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big year Birding Costa Rica

Highlights from Birding Costa Rica in 2011

Just two days left until 2011 comes to an end and 2012 is ushered in with fireworks, rivers of spirited drink, and grapes. Well, at least in Latin America there are grapes. You are supposed to eat 12 and then you get good luck for the coming year. I can’t recall if I took part in the grape-eating tradition at the end of 2010 but I must have done something right because I had a good year for birding in Costa Rica. Although spates of rain in January and October caused landslides and hindered birding for a couple of weeks, overall, the weather was pretty nice. Even though we don’t get snow down here in these tropical latitudes, we can definitely get enough rainfall for it to cause some unwelcome issues. Basically, we don’t see as many birds through the sheets of falling water and sometimes can’t even get to them due to landslides and flooding. There was a bit of that in 2011, but it wasn’t as bad as other years so I am of the opinion that we had good luck with the weather.

A landslide encountered while birding with Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds.

Numbers of Quetzals and some other highland frugivores seemed to be down but most birders still connected with them. On another unfortunate note, La Selva has finally put a guardhouse at the entrance road so this might not be birdable unless you stay there or take one of their tours. I asked the guard a month ago but he had no idea- not a good sign. But enough of those low points because they were far outnumbered by positive happenings, sightings, and good birding vibes! In no necessary order, here are my personal top 12 highlights from birding Costa Rica in 2011:

1. Cinchona: The Cafe de Colibri is up and running again. It’s not the two story structure filled with birds like it used to be but the feeders are steadily approaching their former glory. On a recent visit, Prong-billed Barbets and Emerald Toucanets casually fed on papayas and other tropical fruits as we ate breakfast. The hummingbird feeders also produced with Coppery-headed Emerald, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Thorntail, and 5 other species.

Avian scenery from the Cafe de Colibries at Cinchona.

2. Virgen del Socorro and the road to San Rafael de Varablanca: The road is most definitely open and the birding is good! Nightingale Wren and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet were highlights from a recent trip there. The road also now continues on to San Rafael de Varablanca and passes through quite a bit of high quality middle elevation forest. I hope to survey that and will be posting about it.

Virgen del Socorro is a good site for Torrent Tyrannulet.

3. Veragua Christmas Count: I heard a lot about the place and went with high expectations. Oh how they were met! Make efforts to go there because it’s one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica. If you can do the place over a few days with a good birding guide, you might pick up most of the Caribbean lowland and foothill specialties. Accommodation is basic but maybe it can be done as a day trip from more comfortable lodging in southeastern Costa Rica?

It’s a good site for Bare-necked Umbrellabird from December until February and maybe at other times of the year too!

4. Dry days at Tortuguero: Our local birding club timed our visit to coincide with the drier weather seen on the Caribbean slope during October. This was a highlight because the place gets soooo much rain. The raptor migration was also nothing short of spectacular.

Raptor migration in Costa Rica.

5. El Copal: Although we missed Lovely Cotinga, the near non-stop birding almost made up for it. I ran into one of the biggest mixed flocks I have ever seen, saw several White-vented Euphonias, lots of tanagers, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Spectacled Owl, Sunbittern, Snowcaps, and lots more. Off the beaten track but darn good!

El Copal is a very good site for Snowcap.

6. Cerro Lodge: The birding just keeps getting better at this place. Really, if you need a place to stay when birding the Carara area, this is where you should go. Villa Lapas and Punta Leona are nice but you pretty much see the same birds there as you do in the park. In the dry/moist habitats at Cerro, you get a different suite of species, the restaurant overlooks the forest and is thus excellent for getting flybys of parrots, macaws, parakeets, and raptors (I had 8 species of Psitaccids there a few days ag0), and Black and white Owl is just about guaranteed (one even flew through the outdoor restaurant in pursuit of a katydid a few days ago). The feeders are also busy with birds such as Fiery-throated Aracari, White-throated Magpie Jay, and Hoffmann’s Woodpecker. Now that the Porterweed bushes have flourished, they have also become fantastic for hummingbirds. I had 7 species there the other day and there’s a very good chance that these natural feeders will attract rarities.

Fiery-billed Aracaris are beautiful toucans.

