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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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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

The Best Places to see Woodpeckers in Costa Rica

We all love woodpeckers. Even non-birders get a kick out of the seemingly crazy antics of a bird that bangs its head against trees and other objects as fast as it possibly can. They are the original classic head-bangers and just like rock stars, many of them sport “wacky hairdos”.

A fuzzy haired troll? Nope, just a Limeated Woodpecker showing off its crazy wig.

Maniacal, laughing vocalizations and forgetting to flap the wings until they about to fall out of the sky also seem to point to birds living way out there on the edge. Yes, wacky, wonderful, and always much appreciated. Although southeast Asia comes out on top in terms of woodpecker diversity, Costa Rica also has its fair share of avian head-bangers. We have 16 of those funtastic species and most are regular in the right habitat (with the exception of the Red-rumped Woodpecker- much easier in South America). Instead, we have the standard Central American Veniliornis, the good old Smoky-brown and this dull woodpecker is a common resident of second growth and rainforest edge in the lowlands and foothills of the Caribbean slope. It’s shaped a bit like a Downy and seems to likewise be adapted to pecking on vines and thin branches.

The Smoky-brown Woodpecker is pretty darn dull.

Speaking of the Caribbean slope, the northern lowlands seem to be the best region in Costa Rica for seeing a bunch of woodpeckers. I see more species of woodpeckers in the Sarapiqui region, Laguna del Lagarto, and other sites in northern Costa Rica than other parts of the country. I was reminded of that high woodpecker diversity a few months ago on a trip to the El Zota Research Station when on our way to the station, we found a mixed flock sort of dominated by woodpeckers. While teasing bird identifications out of the rustling leaves, vines, and big old tropical vegetation of a forested riparian zone, we had a few Black-cheeked Woodpeckers (the standard Caribbean slope Melanerpes),

A male Black-cheeked Woodpecker showing off a wing.

Another Black-cheeked Woodpecker.

a couple of Rufous-wingeds (a common canopy loving bird of the Caribbean lowlands),

Rufous-winged Woodpeckers are tough to digiscope!

had at least one Chestnut-colored (regular in edge and canopy of lowland rainforest),

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker.

its other cool tropical rufousy woodpecker relative, the Cinnamon (which posed incredibly for us as it foraged in bromeliads),

A rare, close view of a Cinnamon Woodepcker. They are usually seen way up in the canopy.

A Cinnamon Woodpecker sticking its tongue into a hole in a bromeliad.

a Lineated Woodpecker (the neotropical Pileated),

Lineated Woodpecker.

and our “ivorybill”, the wonderful Pale-billed.

One of the Pale-billed Woodpeckers from that flock.

I can’t recall if we had a Smoky-brown in that flock too but we may have and also had wintering Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near there for a fine few day woodpecker total of 8 species. Other good sites for woodpeckers are Carara National Park, Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge, and other forested sites on the Osa Peninsula but they seem to be most common and speciose in the remnant forests of northeastern Costa Rica.

Carara is pretty good for the Pale-billed Woodpecker.

The Golden-naped Woodpecker always reminds me of a Three-toed.

Don’t forget to also watch for the near endemic Hoffmann’s Woodpecker in and around San Jose!

A young Hoffmann's Woodpecker from Zamora Estates, one of the best birding sites near San Jose.

See and listen to these woodpeckers and more than 570 other species featured on the next version of a Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I helped develop.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What Woodpeckers are You Going to See When Birding Costa Rica?

Woodpeckers are one of those bird families that are so cool and distinctive that they are even immediately recognized by most non-birders. Thanks to Woody Woodpecker and the unforgettable antics of birds that thrive on “head-banging”, someone who has no idea what a chickadee or flycatcher is can still correctly identify a woodpecker when they see one. They won’t know if it’ a Downy, Hairy, Greater Spotted, or Lineated (if they live in the neotropics) but they still get credit for recognizing a bird at the family level.

In common with most of the American tropics, Costa Rica has a wealth of woodpeckers. The diversity for this chiseling, strange, long-tongued bunch gets even higher in the Amazon and forested habitats of southern Asia but with 16 species to choose from in a place the size of West Virginia, I’m not complaining! Here is a rundown of this fine family of birds that includes information on where and how to see them when birdwatching in Costa Rica:

Olivaceous Piculet: The piculets are a strange group of mini-woodpeckers that will remind you of titmice or maybe nuthatches. Most species reside in South America although a few are found in Asia and one occurs in Africa. In Costa Rica, just one species occurs and as with most of these miniscule woodpeckers, it’s easy to overlook. It’s sometimes seen along the river trail at Carara but is much more regularly sighted further south. Forest edge, gardens, and viney second growth in places such as the Golfo Dulce area, Hacienda Baru, and the Valle del General are all good sites to see the Olivaceous Piculet in Costa Rica. You might also see it around Cano Negro and I have run into it on more than one occasion in guava orchards near Arenal.

No pics for this minute bird.

