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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What to study for a birding trip to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an easy place to visit and see a large number of bird species, many of which are spectacular. With airline tickets still pretty cheap from North America (especially from New York), there’s almost no excuse not to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Ever since my first trip here in 1992, I have always told people what I discovered- that Costa Rica is much easier to visit than you think and that you should go! From North America, it’s pretty close, infastructure is better than a lot of places in the region, the country is small enough to conceivably bird in a wide variety of habitats, and although prices have gone up, it can still be done in an affordable manner. The birding is challenging but always exciting and you can start getting prepared by studying either or both of the bird books for Costa Rica. Whether you take a tour or do it on your own, studying the birds beforehand will seriously enhance your trip and leave more time for birding instead of pouring through the book during your time in Costa Rica.

The two bird books for Costa Rica are, “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch, and “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Garrigues and Dean. Whether you get the classic, “old school” Stiles and Skutch, or the updated, modernized Garrigues and Dean, I don’t think you can really go wrong with either one.

Here are some ups and downs about each:

While Stiles and Skutch has more information overall and makes for a great reference book, this also makes it rather large in size for the field. The size of the book is also just big enough to take up a fair amount of packing space. Because of its size, for me, it’s more of a book to keep back at the hotel or at home rather than one for the field. Although some of the illustrations could be improved, overall they are pretty good, are for the most part useful for identification, and the text always makes for good reading. Being several years old, it also needs to be updated. This is especially true for the sort of dynamic factors that every field guide needs to keep up on such as bird distribution and occurrence, classification, and advances in our knowledge of identification.

Garrigues and Dean attempted to correct these disadvantages with their book and I think it has worked out nicely. It is the perfect size for the field without having to seriously reduce the size of the illustrations. They were able to accomplish this by leaving out several of the seabirds that most birders visiting Costa Rica aren’t likely to encounter and in reducing the text to the bare minimum needed for identification (pointing out important field marks with notes on habitat, behavior, and abundance). Instead of having plates with the name of the bird on the opposite page and then a reference to the page with the appropriate text, Garrigues and Dean put all of this right with the bird and include maps! Even though Costa Rica is a pretty small country with fairly well defined life zones, distribution maps still come in handy. I also like the illustrations better in Garrigues and Dean. They are more accurate because of their detail, do not overcrowd the pages, and are just simply nice to look at. To point out one or two things that could be improved, regarding identification of Black and white Hawk-Eagle, the white leading edge to the wing is not mentioned as a field mark (and is an excellent one), nor is anything said about Ocellated Poorwhill possibly being Choco Poorwhill (the vocalization of which differs from that of Ocellated Poorwhil- the only one described in the book). Overall though, the book is great and better for field identification.

That said, although I think you should bring at least one of these books with you to Costa Rica, you don’t really have to bring it into the field (nor should you in my opinion). What? Not bring a book into the steaming jungle or misty cloud forest? Yes, exactly. Leave that book back at the hotel and figure out what you saw during or after dinner. Otherwise, you will miss birds during the time it takes to get the book out of your pack and leafing through the pages until you find the possible contenders. It’s quicker to do this with Garrigues and Dean but I think you will still see more if you take notes on field marks or try to remember what you saw and don’t even think about taking that book out during the hectic frenzy of a mixed flock!

The thing to keep in mind with tropical birding is that there are lots of species that are possible but most of them are naturally rare. Forest species in particular seem to have large territories and might be encountered just once or twice during your trip. Many are also much shyer than temperate zone species, are masters at camouflage and staying hidden to avoid the myriad of predators they face, and often specialize on certain fruits or microhabitats. This all basically means that in the field, you have to be ready and quick at all times with your binoculars because for many species, you might just have one or two chances to see it and when you do, the looks might not be all that long. Studying the field marks from your bird book will aid you in knowing what to look for, especially with the looks one gets while watching a mixed flock.

