Birding in the tropical zone is not the same as watching birds in the temperate zone. However, the huge and tantalizing array of interesting birds that will never be seen near a North American or European home comes with a price: a lot of them are just tough to see! Unlike the easy-going spring or early summer birding in the coniferous and broad-leafed forests of the north, you can come on down to Costa Rica, stalk along a trail through rainforest where 300 species have been recorded, and actually see three or four birds over the course of an hour. When that happens, you can’t help but wonder, “Where the hell are the birds?”, especially because you are hearing so many of them.
I’ve blogged about these differences in the past but here are a few more things to keep in mind before heading to Costa Rica for a birding trip:
- Waterfowl: As in the paucity of ducks and total absence of geese and swans. Unlike the duck-filled marches and lakes of higher latitudes, we have just three species of commonly occurring web-footed quackers. That trio of Anseriformes are the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, the Muscovy Duck, and the Blue-winged Teal. While several other species of northern ducks can and do turn up, they aren’t very common and are the exception. To give an idea of why Costa Rica is not the place to visit for watching waterfowl, us local birders are stoked if such rarities as Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, or Northern Shoveler make an appearance. So, don’t worry about looking for ducks when birding Costa Rica (not that many visiting birders do anyways).
- Challenging Mixed Flocks: If you get a joyous Passerine kick when watching chickadee-led flocks of warblers, get ready for larger, more complex, and heart pounding groups of birds that race through the high canopy and dim understory of tropical forests! Dreamy mixed flocks are a typical aspect of birding in tropical habitats but yes, here comes another catch- they don’t come easy! In other words, the understory antwrens, antvireos, flycatchers, and such move through the lower levels of the forest in seriously stealthy mode. They are quiet, take their time, and don’t exactly stand out from the various dull shades of rainforest green. Meanwhile, up there in the 40 meter high canopy, tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species rush through the foliage like a starving, hyperactive horde. It’s common to see only a few birds well, to get looks at pieces of various species as they forage in bromeliads and other vegetated cubby holes, and miss most of the birds in the flock. However, do not despair! Follow those flocks until you can position yourself where they will pass by at eye level or in good light and you might eventually get looks at all of the birds in the flock and find that crazy Sharpbill or rarely seen Gray-headed Piprites.
- Poor views: See Challenging Mixed Flocks above! Away from mixed flocks, you will run into frustrating moments when birds are hidden by leaves, epiphytes, and other proliferations of vegetative matter. You will hear but not see many a bird. Birds will also be back-lit and thus turned into silhouettes even after you have contorted your neck in ways that resemble novel vogue dancing or yoga positions. Instead of being frustrated, just use that fine Brooklyn Zenish adage of “Forget about it” (in an accent from Far Rockaway or Bensonhurst of course) and re-position yourself on higher ground or another part of the trail to blaze the corneas with properly colored and detailed birds. Once that happens, you can once again exclaim “Forget about it!!”, but this time as a victory cry.
- Study some vocalizations: If you can learn at least some of the songs and calls for most of Costa Rica’s birds, that would be ideal. However, since learning the songs of 600 plus species a few months before a trip is rather daunting for the majority of flocks (except Felonious Jive because that birding genius already has innate knowledge of all bird calls), you might want to pick out a 100 or so of the most common species and focus on those. That will ready your ears to help detect the uncommon or rare birds if and when they do show up, and will enrich your Costa Rican birding experience. The Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app can help in this and other regards in preparing for your trip.
- Tough understory things: While the temperate zone has its fair share of understory birds, believe me when I say that the birds up there are absolute rookies when it comes to staying hidden on or near the forest floor! Tinamous, quail-doves, wood-quails, antpittas, antthrushes, leaftossers, and ground-cuckoos can’t help but laugh with disdain at the Ovenbird and grouse as they make amateur attempts to avoid being detected. They do, however, give much respect to that master creeper known as the Connecticut Warbler. A post about looking for tinamous will give you some tips on seeing them although your chances will be highest if you hire an experienced local guide.
As you might infer from this post, birding in Costa Rica might not be as easy as watching birds near home BUT it will be very rewarding when you keep seeing new species every day of your trip!