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Birding Costa Rica

Biggest Misses for Birding Costa Rica in 2011

I surpassed the 600 mark in 2011 but still missed a bunch of birds. That’s pretty much par for the course for any Big Year so I had already accepted a certain number of acceptable losses when I started counting birds on January 1st, 2011.  Since 894 species have been recorded in Costa Rica, my margins for missed species fell within a well-buffered comfort zone. Nevertheless, the fact that I could miss over 150 species and still get 600 for the year didn’t mean that I could simply ignore the laws of probability. Limiting factors such as birding time, weather, migration, and rareness meant that I had to be strategic right from the start. With unlimited time and resources, I probably could have hit 700 for the year but since work and family come first, a trip to the Caribbean coast for migrants was critical, I had to listen for migrants at 4 a.m., visiting most of the major habitats and bioregions was of basic importance, some night birding was in order, and I wouldn’t have broken 600 without trips for shorebirds and migrant ducks.

Since I didn’t spend much quality birding time near the Panamanian border, I won’t even put such species as Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, Crested Oropendola, and Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet into the “miss” category. These were part of the accepted losses because I didn’t get the chance to try for them. The same goes for pelagic birds that would have been easily ticked on any boat trip 20 miles off the coast. The real misses were the resident species that I typically see over the course of a year or that I should have seen given the amount of time spent in their habitat. There were also the “twitches” that I had missed- rarities recorded by others that didn’t hang around long enough for me to see them. That said, here are my top ten missed birds or groups of birds for 2011:

10. Azure-hooded Jay- an unlikely miss of a resident species: This uncommon jay is easiest in the Monteverde area and that’s probably why I didn’t hear or see one during 2011. Although I didn’t make any trips to that famous cloud forest reserve during the past year, I still should have picked one up while birding at Tapanti or near Virgen del Socorro.

An old, scanned image from the Santa Elena Reserve. This beautiful jay was foraging with army ants right at the entrance to the reserve in 1996.

9. Ochraceous Pewee- the rare, resident flycatcher eludes me once again: This uncommon regional endemic continues as a glaring blank spot on both my life and Costa Rican list. Granted I didn’t bird all that much in its bastions on Cerro de la Muerte, it’s really about time for me to connect with this one! I’m not worried though because I will be guiding a two day trip at Paraiso de Quetzales (a regular site for this species) in two weeks.

8. Band-tailed Barbthroat- the hummingbird that refused to show itself: This one is a big miss because it’s not even that rare. I figured I would have run into it at some time or another but that occasion just never presented itself despite watching for it at every lowland Heliconia patch.

7. Short-tailed Nighthawk- don’t know how I missed this one…: Sure it’s nocturnal but I did check at night for this bird in places where it is easily and regularly seen and still somehow missed it. None of these bat-like birds called, none showed themselves. Oh well, I still got 600 species!

6. Olive-backed Quail Dove- missed by 2 seconds!: These are always hard to see but this little rainforest dove gets 6th place on the list because I was soooo close to seeing one. The miss happened on a trail at Veragua where a few people in front of me actually saw one walking right on the boardwalk! It trotted away into the undergrowth before I could see it…

5. Barred Hawk- common middle elevation raptor is a no show!: It’s still hard for me to believe that I didn’t get this one because birding in several of the exact same foothill and middle elevation sites in 2010 resulted in multiple birds for that year.

4. Yellow-eared Toucanet- where are the toucanets?: Although I probably heard one give the briefest of calls once at Quebrada Gonzalez, I didn’t count it for the year. I usually see several of this uncommon species at Quebrada Gonzalez or along the road to Manuel Brenes. For some reason, this year, I just didn’t connect with them. Like other frugivores, they move around in search of fruiting trees. I probably just didn’t find the right tree at the right time.

A toucanet at Quebrada Gonzalez from another year.

3. Buff-breasted Sandpiper- always, always, always check your email before going to bed: These long distance migrants are rarely seen in Costa Rica so it was a BIG DEAL when several (!) showed up at turf farms near the airport. As I am a short drive from the airport, this should have been an  excellent, easy tick. HOWEVER, I missed them by one day because I failed to check my email the day they were found. Although they were seen on subsequent days, they weren’t there when I looked!

2. Sulphur-rumped Tanager- I saw it but don’t want to count this would-be lifer: What can I say? I was at the best site for them in Costa Rica (Veragua Rainforest Center), other people saw them in the same tree I was looking at, and I am 90% sure that I glimpsed two of them (one was very far away, the other a shape seen sans optics). Amazingly, I still missed this much wanted lifer! I will get them the next time I go there though so I’m not too worried.

