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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica birding lodges planning birding trip Costa Rica

Where to Kick Off a Costa Rica Birding Trip- Insider Tips

The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.

It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.

Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:

Close to the Airport

For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.

Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.

Further from the Airport?

Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.

Some Place with Green Space

There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.

Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…

Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat

A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.

Start and End the Trip at the Same Place

If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.

With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Roadside Birding in Costa Rica- Many Possibilities, Always Fantastic

We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.

A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.

On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.

Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.

Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.

Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.

A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.

With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.

The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.

When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!

With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.

Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.

With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.

I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.

In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:

The Perils of Plane Travel

For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?

According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.

As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.

Entering the Country

As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.

Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!

The web site for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington D.C. has this to say about the health insurance policy:

“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:

  • Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
  • Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
  • Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”

Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.

What’s Open?

Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.

Restrictions?

Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.

The Birding

As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!

The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.

I hope to see you soon!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.

On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.

This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.

As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.

Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.

Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!

A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.

One of or many neighborhood Blue-and-White Swallows.
Merlin with swallow.

Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.

As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.

I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.

The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?

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biodiversity migration

Wood-Pewee Connection

It’s early September and the first fall migrants are coming through Costa Rica. These are the species that passed through the lands near their northern breeding grounds during the dog days of August; the hot days of shorebird migration, the time of latent summer that tricks you into never believing in winter. In Niagara, those humid days made it hard to imagine the constant freezing winds of a lake watch, the nights ruled by nature’s lethal cold caress. While walking on the hazy beaches of Lake Erie, it was odd to imagine that, just a few months later, those same warm sandy places would be glazed with ice. But the presence of Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers wasn’t any hoax, those Arctic nesters weren’t flying way south for nothing.

In September, those and many other shorebirds have converged in Costa Rica. These are the days to watch them (!), to look for the odd one out, see if you can trick yourself into changing a funny looking distant Semipalmated Plover into a mega Common Ringed. Being far south of cold weather, smartly situated in vital wintering grounds for multitudes of Passerines, Costa Rica also bears witness to numbers of warblers, Baltimore Orioles and other migrant birds of the north. Although the bulk of those travelers won’t be in Costa Rica until October, some of the earlier migrants come through town just about now.

Among those “early” species are birds that winter in South America, birds like Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, and Mississippi Kites. A kite in the Central Valley would be a bonus and it’s not out of the question but seeing one will likely require a visit to the Caribbean lowlands. That’s also where most of the vireos and kingbirds travel but some also find their way to our “backyard”.

This morning, while enjoying coffee and looking for avian action out back, I saw that two vireos had managed to do just that. They were so stealthy, I almost didn’t see them. Unlike the constantly singing bird of the breeding grounds, the fall vireos of Costa Rica have removed themselves from center stage. More concerned with eating, the only sign of their presence is a brief flutter in leafy vegetation, an afterthought of a bird that seems to vanish as soon as you raise the binos. There were just two or were there more? Taking their stealthy behavior into account, there could have easily been several in the area, more birds ghosting their way through the riparian zones out back.

As with every migrant bird, I always wonder where they came from? How far did they fly the night before? Where did those small olive, gray, and white birds spend the summer? Was it in the beautiful mixed forests of the Upper Peninsula where I once camped and listened to Saw-whets on a cold night? Had they been singing in the rolling forests of southern Illinois where I worked for a field season doing bird surveys and looking for bird nests? Could they have even come from the remnant old growth forests of the Niagara Gorge, a special place close to the heart where, like many other Western New Yorkers, I used to hike and fish for salmon?

I wondered the same about another migrant species I had seen out back a few days before. It looked so much like an extension of a snag, I wouldn’t have noticed the bird if it hadn’t moved. Luckily, it was actually moving a lot, sallying out again and again and that bit of brown flash during a light rain is what prompted me to get my binocs. Focusing in on the tip of the stick revealed a wood-pewee and although this migrant Contopus is at the duller end of the colorful bird spectrum, it shines with hues of behavior, challenge, and story.

