where it often feeds. Like a miniature Sword-billed Hummingbird (a South American, surreal specialty), lancebills sneak underneath those hanging flowers and feed from each tube with delicate precision. If you see a bunch of these flowers in cloud forest, a lancebill will probably show up sooner or later.
- Streams and waterfalls: This is the best tip for finding a lancebill because whether you run into those special flowers or not, these birds are almost always found along streams. Like a wannabe dipper or Black Phoebe, they will even perch on a rock in the middle of the rushing waterway. They seem to like small waterfalls even more and will perch near the base or plunge basin to fly and out and catch unseen bugs.
- A few good sites: Any forested stream with small rapids and waterfalls in cloud forest is a good place to watch and wait for Green-fronted Lancebill but some of the more reliable spots are streams in Tapanti National Park (especially the one at the entrance), Monteverde (try the waterfall trail), The San Luis Canopy and nearby, and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (take the forest trail and watch around the base of any small waterfall).
Since this hummingbird probably has linear territories along streams, you usually have to wait for it to show up. Like other birds, it’s easiest in the early morning when it calls, is more active, and sometimes gets in chasing fights with other lancebills. No matter what time of day you look, once you find a suitable spot, be patient and keep scanning the rocks, twigs, and flowers until one shows up. You will probably see a few other good birds in the meantime.
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