If you aren’t familiar with what a mixed flock is, imagine wondering where all the birds have been for the past two hours while you have been carefully walking through primary rain forest when all of a sudden, the vegetation all around you seems to be twitching and shaking with birds but most of them still seem to be hidden! As various chirps and chip notes give away their location and others tantalize you with their songs, you manage to get onto a woodcreeper but can’t see its head (which is what you need to see to identify it), aren’t quick enough to focus on some small flycatcher in the canopy, but then get great looks at one, two, no, four different tanagers! Just as you are getting better looks at more of the birds in the flock, they seem to have moved too far into the forest to watch. Left feeling exhilirated and a bit frustrated, at least studying the books paid off in identifying some of the birds and you would have missed a lot if you had tried to look up birds in the book during all of that excitement.

Even with dozens of evenings spent with your Costa Rican bird book before the trip, it will never make up for learning in a field setting because birds just love to show themselves so differently from the way they are illustrated. Here are some examples of the usual looks we get:

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Spectacled Foliage-gleaner

Believe it or not, a Northern Scrub Flycatcher!

A Bright-rumped Atilla (why oh why did it have to turn its head away)

See if you can find the Olive Tanager!

Or how about this Emerald Tanager!

This is where a qualified, knowledgable guide comes in handy although no matter how well a guide can identify birds by sight, he or she still won’t up to par unless they can also identify birds by their vocalizations. Yet another way to prepare for a birding trip to Costa Rica instead of say working or doing the dishes, becoming familiar with bird vocalizations will also enhance your trip. There are a few cds available but I don’t believe that there is a comprehensive country wide dvd or set of cds as of yet. David Ross offers a few cds that cover most areas of the country, and vocalizations can also be listened to at Xeno Canto. Dan Mennil has a website with some dry forest birds, and Doug Von Gausig also has a nice selection of bird species to listen to. I hope to post songs on this blog eventually although it might be a few months before that happens. Keep posted though for that and other surprises that will help you have a better birding trip to Costa Rica.

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big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction

A Big Day in Costa Rica

This past Saturday, I attempted my first Big Day in Costa Rica. “Big Days” should always be capitalized by the way. I mean we aren’t talking about some casual walk in the park while you smell the roses and waltz through the tulips. No, a Big Day is more like a frantic race through time and space with your head out the window to pick up the call note of a Bobolink or Squirrel Cuckoo or whatever. It is a 24 hour marathon of concentrated birding; an attempt at identifying as many species as possible within whatever size area you can manage by foot, car, boat, biplane or rickshaw. This usually means Nascar street driving your Toyota from woodlot to National Park to seashore to mountaintop to maximize birding time and increase your chances of getting more bird species.

Costa Rica is an exciting place to do a Big Day; the country is jam packed with bird species (over 800 recorded), has many accessible protected areas, is small enough to feasibly visit several distinct bioregions in one day and has twisting, narrow streets that are very conducive to Nascar street driving. The fact that so many bird species are possible, though, ends up being a bit frustrating because there is no way to get all of them. For example with the route we did, over the course of the day, we probably came within one kilometer of around 500-600 bird species total. No kidding and no exaggeration. We might have been within flying distance of all those birds but recorded far less, even missing several “common” species while seeing some rarities. For example, we missed Blue-black Grasquit and Squirrel Cuckoo but had close looks at three Yellow-eared Toucanets and Blue and Gold Tanager. The Grasquit we missed because we just didn’t spend enough time in pasture while the Cuckoo was just bad luck. If you are thinking of blitzing through Costa Rica for a few days and seeing everything, reconsider and spend more days in fewer areas. You will probably see more and it will be a lot more relaxed.

In any case, I think our total of 233 species was alright for a first attempt; especially without the benefits of scouting. Below is a summary of the day.

2:40 A.M.

I get out of bed, shave and am ready to roll out into the urban wonderland of Tibas to listen for Tropical Screech Owl. I hear a horn outside and am out the door to join my team members; Dieter, Johan and Ineke. Dieter is the tall guy in shorts. Hailing from Namibia, Dieter met his wife while guiding in South Africa. Now they live in Costa Rica and watch Motmots instead of elephants. Johan (Nascar street driver) and Ineke are from Holland originally. They have also lived in Africa; Mozambique and Zimbabwe before Mugabe went haywire. Now they too live in Costa Rica watching Motmots instead of elephants. I am originally from Niagara Falls, NY. I met my wife some years ago, we got married and now we live in Costa Rica with our 7 month old future kung-fu birder (fingers crossed) daughter and watch TV (for the most part) instead of Motmots.


