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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Adding Efficiciency to Birding in Costa Rica

I recently received a great email from a fellow birder by the name of Dorvat (if you are reading this, please email me again because I seem to have lost the last message!). He has been studying the field guides to prepare for his first trip to Costa Rica and after feeling a bit overwhelmed by long-winded names of unfamiliar birds, he suggested that I write a topic on using codes or shorter names for the Costa Rican avifauna. I’m not going to come up with a list of codes but I will share some of the things I do to spend more time birding than note-taking or paging through the field guide. So, some of the ways in which I optimize my birding time are:

  • Only looking at the field guide during lunch: I take the book with me but usually leave it in the car while birding. This may sound counterproductive but your chances of overlooking birds increases every time you focus on the book instead of your surroundings. There are a heck of a lot of species out there in those tropical forests but most are naturally rare and many have ninja-like capabilities that allow them to stay hidden or disappear in a flash. While you were looking at the book, you may have missed your one shot at rare species like bright-colored canopy ninjas like the Lovely Cotinga or Red-fronted Parrotlet (and believe me when I say that those species are avian ninjas of the highest order). So, I focus on my surroundings while birding and only check out the book while relaxing with a coffee or “arroz con pollo” (sounds fancy but means “rice with chicken”).

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The Black-crowned Antpitta is another Costa Rica ninja bird.

  • Studying the book at home: Of course you can’t expect to know what you are looking at without some sort of reference but you will still be better off by studying the book before you go birding. That goes for birding anywhere in the world but especially in the tropics where you will be confronted with more brief looks at a variety of species than a mad dash through the San Diego zoo. During a three week trip to Costa Rica, you can look at as many TKs and Clay-coloreds as you want but your chances at watching the antics of an Ocellated Antbird, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, or Striped Cuckoo will probably occur just once or twice. The same goes for a horde of other species that love to ambush birders in mixed flock form (make sure you ambush them first!). Try to memorize those field marks before birding if you can!

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If you don’t study that book enough, how would you recognize this bird as a Bright-rumped Atilla?

  • Taking notes: When I need to take notes, I prefer a hand-held recorder over a notebook. That way, I can record my observations in real time without even taking my eyes off the bird. If you would rather make sketches or just love to scribble, then bring a small notebook but jot down your impressions after the mixed flock moves through. While you write, it’s also worth it to keep looking around for your adversary..er, I mean birds.
  • Customizing bird names: Buff-throated Foliage-Gleaner. Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. Do birds really need such complicated names? The name of the pygmy-tyrant in particular is longer than the bird itself. While such names do help make sense out of the bewildering array of avian diversity in Costa Rica, they tend to also cause confusion. I learned those crazy names from the start but if it helps, while studying the field guide, it won’t hurt to take the “foliage” out of “foliage-gleaner” and the “pygmy” out of “pygmy-tyrant”. Make whatever changes are necessary to help you remember the birds, just don’t make so many changes that your notes become impossible to understand. I tend to make notes like, “S C creeper” or “spec gleaner” for “Spot-crowned Woodcreeper” and “Spectacled Foliage-Gleaner” respectively.

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The bird with a name longer than its body.

  • Plan your itinerary and routes well in advance: Most birders do this whether watching for warblers in New England, cruising for quetzals in Costa Rica, or twitching hundreds of species in Ecuador. In Costa Rica, the most important things to keep in mind when planning routes, birding times, and other important logistics (like when and where to get that morning coffee), are (1) the state of the roads and (2) traffic in and around San Jose. Try to get an idea of what the roads will be like if you can and stick to principle routes. As for traffic, know that traffic will be horrible in many parts of the Central Valley between the hours of 6:30 AM-8:30 AM, and 4:00 PM-6:00 PM. The upside to that is virtually no traffic when you want to be traveling to a birding site (anytime before 6 in the morning).
  • Hire a good guide and/or ground agent: It’s easy for me to say this because it’s part of what I do for a living but this will help you maximize birding time and get you more species no matter where you go for a birding vacation. Given the high diversity of birds in Costa Rica, it’s especially helpful in this country if you have no experience with neotropical birding. A guide also comes in handy if you don’t have the time to memorize the field guide, study their images online, or learn their vocalizations.
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The Hummingbird Garden Near San Ramon

On the underbirded, super birdy route between San Ramon and La Fortuna, one of the many sites of interest is the Bosque Nuboso El Cocora Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden. It’s just a 20 minute ride from San Ramon to this sweet little site and even a short visit is well worth the $6 entrance fee. I visited a few days ago while guiding a client in the area and it turned out to be a fitting end to a morning of near non-stop bird action on the road to Manuel Brenes (that mixed flock madness merits its own account!).

