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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds migration

Migrants are on their way back to Costa Rica

While I was standing at a bus stop last week and wishing that I could spontaneously fabricate wormholes suitable for quick and easy transport up into the much more birdy mountains, the “seet” call of a migrant warbler caught my attention

Like a secret whisper in the darkness, it was saying, “Here I am. Once again, I made it back down to the land of permanent summer without getting eaten by Sharpies, Merlins, or psycho members of the Ardeidae family. I avoided the hypnotic light traps of tall buildings and towers, and found enough food and shelter along the way to survive the elements. I made it but the journey isn’t finished yet. Now, I need to find more cover than this single Mimosa tree. It’s flowers attract a bunch of arthropodic delights and I am small enough to stay hidden in its leafy branches but even a lightweight like myself can’t survive with just one tree. Oh, and there’s also that human standing across the street. He’s making me nervous because he is staring my way with fixed eyes like a predator. I better go flit and keep myself out of sight!”

Yes, I was staring the way of the warbler. How could I not? Since I am an adamant and faithful birder as opposed to being a bus-watcher or addicted to text messaging, that warbler was the most exciting thing around! I suspect it was a Yellow because they migrate early, are common winter residents in the Central Valley, and make a “seet” call like the one I heard. Without binoculars to magically turn it into an identifiable creature, though, I can’t say for sure that it was a small, yellow, sweet-sweet singing insectivore of boreal, damp shrubbery.

Such is the serendipity of migration. You can wait at a bus stop and suddenly spot a Blackpoll Warbler, cuckoo species, or even a big-eyed nighthawk in a nearby tree. Looking up, away from the Earth, you might espy a steady stream of swallows winging their way south. Costa Rica and Panama are so small that they could reach Colombia by nightfall. Will they fly past that wonderful haunt of Colombian endemics known as Santa Marta Mountain? They are headed to the sea of forest known as the Amazon as are Eastern Kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Alder Flycatchers. I wish I could go with them but I don’t mind staying in Costa Rica. I started migrating here myself in 1992 but I eventually traded the long trips for permanent residency after becoming addicted to tropical forests.

birding Costa Rica

A glimpse into my addiction.

The fact that a lot of northern birds make Costa Rica their winter home eases my longing to walk beneath the forever canopy of Amazonian forests. Yellow Warblers (like the one I probably heard at the bus stop) love to spend the winter in Costa Rica. Spish in any lowland to middle elevation second growth and they will come calling.

birding Costa Rica

Yellow Warblers are super common winter residents in Costa Rica.

Do the same in mangroves and Prothonotary Warblers hop up onto exposed roots to brighten the swampy gloom (a lot like their breeding grounds).

birding Costa Rica

Prothonotary Warblers are so darn aquatic.

Chestnut-sided Warblers, though, are the bane of Costa Rica birders during the winter. These eye-ringed, wing-barred Dendroicas love to show up just when you think you have spotted something potentially exciting because they hang with mixed flocks, are found away from mixed flocks, can be seen in the shadows of the forest, and flit around second growth. In other words, they pop into view just about everywhere you go in Costa Rica so get ready to see a lot of them if you plan on birding Costa Rica during the winter.

birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawks will soon fly over in massive kettles as they head south. Quite a few stay, however, like the one pictured below, to become the most commonly seen raptor during the winter months.

birding Costa Rica

The northern migrants are definitely on their way, some have already arrived, and will a vagrant or two show up? A few Golden-cheeked Warblers grace us with their presence each year but I would like to find something new for the country like a Hammond’s Flycatcher or Cassin’s Vireo. Although not likely, the vagaries and unpredictability of migration combined with the fact that they reach northern Central America during the winter certainly makes these species a possibility when birding Costa Rica. I just have to get out there and find them!

This post is included in #133 of I and the Bird. Check out posts from other blogs about birds and birding in this edition at the DC Birding Blog.

