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Strategies for Target Birds in Costa Rica

Target birding, it’s nothing new, it’s just looking for the birds we want to see. It can be as relaxed as watching for that daily Downy Woodpecker or as extreme as braving the Poseidon swells of the southern Atlantic as you make headway to Inaccessible Island. Although the daily Downy twitch and an incredible seafaring jaunt for the Inaccessible Island Rail are two very different endeavors, essentially, both are still target birding.

Barred Antshrike
Barred Antshrike in Costa Rica- I always enjoy seeing this bird out back.

When it comes down to it, as long as you have a bird in mind and watch for it more than some other species, you are partaking in target birding. Seasoned birders know that most target birding goes far beyond the familiar branches and brush piles of the backyard and that it typically begins well before stepping out the door. Even if the bird in question is at a local reserve, we don’t want to leave the house until we know where and how to look for it. We don’t want to take the risk because from past experience, we know how easy it is to not see birds.

We know that if we only focus efforts on the western side of a sewage lagoon, we could miss or “dip” a Green Sandpiper that only prefers the ponds on the eastern part of the dark water treatment stinkplex. From dips of the past, we know that we might need to look for the target bird at a certain time of day. That’s of course how we missed the vagrant Black-headed Gull that only flies past the river mouth at 6 p.m. (we were watching at 6 a.m….).

No matter how earnest your scanning of the cold waters of Lake Ontario might be, if the bird doesn’t go there at 10 a.m., even a Yodabirder couldn’t bring it into a field of view. That need for accurate information is why mild-mannered birders can become temporary experts on the habits of Northern Wheatears, why we can have an incredible thirst for odd, ornitho-information, how we can spend hours looking over and analyzing eBird data. That’s all good (I freely admit to have done all of these things too) but is all of that research necessary when birding Costa Rica? Do we really need to learn about and know the habits of every possible species?

Perhaps not but for those of us with the time to do so, even if we don’t need to know about the habits of tail-wagging Zeledon’s Antbirds, we might still learn as much as we can simply because we love to learn about birds. I know that I love getting insight into the habits of pretty much every bird but does it come in handy?

To answer this latter question, I would say, “Yes” because the more you know about a bird, the more complete the experience when you finally see it. When you finally focus in on a Clay-colored Thrush, as common and bereft of colors as it may be, the experience is enhanced by knowing that this average looking thrush is also the national bird of Costa Rica, that it’s melodies bring the rains, that it’s local name of “Yiguirro” comes from the Huetar culture and shows that this dull-colored bird has made a happy connection between birds and people for thousands of years.

Knowledge is handy, it enhances any birding trip to Costa Rica. It’s not absolutely necessary for seeing target birds but it does enhance a once in a lifetime trip to a birding paradise. With that in mind, this is my take on some additional, effective strategies used to target birds in Costa Rica:

eBird

This fantastic tool for bird information also works for Costa Rica BUT it is limited by accuracy, site bias, and the fact that tropical ecosystems are complicated. Don’t get me wrong, it can tell you where any number of species have been seen and I often use it to get an idea about distribution but a fair number of reports should be taken with a grain of salt, locations for various sightings are incorrect, and since a high percentage of visiting birders bird at the same sites, that bias is reflected in the data. It’s not a bad tool to plan for target birds by any means, I would just suggest not solely relying on eBird in Costa Rica to plan your trip (at 10,000 Birds, I wrote a post about tips for using eBird in Costa Rica).

I should also mention that since we now have more reviewers in Costa Rica working to improve the quality of the data, information about bird distribution in Costa Rica on eBird should improve with time.

Learn Habitats

Bat Falcon habitat, tropical forest

As with birding anywhere, no matter how many bird lists you have for a given site, you still don’t really know where your target birds are until you know which habitats they use and how to recognize those habitats. This is one of the reasons why we included text and photos about major habitats in the birding app for Costa Rica that I am involved with.

Simple enough, right? Maybe if all you had to do was find mature pine forest but in Costa Rica, the only pines we have are on tree plantations. The birds around here use a much more complex array of habitats, many of them only occur in specific microhabitats like forested streams, Heliconia thickets, or advanced second growth. Heck, for a few birds, we still don’t know what the heck they really need!

If you have a limited number of target species, this is where research can help. Learn as much as you can about the types of microhabitats and elevations used by a mega target like the Black-crowned Antpitta and you will have a better chance at finding one. Learn where various types of quality habitat occur in advance and you can plan a trip that gets you birding in the best places even if some of those sites don’t feature so well on eBird. Some of those places might even have some of the best habitat, the lack of eBird lists probably just means that few people have birded there.

