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A Brief Guide to Birding around Montezuma, Costa Rica

Montezuma always makes me think of Mexico but there is another one much closer to home (at least for me). This is the seaside village of Montezuma located on the southern part of the Nicoya peninsula. If any birders make it there, it’s usually by accident or with a non-birding tour group set on checking out this “smoky” backpacker haven. There are good reasons for Montezuma not making it onto the regular circuit when birding Costa Rica. If you don’t bounce and four wheel drive your way from more established towns to the north, you have to take a ferry across the gulf of Nicoya. Although this can actually be quite interesting for birds, it eats up valuable time like a starving Wood Stork in a fish pond.

Although, like many areas of Costa Rica, Montezuma and surroundings can be nice for birding, most people who visit the country have just two or three weeks to work with and feel that their time is better spent in places like Tortuguero, the Osa peninsula, and Cerro de la Muerte. I would have to agree so there’s a fair chance that you won’t make it over to Montezuma. However, if non-birding family or chance brings you to this surf/backpacker touristy village, read on to see what awaits in terms of getting there and birds.

1. Puntarenas: The town of Puntarenas is built on a sandspit so it has a naturally elongated shape. If driving there, be aware that the signs indicating the entrance to Puntarenas can be 100% misleading. Use your GPS and/or common sense and you will eventually arrive but be very wary of the signs or you could start driving back towards San Jose. I speak from recent experience and kid you not! As tempting as it is to speed into town, don’t do it or you will be rewarded with a nasty ticket (and rightly so because there’s a lot of bikes and pedestrians on the streets). As for the birds, you might find a spot or two to check out mudflats and mangroves to the north of town.

2. The Ferry: There’s more ferrys nowadays so if you are driving, you probably won’t have to wait for hours in line like you used to. If using the most mundane of transportation, walk on over to the Musmanni bakery to buy your boarding tickets (less than $2 this past weekend), head to the top of the boat, claim a shady spot,and start scanning the water. Not many people bird this area on a regular basis so who knows what will show up? Although most birds will be expected species don’t discount the possibility of some rare waterbird making an appearance! I have seen some good stuff on each of the few trips I have done from Puntarenas to Paquera (the dock on the other side). Parasitic Jaeger, Least Storm Petrel, and Sooty Shearwater have all made appearances. On the most recent trip, an uncommon young Blue-footed Booby flew into view. We also had Franklin’s Gulls, Royal, Common, Black, and Sandwich Terns, Brown Booby, a sea turtle, and lots of jumping fish. On the way back to Puntarenas, the sea was so calm that it was downright surreal. Scanning with binos revealed patches of jumping fish far out on the water and scattered flocks of Black Terns as far as we could see!

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There’s birds out there in them there waters (yee haw!).

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Docking at Paquera.

3. Paquera to Tambor: After leaving Paquera, you drive past some promising looking riparian zones with big, old trees. I didn’t have time to bird there but it would be worth a stop. The edges of mangroves would also be worth checking.

4. Tambor: This tiny place is better known for the big Barcelo hotel that destroyed a bunch of mangroves far more valuable than the town itself.  To be fair, though, Barcelo has funded Scarlet Macaw recovery efforts in the area and planted a bunch of trees. The best birding is in the fields and mangroves just east of the village. From a mini-plaza at the east end of the village, walk in along old roads meant for a development that never happened until you reach trails that go near the mangroves. Spish and toot like a pygmy owl and you might see Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Cuckoo, and even Mangrove Hummingbird (!). Lots of other cool birds in there too.

5. Curu National Wildlife Refuge: Somewhere along the way, watch for signs that lead to this birding site. Double-striped Thick Knee occurs in fields on the entrance road, there are semi-wild Spider Monkeys that may attack your car (I’m not exaggerating!), and trails that access mangroves and dry forest.

6. Tambor-Montezuma: After Tambor, you will drive into a larger town called, “Cabuya” (I think that’s its name). From there on to Montezuma, the road is dirt and adorned with pot holes. At one point, you will see signs for Montezuma that want you to go to the right. This will take you there but it’s closer and quicker to just go straight ahead. However, no matter which route you take into the village, go to the right, go past the cemetery and start birding. We did that on Saturday and were immediately rewarded with Plain-breasted Ground-Dove! For me, this was quite the serendipitous find because it was new for both the year and my Costa Rica list!  We also had American Kestrel there (uncommon in Costa Rica), and thick-knees called from the field at night. I bet other uncommon stuff could show up. Further on, the road passes by fields, riparian zones, and eventually descends to Montezuma. You might also get Plain Chachalaca in this area and Three-wattled Bellbirds from December to April.

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Plain-breasted Ground Dove!

7.Montezuma: While the village isn’t ideal for birding, the coast has lots of rocky outcroppings, tidal pools, and a chance at Wandering Tattler. Although I only saw Ruddy Turnstones, Whimbrel, and Spotted Sandpipers, it does look ideal for the tattler and Surfbirds. Scanning the ocean here might also turn up some wayward pelagic- you never know! Watch for the magpie jays that look for handouts on the streets.

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The Ruddy Turnstone looks down at the crab in disdain…

8. Cabo Blanco: I have never gone there so everything I write for this little section is hearsay but I bet it’s pretty good for birding. There is a good amount of forest, it is protected, and it’s pretty darn hot. You can’t really drive there so expect a long, hot trudge to bird Cabo Blanco.

Birds in the areas mentioned: Ok, so now for the most interesting part! While much of the area is deforested, there are patches of habitat, places that are growing back into forest, and riparian zones that support quite a few species. Any remnant wetlands and lagoons should be checked for things like Pinnated Bittern, Masked Duck, and other uncommon species. Not that I have seen those there but there’s a fair chance they occur if you find the right habitat. This part of the Nicoya peninsula is more humid than areas further north and demonstrates it with species such as Collared Aracari and Red-lored Parrot.

We actually did most of our birding around the Finca los Caballos Hotel and this is probably representative of      much of the surrounding area. Long-tailed Manakins were especially common.

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Long-tailed Manakin- Costa Rica’s faux Bird of Paradise.

We had 8 species of hummingbirds sans feeders!

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Green-breasted Mango is the most common hummingbird species near Montezuma.

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Long-billed Starthroat isn’t supposed to be there according to the range maps.

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This psycho looking White-fronted Parrot landed right next to the hotel deck.

Brown-crested Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Elaenia perked up when I called like a pygmy owl.

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The Elaenia.

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The Myiarchus.

Some other interesting species included Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, Northern barred and Olivaceous Woodcreepers, Peregrine Falcon, Barred Antshrike, Plain Wren, American Coot (sorry, but it’s uncommon in Costa Rica!), Olive Sparrow, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Blue-throated Goldentail, and Greenish Elaenia. Although many of the species are common and widespread, the open nature of the habitat made for great looks at most and excellent bird photography opportunities. Check out the newly formed birding club Picasa album for more pics! Many thanks to Dewald Reiner for taking great photos and setting that up.

Bird pics:
Montezuma pics:

2 replies on “A Brief Guide to Birding around Montezuma, Costa Rica”

Patrick, what would you estimate to be driving time to Montezuma after the ferry docks at Paquera, if one was to drive without stops to Montezuma (taking bad roads into consideration, of course)?

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