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How to see 11 Raptors and 16 Hummingbird species when Birding Costa Rica

I had been looking forward to guiding this past Saturday. My client wanted to see as many birds as possible and a combined trip to Virgen del Socorro and Poas Volcano seemed like the perfect choice for a birdy day. I figured we would see quite a few birds and some good ones at that but I didn’t expect to identify as many species as a Christmas Bird count at Carara or La Selva!

Warning- this is a bird-filled post that reads a bit like a trip report.

From 5:30 am to 5:30 pm, good birding weather (cloudy skies) and a high degree of bird activity rolled the dice in our favor to give us 122 species seen and 29 that were heard only. What makes that even more impressive is that only four of those were waterbirds. The rest were forest species and we would have actually added 10 or more species to the list if we had run into better mixed flocks.

Starting out from the Xandari Hotel in Alajuela, common species like White-winged Dove, Clay-colored Robin, and Great-tailed Grackle were ticked as we drove up to the mountain pass of Varablanca. At that first stop, we tried in vain to see a singing Flame-colored Tanager in a distant tree while putting the scope on perched Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers. Mountain Elanias called and flitted in the nearby vegetation but the tanager never did reveal itself.

As we headed down through the middle elevations of the Caribbean slope, Red-billed Pigeons flew around and perched on treetops. We made stops for Yellow-bellied Elaenia, got great looks at a pair of Olive-crowned Yellowthroats, were tantalized by a calling White-throated Crake, and watched the antics of Great Kiskadees, Yellow-winged Vireo, Brown-capped Vireo, Piratic, Social, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers near the Peace Lodge. Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Dark Pewee also showed well but calling Golden-bellied Flycatchers kept out of sight.

Red-billed Pigeons are common, handsome birds in Costa Rica.

Our first raptor species also made appearances somewhere near Cinchona. These were the two everpresent vultures Black Vulture (1) and Turkey Vulture (2), Black-shouldered Kite (3) (which I have never seen on that road), a migrant Red-tailed Hawk (4), and Broad-winged Hawks (5). Further down at our main point of avian focus for the morning, Swallow-tailed Kites (6) entertained as they soared through the canyon at Virgen del Socorro, and a pair of White Hawks (7) took to the air for some courtship action.

As the lightly-plumaged raptors looked beautiful against the greenery of the middle-elevation forests, smaller birds also sang from the woods. Slate-throated Redstarts, Tropical Parulas, and migrant warblers flitted through mossy trees and were joined by Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, and Red-faced Spinetail. Down by the bridge, Tufted Flycatcher called and Torrent Tyrannulet was seen but things like Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and another pair of Golden-bellied Flycatchers opted for hiding in the dense vegetation. Down at the river itself, no amount of searching would turn up a much hoped for Sunbittern or Fasciated Tiger-Heron but at least a pair of Smoky-brown Woodpeckers made an appearance.

A glimpse of the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro, Costa Rica.

As we worked our way up the opposite, better forested side of the gorge, Barred Hawks (8) called from high above, a pale phase Short-tailed Hawk (9) was seen and a massive group of Swainson’s (10) and Broad-winged Hawks headed due north high overhead. Around the same time, a small mixed flock eventually showed well and gave us great looks at Plain Xenops, several Russet Antshrikes, Silver-throated Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Tufted Flycatcher, and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner. It was nice but it still wasn’t the type of big, active mixed flock that can turn up at Virgen del Socorro.

Moving higher up the road, patience paid off in the form of good looks at the miniscule Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and brief looks at Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Bay-headed Tanagers and Common Tody-Flycatcher also turned up but Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant refused to come out and play. However, with flowering trees in that area filled with hummingbirds, we weren’t complaining! Several Brown Violetears called from their perches and chased the numerous Violet-crowned Woodnymphs. A few Green Thorntails were also seen and Violet-headed Hummingbird was heard but the coquette was a no-show.

We waited around for the 11 am bird wave but it never turned up so we birded our way back through the canyon and got good looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher, more Red-faced Spinetails, and Spotted Woodcreeper. Two other, really good species that vocalized but did not show themselves were Azure-hooded Jay and Brown-billed Sycthebill. By then, lunchtime had arrive so we headed on up to the Cinchona “Cafe de Colibries” for delicious, home-cooked meals. The feeders were unfortunately slow but we still managed to pick up Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and got point blank looks at a male Green Thorntail.

The male Green Thorntail looks like a spiky-tailed bug.

Cinchona is usually reliable for the local White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

After lunch, it was off to higher elevations and a new set of birds. At the Restaurante Volcan, the seeding bamboo on the other side of the road finally turned up great looks at a rare Slaty Finch. Two were singing and one showed us its dull yet rarely seen self. Yellowish Flycatchers also played around the stream, Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers called from overhead, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were seen, and a funky pair of Prong-billed Barbets yodeled from the top of a nearby tree. The yodel.