Birding Costa Rica

Oilbirds in Costa Rica

Oilbirds are one of the strangest species of birds. They look kind of like nightjars (another strange bunch) but instead of zooming around in the darkness in pursuit of moths, the Oilbird ventures into the night to pluck fruits from rainforest trees in hovering flight. Daylight hours are passed away in caves or dark, cave-like ravines where they make all sorts of bizarre snarling noises related to being an “alternative bird” and clicking sounds associated with echolocation. Unlike nightjars, the bill is hooked rather like that of a parrot and the youngsters are so fat that (like some petrels and storm-petrels) they were historically boiled down for their oil in some areas of their South American range! Although the huge monocultures of palm, soy, and corn majorly suck, at least there is no longer any excuse for boiling down an Oilbird!

Oilbirds are so darn oily because they love to eat oily fruits from palms and wild avocados from Lauraceaeous trees. While they can fly up to 25 miles from their nests during the breeding season, they can apparently go a lot further once their fledglings take wing. By “a lot further”, I mean all the way to Monteverde, Costa Rica from northern South America!

Recently, guides in the Monteverde area found Oilbirds that were foraging on fruiting trees located on trails owned by the Hotel Fonda Vela and dozens of people have gone to see them flutter around in the cloud forest canopy. The Oilbird was already on the Costa Rican list but very few people have actually laid eyes upon a live one when birding Costa Rica. Remains have been found on Cerro de la Muerte, and there have been reports of perched birds from Ensenada and the Osa Peninsula but to my knowledge, this is the first time that the species has been “staked out” in Costa Rica. Who knows how long they will stay, but if you are headed to Monteverde anytime soon, make sure to ask local guides about these strange vagrants!

Although I can’t discount the possibility that a small colony is breeding in some inaccessible cave or ravine in Costa Rica,I think it’s more likely that Oilbirds in Costa Rica are casual migrants from Colombia (nearest known breeding sites) or from unknown breeding sites in Panama. I am sure that most escape detection in Costa Rica due to their nocturnal behavior, they would still be detected on a more regular basis if they were breeding in the country because there are so many guided night hikes taking place. I doubt I will get up to Monteverde anytime soon but at least I can hope that an Oilbird will visit Quebrada Gonzalez and perch where I can see it.

Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Hummingbirds middle elevations

More great birding near San Ramon, Costa Rica

I have been more or less stuck in the not so scenic, urbanized areas of Costa Rica for the past few weeks. Work and family duties (including a children’s birthday party replete with scary clown dancing to reggaeton blasted out of an amplifier) have kept me from birding the beautiful, exciting, rainforests and cloud forests of Costa Rica.

This past Saturday, though, I happily exchanged the cracked sidewalks, barking dogs, and honking cars for the fresh air, tropical forests, and tanagers of rainforests near San Ramon, Costa Rica.

I had the great fortune of guiding our local birding club (appropriately named, “The Birding Club of Costa Rica”) on a day trip to this wonderful, birdy area and although that was just a few days ago, I already can’t wait to go back.

The combination of light traffic, beautiful mountain scenery, accessible Caribbean slope foothill forest, and hummingbird action make this area a true, Costa Rican birding hotspot. Don’t be surprised if you have never read about this area in any trip reports though because it has been almost entirely overlooked by birders visiting Costa Rica. The probable reasons for this are because in the past, there was much less infrastructure, the road connecting San Ramon to La Tigra was pretty bad, and birders could see similar species at Virgen del Socorro.

However, since Virgen del Socorro is no longer a birding option, infrastructure has improved, and because the road is in great shape, every birder visiting Costa Rica should make efforts to include this area on their itinerary, especially so if they are headed to Arenal.

Although the hour and twenty minute drive from San Jose can be tiresome, at least its a scenic one after leaving San Ramon and heading through the cloudy pass that separates the Tilaran and Central mountain ranges.

Despite hot, sunny weather keeping bird activity to a minimum during much of the morning, we still recorded over 100 species on our day trip this past Saturday, our only waterbird being Northern Jacana.

One of our first birds was a White Hawk seen perched across the road from our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy. As we waited for the rest of the group and searched the treetops vain for Lovely Cotinga, other notables were Tawny-throated Leaftosser singing from a ravine and a gorgeous male, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis that briefly lit atop a distant tree.

birding Costa Rica White Hawk

White Hawks shine like fresh snow when the blazing, morning tropical sun lights them up.

