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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

A Few Birds to Anticipate Watching in Costa Rica

More than 920 bird species have been recorded in Costa Rica. That would be a hefty list of possibilities for a country but when we are talking about a place roughly similar in size to West Virginia, Wales, or Denmark, yeah, that’s a heck of a lot of birds in a small area! Granted, a good number of those species are vagrants but at the end of the day, the size of the official bird list for Costa Rica hints at nothing less than fantastic birding.

That would be the type of birding where you see lifer after lifer after lifer, where the new birds keep popping up while enjoying more views of trogons, macaws, and toucans.

Black-throated Trogon

It’s birding that includes mega flocks of glittering tanagers, climbing woodcreepers, flitting flycatchers, and other species moving through your field of view.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Spotted Woodcreeper
Tufted Flycatcher

It’s watching an array of iridescent hummingbirds and testing the limits of photography as they zip back and forth.

White-bellied Mountain-gem

Thanks to protected areas in several major ecoregions, the birding opportunities in Costa Rica are both diverse and abundant. In terms of birds to look forward to, there are too many species to mention. Today, these cool birds came to mind:

Motmots

Broad-billed Motmot

Motmots are fair-sized birds that sort of look like rollers. Several have long tails with a racket-like shape and are plumaged in shades of green, blue, and rufous. Most love the shady side of life but since they also perch for long periods, they make great subjects for the lens. Six species occur in Costa Rica, visit the right places with a good guide and you can see all of them.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

Crowned Woodnymph

One of the 50 plus hummingbird species that have been recorded in Costa Rica, this sparkling bird is common in lowland and foothill rainforests! On a personal note, I can still recall the first time I saw this species. I was birding the parking area at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park at the end of 1992, looking at the second growth on the other side of the highway. In quick succession, I saw my lifer Buff-throated Saltator, Lineated Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and Crimson-collared Tanager. Then, to top off the lifer cake, this glittering purple and green hummingbird, a male Crowned Woodnymph, zipped into my field of view. I have seen many more since then but that first woodnymph was the best.

Collared Redstart and other highland species

Collared Redstart

Costa Rica has wood-warblers, this ones entertains the eye in the highlands. Like several other birds of the mountains, it only lives in Costa Rica and western Panama.

Macaws and Toucans

Fantastic, large birds, thanks to protection and reintroductions, macaws and toucans are fairly common in various parts of Costa Rica.

Scarlet Macaw
Great Green Macaw
Keel-billed Toucan

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Another fancy tropical bird, jacamars sort of look like bee-eaters, a living carnaval dart or hummingbird on steroids. It’s pleasing to know that the Rufous-tailed Jacamar is common in many parts of Costa Rica and loves the lens.

With 900 other birds on the list, this is a small sampling of birds waiting in Costa Rica. It’s worth mentioning that Resplendent Quetzals are here too. Want to know where to go and get ready for that eventual trip? Please support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, hope to eventually celebrate birds with you in Costa Rica!

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica bird finding guide Costa Rica birding app preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Why It’s Important to Study Before a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:

Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.

Ocellated Antbird

Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.

Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.

You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.

What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).

Keel-billed Motmot

Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.

Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.

Some stuff to study:

Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:

-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.

Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.

Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:

– Any other books by Alexander Skutch.

– Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.

-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.

– Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.

eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.

Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:

– A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.

How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.

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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Don’t Expect these Species in Costa Rica, but Look for Them Anyways

More than 900 species have made it onto the bird list for Costa Rica, the very latest addition being a Peruvian Booby found by Jorge Zuniga found by Jorge Zuniga on the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. That’s a lot of birds to look for and we can’t expect to see them all. In fact, no one has seen every species on the list for Costa Rica. Many species are vagrants unlikely to occur again (as in Eastern Phoebe and Hooded Merganser) and others are vagrants that are just a pain (hello Connecticut Warbler). Then there are the resident rare species. Those are in a tantalizing category of their own and include species like Harpy Eagle, Crested Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Gray-headed Piprites, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Tawny-faced Quail, and Black-crowned Antpitta.