I was happy to see that this little ecotourist attraction had invested in its infrastructure and built a small cafe and improved the hummingbird feeding area. The cafe serves typical Costa Rican food at fair prices and is a great place to have a coffee while watching Swallow-tailed Kites do their aerial ballet. As for the hummingbirds, I suspect that the number of species varies over the course of the year but you can always be guaranteed a fantastic frenzy of those little feathered dynamos. On that most recent visit, our most abundant hummingbird was the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald. They looked like white-tailed bugs as they went crazy with the feeders.

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Male Coppery-headed Emerald.

There were a few Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, one of which guarded a lone feeder.

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birding Costa Rica

Stay away from my sugar water!

Beautiful Violet-crowned Woodnymphs were pretty common too.

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A couple of big Violet Sabrewings salso howed up to cause some purple havoc, male and female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems were nice to see and the excellent lighting turned the Green-crowned Brilliants into flying, glittering emeralds. A surprise Steely-vented Hummingbird also showed up and after a long wait, a female White-bellied Mountain-gem made her appearance for our final and eight hummingbird species. I was surprised that we only saw one as this uncommon near endemic has been one of the most frequent hummingbirds on past visits.  Given the number of hummingbirds that were zipping around, we could have easily missed something else as other days have also seen such species as Green Thorntail, Brown Violetear, and Violet-headed Hummingbird.

In addition to the hummingbirds, this site has a short trail through a patch of middle elevation forest. Its brief 200 meter length is one of the big downsides to this place (the other being the 9 am opening time, 12 noon on Sundays) but it’s still worth a visit. Although the “width” of the forest isn’t much and is flanked by pasture, its old growth aspect and connection to more extensive forests away from the road create a wealth of possibilities. We saw little on the most recent visit but did hear Black-faced Solitaire, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and saw Tawny-capped Euphonia and Slate-throated Redstart. In the past, I have seen goodies in there such as Rufous Motmot, Blue-and-gold Tanager, and Azure-hooded Jay. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it also harbored things like leaftossers or even Scaled Antpitta. It’s surely worth a careful look and might be worth it to hang out where the trail looks into the canopy until a mixed flock passes by or some cool ground bird pops into view.

Getting to El Cocora is also super easy. If driving, take the road towards La Fortuna from San Ramon. You will drive through a steep canyon right after leaving town, than pass through deforested areas that are frequently cloaked in fog. Not long after, you start to descend onto the Caribbean slope. Watch for signs to the place and look for it on the left (west) side of the road about 15-20 minutes out of San Ramon. It can also be reached by buses between San Ramon and La Tigra, San Lorenzo, and La Fortuna.

Birding Costa Rica high elevations

An Impressive Day of Birding around Poas

Poas Volcano is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Costa Rica. Buses, cars, and even bicycles make the long, uphill trek to Poas National Park every day of the year, weekends being especially popular. Despite the lines of folks who undertake the Poas pilgrimage, very few are birders. They are there for the volcano and they walk up to the edge of the crater to peer down into its sulphury depths and feel as if they have accomplished something. I shouldn’t chide them though because looking into an active volcano is always a feat worthy of effort and mention. It’s a spectacular view on clear mornings and a surreal experience when the clouds roll in to shroud the crater from peering eyes. Definitely worth a visit and especially because it’s an easy hour’s drive from the San Jose area.