Steely-vented Hummingbirds are pretty common at Cerro Lodge for much of the year.

7. Catfish Ponds in Guanacaste: The northwestern part of Costa Rica isn’t just known for harboring bird species that relish dry forest. It also holds some of the best wetlands in the country. While birders will experience some of the best wetland action at Palo Verde National park, they might also see some good stuff at the catfish ponds near Liberia. Found on the road from Liberia to Sardinal and Playa del Coco, these ponds can be accessed by paying a $6 entrance fee at an international school and church on the northern side of the road. Reedy marshes grow in several of the ponds and should be good for rails, Masked Duck, and other wetland species. On a long day trip there to look for migrant ducks in October, we also got Limpkin and a handful of shorebirds.

There were also a few Southern Lapwings in there.

8. I finally saw an Ochre-breasted Antpitta in Costa Rica: “Long overdue” just about sums things up for this cute bird. I glimpsed one near Mindo, Ecuador some years ago but that was nothing compared to the wonderful, prolonged looks I got of my Costa Rican bird in Tapanti National Park. It’s good to see this one in Costa Rica because it might get split some day. Maybe not,  but since there is some evidence that their songs differ from South American birds, don’t be surprised if it turns into “Talamanca Antpitta”.

My Costa Rican Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

9. Laguna del Lagarto: I had heard great things about this place for many years but never made it there until 2011 because it was just off the beaten track. Well, I wish I had gone there sooner because the lodge is one of the best spots for bird photography in Costa Rica. Good birding overall, great service, accommodating prices, and the surrounding area has lots of potential. Most of the lowland rainforest species are still present, it’s a reliable site for Agami Heron, and the extensive forests in the area could even turn up a Harpy Eagle (a friend of mine actually had one there in 1998).

Did I mention that Laguna del Lagarto is good for bird photography?

10. Black-crowned Antpitta at Quebrada Gonzalez: OK, so this is kind of expected but the extreme coolness of this species always makes it a highlight. Antswarms earlier in the year were attended by this and other expected ant-following species.

The Black-crowned “Gnatpitta” occurs in these dense rainforests.

11. Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Agami Heron, Mississippi Kite, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Franklin’s Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Willow Flycatcher, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Blue-headed Vireo, and Bobolink:  As mundane as most of these birds appear to be, they were all additions to my Costa Rica list and pushed it up to 710 species.

12. Getting more than 600 species for the year: I tried for the past two years and came close in 2010 but didn’t quite make it to 600 species for the year until 2011. As with any big year attempt, strategy played a key role in reaching my goal. Even though Costa Rica is small enough to make it very feasible to chase birds all over the country, work and family duties make such spontaneous pursuits an impossible endeavor. Nevertheless, with enough visits to the right spots at the right time of year, I figured I had a chance of getting the big six zero zero. Hitting Tortuguero during migration was imperative to reaching 600 for the year as was looking for shorebirds at Chomes, visiting the catfish ponds for ducks, listening for nocturnal migrants, birding several times in major habitats, and doing the Veragua Christmas count. That last factor in particular was vital because it edged my list past the 600 mark. I had figured that if I didn’t reach my goal there, I would hit it during the Bosque del Rio Tigre count. HOWEVER, car trouble at the last minute prevented me from participating in a count at that most wonderful of birding sites so it was a darn good thing that I went to Veragua! The year isn’t over yet and my list stands at 607 for 2011. I would be very surprised if I picked up anything else for 2011 but since I already made it past 600, I’m not too concerned. As an aside, my year list would probably boast at least ten more bird species if I birded San Isidro del General, the Osa, and sites around San Vito.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012! I hope to share Costa Rican birds with you during the new year via this blog and in person!

6 replies on “Highlights from Birding Costa Rica in 2011”

Hi Patrick,

Well done and lots of great birds seen. Also interesting would be your worst “misses”, birds expected but somehow they did not cross your path.


We’ve enjoyed your posts all year, Patrick. Hope that you continue the blog through 2012 and that we see you in February.

Feliz Ano Nuevo!

Steve and Liz

@Steve and Liz- Thanks, Happy New Year to you guys and looking forward to seeing you in February!

Happy New Year Patrik.

It is always nice to read your post and alternative birding places in Costa Rica. Thanks.


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