The feeders and nearby habitat always make this a great spot for hummingbirds and Saturday was no exception with sightings of Violet Sabrewing, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Volcano Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Magnificent Hummingbird, and Green-crowned Brilliant. Yellow-thighed Finches were also spotted just before heading further up the volcano.

We drove right up to the gate for the national park and started hearing birds as soon as we exited the car. Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens sang but the only birds we saw were two Fiery-throated Hummingbirds (always nice to see that one though!). We slowly made our way back down to where the bamboo was seeding and picked up Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher in the process. At the bamboo, Peg-filled Finches were singing and one was found, admired, and given “junco status” on account of its appearance. Yellow-thighed Finches, Large-footed Finch, and a beautiful Black-thighed Grosbeak were seen. As two Resplendent Quetzals sang, we also got killer looks at a Black Guan and picked up the much wanted Sooty Robin. If you aren’t familiar with the Sooty Robin, it’s basically a Eurasian Blackbird that got teleported to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama at some distant, ancient time (well, how else could it look so similar? Why settle on convergence when the teleportation theory is so much more exciting!).

The junco-like Peg-billed Finch.

Barred Parakeets also made an appearance but by then, the mist had become so thick that we could barely see the rufous on a Rufous-collared Sparrow so they flew through the fog heard but unseen. Back down below the foggy weather, another quick stop didn’t turn up anything of note so we continued to the lower elevations at Xandari. But wait! The birding wasn’t over yet! On the way down,  a road closure (some truck took out a power line post) detoured us through birdy coffee plantations that held our last raptor and hummingbird for the day: Gray Hawk (11) and Steely-vented Hummingbird. It also led us to an artificial pond that held 4 Least Grebes, 2 Blue-winged Teal, and 1 female Ring-necked Duck (a good bird in Costa Rica!).

We got back down to Xandari by dusk and after I got home, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that we had amassed the following total:

Species seenSpecies heard only
Black GuanWhite-throated Crake
Cattle EgretShort-billed Pigeon
Black VultureBarred Parakeet
Turkey VultureSquirrel Cuckoo
Black-shouldered KiteGreen Hermit
Swallow-tailed KiteViolet-headed Hummingbird
Red-tailed HawkResplendent Quetzal
Short-tailed HawkKeel-billed Toucan
Broad-winged HawkChestnut-mandibled Toucan
Swainson’s HawkSpotted Barbtail
Barred HawkBrown-billed Scythebill
White HawkImmaculate Antbird
Gray HawkSilvery-fronted Tapaculo
Blue-winged TealGolden-bellied Flycatcher
Ring-necked DuckScale-crested Pygmy Tyrant
Least GrebeBright-rumped Attila
Spotted SandpiperLesser Greenlet
Red-billed PigeonGray-breasted Wood Wren
Band-tailed PigeonOchraceous Wren
White-winged DoveBay Wren
White-crowned ParrotNightingale Wren
Crimson-fronted ParakeetBlack-faced Solitaire
Vaux’s SwiftBlack-billed Nightingale-Thrush
White-collared SwiftRuddy-capped Nightingale Thrush
Spot-fronted Swift- nice one!Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Violet Sabrewing

Stripe-throated Hermit

Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Brown VioletearAzure-hooded Jay
Green VioletearFlame-colored Tanager
Green ThorntailChestnut-capped Brush Finch
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Steely-vented Hummingbird
Magnificent Hummingbird
Green-crowned Brilliant
Purple-crowned Fairy
Coppery-headed Emerald
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
White-bellied Mountain-Gem
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem
Volcano Hummingbird
Collared Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
Smoky-brown Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
Plain Xenops
Spotted Woodcreeper
Russet Antshrike
Paltry Tyrannulet
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Yellowish Flycatcher
Mountain Elaenia
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Dark Pewee
Wood Pewee species
Social Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Tufted Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Torrent Tyrannulet
Slaty-capped Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
Brown-capped Vireo
Yellow-winged Vireo
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Brown Jay
Blue and white Swallow
Roughwing Swallow species
House Wren
Stripe-breasted Wren
Sooty Robin
Clay-colored Robin
Mountain Robin
Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher
Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Tropical Parula
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Golden-crowned Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat
Common Bush Tanager
Palm Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Passerini’s Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Summer Tanager
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Variable Seedeater
Slaty Finch
Peg-billed Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch
Large-footed Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Grayish Saltator
Black-thighed Grosbeak
Eastern Meadowlark
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Bronzed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
Montezuma Oropendola

Needless to say, you can see a heck of a lot of birds in one day in Costa Rica! As nice as Saturday’s total was, though, just wait and see how many birds are produced by the Big Day I will probably do next weekend or shortly thereafter!

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