That said, even if eBird does show that a Lattice-tailed Trogon has been reported at some wonderfully forested site, it might not be there when you visit for the following important factor.

Tropical Ecosystems are Complicated

The Lattice-tailed Trogon was there yesterday, how come it’s not there today? The trail looks the same but despite the frustrations of not seeing an uncommon trogon that was photographed on Monday, you did manage to see a Sharpbill on Tuesday! The reason why that trogon wasn’t present might have been because it was visiting another part of its territory, or because most birds of tropical forest are naturally rare (even more so these days because of the detrimental landscape level effects of climate change), or because it found a better fruiting tree, it was there but hidden, or other reasons not obviously apparent to human senses.

Lattice-tailed Trogon

The reasons why birding in tropical forests can seem to change from one day to the next are related to why such those same forests host so much life. Basically, they are ecosystems so complex, at first glance, they seem to be some amazing chaotic, out of control profusion of life gone into overdrive. And maybe they are! It’s more likely, though, that tropical forests are amazingly complex systems and webs of life where interactions happen on innumerable facets and fronts. That just means that you can’t always expect the same birds, but that you can ALWAYS expect surprises and exciting birding.

Consider Hiring a Qualified Guide

As with any place, the easiest route to seeing target birds in Costa Rica is by hiring a qualified local guide. By “qualified”, I mean a guide who knows how to look for those birds, where they have been recently seen, and how to find them. It goes without saying that the guide should also know how to identify your target species. There are a number of qualified guides in Costa Rica, to choose the best for your purposes, I would ask them about their experience, see what others might say about them (especially any professional guides from other places), and ask them about chances at seeing target birds. If they say, “Sure, we can see a Harpy Eagle!”, unless a nest is found, they are likely not being honest. If they say, “No, we probably won’t see Speckled Mourner but I know a few places to try and how to look for them”, that’s a good sign.

Accurate Information on Where to Find Birds in Costa Rica

If you hire a qualified guide, they will know where to find any number of target birds and can probably help plan your trip. However, if you would rather plan a birding trip to Costa Rica on your own, trip reports from tours can act an inspiration. This very blog also has plenty of information. If you would like more in-depth information and details on where to find birds in Costa Rica as well as tips for looking for and identifying them, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Now that vaccines are on the way, it really is time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Which target birds do you have? Tell us in the comments. I can’t promise that you will see them but I can tell you where to find them.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope high elevations

More Updates on Birding Costa Rica: Irazu and Quebrada Gonzalez

Once again, this post will be an imageless one as I am still awaiting a replacement part for my tripod (I need it for digiscoping). Nevertheless, I hope that readers will still find this fresh out of the field information of use. Since my last post, I have done a few trips to Irazu and Quebrada Gonzalez. Windy and misty weather has made the birding challenging but good stuff was still espied through our trusty binoculars.

Some Irazu National Park birding updates: This continues to be a reliable site for Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. On Friday, we had one right on the dusty road between Rancho Redondo and LLano Grande. Looking like an exotic, lost chicken, upon our approach, it leaped off the road and into the underbrush. Using the car as a hide, we pulled up and quietly watched it fidget around the ground beneath a roadside hedge for several minutes. We were even close enough to see the red skin around its light colored eye! More were heard on the way up to the park and even calling from the paramo near the crater. The following day, birds were heard at close quarters on the road up to the national park but remained unseen.

A pleasant surprise along the road up to the park not long after Llano Grande were two Tropical Mockingbirds that gave us flyby looks. I was under the inpression that we could only find this recent invader at golf courses so was happy to get this for my year list (already well past 400 species).

Long-tailed Silkies and Black and Yellow Silky Flycatchers seem to be uncommon at the moment. Just a few were heard and seen over the course of two days.

Resplendent Quetzal is present a the stream just south of the Volcano Museum. There are a few wild avocado trees there and at least one has fruit. Although we waited for at least an hour in vain at those trees on Friday, four or five birds were seen at the exact same time and spot on Saturday!

Scintillant Hummingbird was present in flowering hedges between Rancho Redondo and Llano Grande on Friday.

It almost goes without saying but Volcano Juncos are still easy to see up around the crater.

There are also some local guides who can be hired for early morning birding and hiking in the paramo. They give short tours of the crater and can be contracted for this at the information booth near the crater but need to be contacted in advance for early morning birding. Here is their website.

