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- 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.
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.