Zip-lining mannequins assure that you can’t miss The San Luis Canopy.

Once the entire group was present, we drove 10 minutes to the entrance of our birding road at Los Lagos. The lakes gave us our jacana but nothing else save heard only White-throated Crake and a few other open country species. Further up the road, the sunny weather was great for butterflies but made for very slow birding. We heard a few things now and then like Spotted Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, and Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant but saw very little other than a lone Piratic Flycatcher, Purple-crowned Fairy, lazy Black Vultures, Bananaquit, and Green Honeycreeper.

birding rainforests San Ramon, Costa Rica

Birding the road to Manuel Brenes Biological Reserve

Although the sunny weather was keeping bird activity to a bare minimum, the dry weather was a nice break from the heavy rains that had been soaking the central valley for the past two weeks.

As we made our way up the road, I kept an eye out for fruiting trees and mixed flocks. Small red fruits on an Inga species attracted a bevy of Golden-browed Chlorophonias (at 800 meters, a bit lower than their usual haunts), more Green Honeycreepers, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis but mixed flocks had evaded us so far.

By 10 A.M., we reached a place along the road that I call “the overlook”. It’s a high point that looks down into a valley where much of the forest has been replaced by rows of plants most commonly seen in offices throughout the world. There are still number of canopy trees left standing though, and it pays to scan them for birds. Since you can look down at the huge trees, it’s a bit like birding from a canopy tower and in the past I have seen toucans, aracaris, tanagers, raptors, etc. from this point. Because of the elevation and habitat, it also looks like a good spot for Lovely Cotinga.

birding Costa Rica habitat

The overlook.

On sunny Saturday, as good as the overlook appeared, we saw zero birds. The fact that clouds were forming, though, gave us some hope that bird activity would pick up before lunch. It did and it nearly came all at once.

A massive mixed flock greeted us after we descended into the valley from the overlook. They were moving so fast and furious through the back-lit trees that most went unidentified. Those birds that stayed long enough to be seen or who at least paused to call were:

Orange-bellied Trogon (3 or 4 graced the flock), Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, and Olive, Black and yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers.

Orange-bellied Trogon, birding Costa Rica

Orange-bellied Trogons are endemic to Costa Rica and Panama.

The views were frustrating but at least we were seeing birds! At this point, we made an about face because venturing further up the road would have required vehicles with four-wheel drive. As it had finally become overcast, birding on the way back out was an extreme contrast to our slow morning.

While stopping for a few Olive Tanagers, we had a major bird domino effect where one bird kept leading to another.  The Olive Tanager led us to another mixed flock that suddenly revealed itself in the form of Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Golden-crowned Warblers, more tanagers, and best of all, Brown-billed Scythebill (!).

While searching for this curlew billed woodcreeper, Yellow-eared Toucanet called nearby (!). As I looked for the toucanet (never did find it), two Purplish-backed Quail-Doves began to call (!). A Plain Antvireo revealed itself and the quail-doves glided across the road for brief but tickable views. A Rufous-tailed Jacamar then began to vocalize down the road so we walked over to it, promptly found it and while watching the jacamar, became aware of another, big mixed flock.

biridng Costa Rica Rufous-tailed Jacamar

Iridescent Rufous-tailed Jacamars are fairly common in the Tilaran mountains of Costa Rica.

One of the first birds I got onto was Green Shrike Vireo. This tough canopy skulker only showed itself to a few of the group but at least there were plenty of other birds to watch: Spotted Woodcreepers, another Brown-billed Scythebill giving perfect looks, White-ruffed Manakin, Tropical Gnatcatcher, several tanagers including the likes of White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Speckled in addition to everything we had at the other, big mixed flock.