Quebrada Gonzalez updates:  As we left the Central Valley on Sunday, misty weather in the mountains made me wonder if we would have to cancel due to constant, birdless rain. Luckilly, though, the sun was shining in the foothills and it was a fantastic morning. The rain did catch up with us by 10 a.m. but until then, the birding was VERY GOOD. After watching a sloth in the parking lot, it wasnt long before we were watching a group of busy Tawny-crested and Carmiols Tanagers as they foraged in the undergrowth. A dozen of so Emerald Tanagers quickly followed and provided us with excellent looks just as activity started to pick up. Tawny-capped Euphonia, Wedge-billed Wodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner, and Black-faced Grosbeaks were seen but a nice sounding mixed flock led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager was just a bit too far off into the forest to see wel. 

Since Nightingale Wrens were singing nearby, I decided to make an attempt at an imitation and lo and behold, one of those extra drab, tiny-tailed birds popped up on a low branch and let us watch him from ten feet away for about ten minutes! Definitely the best looks I have ever had at this major forest skulker. As it sang, it quivered its little tail a mile a minute (a video of that performance might have been a contendor for some obscure film prize)!

Not long after the performance of the Nightingale Wren, I heard an exciting sound: the song of Northern Barred Woodcreeper and calls of Bicolored Antbirds. This could only mean one thing: ANTSWARM! We couldnt see the birds from the trail so we crept about 12 feet into the forest to where they were shaking the vegetation and our patience was rewarded with beautiful views of Bicolored, Spotted, and Ocellated Antbirds, several Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and…Black-crowned Antpitta! Despite its larger size, the antpitta was remarkably inconspicuous and only gave us a few good, prolonged looks. The ground-cuckoo didnt show while we watched but I wouldnt be surprised if one made an appearance at some future antswarm occasion. Strangly enough, although we heard Northern Barred Woodcreeper, this antswarm lover remained unseen.

Of course, while we were watching the answarm, all the other birds in the forest seemed to become active as well. Lattice-tailed Trogon, Streak-chested Antpitta, and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang nearby and a huge canopy flock moved through the crowns of the trees. At one point, I decided that we should leave the swarm to try for the canopy flock but they turned out to be too high up in the trees to see well so we watched more 0f the antswarm until raindrops started to fall. A break in the rain gave us beautiful looks at White-ruffed Manakin but then it poured for the rest of the day. Well, I assume it rained the rest of the time because after leaving to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant in the lowlands, we decided to take advantage of the drier weather and had good birding in the Rio Blanco area. Oddly enough, best bird there was a toss-up between Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (rare winter resident) and Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

A short stop at El Tapir on the way back turned up Green Thorntail, Violet-headed Hummingbirds, and brief looks at a male Snowcap to give us around 120 species identified for a darn good day of birding in Costa Rica.

I am headed back to Quebrada Gonzalez on Sunday. I hope the rains stay away and that the birds cooperate!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Introduction middle elevations

Rara Avis, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites

This past weekend I visited Rara Avis, one of the classic birding sites for Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon- a fairly common bird at Rara Avis.

There were several Olive-sided Flycatchers in the area. Love these birds!

Founded in 1983 by conservationists, Rara Avis started out as an organization whose goal was to demonstrate that rain forest could be managed in both a profitable and wise manner. Or, in other words, that people will benefit far more from keeping the spectacular rain forests of Costa Rica intact as opposed to cutting them down. With this concept playing a central role in all things Rara Avis, it’s no wonder that they became pioneers of ecotourism in the rainforest. On my recent visit to Rara Avis, I discovered that more than 20 years later, they have stuck to this central theme, and in my opinion, the place still ranks among the top birding sites in Costa Rica.

Area around lodge.

Rara Avis at dawn.

Ironically, it doesn’t attract very many birders. Only a fortunate few include Rara Avis on trips that visit other “must see” sites such as Monteverde, Carara, la Selva, and the Dota region. Those few birders that make it to Rara Avis, though, are indeed fortunate because they end up seeing a variety of species difficult to find elsewhere in the country. The 360 plus species list at Rara Avis includes such birds as Great, Slaty-breasted, and Little Tinamous, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Wood-Quails, Sunbittern, Barred Hawk, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Tiny Hawk, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Great Green Macaw, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, White-chinned Swift, Green-fronted Lancebill, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Lanceolated Monklet, Barbets, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Immaculate Antbird, Spectacled, Thicket, and Black-crowned Antpittas, Black-headed Antthrush, Thrushlike Schiffornis, Speckled Mourner, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Nightingale Wren, Pale-vented Thrush, many tanagers including Blue and Gold, Black and Yellow, and Ashy-throated Bush, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

All of these are regularly heard or seen at Rara Avis. Indeed this may be the most reliable spot in Costa Rica for Blue and Gold and Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers. One of the guides who became a birder at Rara Avis told me that he had been pretty surprised when he found out that Blue and Gold Tanager was NOT one of the most common species in Costa Rica because at Rara Avis he was seeing several every single day.

