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Why It’s Worth it to Visit Manzanillo when Birding Costa Rica

Manzanillo is almost as detached from the typical Costa Rican birding circuit as you can get without leaving the country. Tucked way off in the southeastern corner of the country, it seems silly to drive there when you can see most of the same birds in the Sarapiqui region. If given the option, though, I would much rather bird Manzanillo, sites near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, and forested areas near Limon than La Selva and the like. Why drive four or five hours instead of two to get to an area that offers much of the same as Sarapiqui? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t exactly offer up the same birding experience as Sarapiqui. In fact, it might even be better while costing less.

While “better” depends on what you want to see, Manzanillo and a lot southeastern Costa Rica is one heck of a birdy place for one big reason: habitat. While pasture and chemical-ridden pineapple fields take up most of the space outside of protected areas in Sarapiqui, you won’t see those avian dead zones around Manzanillo. Most of the habitat there is old cocoa plantations converting back into lowland rainforest (helped by the presence of many old growth trees), rainforest that was never used for cocoa, some brushy fields, and wetlands here and there. Add on beaches, estuaries, and a healthy supply of vegetated ditches and streams and you end up with a darn birdy region.

In addition to habitat that harbors most of the Caribbean lowland species, Manzanillo and other coastal sites are situated right in the middle of a migration pathway that makes the birding extra exciting for Costa Rican residents. That was one of the main reasons why I organized and guided a trip to Manzanillo this past weekend for the Birding Club of Costa Rica and although the bulk of migration may have happened earlier this year, we still saw a fair number of migrants along with a bunch of quality local birds.

We stayed in Manzanillo at the Cabinas Bucus and Cabinas Sumaqtikaq. Accommodation was basic, clean, and cheap, there are several other places to stay in town, and more upscale hotels along the birdy road between Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo.

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I stayed at the cozy Cabinas Sumaqtikaq pictured above. While no owls responded during my stay, I heard Mottled calling in the distance and am sure that other species could show up right by the cabins and other areas in the village (not to mention all expected species in nearby forested areas).

We got down to birding shortly after arrival and the constant flow of Barn, Bank, and Cliff Swallows reminded us that migration was happening above and through town. It ebbed and flowed a bit from Thursday to Sunday and although we seemed to have arrived at the tail end of Fall migration, we were still entertained by quite a few birds. Occasional kettles of TVs, Broad-wings, and Swainson’s Hawks flew over the village, we saw a few Peregrines, one Merlin, and one kind of late Mississippi Kite, a few flocks of Eastern Kingbirds, a good number of Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Swainson’s Thrushes, Bay-breasted Warblers, and a few other migrants along with dozens of Eastern Wood-pewees (most common bird around). As boring as this will sound for American and Canadian birders, I was happy to see a couple of Gray Catbirds and Common Yellowthroats, and one of our best birds of the trip was Least Flycatcher (a rare migrant in CR)!

Oh, we did see a good number of resident tropical species too. One of the best was Tiny Hawk.

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Tiny Hawk in Manzanillo.

While birding the edge of the village on Thursday afternoon, I realized something was up upon hearing mobbing calls from small birds and seeing Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and Buff-throated Saltators perched as still as can be high up in some thin snags.

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Waiting out the Tiny Hawk.

A suspicious looking, thrush-sized bird at the top of a tall tree turned out to be the Tiny Hawk that was causing a ruckus. It let us watch it for several minutes as it was harassed by hummingbirds, Tropical Gnatcatchers, warblers, and honeycreepers.

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Tiny Hawk watching and waiting for an unwary hummingbird.

The good birding didn’t stop as we checked out brushy fields and edge of the nearby forest. Although it was kind of far away and just for a moment, I’m pretty sure that I heard White-fronted Nunbirds call in the distance, we saw Mealy, Red-lored, and Blue-headed Parrots, got great looks at Mourning Warbler, heard Slaty Spinetail, and saw a bunch of other more or less expected species. The Least Flycatcher also turned up there on the following day.