After explaining the Big Day rules, we drove a few blocks to my old apartment to try for the Tropical Screech Owl that calls at night and is never seen. Almost as soon as we stepped out of the car, both Ineke and I heard it! It sounded distant but there it was- how fortunate we were! And then Johan pointed out that the sound appeared to be coming from the car. A few more owl calls and yes he was right, it was coming from the car alright; actually from inside my bag to be precise. Not only that but it sounded more like Spectacled Owl which of course it was; my cd player had somehow turned on by itself. If there was a Tropical Screech nearby, it made nary a peep and who can blame it after that display of silliness.

3:05-4:45 A.M.

We left that embarrassing moment behind and zoomed through the mountain night along beautifully silent roads, taking a left at La Garita to twist and turn our way out of the central valley. Our next destination was San Mateo. A small town located in the hot Pacific foothills, we tried for Mottled and Spectacled Owl at the entrance to Rancho Oropendola. Over the chorus of barking dogs and an occasional rooster, we got our first species as soon as we exited the car; a distant Ferruginous Pygmy Owl! Luckily, in addition to our two target owl species, we also tried for Pacific Screech Owl. While the two targets refused to answer my imitations, the Screech Owl called a few times and even gave us brief looks. At 4:45, we left the barking dogs behind and raced off towards Carara National Park.

Due to confusing road work combined with a general paucity of street lamps, we missed our turn-off (apparently a hidden gap among street cones) and raced towards Puntarenas (the absolutely wrong direction). Fortunately, one of those temporary lights that sprout at one way traffic in road work areas halted our race to Big Day disaster and after receiving directions from two middle-aged road workers who were manning the light and listening to reggaeton, we were back on course. On a Big Day one hopes that a wrong turn turns out to be serendipitous with a flyby Barn Owl or other random surprise bird and everyone says things like , “Ha ha! Good thing we made a wong turn!”, “How fortunate!” or “The birding Gods are doing a Manakin dance!” but no, nothing like that happened to us; we only saw a bunch of darkness where the wind played in the warm lowland night.

5:00 A.M.

The Tarcol bridge is a busy place during the day; people are constantly marching out along a skinny sidewalk to see the crocodiles on the river below while the cars and buses zoom by. At night, although there aren’t any pedestrians, it’s still a pretty busy road. During traffic lulls we tried for White-tailed Nightjar and got Double-striped Thick-Knees instead as they called from the grassland. Unexpected good bird! With hints of dawn in the distance we drove to the nearby Laguna Meandrica trail. This is always an excellent birding site. Its mix of dry and moist forest species along with waterbirds always makes for a huge list. Our plan was to walk a few kilometers back to an area of primary forest for the dawn chorus, picking up nightbirds along the way. Although we didn’t get any owls, we got loads of Common Pauraques, many on the track itself. We started picking up the pre-dawners too such as Blue-crowned Motmot (only ones for the day), and Cocoa and Nothern Barred Woodcreepers. You just don’t realize how common some woodcreepers are until you hear a dawn chorus. We had at least a dozen of each of those species with lesser numbers of Wedge-billed and Streaked-headed.

The Tarcol bridge during the day.

What everyone is looking at.

6:00-8:00

As daylight quickly vanquished the night, the birds came fast and steady at this exciting site. Although we missed many of the primary forest targets I had hoped for (appear to be more likely along the HQ trail), we still got 121 species over the next two hours (yes, Carara is one of the best birding sites in Central America).We picked up most of the herons including Boat-billed, got Purple Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, had a Roseate Spoonbill drop out of the sky to feed in front of us, saw several Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and much more.

Best birds were a distant calling Striped Cuckoo, Golden-naped Woodpecker, 3 Toucan species, Three-wattled Bellbird and American Redstart. We also got many targets such as Stub-tailed Spadebill, 4 Trogon species, Orange-collared Manakin, a Crane Hawk spotted by Dieter, 4 Wrens, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Royal Flycatcher, White-whiskered Puffbird, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Long-billed Gnatwren, Plain Xenops, Dusky Antbird and more.

The lagoon. This is another spot where I need to sit and watch all day sometime.


The lagoon is an excellent spot for Boat-billed Heron.

We found a perched Lesser Nighthawk picked out while checking out some Anis in a tree.