This particular pewee was showcasing its classic pewee behavior with urgent fervor. It no doubt had better places to be and was buying its night train ticket with captures of airborne insects. Looking at it through the scope revealed a small brown bird constantly looking back and forth and up and down. No time for song, it sallied out again and again, even going after but missing a large white butterfly (oh yes, there are many seriously cool butterflies out back!). Keeping with a pewee tradition that pleases the birder, it came back to that same snag every single time and thus allowed me to study it as much as I wanted.

Those prolonged looks helped me pass the pewee challenge. Scope studies convinced me that the non-vocalizing bird was a Western Wood-Pewee, a species that migrates through the highlands of Costa Rica in large numbers. Although it always is best to hear a pewee before giving it a name, this bird was so gray, had such an overall dark bill, and a more prominent lower wing bar, I figured it had to be a Western.

As for the story of that pewee, I suppose the only thing I honestly know is that it spent a late afternoon in a riparian zone in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. I don’t even know if it found enough food to head back into the night skies and keep flying south but I didn’t see it the following day. As with those vireos and any of the migrant birds from the north, I can’t know where it came from but having heard them on many a bird survey in Colorado and Washington, I have a fair idea of places where it could have spent the summer. Places with Aspens and conifers in unbelievably spectacular scenery, places where I heard many a Flammulated Owl, admired those small owls with a flashlight. Places blanketed with forests of tall Doug Firs, ferns and Devil’s Club in the understory, Varied Thrushes singing from above, Pacific Wrens calling from below. Drier and sunnier habitats too with scattered oaks, junipers and brush frequented by Virginia’s Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees.

That small bird might seem insignificant but it hails from fantastic, beautiful places far to the north, flies through the night over vast areas of Mexico and on to Central America and the story doesn’t even stop there! It keeps going, flying further still to the lush cloud forests of South America, all the way to places with astounding bastions of biodiversity, all the way to the Andes where it shares an avian scene with chat-tyrants, ridiculously plumaged hummingbirds, and a fantastic array of tanagers.

I have also been fortunate to have visited those places where it winters. For now, I’m happy to greet it on its way south but one day, I still hope to fly into the night and meet it again on its wintering grounds.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

Species to See While Birding in Costa Rica: Golden-naped Woodpecker

There are many ways to watch birds. Do we just watch the birds seen through the back window? Maybe not even worry about how they have been named or classified? Do we make plans to learn where certain wood-warblers have been seen and then carry out miniature private expeditions to find them? Maybe some of us venture into the pre-dawn of the marsh to meet the rising of a sun flecked with the silhouettes and calls of whistling-ducks. Some of us might even go much further afield, taking boat trips straight into the open ocean to reach the deep waters, the places where pelagic birds might wander into view. We may also travel to other continents to see birds, take multi-day trips to witness as much of what the avian world can offer.

Birding is birding is birdwatching no matter how you do it but it’s OK to prioritize some species. To be honest, when traveling, it would be a shame not to make efforts to see birds not possible in other places. These are the endemics, the very near endemics, and the species that are just easier to see at one place than another. In Costa Rica, we have several such birds, one of them is a woodpecker.

The Golden-naped Woodpecker is as smartly dressed as its name sounds.

Although this species also lives in western Panama, it is quite nearly restricted to the humid forests of southern Costa Rica. Ranging from Carara National Park to the border, seeing it in Panama seems to typically require a rather difficult trip to the last sizeable patch of lowland rainforest in western Chiriqui.

In Costa Rica, although it is readily seen in many places, it also seems to be more or less restricted to areas of mature rainforest. It can range into second growth but in my experience, for the most part, the Red-crowned Woodpecker takes its place in such edge and open habitats.

Red-crowned Woodpecker,

As with many of the southern Pacific endemics, the Golden-naped Woodpecker seems to be most common in the forests of the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce. It can be seen elsewhere but is certainly most frequent in places with the highest amounts of rainfall and is likely declining because of hotter, drier weather.

Although it takes the place of the Black-cheeked Woodpecker in the rainforests of the Pacific slope, the Golden-naped might even be more closely related to the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker of the Amazon. Or, more likely, it and the closely related Beautiful Woodpecker of Colombia are sort of “bridge” species between the Yellow-tufted and Black-cheeked. No matter what its evolutionary provenance may be, like the Black-cheeked, the Golden-naped Woodpecker does the photographer a favor by visiting fruit feeders as well as foraging in low fruiting trees.