The trees in the village itself were active with migrants, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Black-cowled Oriole, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Long-tailed Tyrant, Pale-vented and Short-billed Pigeons, toucans, and other species. As we birded the more forested edge of the village and road heading to Puerto Viejo, there were so many birds that we hardly knew where to look! Blue-chested Hummingbirds buzzed low, flowering bushes, Long-billed, Stripe-throated, and Bronzy Hermits were all pretty common, Golden-hooded, Plain-colored, and Passerini’s Tanagers kept us busy, while Dusky and Chestnut-backed Antbirds, and Striped-breasted and Plain Wrens called from the undergrowth.

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Olive-backed Euphonias were pretty common and we also got White-vented as the edge of the village.

A late afternoon visit to the Gandoca reserve was quiet as expected but still turned up White-whiskered Puffbird, toucans, and a bunch of Tawny-crested Tanagers. I would love to head into the reserve before dawn and bring enough water and food to spend the entire day there. I bet you would see some preeeetty good birds (like maybe Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, other raptors, uncommon antbirds, and who knows what else). As a side note, there may be some entrance for paying an entrance fee somewhere but we didn’t see it and just walked right on in.

A late morning visit to the botanical garden near Puerto Viejo failed to turn up Spot-crowned Antvireo and Black-chested Jay, but it was still nice and birdy with Tawny-crested Tanager, Black-headed Tody-flycatcher, trogons, lots of migrant activity, Short-tailed Hawk, Checker-throated, Dot-winged, and White-flanked Antwrens, and other species.

We had some of our best birding along the RECOPE road. This is the first road north of Manzanillo and is signed for a retreat used by RECOPE employees. It goes for maybe 3 ks through semi-open forest and more closed canopy rainforest. Espying birds as they forage in the crowns of the huge trees is a challenge but the road has lots of potential. In addition to a healthy dose of migrants, we also had Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Pied Puffbird, Bat Falcon, woodcreepers, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Black-faced Antthrush, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, toucans, parrots, parakeets, Crested Guan, and other species. Our best sighting was an unbelievable Crested Owl that perched right out in the open on a log like some kind of open-air zoo! At least that’s how we felt as we walked up to it and took as many pictures as we wanted.

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That amazing Crested Owl.

A close shot.

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I took this with a hand-held camera!

I spent as much time in the field as possible but as usually happens with tropical areas with good habitat, I felt like I barely scratched the surface. There was quite a bit of good forest along the road between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo that we didn’t bird, nor did we check the forested ridge, bird the botanical garden in the early morning, or spend more time looking for jays and other species around Kekoldi (not to mention visiting the excellent forests at Hitoy Cerere). Lots to see around Manzanillo, Puerto Viejo, and nearby, the habitat is very accessible, and you can get in a lot of great birding right around hotels and from public roads. As always, I can’t wait to go back and hope I can head back there soon on a family trip.
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My family will love the beach…

2 replies on “Why It’s Worth it to Visit Manzanillo when Birding Costa Rica”

Hi There
Am planning to visit CR for Birding Trip from the UK , next Feb / March . May well take your advice and spend time at Manzanillo . May I ask how time do you feel it worth devoting to the area[ out of a total 2 week stay ] and which other sites would compliment it , enroute from San Jose ? Any help would be really appreciated .
Best Wishes
Chris Hancock

@Chris- I apologize for this very tardy response (and other very late replies)- I have received a fair bit of spam the past couple months and have overlooked valid comments as a result. Well, if you plan on doing most of your Caribbean lowland birding around Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo, I think a week would suffice. There are two routes that could be taken for birding on the way. One is the main San Jose-Guapiles highway. This offers good foothill forest birding at Quebrada Gonzalez and El Tapir- both sites good for a day trip but no lodging there. The other route passes by high elevation sites at Poas and middle elevation birds around Varablanca, Cinchona, and Virgen del Socorro. The second route is a good birding area with several choices for lodging and eventually reaches the Sarapiqui area (which has many of the same species as Manzanillo).

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