Incredible as that sounds, it should actually be expected to see a few “rare” bird species at Rara Avis. The reason for this is because most of these “rare” birds require the type of extensive, primary rainforest at Rara Avis that has become very difficult to gain access to on the Caribbean slope. In addition to the above mentioned species, there are a few other indicators that Rara Avis harbors some very special habitat. It was one of the last places where Red-throated Caracaras have been seen in Costa Rica (the other sites are on the Osa Peninsula), is one of the few sites where Crested Eagle has been seen in Costa Rica (the other sites being the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol, and Tortuguero), and is one of the only sites where Wing-banded Antbird has been possibly seen in Costa Rica. The antbird in particular is a most intriguing and enigmatic record. A ground loving antbird that occurs in lowland rain forest in Nicaragua, Panama, and northern South America, this peculiar species is considered hypothetical for Costa Rica. Nevertheless, in speaking with Wilbur, the resident bird guide at Rara Avis, it’s hard to believe that he saw anything but Wing-banded Antbird. He got very good looks at the bird on three occasions during 2001, but hasn’t seen it since. He even showed me the exact spot along the “Plastico” trail where he saw the bird, an area that at that time was mostly closed canopy primary forest of about 650 meters elevation.

The hummingbird feeders attract…

Green-crowned Brilliants,

lots of Violet-crowned Woodnymphs,

and lots of Orangish Nectar feeding bats at night!

Considering that Rara Avis has so much to offer for birders, their relative absence is almost as enigmatic as Wilbur’s sighting of Wing-banded Antbird. Although the accommodation at Rara Avis is more basic than that of other lodges, it is clean and several rooms have balconies that provide views into the canopy. A stay at the lodge that includes meals, guided walks, and transportation from Las Horquetas is also priced accordingly (about $80-$90 per person). The only real issue and barrier for most people is the road that leads to Rara Avis. It can’t be driven and although it qualifies as a road for maybe one third of its length, better terminology for the rest of the way might be “rough track”, “extremely rough passage”, or “blasted, lurching, boulder-strewn mudway”. I think this last description best portrays the access road to Rara Avis. The 15 kilometer trip takes around 3 hours and involves an Ok ride on a durable truck and a pretty awful ride on some sort of cart pulled by a tractor. The cart thing on its own is actually comfortable with well-padded seats. It’s the huge rocks and ruts found along the way that are the problem. They make the cart jump and jerk like a rusty, maniacal ride operated by a bipolar carnie who neglected to take his meds. Actually, lots of people endure the ride up and kids would probably enjoy it. For people who aren’t as pliable or resistant though, that ride up and down is another matter entirely. For birders visiting Costa Rica who can handle the “road”, 3-4 nights at Rara Avis will probably turn up some of the best birding of their trip. On a bright note for birders who can’t handle the rough ride (I barely can), there has been talk of actually fixing it. Although some worry that this might take away from the experience, about the only thing that it will change at Rara Avis is putting this excellent site back on the itinerary of every birder visiting Costa Rica.

The Unimog truck.

The tractor cart thing.

The infamous “road”.

Rara Avis is also very good for herps and has the highest recorded herp diversity for Costa Rica. This Eyelash Viper was poised to strike at this heliconia. While I took a pics, a Long-billed Hermit was feeding nearby. It fed on all the heliconias in that area except for this one!

On my short visit (one night and morning of birding), here is a list of all things identified from the cattle pastures of Las Horquetas up to the beautiful forests of Rara Avis. Birding was more or less limited to the clearing at the Waterfall Lodge, and along the El Plastico trail. A huge number of trees along most of the El Plastico trail were unfortunately felled by an odd, violent windstorm a few years ago. Although this has affected the quality of the habitat along this trail, other trails at Rara Avis still provide access to beautiful primary forest. During my stay, the hot and sunny weather quieted things down quite a bit. Nevertheless, I identified 111 species in just one brief evening and morning of birding and am sure I would have gotten several more if I had stayed for two more nights. My best birds were Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Cerulean Warbler!

Black-breasted Wood-Quail- h

King Vulture- a few seen

Barred Hawk- 2 heard

Black Vulture- a few seen

Turkey Vulture- a few seen

Gray Hawk- few seen along road.

Bat Falcon- seen and heard

Barred Forest Falcon- 1 heard

White-throated Crake- heard El Plastico clearing.

Gray-breasted Crake- one called from marshy pasture along road when tractor stopped for 3 minutes.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail- pair foraging in garden.