Golden-naped Woodpecker,
Another image of a female Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

Check this bird out on your next visit to Costa Rica, it’s definitely one that you don’t want to miss!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

A Day of Birding at Albergue Socorro

Usually I go birding in more places and more often than I have been doing. In the year of the pandemic, for a fair percentage of the global birding community, I am guessing that’s par for the course. Whereas I would normally be birding once a week and guiding trips here and there at least a few times a month, since March, my birding endeavors have been placed on hold. The big pause button was and is pressed down by an assemblage of closures, restrictions, and associated economical effects. The good news is that birds are everywhere, I can still connect with the avian side of nature by way of Blue-and-white Swallows perched just outside the window, and by waking up to the calls of bobwhites, the warbles of Blue Grosbeaks, and various songs of other neighborhood birds.

But there’s so much more out there to see (!), to personally discover. What biological madness is happening in those nearby cloud-covered mountains? Is there a weird and rare Sharpbill accentuating a mixed flock on the other, wetter side of the hills? Can Solitary Eagle still exist in Costa Rica? A good place to check would be the other side of those mountains out the back window, on the wild and Caribbean side of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Does the massive black-hawk persist over there or has it already succumbed to the effects of climate change (a victim of life cascades brought to deadly drought by warmer, drier weather)?

I haven’t had a chance to dedicate time to look for Solitary Eagle, Sharpbills, nor much of anything else but at least I can still make plans for the eventual search. Thanks to a local, resident world birder, recently, I did have a chance to look for some birds. We were after more than Sharpbills and Solitary Eagles and knew that our chances at finding our very rare targets were as slim as a Sharpie’s tarsi but you can’t have homemade-made cake unless you bake it, can’t reach the hidden peak unless you climb it.

With parrotlets, ground-cuckoos, and piprites on the mind, we spent a day and half searching for some bird cake at the Albergue Socorro. Encountering such rare and unreliable species in a short amount of time can’t be expected but the more you try the better your chances and given driving times to destination, the beautiful lower middle elevation rainforests of Socorro seemed like a good place to bring our bins.

In our brief window of birding, we did not find the super rare ones but I can’t say that it was for lack of trying. Following a strategy of covering as much ground as possible to increase chances of encountering an antswarm or hearing our targets, we walked on moist, bio-rich trails through beautiful forest, kept going on a road that bisects an excellent area of forest, and walked a bit more. Although the focus was on a search for rare birds, during those walks, we still saw and heard plenty of other things. Early morning on the Las Lomas trail saw us move beneath massive rainforest trees with crowns obscured by a an abundance of vegetation; the aerial “soil” of the canopy. We were accompanied by the upward, tripping songs of Tropical Parulas above and dry ticking of Golden-crowned Warblers below.

While keeping an eye on the trail for gnomish antpittas, we heard and saw a mouse-like Tawny-throated Leaftosser, had glimpses of candy-beaked Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, stood still and listened to the low frequency calls of a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.

The chips and calls of Silver-throated and other tanagers were a constant and we had close encounters with less brightly-colored Plain Antvireos. Despite having to navigate the clutching branches of two fallen trees, we walked that trail back out to the open rocky road and kept searching. There were Crested Guans honking like mutant geese, Swallow-tailed Kites riding the currents overhead, and Tufted Flycatchers calling and quivering their tails at the side of the road.

The bird with a way too long name (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant) was also present in fair numbers, we saw a few of them.

Calling White-throated Spadebills managed to stay hidden but a tail-pumping Zeledon’s Antbird was cool (as always),

and it was nice to see the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner was one of the “better” (and expected) birds. A natural born acrobat, this smallish foliage-gleaner does above-ground skulkingas it forages in bromeliads and other aerial vegetation like a big chickadee (sort of).

Another good one was White-vented Euphonia, a bird that is sometimes very common in this area. Even in poor lighting, this little bird can reveal its identification by its tail wagging behavior.

On the raptor front, we enjoyed a view of a perched White Hawk against the green, Short-tailed Hawks above, and, maybe best of all, were treated to an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle in flight.