Even Keel-billed Motmot is much easier than the birds above.

These are species that you can never expect, no matter how much you look for them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t see them in Costa Rica because if you bird in the right places the right way, the chances of finding them do increase. But, at the end of the day,  the odds are always against you in finding them. All you can do is increase your chances of seeing these and other rare ones by hiring a guide who knows how to find them, spend a lot of time at the most likely locations, focus the intent on searching for them, and not be surprised when they don’t turn up.
So if they are so unlikely, why bother even thinking about the super rare birds? Why spend any amount of time looking for them?
The main reason why it’s worth it to look for rare birds like the ones mentioned above is the best reason for birding. Basically, look for the top rarities, and you will see a heck of a lot of everything else. For example, you can only hope for a Harpy in Costa Rica in the Osa Peninsula, Tortuguero, the Laguna del Lagarto area, and maybe down around Hitoy Cerere and vicinity. Trust me, each of those sites is fantastic for lowland forest birding. If the Harpy is present, so is everything else including good numbers of many uncommon species.
Scaly-throated Leaftosser is a good bet along with other raptors, Black-striped Woodcreeper, antbirds, tinamous, and many other tropical lowland species.

Scaly-throated Leaftosser.

While looking for that Harpy, you will also be in range for Crested Eagle, Tawny-faced Quail in some areas, and maybe the ground-cuckoo, antpitta, and piprites.
The Solitary Eagle is very rare in Costa Rica but there are more recent sightings for it than the other two large eagles mentioned. Recently, in checking some old notes, I noticed that I had written down the bird for Virgen del Socorro some years ago. I think I may have seen one at a distance but sadly, don’t recall the sighting that well and so haven’t included it on my country list! I had seen the species previously in South America at least a few times so may not have paid as much attention to the sighting in Costa Rica because it wasn’t a lifer. Silly me, now I have to keep looking for it. But, while checking for the lonely eagle at Pocosol, the Osa peninsula, and other remote, forested foothill sites, I know that I am going to find antbirds, Song Wren, will have a chance at many uncommon foothill species, will probably encounter amazing mixed flocks, and might even run into a ground-cuckoo. Plenty of other birds are in those same places because high quality habitat = lots of birds.

You might run into a Lattice-tailed Trogon.

The same goes for the Gray-headed Piprites. Although it’s far from pretty, this green, eye-ringed oddity is much wanted because no one ever sees it. Well, hardly anyone ever sees it but when it is encountered, that seems to only happen at high quality foothill and lowland sites. In other words, El Copal, sites near Rancho Naturalista, and Laguna del Lagarto come to mind. There is almost nothing known about the bird and that’s why we have no idea why it’s so rare. Quite the enigma, and the best places to happen across it are in high quality habitat. Might as well look though, because, as with the eagles, you see just about everything else.

Hey, you might get fantastic close looks at Spotted Antbird, and you might see that piprites after all.

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Birding Costa Rica

Things to do in Costa Rica during the Low Season

In Costa Rica, the dry season is over and so is the high season. We still see quite a few people visiting Costa Rica for a vacation but not nearly as many as the winter months. The cold, stark reasons for choosing February over May or June for a trip to Costa Rica are as obvious as a Scarlet Macaw but there are still plenty of things to do on a Costa Rican trip during the coming months. Here are some of the birding ideas:

  • Watch swifts: No, not Taylor, I mean those fast-flying aerialists that challenge our reaction times. Their fast schemes also make them a royal pain for identification, especially when they fly at speck height. During the wet season, they forage at storm fronts and much closer to home. It’s the best time to get good looks at swifts and come to grips with those challenging birds. Just a few days ago, I had Black and Chestnut-collared along with more regular White-collared and Vaux’s zipping over the house.

    This was one of the Chestnut-collared Swifts.

