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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Some Images of a Great Tinamou at Carara National Park

I am pretty sure that Carara National Park is one of the easiest places to see Great Tinamous anywhere in its range. That’s quite a statement considering that they carefully make their way through the understory of rainforests from southern Mexico way on down into the green depths of the Amazon. While it is true that such an ample range means that there are quite a few places where you could run into this pigskin shaped bird, it’s just not that easy to see in most places. Its actual or perceived scarcity is a side affect of being a sizeable, chunky, tasty looking ground bird.  Locals seem to hunt them wherever they can and before you know it,  they get extirpated or just too shy to see (the early 80s crazy haired group known as Kajagoogoo should do a remake of their one hit wonder , “Too shy” and dedicate it to over-hunted Great Tinamous although most crakes would make better candidates).

Costa Rica is no stranger to the unfortunate over hunting of Great Tinamous so don’t be surprised if you don’t hear or see them in unprotected areas even if the forest does look great. The Osa Peninsula comes to mind in this respect. They are fairly common in Corcovado National Park but you would be very lucky to hear a whisper of this hunted bird in forest near villages. Fortunately, when birding Costa Rica, you have got an excellent chance of seeing a Great Tinamou or two at Carara National Park. They are just as easy at La Selva but since access to the forest is easier at Carara, this factor also makes Great Tinamous that much easier to see at Carara. I see one or two on most guiding trips to the park and insist that if you spend an entire day on the forest trails that leave from the HQ, you have got a very good chance of seeing this strange bird up close and personal.

They are so tame at Carara that seeing Great Tinamou in those beautiful rainforests can be a surreal experience (especially so because they look so weird). My sightings usually go like this:  As I carefully walk along the trail, eyes and ears open to the slightest movement and hint of a shuffle in the leaves, no matter how much I scan the understory, a tinamou suddenly appears just off to the side of the trail. Just standing there unconcerned with my presence like a subject in a living museum, it takes a step or two, maybe pecks at the ground and then stands some more.

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The last time I was at Carara, I had the best views I have ever had of Great Tinamou. These sightings beat out my perfect views of a singing bird at Palenque, Mexico, any number of flushed Great Tinamous in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, and any other nice, close looks at them from past visits to Carara or La Selva. These were the best because for at least 15 minutes, three birds let us watch them sit in the leaf litter

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display

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moon us,

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birding Costa Rica

and attempt to hide behind a sapling in shame.

Seeing Great Tinamou just doesn’t get any better than that!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Carara National Park is good for ground birds

Carara National Park is one of the better sites in Costa Rica for seeing ground birds of the forest interior. These are the terrestrial bird species that opt for shade over sun, that relish quiet, careful walks through the leafy texture of the forest floor, that haunt the dark understory with ventriloquial voices. You wont get warbler neck gazing at any of these birds but good luck in just getting a glimpse! The leaf litter may be rife with tasty arthropods but its always a haven for bird hungry predators so to stay alive, ground birds of the forest interior need to keep alert at all times and feign invisibility. The only problem with this strategy is that it also works on birders. You might see one tinamou and antthrush for every 6 heard, a quail-dove if your lucky, and where the heck are the antpittas and leaftossers?

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Great Tinamou

Its always frustrating to walk through beautiful rainforest without seeing such strange and cool birds when you know that they must be somewhere in the vicinity. In most places, the birds hear you coming down the trail and fade away into the recesses of the forest because they decide that its better not to take any chances on whether or not the two legged thing with binoculars will kill and eat them. If they learn that Homo sapiens doesnt pose a threat, however, then the shy, feathered denizens of the forest floor can lower their guard enough to let you watch them at your leisure. You still have to play by their rules and thus walk and watch in a quiet, unobtrusive manner but at least you get to watch them go about their business.

In Costa Rica, there might be no better place for doing this than Carara National Park. La Selva is also a good site for seeing tinamous and antthrushes in this manner but unfortunately, along with many other understory species, they have become much less common. I was reminded of just how good Carara is for seeing ground birds during guiding there this past weekend. During two mornings of birding along the trails that leave from the park headquarters, we had good looks at most of the ground birds that occur in the park. Our main misses were Great Curassow and Marbled Wood-Quail although these species are pretty rare in that part of the forest in any case. As for the more expected species, we had:

Great Tinamou: At least six were heard but only one was seen as it quietly foraged at a small antswarm. It allowed us watch it for at least ten minutes as we hoped and waited for other birds to show (only Northern Barred Woodcreeper made an appearance).

Ruddy Quail-Dove: A female sitting right on the cement pathway of the Universal Access Trail was a bonus. As she slowly made her way into the forest, we watched her for at least ten minutes while being entertained by very tame Chestnut-backed Antbirds.

Gray-chested Dove: This is one of the easier of the ground birds that occur at Carara. Three to four birds total gave us good views.

Streak-chested Antpitta: One of the star birds of Carara, a calling bird revealed itself by hopping near the trail and puffing its breast feathers in and out. We marvelled at the similarities between its plumage and that of other understory species such as thrushes and Ovenbird.

Black-faced Antthrush: None were vocalizing but we still mananged excellent looks at three birds. Each was noticed by the leaves that were being tossed about as it foraged.

Scaly-throated Leaftosser: Speaking of leaves being tossed, this was also how we got prolonged, close looks at the juvenile of this shy species. It was nice for me to get this uncommon species out of the way so early in the year!

Some of the other ground loving species we got that usually arent so difficult to see were Chestnut-backed Antbird, Wood Thrush, Swainsons Thrush, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Orange-billed Sparrow.