Purple Gallinule- marshy pasture.

Northern Jacana- marshy pasture.

Red-billed Pigeon- 2 along road.

Pale-vented Pigeon- near Las Horquetas along road.

Short-billed Pigeon- a few heard.

Ruddy Ground Dove- a few along road.

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove- one singing in morning from perch 3 meters high inside forest near kitchen.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet- a few along road.

Olive-throated Parakeet- one pair along road.

Orange-chinned Parakeet- a few along road.

Red-lored Parrot- a few along road.

White-crowned Parrot- a few along road.

Groove-billed Ani- a few along road.

Mottled Owl- 1 heard at night.

Central American Pygmy Owl- 1 heard 6:00 P.M.

White-collared Swift- a few flocks.

Green Hermit- a few in forest.

Stripe-throated (Little) Hermit- several.

Long-billed Hermit- a few in forest.

Violet Sabrewing- 2 in forest.

Green-crowned Brilliant- a few at feeders.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph- most common hummingbird. Several at feeders and many in forest.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- 1 second growth.

Violet-headed Hummingbird- several at Verbania around lodge.

Black-throated Trogon- a few heard, 1 seen forest.

Lattice-tailed Trogon- a few heard, 1 seen forest.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- few heard and seen.

Keel-billed Toucan- 1 seen El Plastico.

Collared Aracari- a few seen El Plastico.

Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several heard and seen.

Smoky-brown Woodpecker- 1 seen.

Spotted Barbtail- 1 heard.

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner- 1 heard, 1 seen.

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- a few heard and seen.

Spotted Woodcreeper- a few heard and seen.

Fasciated Antshrike- 1 heard.

Russet Antshrike- a few El Plastico.

Immaculate Antbird- 1 heard around lodge.

Thicket Antpitta- a few heard along El Plastico trail. Their population should be booming with all the gaps created by the storm.

Black-faced Antthrush- a few heard and seen.

Paltry Tyrannulet- very few heard and seen.

Common Tody Flycatcher- heard and seen Las Horquetas.

Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant- several heard and seen.

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher- a few seen.

Olive-sided Flycatcher- at least 7 different birds seen! Must be coming through in numbers.

Eastern Wood-Peewee- 1 heard.

Tropical Peewee-  1 El Plastico.

Black Phoebe- along road.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher- El Plastico.

Boat-billed Flycatcher- 1 heard.

Social Flycatcher- along road.

TK- along road.

Eastern Kingbird- small flock along road.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird- pair seen near El Plastico. Female sallied out to snatch a large katydid- incredible!

White-collared Manakin- 1 lodge clearing.

Red-eyed Vireo- a few seen.

Lesser Greenlet- a few seen and heard.

Blu and white Swallow- a few seen.

Barn Swallow- constantly migrating overhead.

Bank Swallow- several migrating overhead.

Purple Martin- group of dozen of both sexes along road.

Long-billed Gnatwren- a few heard.

Tawny-faced Gnatwren- 1 heard.

Stripe-breasted Wren- several heard, a few seen.

White-breasted Wood-Wren- a few heard.

Nightingale Wren- a few heard.

Pale-vented Thrush- several seen.

Clay-colored Robin- heard Las Horquetas.

Blackburnian Warbler- a few seen.

American Redstart- several seen.

Canada Warbler- 1 seen.

Cerulean Warbler- at least 2 seen very actively foraging high up with mixed flock near El Plastico.

Buff-rumped Warbler- 1 heard river at lodge.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- a few heard road.

Bananaquit- a few heard and seen.

Ashy-throated Bush-tanager- several in mixed flock near El Plastico.

Olive Tanager- a few heard and seen.

White-shouldered Tanager- pair seen.

Tawny-crested Tanager- a few heard.

Black and yellow Tanager- several seen and heard.

Passerini’s Tanager- several at El Plastico.

Speckled Tanager- a few near lodge.

Golden-hooded Tanager- along road.

Silver-throated Tanager- 1 seen.

Blue-gray Tanager- a few along road.

Palm Tanager- a few along road.

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- a few around lodge.

Green Honeycreeper- a few.

Shining Honeycreeper- a few.

Variable Seedeater- several along road.

Orange-billed Sparrow- a few near lodge.

Buff-throated Saltator- a few in gaps.

Black-faced Grosbeak- several in forest.

Eastern Meadowlark- a few along road.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique- a few heard in forest.

Montezuma Oropendola- a few along road.

Olive-backed Euphonia- several heard and seen.

Tawny-capped Euphonia- several heard and seen.