Acorn Woodpecker: This clown of the high elevations is fairly common and easy to see wherever oak trees are found. Although it lives on Poas and Barva, it doesn’t seem to be as common at those sites compared to Irazu Volcano and the Talamancas.

birding in Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker: This is a true beauty of a bird that evolved in the humid forests of southwestern Costa Rica and western Panama. You can’t see it anywhere else and it’s not as common as the related Black-cheeked Woodpecker is on the Caribbean slope. Although it does occur at Carara National Park, seeing it there during a day of birding is by no means guaranteed. I usually hear it inside the forest but don’t see it too often. However, it becomes more common in rainforest further south. It’s pretty easy to see at sites like Hacienda Baru, the Osa, and other areas with humid forest from about Jaco to Golfito.

birding Costa Ricabirding Costa Rica

Black-cheeked Woodpecker: Most woodpeckers are bold, handsome birds and this species is no exception.  It hides a red belly and yellow front, but the red crown, black cheeks, and white stripes on a black back are easier to see. Happily, this fun bird is also common and easy to see in humid forest and edge in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. This is one that will be hard to miss when taking a birding trip to Costa Rica.

birding Costa Rica

Red-crowned Woodpecker: A common edge species in Panama and northern South America, it’s also easy to see on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Although it hybridizes with the next species around Carara and Jaco, what appear to be pure Red-crowns are easily seen from Manuel Antonio National Park and points further south. Watch for it in gardens and other non-forest habitats.

birding Costa Rica

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker: This nice looking woodpecker is only found from southern Honduras to northern Costa Rica. It’s common in any dry forest habitat from the border of Nicaragua south to Carara National Park and the Central Valley. They have also been showing up in deforested parts of northern Costa Rica on the Caribbean slope. This is the de-facto woodpecker species in the Central Valley and if staying in hotels in the San Jose area, you will probably see a few right in the garden.

birding Costa Ricabirding Costa Rica

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Yes, this woodpecker makes its way south to Costa Rica for the winter. Not too many make the trip but you may come across one or two when birding in Costa Rica. They can show up just about anywhere although seem to be encountered more often in foothill and highland areas.

birding Costa Rica

Hairy Woodpecker: It might be the same species as Hairy Woodpeckers from the north, but it sure looks different! The birds in Costa Rica are similar to Hairy Woodpeckers from the Pacific northwest in having duller, browner plumage. They also seem smaller than birds from the north. A commonly encountered species in high-elevation forests.

birding Costa Rica

Red-rumped Woodpecker: This is by far the toughest woodpecker to see in Costa Rica. You can go to known sites for them and still miss this species (at least that has been my experience!). They are much more common in western Ecuador and Colombia so count on seeing Red-rumped Woodpeckers there. If you need to see one in Costa Rica, try looking in edge habitats and mangroves around the Golfo Dulce. It’s supposed to also occur in the mangroves near Carara but I haven’t seen nor heard it there.

Sorry, no pics of this one!

Smoky-brown Woodpecker: This one can get overlooked although it’s a fairly common bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. It prefers edge habitats and second growth over primary forest and once you learn its vocalizations, you at least hear it on most birding trips within its range. It’s also frequently seen and sometimes joins mixed flocks. Birding at most Caribbean slope sites can turn up this species.

birding Costa Rica

A rather Gargoylish image of a Smoky Brown Woodpecker!

Rufous-winged Woodpecker: This is always a nice bird to see and Costa Rica is a great place for it. Rufous-winged Woodpeckers are fairly common in both primary and secondary forests on the Caribbean slope. They sometimes join mixed flocks but tend to stay in the canopy. They often reveal their presence with their loud, jay-like calls and are seen on most trips to the Caribbean lowlands and foothills.

birding Costa Rica

Not the best image of a Rufous-winged but at least one of its staring bluish eyes is visible.

G0lden-Olive Woodpecker: This widespread highland species is fairly common in Costa Rica although it seems like it occurs at low densities. It can turn up in edge and forested habitats at any middle elevation site although it might be a bit easier around Monteverde.

birding Costa Rica

Cinnamon Woodpecker: This and the following species are members of the Celeus genus, a fact that makes them exceptionally cool because you won’t see anything like these rufousy, fruit eating woodpeckers up north! The Cinnamon Woodpecker is fairly common in humid forest on the Caribbean slope (lowlands and foothills) but its love for the densely vegetated canopy presents challenges to seeing it. However, patience and knowing its vocalizations usually result in sightings of this beautiful species when birdwatching where it occurs. La Selva, Quebrada Gonzalez, and most forested sites in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills are good for this bird.

No photos for this one either!

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker: This striking woodpecker is uncommon in Costa Rica but you still have a fair chance seeing it when birding in the Caribbean lowlands. It turns up in both primary forest and edge habitats at places like La Selva, Tortuguero, and most Caribbean lowland sites.

birding Costa Rica

Lineated Woodpecker: Common and widespread, the Lineated is one of the easier woodpeckers to see in Costa Rica. Birding in edge habitats and gardens at lowland and middle elevation sites usually turns up one or two Lineated Woodpeckers. Their laughing song is reminiscent of the Pileated’s (their northern cousin) and is often heard in hotel gardens.

birding Costa Rica

Pale-billed Woodpecker: This is the biggest woodpecker species in Costa Rica and is placed in the Ivorybill genus (Campephilus). Like other members of this celebrated genus (at least in ornithological circles), it gives a distinctive double knock. In Costa Rica, it shows up in forested sites in the lowlands of both slopes. It’s not super common but should turn up during a two week birding trip to Costa Rica.

birding Costa Rica