The target birds might not have shown but we can’t say that we didn’t try and in doing so, we still enjoyed some much appreciated avian cake during the trying days of a pandemic. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Albergue Socorro, one of many exciting birding spots in Costa Rica that are already open and ready to safely accept guests. I hope I can visit again soon.

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Birding Costa Rica

Get High Quality Bird Art = Support Conservation in Costa Rica

It’s always win-win situation when you can get something cool and support what you love at the same time. This is why so many of us coffee drinking birders love to buy bird-friendly shade grown coffee, and why we would rather purchase products that support habitat for birds. It’s especially nice when we can buy high quality bird art that supports research and conservation because what birder wouldn’t love to see portraits of their favorite species on the walls of their nest? Who wouldn’t love to have posters showing beautiful tropical species? Whether those paintings remind us of what we would rather be doing or just add the right sort of avian flavor to the personal nest, pictures of birds are an essential accent for the home of every birder.

In Costa Rica, thanks to a new, local endeavor that blends art with conservation, I can admire some high quality bird art and know that my purchase helps with important research for conservation. Started by my friend and colleague Diego Quesada, “CaraCara” is a local business that creates high quality products related to birding where part of the proceeds are for research and conservation. The name of the company was inspired by a bird that has become rare in Costa Rica and other parts of its range, the Red-throated Caracara. Unlike caracaras of open country habitats, the Red-throated needs large areas of tropical forest and bucks the usual caracara opportunistic trend by mostly foraging on wasp nests.

Red-throated Caracara and the name of the conservation project run by CaraCara.

Such picky specialization has undoubtedly led to the disappearance and diminishing of this species in many areas, Costa Rica included. To give an idea of the extent to which some birds can be affected by habitat loss, although the Red-throated Caracara was historically common in many parts of Costa Rica and Central America to southern Mexico, it has totally disappeared from much of that part of its range. It is still regular in large forested areas of the Amazon and the Darien but even there seems to only persist in areas with large blocks of unbroken forest. In Costa Rica, although we still need to learn more about where remaining populations might occur, the only ones known at the time of writing are in the heart of the forests of the Osa Peninsula and in northern Costa Rica.

Diego and other volunteers have been monitoring the very small population in the north since 2013 but for adequate eventual restoration and protection of this species, more information is needed. How large of a range do these birds have? How were they able to persist in the fragmented forests of the northern part of their range? Are there certain tree species that provide better habitat for their food source? Where else do they occur in Costa Rica?

To help populations of this species in Costa Rica and elsewhere, we need to find the answers to these and other questions as soon as possible. On the bright side of the caracara equation, now, we can help find those answers by purchasing bird posters from CaraCara.

This is one of three posters currently available.

Upon taking the poster out of the box, I was immediately impressed by the quality of the paper. Partly made from algae, the paper used for the posters is both durable and 100% sustainable.

The beautiful accurate illustrations are by Andrew Guttenberg and show fine details and colors I haven’t seen in some other posters. Unlike posters with glossy paper, these ones are more like prints of high quality paintings and therefore perfect for the wall of a den and places of business.

Classy and elegant, each poster also comes with a small sheet of information for the birds shown.

The other two posters currently available.

Several local birders and businesses have already purchased this quality bird art. Once tourism gets back into gear in Costa Rica, this elegant avian decor will also act as high quality souvenirs that double as funding for research and conservation of the Red-throated Caracara. However, to acquire these beautiful posters, hopefully, birders won’t need to wait to visit Costa Rica. Soon, they will also be available for purchase and shipping within the USA. Keep an eye on the CaraCara website for more information about that as well as other birding products being developed by this innovative, local company.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Common Birds of the Cafetal

Coffee farms or “cafetales” aren’t one of the original natural habitats of Costa Rica but since they have been here for more than 100 years, a lot of birds have become adapted to this “modern” green space. Although biodiversity on coffee farms depends on how many trees are present and degree of pesticide use, they can harbor a good number of birds and other wildlife.

The types of plants and animals housed among rows of dark green bushes with occasional trees can’t compare to the ecological latticework of moist forests and wetlands that would naturally occur in the Central Valley. That said, any vegetation is better than no vegetation and in an increasingly urban environment, cafetales act as important verdant patches in a landscape dominated by concrete, glass, and asphalt.