It was fast, exciting birding but it was also time for lunch so as soon as the birds trouped out of sight, we headed back to our meeting place at the San Luis Canopy to dine at the Arboleda restaurant. The food was good as always although they had “gotten smart” and raised their prices by $1 to $2 per dish. They also changed up the dynamic of their hummingbird feeders which resulted in fewer species. Nevertheless, we still managed close looks at Violet-crowned Woodnymph (the dominator), Coppery-headed Emerald, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

Hummingbird feeders birding Costa Rica

The hummingbird feeders at the Arboleda restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Green crowned brilliant

After lunch and hummingbirds, we drove back up the highway for about 5 minutes to check out more hummingbirds at a hummingbird and butterfly garden. For $5 per person, we watched the same species as the Arboleda restaurant in addition to Violet Sabrewing and White-bellied Mountain-gem. Overall, the hummingbird watching was better at this place. The butterfly garden was good and they also had two loop trails that accessed nice, middle elevation forest.

birding Costa Rica hummingbirds

The nice, educational hummingbird feeder set up.

Coppery-headed Emerald birding Costa Rica

Coppery-headed Emeralds were the dominant species at the hummingbird/butterfly garden. This Costa Rican endemic even chased away the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

Coppery-headed Emerald female

The female Coppery-headed Emerald looks pretty nice too.

The short loop trail is maintained whereas the second, longer one is slippery and muddy. We went on both and saw things like Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanager, Slaty Antwren, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slate-throated Redstart, and Golden-crowned Warbler. Our best birds were Blue and Gold Tanager both in the forest and right at the parking lot, and Rufous Motmot here at the upper limits of its range.

Rufous Motmot birding Costa Rica

Our Rufous Motmot posing in the dim understory. Check out the mud on its bill from excavating a hole.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating the muddy trail.

birding Costa Rica

Navigating a slippery log bridge over the Rufous Motmot’s hangout.

I’m not sure what time this place opens in the morning but I suspect that their under-birded forest harbors some sweet surprises (think quail-doves and antpittas). Although the forest isn’t very wide, the back part is connected to a large block of habitat.

Lot’s of birding and places to explore along the road between San Ramon and La Tigra- I can’t wait to go back!

Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction preparing for your trip

Costa Rica birding from the car: A roadside bird count from San Jose to Bijagua

One of the main reasons birding is more popular than endeavors such as bat watching, beetle spotting, or looking for mollusks is that it’s so much easier to do. Most bird species are diurnal, they are pretty easy to see (except for the ultra sneaky rails), and they come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes. It’s hard not to watch them or at least notice our fellow feathered denizens of planet Earth.

On a recent trip to Heliconias Lodge in Bijagua, although we were looking forward to seeing Tody Motmots, crafty antbirds, and whatever else turned up in the high quality forests of that site, I thought it would be interesting to do a count of the numbers and types of birds identified during the four hour drive from San Jose.

birding Costa Rica by car

A typical scene during our roadside Costa Rican bird count.

Like all aficionados of the world’s greatest activity, pastime, or obsession, I always try to identify any bird espied through a car window but had never done a running count like this one. How many TKs would we see perched on the power lines? How many vultures rode the hot thermals above the Pan-American Highway? I admit, such questions don’t exactly speed up the pulse or spark a hint of anticipation but working on the answers to them was a heck of a lot more fun than singing “one hundred bottles of beers on the wall”.

We could have changed the words of the song to:

“Oooooooh, another TK on the power line, yet another TK….if one of them was actually a Social Flycatcher, then that’s one less TK overall”…..

but we were too busy counting birds to sing.

Our rules for the count were simple:

1.All birds had to be seen or heard from the car. Birds could not be counted while the car was off the road such as when we stopped at a gas station in Miramar for a bathroom break. Although we realized that not including birds identified during restroom activities would forgo any rest stop birding effects, as it turned out, we wouldn’t have added anything there anyways. In fact, I think the only bird we saw was a….TK! We also saw a really cool butterfly though that appeared to like gas fumes. I think the gas station attendant thought I was taking pictures of the ground.

Costa Rica butterfly

Cool gas station butterfly in Miramar, Costa Rica. Please let me know what species this is!

2. As long as one of us identified the bird in question, it was counted. It would have been hazardous to require all four people to see or hear the bird while the car was zooming down the highway in Costa Rica so like a pack of Harris’ Hawks, we joined forces to achieve our goals. As long as one of us got the bird, we all figuratively feasted in the form of a slash made by a pen next to the bird’s name. Editor’s note- since our counting was more analagous to harvesting grain for the long term rather than focusing on one rabbit for immediate food, it’s tempting to refer to us as “Snow Geese” but the selfish behavior of foraging Snow Geese is a far cry from cooperative strategies exhibited by Harris’ Hawks and could also erroneously imply that we are retired and travel to Florida for the winter. Like neighbors on Sesame Street, the four musketeers, or the Spanish soccer team (sorry Johan and Ineke) this count was all about cooperation.