This Bicolored Antbird was at an antswarm along with Gray-headed Tanagers, Chestnut-backed Antbirds and Northern Barred and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers.

And of course we got great looks at one of the stars of Carara, Scarlet Macaws. This pair was inspecting a tree hole and preening right over the trail.

8:20-9:45

It can get hot pretty early along the Pacific coast and Saturday was no exception. You really have to be out and about by dawn or you are going to miss a lot of birds. On Saturday, bird activity dropped off by 8:30 A.M.; right around the time we we birded the pastures and forest edge near Tarcoles. This probably explained why we missed Striped-headed Sparrows and Blue-black Grasquits. We barely picked up Ruddy Ground Dove with just a few flybys and somehow missed Crested Caracara! We still picked up other things though like Common Black Hawk soaring way up in the blue with the Vultures, Philly Vireos, Orange-fronted Parakeets and Ruby-throated and Steely-vented Hummingbirds all feeding on orange-colored flowers, and Orchard Oriole.

At the mangroves near Tarcol lodge, we got great looks at a few Mangrove Vireos, saw a close female Blue Ground Dove, heard Red-winged Blackbirds and picked up Ruddy Turnstones and Whimbrel that were perched on snags in the estuary.

At the nearby beach, we did alright picking up expected species such as Osprey, Neo. Cormorant, Brown Pelican, Mag. Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and Royal Tern but aside from a distant Brown Booby, missed a chunk of shorebird and Tern species more likely during low tide.

10:00-11:30

Leaving Tarcoles by mid-morning we rushed to the bridge hoping for open country species and maybe a White Ibis or shorebird but were vanquished by the sun. I was starting to feel vanquished by the sun too. Unfortunately, I have been getting pretty bad headaches and feeling pretty drained when I walk around on hot days; to the point of feeling too tired to talk. Not sure why this happens but it’s a royal pain! I try to drink a lot of water so I don’t know what the deal is; maybe I’m turning into a mountain person? Maybe it was because I missed my morning coffee? In any case a couple of tylenol helped out and at least the birding was slow during my brief time of head pain.

It was during this hot time that we tried for dry forest species around Guacimo. For our 15 minutes of effort we picked up a Nutting’s Flycatcher panting in the heat and nothing else.

We swung by Orotina for the Black and White Owls and it was surreal as always; some non-birder guy on a bench asks me if I want to see the owls in the fairly busy plaza, I say yes please, he points to a large tree in the middle of the plaza and there they are. Just incredible. I say “gracias” and we walk back to the car noting a Turquoise Browed Motmot (which we already had but always deserve to be watched) and picked up Yellow-green Vireo via its incessant singing. Also got another urban bird here; Grey-breasted Martin. Like Purple Martins, these guys have also become completely adapted to and maybe even dependent upon the structures built by people.

From Orotina, it was back uphill towards the Central Valley. Along the way we stopped for a drink at the Café Mirador near Atenas. This is a great place to stop for a drink or breakfast. Nice ambience and beautiful view all the way to the sea, it can also be good for dry forest birds. Can be means not at 11 A.M. though because we only saw the wind make the trees dance. We did pick up two birds though; a Yellow-bellied Elaenia was friendly enough to call once and the local Blue and White Swallows were present. It was good to stop for a drink and brief rest but this may not be the best place to stop on a Big Day; the service was just too relaxed. This is nice any other time but on a Big Day even a a few squandered minutes can mean lost birds. This may sound crazy but not if you think in terms of priorities; number of bird species being the top priority on a Big Day.

Just past Atenas we had another brief yet fruitful stop to check out the Rio Grande reservoir. This stop was perfect; we got out of the car and picked up our targets; Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal and Black Phoebe and got one non-target; Short-tailed Hawk!

If the A-team had converted to birding instead of firing guns and smoking cigars, they would have said, “I love it when a plan comes together”. Well, actually, their leader would have said that while Mr. T would have said, “I pity the bird who don’t show itself”. Face would have said something stupid like “I love Cowbirds” and the crazy one have mewed like a Clay-colored Robin.


View from the Mirador café

11:30 A.M. – 2 P.M.

This is when we saw very few birds because Johan was getting us through the traffic obstacle and maze of roads in San Jose. Traffic wasn’t too bad except along one stretch near our turnoff to the Caribbean. It might have been worth it if we had picked up a House Sparrow but nope, we saw nothing.