Nevertheless, after you get that look into the mouth of the volcano, it’s worth your while to bird the area for the rest of the day. Heck, it might even be worth your while to bird the area for a week! Although Poas and surroundings don’t really find their way into most birding tour itineraries, the general area is much better for birding than most people realize. Not convinced? You might be after reading about yesterday’s guiding in the area:

After picking up Lisa (she who so graciously hired me to guide her) from Casa Tias in Escazu (wonderful bed and breakfast by the way), we wound our way up the flanks of Poas until reaching the Restaurant de Volcan. The lack of shoulders on Costa Rican roads prevented us from doing any roadside birding in the coffee plantations on the way up but we still managed to get fantastic, close looks at a Coyote. Up at the restaurant, the usual set of hummingbirds were doing their thing at the feeders. In a matter of seconds, we watched Violet Sabrewings, Magnificent (Rivoli’s) Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gems, Green Violet-ears, Volcano Hummingbirds, and Green-crowned Brilliants as they chased each other around and guzzled sugar water.

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The wonderfully bold and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.

While watching the hummingbirds, a Resplendent Quetzal began to call and before we knew it, a male flew across the road in deep bounding flight! It wasn’t all that close but the combination of beryl upperparts and red-velvet unders was evident. Shortly thereafter, we watched the following species coming to the edge of the forest in quick succession:


Prong-billed Barbet- from another day of birding at Poas and Cinchona.

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Mountain Elaenia- one of the most common species there.

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Close encounters of the Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher kind!

Black-thighed Grosbeak- what a hefty, beautiful bird.

We also picked up Band-tailed Pigeon, Squirrel Cuckoo, Red-faced Spinetail, Spotted Barbtail, Yellowish Flycatcher, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Clay-colored Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Common Bush Tanager, Peg-billed Finch, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and heard some distant (and therefore invisible) Barred Parakeets and a Flame-colored Tanager.

After buying some sugary stuff from the restaurant and listening the owner tell us about finding Mountain Lion scat up the hill across the street, we headed over to Varablanca to look for birds on the road that leads to Cinchona (and eventually the Sarapiqui lowlands). As it began to rain, I decided that we might as well check another forested riparian zone on the route that goes past Varablanca and eventually leads down to Santa Barbara. Although the Slaty Finches that were present a few weeks ago had apparently flown the coupe, we still managed excellent looks at Ochraceous Wren and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and saw a few more Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. As it started to clear up, we left with high hopes to bird our way to Cinchona.

A few stops in places with the necessary combination of a spot to park the car and roadside forest resulted in a couple of small mixed flocks with highlights being Barred Becard, Dark Pewee, and Yellow-winged Vireo. Near the Peace Lodge, we also got more, ridiculously close looks at Slate-throated Redstarts, Paltry Tyrannulet, and the most confiding Ruddy Pigeon of my birding career.

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This Ruddy Pigeon even had the decency to vocalize and reveal its name!

Down at the La Paz waterfall, we made a brief stop to check for Torrent Tyrannulet. As I scanned the boulders in the rushing water, Lisa asked, “What’s this bird over here in the garbage?” Sure enough, there was our tyrannulet playing around in some random piece of plastic trash. We ticked the “trashy” tyrannulet and moved on. After being unsuccessful in our attempt to see a singing Olive-crowned Yellowthroat (but picking up Yellow-bellied Elaenia in the process), we drove on past the Cinchona Cafe de Colibries to check out a birdy area between there and Virgen del Socorro.

This turned out to be a fateful decision.

I parked across the street from the Eucalyptus patch that frequently turns up good birds and sure enough, as soon as I exited the vehicle, a Tufted Flycatcher called and a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush sang from down in the woods. As I pulled out my playback device to see if we could entice that beautiful orange-eye-ringed bird to show itself, another bird in flight caught my eye and I automatically raised my bins to check it out. Although my first impression was of a Blue-gray Tanager or maybe Clay-colored Thrush that was flying away from me against a white, cloudy background, I stayed on the bird because I wasn’t entirely sure of its identification. As soon as it flew against a backdrop of green vegetation, it transformed into a flying chunk of turquoise and as it swooped up to the top of a tree, I heard myself saying, “Cotinga! Lovely Cotinga!” I think this was followed up by “Do you see it? This is a very rare bird!” After hearing Lisa say that she was on it, I sprinted back to the car for my scope (this of course being the only time I left it in the car). Just after getting the scope out, I then heard Lisa say, “It flew” so, there will be no photo of Lovely Cotinga on the blog today. So close..so close..