Costa Rica birding from a car

Pat-“Did anyone else get that Blue-black Grassquit?”

Susan-“I’m driving”.

Johan-“What? It’s hard to hear you from the backseat”.

Ineke (no response- sleeping off the effects of jetlag).

3. There was no turning back. This count was all or nothing no matter how enticing an unidentified bird appeared to be. We were heading down the highway, looking for adventure, and ready for whatever comes our way. Yes, ready to just keep moving and not be too concerned if that distant, perched member of the Columbidae was a Red-billed Pigeon or a White-winged Dove. With two feet firmly planted on the ground and a pair of clear-lensed binoculars, these two common roadside birds of Costa Rica are pretty easy to tell apart but when glimpsed at a distance from a moving car, uncertainty raises its broad, blocky head and emits its foggy breath to mask the truth. The substance of the breath might also be psychadelic or perhaps ultra-dimensional because it can warp reality. You think I’m joking but the next time you see a distant, long-winged creature in Costa Rica are you sure that it didn’t look just like a Pterodactyl? Common sense tells us that it was a Turkey Vulture or Magnificent Frigatebird although it certainly resembled something from another time and place. Or as far as those pigeons go, for a moment, didn’t they look just like some strange, bulky, small-headed raptor, or perhaps a mutant agouti that went arboreal? Sound’s absurd does it? Just try counting birds while zooming down the highway in Costa Rica and see what happens!

Costa Rica roadside birding

Identifying silhouettes in distant trees from a moving car- birding at its most challenging.

4. We didn’t discriminate against unidentified birds. To make up for our policy of always charging forward, we kept track of birds that refused to reveal their names. Instead of excluding them entirely, we dutifully counted each “blur of feathers”, “glimpse of some big, flying thing”, and “possible kiskadee”  and threw them into the unidentified pool. We figured this was just as important as counting the identified birds because it might give an idea of the numbers of birds that can go unidentified on a drive between San Jose and Bijagua, Costa Rica.

So with that set of rules and Susan’s suggestion to also keep track of all mammals (except Homo sapiens and domesticated creatures), we left Santa Barbara de Heredia and started counting! Instead of boringly and insanely going through the count/drive on a bird by bird basis, here are some general observations and highlights followed up by final results of species and numbers.

Despite driving through urban areas, moist middle elevations, and the hot, dry lowlands of Guanacaste, bird species were fairly similar along our route.

Although it’s not as hot inside an air-conditioned vehicle, birding is much more exciting in Costa Rica when done on foot.

You will see a lot of Black Vultures, Great-tailed Grackles, and Tropical Kingbirds when birding from a fast moving vehicle in Costa Rica.

Plain Wrens were the most common, heard only species.

One of the few advantages of getting stuck behind a slow moving, boxy truck is that you may see some nice birds. We saw a pair of Blue Grosbeaks in this manner and picked up our only Rose-throated Becard by way of its high-pitched, complaining sounding vocalization.

Costa Rica roadside birding

The boxy-truck/bus combination is a common occurrence when driving in Costa Rica.

Other highlights were White-fronted Parrots as we approached Bijagua, Paltry Tyrannulet heard near a moist mountain pass after San Ramon, one White-collared Seedeater heard belting out its sweet song from tall, lowland grass, a couple of big old Montezuma Oropendolas in flight as we descended out of the central valley (these are a much more common bird in the Caribbean lowlands), 2 heard only Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes (why go look for it in Spearfish canyon when they abound in the coffee plantations of Costa Rica).

costa rica roadside birding

This is where we heard the Paltry Tyrannulet and Nightingale-Thrushes.