Do you find yourself joining the family on a coffee tour when you would rather be watching Fiery-throated Hummingbirds and quetzals on Poas? Not to fret, bring those binos because there are birds in the coffee! Some cool birds live in those wonderful, special bean producing bushes. These are ten of them:

Crested Bobwhite

If you are familar with bobwhites and hear one calling in Costa Rica, look around because it’s more than likely not a birding flashback. The Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite sounds pretty much like the ones up north. They prefer grassy, weedy fields but also occur in cafetales especially when they have a grassy understory and are adjacent to weedy fields.

Short-tailed Hawk

This small raptor is a common hawk in many parts of Costa Rica. It seems to do well in the mosaic of riparian zones, patches of forest, and agricultural lands of the Central Valley. Watch for both morphs soaring high overhead.

Blue-vented Hummingbird

This hummingbird can feed from the flowers on coffee bushes and trees that grow at the edges of and in coffee farms. It’s pretty common, listen for its distinctive double-noted, short whistled call. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is the other most common hummingbird in coffee farms.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

One of various flycatchers that occur on coffee farms, this species often reveals itself with a vocalization that sounds kind of like a scream. Watch for it feeding on berries and other small fruits.

Clay-colored Thrush

No coffee farm in Costa Rica is complete without a healthy selection of Clay-colored Thrushes. One of the most common species in the country, expect to see lots of Costa Rica’s national bird when birding coffee farm habitats.

Blue-gray Tanager

A common, beautiful bird, watching this species in coffee farms is a peaceful pleasure.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Endemic and likely made rare by a combination of reduced habitat, feral cats, pesticides, and cowbird parasitism, this colorful little towheee persists on and near coffee farms. It is a skulker though, watch for it in the early morning.

Grayish Saltator

One of the most common species of the Central Valley, this seemingly cardinal relative does very well in garden and edge habitats. Its cheerful song is a core component of the Central Valley’s auditory soundscape.

Yellow-green Vireo

Another common species of the valley but only during the wet season. Like the Red-eyed Vireo, it sings a real lot. It also occurs in just about any set of trees including ones in and near coffee.

Rufous-capped Warbler

A snappy, chat-like bird, the Rufous-capped Warbler lives in the understory of dry and moist forest, in second growth, and in coffee fields. This is one of the more common, typical species of coffee farms.

These are some of the species to watch for and expect when birding any green space in the Central Valley. Want to learn much more about about where to find birds in Costa Rica and support this blog at the same time? Purchase my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Plan for out trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, customize it and use it identify everything from motmots to flycatchers while birding in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica migration

Some October Birding News for Costa Rica, 2019

I have always loved the month of October. In Niagara, deep red and gold foliage in the gorge meant that big changes were coming and real soon. Most of the warblers had passed through except for the late ones; the Yellow-Rumps and some Palms joined by sparrows chased out of the boreal zone by the temp-dropping touch of winter’s early winds. Down in the deep green Niagara River, it was still too early for most waterbirds, the rafts of hundreds of ducks and blizzards of gulls, but we still knew that the end of fall was nigh and not only by the crisp clear nights. The King Salmon in the river were another sign; non-native, introduced, yet a modern part of Niagara, the big fish from October had turned a dark golden brown. They had lost most of their speed and fresh breeding colors, were literally slowly but surely dying as they leaped from the water. Like aquatic zombies, the old wasted salmon ambled through the shallows oblivious to all lures. Part of their natural life-span, they were destined to become food for the gulls.

A Ring-billed Gull looking forward to salmon (or French Fries..)

October in Costa Rica has none of that seasonal game-changing atmosphere, no pumpkins on the porches. It’s rainy but still warm. If anything, the biggest changes come in the form of migrant birds. The wood-warblers and flycatchers began to show up in September but the main waves of birds pass through in October. Some news for this 10th, spooky cool month of the year:

High Season for Migration

Early October is when we might see a Veery. Sometimes several of the rich russet-backed thrush can be seen at fruiting trees where they are flighty and forage with a few Gray-cheekeds and Swainson’s (the bulk of which come through in mid-October). During migration, Swainson’s Thrushes are a dime a dozen in Costa Rica but the other two migrant thrushes require a bit more effort. I hope to hear some in that tropical night sky soon.