Nevertheless, I was pretty happy to see the bird and even happier that Lisa got to see this rarity. In case you are wondering how rare Lovely Cotinga is in Costa Rica, this was only the second time I have ever seen this species, the first being a female at Las Heliconias in April, 2001.  Even that was one of the few times it has been seen at that excellent site and I know one top CR birder who didn’t see his first Lovely Cotinga until birding in the country for maybe 20 years (?) and he spends most of his time in the field.

Elated by our good if brief sighting of Lovely Cotinga, we then watched beautiful Bay-headed and Silver-throated Tanagers in the same area along with a much duller female Hepatic Tanager and an electric Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. By the time we saw the dacnis, lunch was calling so we headed back to the Colibri Cafe and enjoyed sumptuous home-cooked food while being entertained by several hummingbirds, including two new ones for the day: Coppery-headed Emerald and White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

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The dacnis…it’s electric! -Think of that the next time you are forced to do the Electric Slide at a wedding.

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The uncommon White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

Since it started to rain, we hung out there for a while and picked up Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Palm Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch before braving the downpour to head back uphill over a horribly pot-holed and rain-channeled road that we shared with other cars, buses, and hefty trucks. On a side note, sadly, I don’t think that I will be taking that road again until it gets fixed. It’s really gotten that bad!

Although the rain showed no sign of abating, we headed way uphill to the national park entrance in the hope that it would be maybe sprinkling as opposed to pouring. The rain was actually somewhere in between so we looked a bit around there before giving up and slowly driving back down through the temperate rainforests. As the rain lightened, the birds made themselves known and it wasn’t long before we were shielding bins from falling water while looking at a  Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

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The oriolish, beautiful Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher.

Further downhill, to our great fortune, the rain came close to stopping at a roadside spot that often yields good stuff. Sure enough, we picked up Ruddy Treerunner, Collared Redstart, Mountain Thrush, and Fiery-throated Hummingbird. While peering into the depths of a fruiting avocado, we then managed to see a Black Guan!  Before long, a Resplendent Quetzal also started to call! Although it sounded far off at first, we quickly realizes that it was quite close and in a matter of minutes, we were watching our second male Resplendent Quetzal of the day! Much better looks at this one as it sang from its perch. Although it had already molted its long tail feathers, the rest of the bird was still much appreciated.

Another drive back up to the park entrance in search of Sooty Robin and Large-footed Finch didn’t bag those birds but we did get nice looks at Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. That would have been our final bird of the day if it weren’t for a Gray-headed Chachalaca that planed over the car while heading back down into the Central Valley. We got more than 80 species for the day, one that will surely be a memorable one for Lisa. Since she is headed to Bosque del Rio Tigre today, she’s in for some pretty memorable times there too!

biodiversity Birding Costa Rica identification issues Introduction

Where to see Becards when Birding in Costa Rica

Almost everywhere is what comes to mind after writing the title for this post. No matter which woods you walk, riparian forest you frequent, or mangrove boat tour you take, you have a fair chance of running into a becard species or two when watching birds in Costa Rica. The becard experience in Costa Rica is quite the contrast from that of the ABA listing region (essentially Canada and the USA). Up in those temperate latitudes, North American birders consider themselves fortunate to run into the only becard species in town and to get that Rose-throated bird, they have to look for it in either southeastern Arizona or southernmost Texas.