And at long last, here is our final tally of the 42 species of birds identified from the car while driving between San Jose and Bijagua, Costa Rica (organized from highest to lowest):

Black Vulture (133)

Great-tailed Grackle (57)

and Tropical Kingbird (47)

Blue and White Swallow (44)

Cattle Egret (30)

Turkey Vultures (28)

White-collared Swift (28)

Gray-breasted Martin (21)

Unidentified hodgepodge (the Borg of the bird count) (17)

Blue-black Grassquit (16)

Groove-billed Ani (12)

Plain Wren (11)

Orange-chinned Parakeet (11)

White-fronted Parrot (8)

Blue-gray Tanager (8)

Great Kiskadee (7)

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (7)

White-winged Dove (7)

Rufous-collared Sparrow (5)

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (5)

Inca Dove (4)

Melodious Blackbird (4)

Social Flycatcher (4)

Red-billed Pigeon (4)

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (3)

Ruddy Ground-Dove (2)

Green-backed Heron (2)

Yellow-olive Flycatcher (2)

Rufous-naped Wren (2)

Clay-colored Robin (2)

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (2)

Blue Grosbeak (2)

Crimson-fronted Parakeet (1)

Rose-throated Becard (1)

Grayish Saltator (1)

Paltry Tyrannulet (1)

Yellow-faced Grassquit (1)

Rufous-capped Warbler (1)

Vaux’s Swift (1)

House Wren (1)

Bronzed Cowbird (1)

Scrub Euphonia (1)

White-collared Seedeater (1)

On the mammal front, we saw 10 Howler Monkeys in roadside trees along the Pan-American highway not long after Miramar. Susan (one of the bird counting 4 and the driver) says that she sees them, and sometimes Capuchins too, every time she drives past that spot. Our only other mammals were 3-4, dead Northern Tamanduas that were unfortunate victims of hit and run drivers on the Pan-American highway.

Costa Rica roadside birding

Where the howlers hang out.

To sum things up, counting birds from a fast car in Costa Rica is always more worthwhile than singing annoying ditties about beer bottles or “Kumbaya” but it pales like bleach compared to a walk through the rainforest.

Costa Rica birding Heliconias rainforest

Where you really want to be birding in Costa Rica.

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction raptors

How to see forest falcons when birding Costa Rica

Birders from up north who associate falcons with aerodynamically shaped, fast-flying awesome birds of regal appearance and open areas come to the neotropics and wonder, “What exactly is a forest falcon? I mean they don’t have the falcon shape and look more like accipiters (according to their illustrations because they are either extinct or don’t live in open habitats). When I listen to them on Xeno Canto, they sound more like a dog or weird yelping thing than a bird. Just what are those mysterious members of the Micrastur genus!”

After coming back forest-falconless from Costa Rica in 1993, I had some of these same questions and felt more determined than ever to find out the truth about forest-falcons. Over the subsequent years, during birding adventures in tropical forests from Mexico to Bolivia, in addition to discovering that you can find re-runs of The Simpsons just about everywhere (I once watched an episode of this epic animated series in a tiny village in eastern Oaxaca that had only seen two, previous non-Mexican visitors), I have discovered a few things about these mysterious birds.

Here is what I have found out so far:

Don’t expect to see them. I’m sorry if that feels like a low blow to the birding psyche but I just don’t want anyone to get their hopes up about forest-falcons. These sneaky raptors often have a strong aversion to being seen. Whether they are extremely shy or just can’t stand binoculars, they would much rather taunt you with ventriloquial calls from dense cover than guffaw right out in the open like the much more reliable Laughing Falcon.

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica birding

Laughing Falcon- a fairly common, reliable raptor in Costa Rica.

Forest falcons are creatures of the twilight. No, I’m not saying they are vampires, but that these forest raptors  are adapted to and most active during the crepuscular hours. Guide books usually mention this so I can’t claim that it was my discovery. The birding literature is are right though because  forest-falcons vocalize the most at dawn and dusk.

Forest-falcons are by no means extinct, are fairly common, and just do not like open spaces. Although you hardly ever see them, Micrastur species are quite vocal and you can certainly hear them in most forested areas of Costa Rica. Their vocalizations give you a much better idea of their numbers in addition to making you feel cheated because they so rarely allow you to see them.