    Want to take a stab at identifying this one? I wondered if it might be a Black but the wings seem a bit short. It might even be a White-chinned but I can't say for sure- no field notes, just snapped off shots at anything in the sky.
  • Test out the umbrella: Yes, it does rain at this time of year but without the water, we wouldn’t have such high levels of biodiversity. In general, it’s also sunny in the morning and raining in the afternoon and that’s not so bad for birding. Actually, cloudier weather results in more bird activity in any case.
  • Enjoy resident species: Unlike the winter months, you don’t have to worry about glassing yet another Chestnut-sided Warbler when you want to see an antwren. There’s nothing wrong with looking at Chestnut-sidedes but that’s not usually why a birder goes to Costa Rica.

    You can watch Yellow-naped Parrots in action.
  • Study bird vocalizations: More species tend to vocalize, at least during May and June. It’s always better to hear more bird song and that makes it easier to find more bird species.Pocosol dawn3
  • Pay less for accommodation: You probably won’t get a huge discount, but yes, most lodging costs less during the green season.
  • Enjoy places with fewer tourists: I have never felt like this was an issue but if you want to see less people in national parks, come on down from May to November.

    I love birding an empty road...
  • Explore less visited sites: Sure, this can be done any time of the year but it’s always a good excuse to collect eBird data for little known sites. If inclined, try birding around Barbilla National Park, Hitoy Cerere, Yorkin, Las Tablas, Crucitas, Rincon de la Vieja, Barra Colorado, and sea-watching from Cabo Blanco and south of Golfito.
  • Get lots of lifers: You still have pretty much the same chances at resident species as during the high, dry season, and it might even be easier to see several species.

    You should see a Gartered Trogon or two.
  • Participate in the Global Big Day on May 9th: The Cornell Lab- based Sapsucker Team is doing a Big Day in Panama and are encouraging birders of all nations to get out there and do the same, or at least watch birds and submit the results to eBird. I plan on doing a Big Day with some friends on May 9th as well. Most of the winter birds will be gone but we should still see a lot!

I hope to do all of the above (although I would have to travel outside of Costa Rica to get a lot of lifers). Are you coming to Costa Rica during the low season? Get ready for the trip with my Costa Rica bird finding guide/companion, and the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica bird finding guide preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Preparing for a Birding Trip to Costa Rica? Get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

When we take birding trips, there are two main books that us birders buy. We all know that those two essentials are (1) a field guide, and (2) a bird-finding book. While some of us forego the bird finding books because we are on a tour or want to save on packing space, most of us usually buy one before the trip. A good bird-finding guide helps with planning, lets us know what to expect, where to go, and ups the excitement level for the trip.

Costa Rica has had its fair share of bird finding guides, including a good one that came out less than ten years ago. However, most bird-finding guides are limited to a certain amount of space because it just isn’t cost-effective to publish a bird-finding tome rather than a heavily edited book with fewer pages. This leaves out many a lesser known yet valuable site as well as a cornucopia of other useful information for planning a birding trip. One solution to the extra pages/publishing conundrum is the E-book; the platform I chose for  “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

More a Costa Rican birding companion than a site guide, this book has been many years in the making. I toyed with the idea of writing something that would present information on finding as well as identifying birds in Costa Rica ever since my second trip there in 1994. As I birded my way around several parts of Costa Rica, such questions came to mind as: If antbirds were supposed to be common, where were they? How do you find motmots, puffbirds, tinamous, and other neotropical birds? Where were all of the raptors? And what about identification of woodcreepers?

This book aims to answers these and many other questions about birding in Costa Rica to help birders of all levels prepare for trips to this country as well as other areas in the neotropical region. It’s also a site guide and although I haven’t included every site in the country, this book is, by far, the most comprehensive birding site guide for Costa Rica. I had hoped to make it available by the end of 2014 but, as it turns out, it just took much longer than expected. However, I am happy to say that this first edition is finally done and available for use on PCs, tablets, and smartphones (once an Adobe Reader app. is downloaded onto the device). Buy this e-book for $24.99 if you would like to see and identify more birds in Costa Rica, and if you would like to support this blog.

A few screen shots from the book:

Information from the second section of the book:

Tips for Identification:

An excerpt from the site guide section:

To order this e-book,

please contact Pat O’Donnell at information@birdingcraft.com.