Birding trips to Costa Rica are exciting, eye-opening birding events. The first trip dazzles with a colorful and fantastic barrage of species and most are lifers. Visit a different part of the country and the second trip will be just as exciting as the first. You should also catch up on some of those unseen species from the first trip, maybe a Royal Flycatcher,
maybe a tinamou or a White-bellied Mountain-gem.
Subsequent trips can be equally exciting, even when visiting some of the same bird rich sites. The complex nature of tropical birding promises novel experiences and is invariably accompanied by chances of seeing rare species and better views of uncommon birds. Whether stepping onto Costa Rican soil for the first time or the tenth birding trip to Costa Rica, the experience will also be accompanied by expectations, some more valid than others.
As with every birding destination, in Costa Rica, changes can happen to habitats and other aspects of the local birding scene. The following are five honest expectations from the perspective of an insider. I hope they help your birding trip.
Clay-colored Thrush is Abundant, Pale-vented Thrush..Not So Much
Yes, you can expect to see a lot of Clay-colored Thrushes. The national bird, the “Yiguirro” is numerous and present in most edge and garden habitats. It’s less expected in dry areas, inside the forest, and in the highest of elevations but it can show up in all sorts of places. Its ubiquitous nature makes it a good bird to know. See a brown, thrush-sized bird flit to a branch and move its tail after landing? You’ll see a lot of those, most will be Clay-colored Thrushes.
Does this mean the similar looking Pale-vented Thrush is just as common? No, it does not. That shy species only occurs in foothill and lower middle elevation rainforest and can be quite uncommon.
eBird Sightings for Costa Rica- Not the Final Word
In Costa Rica, eBird is a great tool. It can show where some rare birds have been seen and give some ideas on where to go birding. However, naturally, the handy app only shows data where people have submitted eBird lists.
This is good to keep in mind if you see quality habitat but aren’t sure if the site is worth birding because no one submitted any eBird lists. Always remember- appropriate habitats determine where birds occur, not where people have gone birding.
Speaking of birding in Costa Rica, it’s also worth mentioning that even when bird species are reported in eBird, that doesn’t mean you will see them. Yes, that sort of goes without saying but honestly, many species are naturally rare and/or refuse to play the birding game. It can take a good deal of time to see such anti-social birds, even when birding with an experienced guide. Not to mention, some of those sightings in eBird are errors and quite a number of species are left off of lists because the observer couldn’t identify their vocalizations or didn’t get an adequate view as dozens of birds flash-mobbed their way through the rainforest in mixed flock madness.
In brief, it is good to check out eBird for Costa Rica, but it’s not the final word on where to go and what’s been seen.
Raptors are Infrequent (But be Ready for Them!)
If you have read this blog on previous occasions, you are likely already familiar with the infrequent raptor concept. Same goes if you have already been birding in Costa Rica. We got this amazing raptor list and yet, we don’t see tons of raptors. That’s just the way it is but it doesn’t mean you won’t see them. I know, like, say what? In the classic words of Arnold Drummond, “What you talking about Willis?” (RIP Gary Coleman, one of the coolest 80s kids).
But yes, really, if you bird in the right places and keep looking, you will probably see a bunch of raptors in Costa Rica. It won’t be like birding at home, you’ll have to look for them in the right way or bird with a good guide but those hawk-eagles can happen. Don’t stop looking, you can easily miss them.
Quail-doves, Tinamous, Wood-Quails, Antpittas, and Leaftossers- Quiet and Patience Please
All of these birds look really cool, look like species from our collective birding dreams. Sadly, their shy nature can keep them in those special, imaginary places. They can come into your birding life but you have to look for them in the right places and in the right way. In general, that birding way is the way of patience, habitat knowledge, and quiet footsteps. Mosquitoes buzzing? Resist the temptation to massively slap and destroy them; quail-doves and their terrestrial skulking friends aren’t into loud sudden noises. Instead, let repellent do the work.
Feel the urge to tell a joke, talk about dinner plans or just can’t keep your mouth shut? Before you venture onto that shaded trail, before you move into the realms of the shy forest birds, remind yourself that these birds don’t go for small talk. These birds don’t want to hear a thing. This walk might be your only chance to glimpse a Purplish-backed Quail-dove. Move in silence, you’ll be surprised at what scurries across the path.
As luck would have it, such ninja-inspired trail stalking goes hand in hand with another major tinamou watching factor- patience. For effective birding in tropical forest, patience is far more than a virture. To see more birds, especially the shy ones, staying patient is a necessity. While birding in rainforest, don’t worry if no birds seem to be present, don’t fret that you aren’t seeing birds. Oh you can bet some are nearby, be patient and don’t let down your guard. Keep looking and ye shall eventually find.
Poor Lighting, Birds in Flight, and Bits and Pieces
None of the above will be surprising for folks who have done plenty of birding. When you bird in Costa Rica, you’ll also see a good number of silhouettes, of small birds waaay up there in the canopy, others zipping in and out of views or only showing a tail, or other small bit revealed through a green mosaic of tropical vegetation.
To further challenge your birding skills, there will also be birds in flight, parrots not showing enough colors, unfamiliar raptors shapes teasing over a distant forested ridge. These are all part of the birding game, winning requires patience and persistence.
I could talk about other things to expect when birding in Costa Rica but will end this post by mentioning the most important expectation of all; that of seeing a heck of a lot of birds. Watch birds in Costa Rica and it’s going to happen. Three days of birding can yield 300 species. A week or ten days can have 400 plus species of birds. Go birding at a slower pace and you’ll still see a lot, still see toucans, parrots, macaws, and more. Make a target list from nearly 1000 species on the Costa Rica birding app and get ready for the trip. Costa Rica is a pretty birdy place.