2-3 P.M.

Ahhh, relief to have escaped the car conglomeration and back out on the road heading up to Zurqui. I told the team to get on any bird that fluttered a wing or peeped as everything would probably be new up there at 1600 meters. We pulled over at some roadside café near patchy cloud forest habitat and tried to hear and see some birds through mountain pass mist accompanied by the din of passing 18-wheelers. Well, it wasn’t exactly the most active time of day for birds but we managed to get a few things such as Plain Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Mountain Robin, Wilsons Warbler and our only Rufous-collared Sparrows of the day.

Further on, we stopped at our only good cloud forest site; the Zurqui police station in Braulio Carrillo National Park. There used to be an excellent trail here with cloud forest birding as good as or even better than Monteverde. The trail is too overgrown to bother with though so we were limited to the noisy roadside during rainy weather. We picked up a handfull; Golden-bellied Flycatcher foraging around the police station, Yellowish Flycatcher, a gorgeous male Flame-colored Tanager, and our best; Emerald Toucanets flying across the road!

Unfortunately we were slim on time, the birds were quiet at this time of day and you really can’t see too much from the side of the road so we left for lower elevations of the Caribbean slope. This was pretty frustrating since there was probably 70 new species somewhere nearby in those excellent cloud forests. Next year, we will have to figure out how to maximize our cloud forest species number. On our original route, we would have done quite well but that road no longer exists; the way through Varablanca and Cinchona which was destroyed by the January 8th, 2009 earthquake.

Taking in the mist and not seeing much at Zurqui.

3:30-4:30 P.M.

Heading downhill, lucky for us, the weather cleared up by the time we reached my patch; Quebrada Gonzalez. We had some good birding for that hour. We picked up Collared Aracari and Bay Wren upon arrival, White-breasted Wood Wren and Pale-vented Thrush as soon as we entered the forest, Tawny-capped Euphonia and a good variety of other Tanagers such as Dusky-faced, Olive, Tawny-crested, Emerald, Bay-headed, Black and Yellow, and best of all, Blue and Gold! We also got Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-headed Nightingale Thrush, Green Shrike Vireo, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter and best of all, Yellow-eared Toucanet to clean up on Costa Rican Toucan species! As on other occasions when I have seen this species here, we saw three close and tame (but quiet) birds in the upper understory. I took the photo below zooming in about 3X.

Here is a digiscoped female from another a day there in January.

It was tough to leave with such nice bird activity but we still had to hit the Sarapiqui area so off we went; driving through the pouring rain for Carribean lowland targets. We got lucky again with the weather when it cleared up before reaching the La Selva entrance road. Along the way we got Pale-vented Pigeon perched on a roadside wire and upon arrival picked up a Swainsons Hawk amidst the 1000s of Turkey Vultures migrating en masse. It was incredible; this river of birds stretched from horizon to horizon! It was tough to pull ourselves away from this spectacle but we had targets to look for. The La Selva entrance road is always productive and we picked up several birds; the churring of White-throated Crake, Gray-rumped Swifts overhead, a Purple Martin (good bird!), a group of Olive-throated Parakeets screeching past, Golden-hooded Tanager, our only Masked Tityra and Lineated Woodpecker of the day, Fasciated Antshrike (!), Passerini’s Tanager, a distant Black-cowled Oriole scoped on a tree-top, a White-collared Manakin calling and then as dusk approached and most birds became silent we picked up our Little Tinamou and watched Crested Guans flap up above the tall trees to gracefully glide down into the shadows. As it got dark, we got one of our best birds for the day; Short-tailed Nighthawk! It gave us great looks right at the start of the entrance road, flying out on long wings a bit like a large bat. Our last bird though came at 6:15 P.M. when night had once again taken hold. It was another owl species; a distantly calling Spectacled. This was the end of our Big Day for 2009. So what if we didn’t get 300 species; its not every day that you get to identify 233 bird species while visiting lowland rain forest, montane cloud forest, mangroves, an oxbow lake and an ocean beach over the course of a single day.

A bad pic of the 1000s of TVs going by.


Violaceous Trogons are pretty common along the La Selva entrance road.

Our last stop; the La Selva entrance road.