Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Some Definitions for Costa Rican Bird Names

If this is your first trip to Costa Rica, you may be wondering what some of those birds in the field guide really are. You don’t have any foliage-gleaners or xenops at home. There aren’t any weirdo antpittas hopping around your patch.  Hawk-eagles sound super cool but what are they? A hawk? An eagle? A mega Goshawk? We want to know more about those and other unfamiliar birds (like the Sungrebe and Sunbittern) because that knowledge will hopefully increase our chances of seeing them. In fact, the stranger the name, the more we want to see the bird even if it looks like as average as a House Wren so to help you prepare for your trip to Costa Rica and connect with things like pygmy-tyrants, foliage-gleaners, and a Wrenthrush, here are some definitions:

  • Tinamous: Yes, they truly do look like feathered footballs (the American pigskin kind). This is sort of what they are except that they also have beautiful, whistled vocalizations. Shy, terrestrial footballs.

    Costa Rica is a pretty good place to see the Great Tinamou.
  • Currasows: Not to be confused with the Currawongs of Australia, these are basically neotropical turkeys with the caveat that they are much less common and usually tough to see becasue, like turkeys, people like to eat them. On a brighter note, Costa Rica is the easiest place to see the curly crested Great Curassow. It lives in many protected areas and fairly tame birds occur at several sites.

    A male Great Curassow.
  • Hawk-eagles: If you were hoping that these would actually be mega-Goshawks, you can rejoice in knowing that yes, that is a fair description for these Accipiter-like, powerful raptors. Powerful? Oh yes, especially the Ornate. That cool looking bird has been seen killing and flying up to a branch with a curassow bigger than itself, and regularlly preys upon Squirrel Monkeys in the Amazon. I bet it also take the Central American Squirrel Monkey in the Osa Peninsula.
  • Sunbittern and Sungrebe: The only real similarity between these two much wanted species is the word “sun”. They are sometimes seen in similar places but the Sungrebe needs slow moving lowland rivers and wetlands while the Sunbittern can also live along rocky rivers and streams. Forget about the Sunbittern having anything to do with bitterns. It’s more like a small rail-heron thing that creeps along the edges of forested rivers. As for the Sungrebe, yes, it is rather like a grebe but one that had a Frankenstein love affair with an adventurous rail. Boat rides at Cano Negro, Tortuguero, and Sarapiqui are good ways to get the Sungrebe in Costa Rica.

  • Thick-knee: If you hail from anywhere other than the Americas, this is a neotropical Stone Curlew. For everyone else, it’s a large-headed shorebird thing that loves to hang out in dry fields.
  • Jacamars: Only two species in Costa Rica and one is super rare but the Rufous-tailed is fairly common. This beautiful creature is like a hummingbird crossed with a kingfisher (although it doesn’t dive into the water). A stunning, award winning bird.

    Rufous-tailed Jacamar.
  • Antbirds and antwrens: No, although it’s easy to quickly conclude that these birds must eat ants, they are just as into catching and feasting on larger arthropods as wrens, warblers, and the like. A small part of this big bird family do fallow ants and thus ruined the reputation of the rest. Antbirds and antwrens are basically dull plumaged insectivores that tend to be tough to see because they love to lurk in dense vegetation. They behaviors vary but won’t be like anything from home (unless you come from eastern Asia and have seen babblers).

    Spotted Antbird- one that does follow ants.
  • Antpittas and Antthrushes: More ant-things! These strange birds are especially loved by neotropical birders because they are so different. They tend to be really tough to see because they are experts at staying hidden on or near the dim forest floor. Antpittas are basically feathered balls with two long hopping legs and antthrushes are songbirds pretending to be crakes that live in the rainforest.
  • Woodcreepers: Think giant treecreepers.
  • Foliage-gleaners, xenops, and leaftossers: These are some names for a weird bunch iof borwn and rufous birds that are part of a huge neotropical familymknown as Furnarids or Ovenbirds. Foliage-gleaners do more bromeliad searching than foliage gleaning, the xenops is like a chickadee or titmouse, and leaftossers do indeed toss leaves around (and are a pain to see well).
  • Tyrannulets and pygmy-tyrants: Basically, tiny flycatchers that are a pain to identify. All can be identified with a good look, just focus on the bill and take notes. The pygmy-tyrants and tody-flycatchers are as small as hummingbirds. Don’t be surprised if you see a bug that becomes one of these tiny things when you put the binos on it.

    A tiny Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher.
  • Sharpbill: So, it does sort of have a sharp bill but it got that name because it’s in a class of its own. Watch for it in mixed flocks at foothill rainforest sites on the Caribbean slope.
  • Gnatwrens: These are brown, neotropical gnatcatchers that happen to be just as hyperactive as their gray and white kin. Anyone who manages a good photo of a gnatwren should win a prize.
  • Silky-flycatchers: These are in the same family as the Phainopepla. If you don’t know that oddly named bird, the two species in Costa Rica act sort of like waxwings.
  • Euphonias: Small, neotropical siskin like birds that love mistletoe berries.

    The beautiful Golden-browed Chlorophonia is a euphonia too.
  • The Wrenthrush: Not a wren, not a thrush. A warbler for now although it looks more like a Tesia. What the heck is a Tesia? That’s an Asian bird that looks like a Wrenthrush of course! Ok, so they all look like small, hyper short-tailed things with fairly uniform plumage with color on the crown.


I hope these definitions will help you see more birds in Costa Rica. A lot of these can also be applied to birding in Panama, Peru, and other Neotropical places although in bird crazy South America, the names are even more provocative and strange (recurvebills, coronets, canasteros, and even a firewood gatherer to name a few).

2 replies on “Some Definitions for Costa Rican Bird Names”

Great article. I moved to the central valley in June of last year and we are in the mountains above Grecia. I was not a birder in Dallas but here I am getting know more and more about the wonderful variety of birds here. Thanks for breaking down some of the names.

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