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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica identification issues Introduction

Melanerpes genus woodpeckers of Costa Rica

If you are a birder from North America coming to Costa Rica for birding,  you are probably familiar with at least one of the Melanerpes species. Don’t worry, this isn’t some fun, new disease, it’s the name of the woodpecker genus that includes species such as the Red-bellied, Red-headed, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.

Medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly long bills, members of the Melanerpes clan enliven neighborhoods with their drumming, rattling calls, and flopping flight (especially the Lewis’s Woodpecker) in much of southern Canada and the United States. They also occur further south, including on several Caribbean Islands, and of course in Costa Rica.

When birding Costa Rica, there are five Melanerpes species that occur, each more or less occupying a different region or habitat. If you are used to seeing Red-bellied or Golden-fronted Woodpeckers at your feeder or in your backyard, two of Costa Rica’s Melanerpes species are going to look and sound very familiar. These are the Hoffman’s and Red-crowned Woodpeckers.

Hoffman’s Woodpecker only occurs from Honduras to Costa Rica. Within its small range, this is generally the most common woodpecker species and the one you are most likely to see when birding Costa Rica around San Jose and in Guanacaste. Although it is a bird of the central valley and northern Pacific slope, don’t be surprised if you run into the Hoffman’s Woodpecker on the Caribbean slope. It’s still pretty uncommon there and outnumbered by the Black-cheeked Woodpecker, but deforestation has definitely left the door wide open for this edge species.

Hoffman's Woodpeckers are seen quite often when birding Costa Rica

Hoffman's Woodpecker, Costa Rica

No, I am not a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

These are very common birds but it’s always fun to watch woodpeckers. This Hoffman’s was feeding down low at Tambor, on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Replacing the Hoffman’s Woodpeckers to the south is the Red-crowned Woodpecker. When birding Costa Rica, watch for it on the Pacific slope from around Dominical south to Panama. Also watch for orange-crowned hybrids from Carara to Quepos (If you see them, I suppose you could put a half-check next to Hoffmans’ and another half check next to Red-crowned on your list).

It acts a lot like the Hoffman’s and also sounds very similar. They are such common, backyard birds on the Pacific slope of Panama that they should have called it the Panamanian Woodpecker. I mean whoever thought of calling them “red-crowned” must not have noticed that most of the 225 or so woodpecker species have red on their crowns.

This Red-crowned Woodpecker was hanging out at Hacienda Baru,

and this one was roaming the shaded streets of David, Panama near the Purple House hostel (yes, everything there is purple).

If you venture into the forests of the south Pacific slope (and you obviously should when birding Costa Rica), you will hopefully run into the Golden-naped Woodpecker. It ranges from the river trail at Carara south to extreme western Panama (where it is very rare because they exchanged most of the forests there for cattle farms). This beautiful woodpecker is more difficult to see than its zebra-backed cousins because it stays within the forest but you could run into it at a number of places within its range.

Check out my golden nape!

This one was along the river trail at Carara National Park. With the white on its back and yellow on its head, it kind of reminds me of Northern Three-toed Woodpecker (a non-Melanerpes but just as cool).

Over on the Caribbean slope, the Black-cheeked Woodpecker replaces the Golden-naped. It’s more common and easier to see than the Golden-naped when birding Costa Rica because it shows less of an aversion to deforestation. You will almost certainly get your fill of this beautiful woodpecker in lowland and foothill forests as well as second growth and edge habitats anywhere on the Caribbean slope.

This Black-cheeked Woodpecker was being conspicuous near Ciudad Quesada.

Our fifth and final Costa Rican Melanerpes species hoards acorns from western North America all the way south to northern Colombia. In Costa Rica, it is a common resident of the high mountain forests and can be seen at a number of sites. These are the avian clowns of the high elevation rain forests (Prong- billed Barbet gets this distinction at middle elevations, and wood rails laugh it up in the lowlands).

This Acorn Woodpeckers was living large at San Gerardo de Dota.

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living Introduction

A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.