Woodpeckers are one of those bird families that are so cool and distinctive that they are even immediately recognized by most non-birders. Thanks to Woody Woodpecker and the unforgettable antics of birds that thrive on “head-banging”, someone who has no idea what a chickadee or flycatcher is can still correctly identify a woodpecker when they see one. They won’t know if it’ a Downy, Hairy, Greater Spotted, or Lineated (if they live in the neotropics) but they still get credit for recognizing a bird at the family level.
In common with most of the American tropics, Costa Rica has a wealth of woodpeckers. The diversity for this chiseling, strange, long-tongued bunch gets even higher in the Amazon and forested habitats of southern Asia but with 16 species to choose from in a place the size of West Virginia, I’m not complaining! Here is a rundown of this fine family of birds that includes information on where and how to see them when birdwatching in Costa Rica:
Olivaceous Piculet: The piculets are a strange group of mini-woodpeckers that will remind you of titmice or maybe nuthatches. Most species reside in South America although a few are found in Asia and one occurs in Africa. In Costa Rica, just one species occurs and as with most of these miniscule woodpeckers, it’s easy to overlook. It’s sometimes seen along the river trail at Carara but is much more regularly sighted further south. Forest edge, gardens, and viney second growth in places such as the Golfo Dulce area, Hacienda Baru, and the Valle del General are all good sites to see the Olivaceous Piculet in Costa Rica. You might also see it around Cano Negro and I have run into it on more than one occasion in guava orchards near Arenal.
No pics for this minute bird.
Acorn Woodpecker: This clown of the high elevations is fairly common and easy to see wherever oak trees are found. Although it lives on Poas and Barva, it doesn’t seem to be as common at those sites compared to Irazu Volcano and the Talamancas.
Golden-naped Woodpecker: This is a true beauty of a bird that evolved in the humid forests of southwestern Costa Rica and western Panama. You can’t see it anywhere else and it’s not as common as the related Black-cheeked Woodpecker is on the Caribbean slope. Although it does occur at Carara National Park, seeing it there during a day of birding is by no means guaranteed. I usually hear it inside the forest but don’t see it too often. However, it becomes more common in rainforest further south. It’s pretty easy to see at sites like Hacienda Baru, the Osa, and other areas with humid forest from about Jaco to Golfito.
Black-cheeked Woodpecker: Most woodpeckers are bold, handsome birds and this species is no exception. It hides a red belly and yellow front, but the red crown, black cheeks, and white stripes on a black back are easier to see. Happily, this fun bird is also common and easy to see in humid forest and edge in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. This is one that will be hard to miss when taking a birding trip to Costa Rica.
Red-crowned Woodpecker: A common edge species in Panama and northern South America, it’s also easy to see on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Although it hybridizes with the next species around Carara and Jaco, what appear to be pure Red-crowns are easily seen from Manuel Antonio National Park and points further south. Watch for it in gardens and other non-forest habitats.
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker: This nice looking woodpecker is only found from southern Honduras to northern Costa Rica. It’s common in any dry forest habitat from the border of Nicaragua south to Carara National Park and the Central Valley. They have also been showing up in deforested parts of northern Costa Rica on the Caribbean slope. This is the de-facto woodpecker species in the Central Valley and if staying in hotels in the San Jose area, you will probably see a few right in the garden.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: Yes, this woodpecker makes its way south to Costa Rica for the winter. Not too many make the trip but you may come across one or two when birding in Costa Rica. They can show up just about anywhere although seem to be encountered more often in foothill and highland areas.
Hairy Woodpecker: It might be the same species as Hairy Woodpeckers from the north, but it sure looks different! The birds in Costa Rica are similar to Hairy Woodpeckers from the Pacific northwest in having duller, browner plumage. They also seem smaller than birds from the north. A commonly encountered species in high-elevation forests.
Red-rumped Woodpecker: This is by far the toughest woodpecker to see in Costa Rica. You can go to known sites for them and still miss this species (at least that has been my experience!). They are much more common in western Ecuador and Colombia so count on seeing Red-rumped Woodpeckers there. If you need to see one in Costa Rica, try looking in edge habitats and mangroves around the Golfo Dulce. It’s supposed to also occur in the mangroves near Carara but I haven’t seen nor heard it there.
Sorry, no pics of this one!
Smoky-brown Woodpecker: This one can get overlooked although it’s a fairly common bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. It prefers edge habitats and second growth over primary forest and once you learn its vocalizations, you at least hear it on most birding trips within its range. It’s also frequently seen and sometimes joins mixed flocks. Birding at most Caribbean slope sites can turn up this species.
A rather Gargoylish image of a Smoky Brown Woodpecker!
Rufous-winged Woodpecker: This is always a nice bird to see and Costa Rica is a great place for it. Rufous-winged Woodpeckers are fairly common in both primary and secondary forests on the Caribbean slope. They sometimes join mixed flocks but tend to stay in the canopy. They often reveal their presence with their loud, jay-like calls and are seen on most trips to the Caribbean lowlands and foothills.
Not the best image of a Rufous-winged but at least one of its staring bluish eyes is visible.
G0lden-Olive Woodpecker: This widespread highland species is fairly common in Costa Rica although it seems like it occurs at low densities. It can turn up in edge and forested habitats at any middle elevation site although it might be a bit easier around Monteverde.
Cinnamon Woodpecker: This and the following species are members of the Celeus genus, a fact that makes them exceptionally cool because you won’t see anything like these rufousy, fruit eating woodpeckers up north! The Cinnamon Woodpecker is fairly common in humid forest on the Caribbean slope (lowlands and foothills) but its love for the densely vegetated canopy presents challenges to seeing it. However, patience and knowing its vocalizations usually result in sightings of this beautiful species when birdwatching where it occurs. La Selva, Quebrada Gonzalez, and most forested sites in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills are good for this bird.
No photos for this one either!
Chestnut-colored Woodpecker: This striking woodpecker is uncommon in Costa Rica but you still have a fair chance seeing it when birding in the Caribbean lowlands. It turns up in both primary forest and edge habitats at places like La Selva, Tortuguero, and most Caribbean lowland sites.
Lineated Woodpecker: Common and widespread, the Lineated is one of the easier woodpeckers to see in Costa Rica. Birding in edge habitats and gardens at lowland and middle elevation sites usually turns up one or two Lineated Woodpeckers. Their laughing song is reminiscent of the Pileated’s (their northern cousin) and is often heard in hotel gardens.
Pale-billed Woodpecker: This is the biggest woodpecker species in Costa Rica and is placed in the Ivorybill genus (Campephilus). Like other members of this celebrated genus (at least in ornithological circles), it gives a distinctive double knock. In Costa Rica, it shows up in forested sites in the lowlands of both slopes. It’s not super common but should turn up during a two week birding trip to Costa Rica.