Head south of the border, though, and these lunky-headed tropical birds become a regular feature of the avian scene. Formerly considered to be cotingas, lumped with flycatchers, and mysteriously categorized as “Incertae sedis”, becards have finally come into their own by being placed in the recently recognized Tityridae family. There are five species of becards in Costa Rica and you have a good chance of running into most when visiting this country on a birding trip. It pays to be familiar with becards before birding in Costa Rica to avoid being tricked into believing that you are espying some weird-looking antshrike or funny flycatcher. Here is a run-down on the Costa Rican reps of these funky little birds:

1. Rose-throated Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae): That’s right, you don’t need to bird the northern fringe of the tropical zone in Texas or Arizona to see this one. Come to Costa Rica and you will get your fill of Rose-throated Becards when birding most Pacific Slope sites. The subspecies here lacks a rose throat so if you really want to see that pretty patch of magenta, you need to see them north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (at least I think that’s the case).  Some rose-throated birds actually do winter in and migrate through the Caribbean slope in Costa Rica but they are pretty rare. Whistle like a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in places like Cerro Lodge, riparian zones in dry forest, around the HQ at Carara or at the University of Peace and a pair of Rose-throated Becards will probably show up. Or, just watch birds in the Pacific slope lowlands and foothills and you will probably see some.

Male Rose-throated Becards are almost featureless.

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Female Rose-throated Becards are nice-looking birds.

2. Cinnamon Becard (Pachyramphus cinnamomeus): A bit smaller than the Rose-throated Becard, this handsome species is common on the Caribbean slope. It’s also fairly common in mangroves on the Pacific slope. Look for this rufousy little guy along rivers, in second growth, and at forest edge. It sometimes joins mixed flocks of edge species but is just as often seen on its own. I won’t even name sites because there should be a pair or two at just about every edge habitat in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills.

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Cinnamon Becard from near La Selva.

3. White-winged Becard (Pachyramphus polychopterus): This third one is the other most common becard species in Costa Rica. It’s one of those really widespread neotropical species that usually occurs in forest edge habitats. In Costa Rica, it can also show up inside rain forest but you usually find it at the edge or in semi-open areas. I have had them in moist forest near the University of Peace and around Cerro Lodge but they seem to be most common in gardens and at the edge of lowland rainforest. Although they aren’t as obvious as Rose-throated Becards, when you learn their plaintive vocalizations, you realize how common and widespread this species actually is. Watch for this cool-looking becard at any humid, lowland site. I often see them with mixed flocks in Carara and get them at just about any place where I expect them to occur (think any forest edge habitat in the humid lowlands).

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Male White-winged Becard from the Chilamate area.

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Female White-winged Becard from the Chilamate area. No, not the greatest picture but realistic in that this is how it might look through your binos.

4. Barred Becard (Pachyramphus versicolor): And now for one of the uncommon becards. In Costa Rica, this attractive species is much less common than the trio above but it’s still regular in many areas. It loves to vocalize and hearing the distinctive sound emitted by the Barred Becard is typically how I find this species. When you do hear one, you also know that a mixed flock is somewhere in the neighborhood because it is rarely seen away from groups of foraging birds. Look for it in highland forest sites like Tapanti, Cerro de la Muerte, or Poas. I actually see Barred Becard just about every time I bird humid forest above 1,500 meters. If you see one or two, don’t be surprised when it looks small and bar-less. That impression is influenced by the fact that they are actually quite small (a whopping 5 inches), usually stay high in the trees, and have faint barring in spite of their name.

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A wonderfully cooperative male Barred Becard near the La Paz waterfall.

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It’s slightly shyer mate.

5. Black and white Becard (Pachyramphus albogriseus): Last and definitely the rarest, this species is a tough one to get in Costa Rica. It’s much more common in western Ecuador (and probably western Colombia) so if you really want to see one, go birding there. However, if you just have to get this one for your Costa Rican list, try looking for it at El Toucanet Lodge, Quebrada Gonzalez, El Copal, or Tapanti. It doesn’t seem to be common anywhere but I have had it at those sites. To give an example of how sneaky this species is, at El Toucanet, although I heard a few singing at dawn, I didn’t see them during the day despite spending most of my time birding in the same area. When I have seen them, they have been both on their own and with mixed flocks. They are probably seasonal at Quebrada since they appear to move up and down slope (interesting for a supposed insectivore- maybe they are eating more fruits than is thought).

Sorry, no photos of this one but they are still pretty easy to identify with a good look.

Want to see becards while birding in Costa Rica but aren’t sure where to look? I am available to guide you and would be happy to show you becards and hundreds of other bird species in Costa Rica.