Before heading down to Costa Rica for a healthy dose of bird biodiversity, studying that field guide is imperative for knowing what you are looking at. Even if you plan on hiring a birding guide (always a good idea), it’s still important to gaze at illustrations, try to learn field marks, and read about the behavior of the birds you want to see. Getting to know the birds before you actually see them will make your birding trip that much more satisfying. It primes you for self confirmation that yes, that freaky looking Three-wattled Bellbird does actually exist, Red-capped Manakins do look like toys, and White-throated Magpie Jays just might be Blue Jays that dined on a few too many steroid-laced suet cakes.
However, not all is easy and wonderful when birding in Costa Rica. Just as with every destination (including your backyard), there are groups of birds that consistently evoke sighs of dismay when we are confronted with their identification. Feel free to admire (or drool) over plates of hawk-eagles and cotingas, but get ready to be challenged (and shocked) when looking at illustrations of the woodcreepers. No, it’s not a practical joke. They really do look that similar and are more or less the Empids (or Phylloscops for Palearctic birders) of the neotropics. There are plenty of other hard to identify groups of birds that lurk in the American tropics, but few others intimidate birders as much as the woodcreepers.
When confronted with a woodcreeper, the typical response by birders new to the neotropics tends to range from that of frustration to discrimination and downright avoidance.
“It was some woodcreeper. I don’t know which, they all look the same anyways!”
“Well, the guide said it was a Streak-headed so I’m happy with that.”
“I don’t even look at them. All I ever see are reddish colored tails while they creep out of sight. I’ll stick with my tanagers thank you very much.”
“Woodcreeper, shmoodcreeper. Look! There’s a Blue-gray Tanager!”
“But we’ve seen lots of those…”
“So what! they look nice and we know what they are.”
These cop-out attitudes need to change! Although woodcreepers can be tough, they are by no means impossible to identify in Costa Rica. However, one thing that is very true about woodcreepers is that they are very difficult to photograph. For that reason, you won’t see many amazing, multi-angled shots of dendrocolaptids from Costa Rica in this post. Nevertheless, you will find information on how to identify them. Here are a few tips:
- The number one rule for identifying woodcreepers in Costa Rica and probably everywhere is focusing on their heads and bills. That’s right. Don’t be led stray by the rusty-colored tail and wings. Just about every species shows these characteristics so admire them if you wish but don’t expect to identify the bird. Get a nice look at that noggin and beak though and you should be able to “call” the bird in question.
- Know where each species is “supposed” to occur. Would you find a Black-streaked Woodcreeper in high elevation forests? Would a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper be investigating tree trunks around Tarcoles? Would you see a Tawny-winged Woodcreeper on the Caribbean slope? That’s a big “nay” for those three questions and knowing just such basics about habitat and elevational ranges of woodcreepers will make their identification that much easier.
- Know their calls. You can always identify them with a good look at the head and bill but it never hurts to know their vocalizations.
- Learn them by genus. The shape of Woodcreepers bills is generally associated with their genus. Learning to recognize woodcreepers by their genus goes a long way for their identification.
The above tips should help you ID every woodcreeper in Costa Rica but it’s also nice to have information about each species:
Black-banded Woodcreeper: This is a very rare species in Costa Rica that appears to only occur in old growth middle-elevation forest. The two sites where it is seen the most appear to be Tapanti National Park and the Bosque de Paz area. Watch for the strong, straight, blackish bill and the combination of streaks on the upperparts and banding on the belly. Can show up at antswarms and prefers the understory.
Northern Barred Woodcreeper: Fairly common in low and foothill-elevation forests on both slopes, it also occurs in riparian habitats in Guanacaste. The banding might not be as obvious as expected but is noticeable with a close look. A large, black-billed, unstreaked woodcreeper. Often at antswarms and usually in the understory.
Plain-brown Woodcreeper: Rather uncommon in the understory of lowland and foothill forests of the Caribbean slope, the easiest way to see it is at army antswarms (which it frequently attends). A rather plain, unstreaked woodcreeper with a straight black bill and two dark lines on the face.