A Gray-cheeked Thrush migrating through Costa Rica from a couple years ago.

Down on the coast, flocks of Eastern Kingbirds are powering through while the skies above them feature flocks of Mississippi Kites and the first groups of Broad-wingeds. On the warbler front, Blackburnians are coming through in numbers and all other regular warbler species are here or arriving with each new day. Recently, in Parque del Este, Marylen and I had some good mid-day birding on a rare, beautiful October day. No cuckoos nor Ceruleans but we did connect with a group of 20 or warblers, most of which were Blackburnians, but there was also a Canada or two, one Brewster’s, and a Worm-eating along with Kentucky, Chestnut-sided, Yellow, Black-and-white, and a couple of American Redstarts. We also saw Olive-sided Flycatcher, both pewees (yes, they did vocalize), Red-eyed Vireos, and a few other migrants. Uncommon migrant species that other birders have recently seen in Costa Rica include Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos, Yellow-breasted Chat and Gray Kingbird.

Costa Rica’s first MOTUS station

In keeping with the main month of migration, a key means of tracking small migrant birds was recently installed at the Brisas Reserve in the Caribbean foothills of Costa Rica. Motus stations are used to detect small radio transmitters placed on birds; devices that are the best way to show exactly where birds are coming from, where they are going, and where they are stopping to refuel. This first such station in Costa Rica will help reveal more information about threatened Cerulean Warblers and other species that migrate through and winter in the country. This big key jump in research of bird migration in Costa Rica was made possible by the efforts of SELVA and the Cerulean Warbler Project as part of the Neotropical Flyways Project.

A Good Time to Bird the Caribbean Lowlands

Migration is at its best near the Caribbean coast but even if a birder wasn’t into seeing some of the same avian kind as in West Virginia, Florida, or Pennsylvania, he or she would still do well do bird places like Tortuguero, Cahuita, and other sites south of Limon. The resident birding is likewise excellent with most lowland species possible and the weather is more likely to cooperate in October than during the high season for birding in Costa Rica. Visit Costa Rica for birding in October, you won’t be disappointed!

You might see a White-vented Euphonia.

The First South Caribbean Bird Count!

I so wish I was participating in this. It’s something I have always wanted to do or at least see happen. Although other responsibilities were just too much to help out with the count this year, at least it is taking place and it looks to be a good one. Well organized and with several routes, I just know they are going to find some tough species and maybe some rare migrants on October 5th.

Striated Heron near Jaco!

A remnant wetland right at the fringes of Jaco is turning up some good stuff including Least Bittern and Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture. However, the local star of the birding show has been a vagrant Striated Heron. We didn’t head down there because we already got our year bird at Medio Queso. Many thanks go to local guide Beto Guido for keeping track of the bird and giving daily updates to help many a local birder connect with this mega for Costa Rica.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers at the airport!

Richard Garrigues (the main author of the Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica) and his talented birding sons have been visiting the country’s main airport to look for grasspipers. Those efforts worked because they found two Buff-breasted Sandpipers! One of the trickiest of the regular migrants to pass through Costa Rica, I suspect that hundreds just fly right on over and if some birds do stop, they end up in non-birded pasturelands. However, once in a while, some Buffies end up in the extensive areas of short grass at the airport. This year, two did just that around a week ago and Mary and I were some of the lucky birders that managed to see them. Many thanks to Richard and the Garrigues family for finding these excellent migrants.

Removal of Hummingbird Feeders

On a strange note, due to a strict interpretation of the local wildlife law, Costa Rican authorities responsible for enforcement of regulations that affect the environment have began to make some restaurants and other places take down their hummingbird feeders. This, because the law prohibits feeding wild animals. Since there is scant evidence that hummingbird feeders definitely affect hummingbirds and ecological communities in a negative manner, and because said feeders help promote local tourism (and thus an important segment of the economy), a quickly growing group of local guides, tour operators, hotel owners, biologists, and other folks have been organizing to seek a solution (stay tuned for more about this issue).

If you do go birding in Costa Rica this October, please mention your favorite bird in the comments and don’t forget to prepare for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Hope to see you in Costa Rica!