1. Three-wattled Bellbird- the biggest miss: Hundreds or even thousands of birders surely saw this fancy species while visiting Monteverde in 2011. As with the Azure-hooded Jay, I didn’t visit that area at the right time of the year so I missed my best chance at seeing them. I usually get them at Carara but they haven’t spent as much time in the national park as past years (possibly due to changes in fruiting cycles?). I also expected to pick one up on the road to Manuel Brenes but no such luck in 2011. I would love to get a picture and recording of this iconic species though so I will probably go look for them soon.

These other species get honorable mentions:

Redhead: A first for Costa Rica, I went looking for it a week or two after it was found and came up empty-handed. I hope they can be refound so I can get it for my country list.

American Avocet: This rare migrant was found and seen by many at Punta Morales. Like the Redhead, I hope I can bird up that way sometime soon and get them for my country list.

Streaked Xenops: It’s uncommon in Costa Rica but I birded Tapanti enough to have connected with this one!

Tawny-throated Leaftosser: Hard to see but easy to hear in cloud forests throughout the country, I called out to it on several occasions but didn’t receive any replies in 2011.

Banded Wren: Although I spent very little time in Guanacaste, I still should have at least heard one of these guys.

Sedge Wren: Same situation as the Banded Wren but different location.

Blue-winged Warbler: I usually get this each year so I thought it was odd not to see even one.

Worm-eating Warbler: Same situation as the Blue-winged. Always see a few but not this past year.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch: This one is uncommon but it gets honorable mention because I knew of spots to check for it yet never got the time to go there and look.

I won’t be making any Big Year attempts in 2012 but I just might do a Big Day! Happy birding in 2012, hope to see you in Costa Rica!

4 replies on “Biggest Misses for Birding Costa Rica in 2011”

I feel guilty for telling you this, but I was in Costa Rica this May and I saw an Ochraceous Pewee at KM 70, Cerro de la Muerte. I had Jorge Serrano as my guide and we were on our way to a staked out Quetzal nest. I looked behind me to see a small flycatcher on a branch, sort of a dark, dirty orange-yellow color (hard to describe) when Jorge said to me, “Oh, nice bird, that’s an Ochraceous Pewee!” I thought it was a nice bird indeed, but if I knew how rare it really was, I would have been more excited!

Anyway, it was a great day, I saw 22 life species in one hour, including the Quetzals I came to see. I also saw a Collared Trogon, both species of silky flycatcher, and many other common mountain species. It looks like you’re living the dream; I have been to Costa Rica twice and have possible designs on living there once I’m out of school. Any advice on doing that?

Thanks, and love the website,


@Brian- No problem, I’m happy you got that species and I’m sure I will actually see one sometime soon in any case. Nice to get 22 lifers in an hour! As far as advice on living here goes, as with moving to any foreign country, make sure you spend a lot of time there before making such a big move. Even if you love the country during short visits, things you may not like so much will eventually come out of the woodwork. For example, I like it here and the birding and weather is great but I certainly miss home (Niagara Falls, NY), family, and friends. As is common with people who move away from their home town, etc., I also miss certain foods and other aspects of the culture that I grew up with. In CR, I don’t like the narrow and bumpy roads, traffic jams, the overcrowded nature of the Central Valley, nor bureaucracy but I knew about those things before coming here so I can’t really complain.

I was there for 13 days in May, and I did indeed see many disadvantages living there, most of which you covered already. If I did live there, I would definitely want to live in the suburbs or the country. Seeing every single building adorned with steel bars and barbed wire was not comforting. No street names everywhere you go is ridiculous (I did occasionally saw a Calle 22 or whatever number in downtown San Jose) and watching Combate on TV every night would drive me nuts. And even though I have taken two semesters of Spanish, I probably need two more.

Nevertheless, CR is part of me now. I have friends down there (in Uruca and Zapote) and the birding and biodiversity is incredible. Living there is definitely an option, if the situation is right. I’m going to be a Physical Therapist Assistant once school is over, a high growth field in the States. Hopefully there is similar demand in CR (there are a lot of American retirees that could be potential patients) so I will have to do research in that regard. Maybe someday…

@Brian- It sounds like you some idea of what is in store then. Ha ha, Combate every night! Yep, that ridiculous show is pretty darn popular. I can’t bear to watch even a minute of it. Right about living in suburbs or country. At least the country is small enough to make it easy to escape to the country but it’s even better to live out there. Yes, everyone pretty much takes their own security measures. It’s not as if there is tons of crime everywhere, just that there aren’t huge numbers of police officers. One gets used to the lack of street signs but I sure wish we had them!

It sounds like that field of work could certainly be in demand in CR so yes, who knows, maybe some day.

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