Ruddy Woodcreeper: Yet another uncommon species in Costa Rica, it is most frequently encountered in the understory of moist and dry forests on the northern Pacific slope. The overall plain, unstreaked, rufous coloration makes it easy to identify. Look for it at antswarms in any dry forest area and sites such as Rincon de la Vieja and the Bajo del Tigre trail near Monteverde.
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper: This is a fairly common forest understory species on the south Pacific slope and often shows up at antswarms. Look for the contrasting rufous wings, pale throat, and pale eyebrow on this mostly unstreaked species. Carara National Park, the Osa Peninsula, and most lowland and foothill forested sites on the south Pacific slope are good for this species.
Long-tailed Woodcreeper: Uncommon but regular in the understory and middle levels of forest on the south Pacific slope. It’s also a very rare resident in Caribbean-slope foothill forest. This is a tricky one and is best identified by its straight, rather thin and somewhat delicate bill. The bird itself also looks a bit more slender than other woodcreepers. The pale spectacles stand out more compared to Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers and it has less streaking on the head than those species. I see it quite often in Carara. The forests of the Osa peninsula are also good for it. On a side note, there’s a very good chance that more than one species is involved with the Long-tailed Woodcreeper complex. There are at least two vocal groups (and maybe more) with the birds in Costa Rica separate from Amazonian Long-tailed Woodcreepers.
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper: Ons of the most commonly seen woodcreepers, it’s also easy to identify. Note the small size and short, slightly upturned bill. Find it in the understory of most lowland and foothill rainforest sites.
Olivaceous Woodcreeper: Fairly common at all levels of moist foothill forests and cloud forests. Also uncommon in dry forests. This small woodcreeper is easy to identify in being the only Costa Rican Woodcreeper with a plain, gray head and breast.
Streak-headed Woodcreeper: In many areas, this is the most common woodcreeper species and therefore a good one to learn. Although most frequent in edge habitats of the lowlands and middle elevations, it sometimes turns up inside the forest too (as at Carara). It forages from near the ground to high up in the trees. Look for that thin, slightly downcurved bill.
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper: The most common woodcreeper in high elevation forests, look for the thin, slightly downcurved bill and spots on the head. It forages at all levels of the forest.
Spotted Woodcreeper: Fairly common in humid foothill and cloud forests, the Spotted Woodcreeper usually looks like a rather plain-colored woodcreeper with buff eye rings and diffuse buff spotting. Most often in middle levels and the canopy of the forest.
Cocoa Woodcreeper: Fairly common in forested sites of the humid lowlands. More of a forest species than Streak-headed Woodcreeper but will also turn up at the forest edge. A rather large woodcreeper with a strong, straight bill. Look for this characteristic in conjunction with the buff throat and buff streaks. It forages at all levels of the forest.
Black-striped Woodcreeper: This largish woodcreeper is fairly common in forested areas of the humid lowlands and mostly occurs in the canopy. They also occur in foothill forests but seem to be much less common there than in the lowlands. Watch for the bold, blackish and white scaled appearance. Some good sites for this species are the Laguna del Lagarto area, Carara, the Osa Peninsula, and around Manzanillo.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper: This largish woodcreeper is much more common north of Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, it’s restricted to dry forests and riparian areas of the Pacific northwest. Look for the strong, straight, pale bill and paler head compared to Cocoa Woodcreeper. Mostly seen high above the ground.
Strong-billed Woodcreeper: Rare in Costa Rica, you could run into it at any heavily forested foothill or middle elevation site. It’s large size and slightly downcurved, massive bill make it pretty much unmistakable. as an example of this species’ rarity in Costa Rica, I saw one on my second visit to Quebrada Gonzalez in 1992 but haven’t seen it there since. I know it still occurs there, though, because friends of mine saw one in the same place just one month ago! Forages from the understory to the subcanopy.
Brown-billed Scythebill: Uncommon but regular in humid middle elevation forests, the downcurved bill makes it unmistakable. It can show up at a number of sites. I regularly hear or see it at Tapanti, Quebrada Gonzalez, and in the Manuel Brenes forests near San Ramon. Forages at any height in the forest.
Don’t be afraid of woodcreepers! Don’t let their field-guide similarity scare you off! Get a good look at their beaks and head and you should be able to identify them. Let me know what you see in the comments.