They are stealthy, cat-like hunters. Although it’s easy to label forest-falcons as cowardly or unfriendly, their adaptations for hunting are the true reason why they are so hard to see. Like cats, they can’t allow anything to see them because they hunt by surprise. They probably don’t care whether birders watch them or not but they cannot afford to let their prey espy them or they would starve. So, they automatically stick to dense vegetation, keep quiet when moving around, and refuse to soar.

They often hunt in the undergrowth. I have seen very few forest-falcons actively hunting but others have mentioned this in field guides and books on raptors. They also sometimes show up at army ant swarms, and once I observed a Barred Forest-falcon actively hunting in the undergrowth at Luna Lodge in the Osa Peninsula. I was sitting on a  log in the forest and was casually watching a family of Chestnut-backed Antbirds go about their business. They hopped around, called, and before I realized it, suddenly disappeared! Maybe ten seconds later, a Barred Forest-falcon showed up. It had quietly flown in and perched on a low branch near the ground. The Micrastur looked this way and that before moving on to another perch near the ground and kept doing so until it vanished into the rainforest. Eventually, the antbirds starting calling again and when back to their terrestrial ways after coming out of hiding.

They do respond to tape or imitations of their calls. Not always, but I have had the most success with this strategy at dawn and dusk during the dry season (maybe they nest then?). Needless to say, if you do use tape, please don’t overdo it. By “overdoing it” I am referring to playing recordings of their songs over and over to get a distant bird to come in and/or then continuing to play its vocalization for several minutes despite having already seen the bird.

Based on these experiences with Forest-Falcons, talking with other birders, and reading about them, here are some suggestions about the best ways and places to see them in Costa Rica arranged by species:

Collared Forest-Falcon: The largest forest-falcon, it’s also the most common and widespread Micrastur when birding Costa Rica (and many other places). About the size of a Cooper’s Hawk, they occur in open woodlands in regions with dry forest as well as in dense tropical rainforest. They sometimes range up into the cloud forest but in Costa Rica seem to be most frequent in dry and moist forests of the Pacific Slope. The most reliable way to seem them when birding Costa Rica is to locate a calling bird during the pre-dawn or dusk, and call them in. Watching for them along the river trail at Carara National Park or in gallery forest of the northwest also yields more frequent sightings than elsewhere in Costa Rica.

Collared Forest Falcon birding Costa Rica

A Collared Forest-Falcon photographed in dim, morning light on the river trail at Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Slaty-backed Forest Falcon: This is a tough bird to see no matter what country you visit! I heard them once in awhile in the Peruvian Amazon but saw them on very few occasions. They often vocalized during the pre-dawn hours and the best strategy to see them is to locate a calling bird at this time of the day and call it in.  The one bird I have seen in Costa Rica was a wonderful, vocalizing individual that called from the understory and let me watch him for several minutes at La Selva during the Christmas count of 1995. They probably still occur at La Selva but I haven’t heard of any being recorded there for a while so one can’t expect to see them at this famous Costa Rican birding site. Other, more likely locations to get this species when birding Costa Rica are at sites with extensive, lowland Caribbean slope rainforest such as Laguna del Lagarto, Hitoy Cerere (where I have heard them), and near Gandoca-Manzanillo.

Barred Forest-Falcon: This small forest-falcon is fairly common in humid forest in Costa Rica from the lowlands up into the cloud forest. They seem to be more common in hilly areas but are always tough to see. Like the other two Costa Rican forest-falcons, locating a vocalizing individual in the pre-dawn darkness or during the morning and calling it in is probably the most reliable way to see one when birding Costa Rica. They also show up at antswarms and attack hummingbird leks (I witnessed an unsuccessful attempt on a lek of Brown Vieoletears once in Braulio Carrillo National Park) so if you come across either of these in Costa Rica, just sit back and quietly hang out for a while- you may see a Barred Forest-Falcon. I don’t think there is any best site for this species when birding Costa Rica but searching for them in any humid forested, hilly site during the pre-dawn hours will increase your chances of seeing one. By humid-forested, hilly areas, I mean places like Braulio Carrillo National Park, Monteverde, Tapanti National Park, the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol, Las Heliconias, and El Copal.