Another reason why Carara is so conducive to seeing ground bird species well is simply because the forest understory is rather open. Although it helps to know their vocalizations, patiently spending an entire day of peering into the understory while carefully and quietly walking along the trails should yield looks at all of the species listed above and maybe some that we didn’t get such as the curassow, wood-quail,  Gray-headed Tanager, and Bicolored Antbird.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see Tinamous in Costa Rica

I wish I had photos of tinamous but other than pics of Undulated Tinamous from Tambopata, Peru, I haven’t been lucky enough to get adequate pics of any other of these goofy-looking, wonderful, feathered footballs (and by “footballs” I mean the somewhat cylindrical, all American “pigskin”). So, if you were hoping for lots of breathtaking imagery in this blog post, I am sorry to disappoint.

However, if you want to find out how to see tinamous in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) read on!

Tinamous as a family range from tropical Mexico all the way south to the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia. They stick to the ground in both humid and dry forests, thick second growth, above the treeline in the October-colored paramo, and in the grasslands of the southern cone. They are also pretty tough to see no matter where you go but at least love to vocalize with haunting songs that are easy on the ears; a boon for birders who happily make ticks on their life list with “heard onlys”. For those of us who need visual confirmation to add one more precious bird to our life lists, though, the ventriloquil songs of Tinamous can quickly turn from being magical and beautifully mysterious to being maddening and horribly frustrating. Although they may be rather “primitive” birds, tinamous aren’t exactly dumb. On the contrary, they must be pretty smart to have survived as a family for several million years and are very adept at remaining unseen. Like avian ninjas of the neotropics, tinamous start the day by taunting birders with their loud, beautiful songs, but then carefully slink through and hide in the undergrowth as soon as binocular-toting, khaki-wearing people hit the trails. After a tinamou-less day inside the forest, and usually while musing about tinamous over drinks right around 5 P.M., the football-shaped birds laugh at the birders with a flurry of vocalizations emanating from deep within the forest. Some tinamous think the joke is so good that they just can’t help themselves and insist on singing in the middle of the night. Really, its’ no wonder that so many people who live near tinamous want to shoot and eat them!

I don’t want to do tinamous any harm whatsoever, nor do I even mind their sneaky behavior. As Zen as I would like to believe myself to be, I have to admit that it’s easy to withstand the tremulous laughs of the tinamous because I am the one who gets the final guffaw. You see, I think that one must think and act like certain birds to see them. In the case of tinamous, this means taking the birding gloves off and getting downright sneaky. You can try playback with tinamous, but aside from over-harrassing the birds, they don’t respond so well. I admit that I have had some success with playback on tinamous, but don’t find it to be as useful of a tool as some other tricks to see these guys.

The most basic and best way to see more tinamous is to walk carefully, quietly, and slowly through the forest. Stop often, be patient, constantly scan the undergrowth, and keep an eye on the trail ahead. Most of all, do not talk, and remember to think like a ninja! Don’t worry about rushing; there are birds around and some might be looking at you. In addition to tinamous, I often end up seeing other ground birds this way such as quail-doves, antthrushes, and wood-quail.

Watch for food sources. Although tinamous mostly eat small creatures such as bugs and lizards, many will also take fallen fruit. Watch for tinamous at antswarms, below fruiting trees, and at spots where flowers that have fallen from the canopy may attract more insects.

Track down singing tinamous at dawn and dusk and bring a flashlight. Get out there when they sing- you might be able to sneak up on one close to the trail.

If the above advice pays off and you do see a tinamou in Costa Rica, at least their identification is pretty straightforward. The five species in Costa Rica are:

Great Tinamou : Common in lowland and foothill rainforest, if you see a brown tinamou with grayish legs that looks bigger than a chicken, it’s this one. Although found at a variety of sites, the most reliable places are Carara and La Selva because Great Tinamous tend to be more tame in these protected forests. It sings with deep, tremulous whistles.

Slaty-breasted Tinamou : Restricted to the northern half of the Caribbean slope, there aren’t too many places to see this species in Costa Rica because of extensive deforestation. To me, they don’t seem as common as they used to be at La Selva although they are still fairly reliable there. Other possibilities are Tortuguero, the forested areas around Laguna del Lagarto lodge, and around the Arenal area. Slaty-breasted Tinamous also occur at Rara Avis and Quebrada Gonzalez, although they are more common in the lowlands. This species might be easier in countries to the north. I recall seeing one or two at Palenque in Mexico. Listen for two very low-pitched whistles that are the song of this one and watch for the gray breast.

Thicket Tinamou : If you see a tinamou in the dry forest, it’s probably this one. Watch for the barring on the upperparts, rufescent tones of the plumage, and reddish legs. During the dry season, especially watch for it in gallery forest and listen for the low, whistled song.

Little Tinamou : The most common and at the same time most difficult to see tinamou in Costa Rica, you will know that one is near when you hear what sounds like a horse that has been sucking on helium balloons whinny from the thick, humid, second growth. Their preference for dense vegetation makes them very difficult to see. Peering into the forest edge might reveal one or you might see one foraging below the Rara Avis feeders or at shaded kitchen middens behind restaurants in the lowlands that are adjacent to thick second growth. The Little Tinamou is indeed little (American Robin-sized) and is mostly plain brown.

Highland Tinamou : This is a tinamou of the cloud forest and the one you are most likely to see along the trails at the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves. In fact, try as hard as you can to see it at these sites because the Highland Tinamou is more regularly seen here than other sites in its range. Watch for the lightly spotted back, and the gray head with rufous throat. It doesn’t not sing as much as other tinamous, nor does it sound anything like the other species in Costa Rica. Listen for the repeated, short, rather harsh notes that make up its song.