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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction

A Birding Trip Report from Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, national parks were established for more than birds. The local avifauna was a big part of the equation in setting aside the wetland wonderlands of Cano Negro and Palo Verde but other places were given protected status because they are watersheds, host tons of biodiversity, or are important nesting grounds for sea turtles. The sea turtle nesting ground reason was the main one for making Tortuguero a national park.

Turtles have been digging holes in the beaches at Tortuguero for who knows how long and they still do. We saw some nests with recently hatched eggs at Tortuguero last weekend but as cool as that was, it wasn’t our main reason for making it to that wonderful Caribbean lowland destination. In staying with the goals of a birding club, we were all about the birds. Migrants were our main targets and yes, we saw a few.

However, since this is a birding trip report, I should start at the beginning:

Friday, the 10th of October, pre-dawn in the Central Valley…

To avoid the morning rush hour traffic, we left pretty darn early. Even so, we realized that we still had time to check the airport for grasspipers. No amount of scanning through a chain link fence could materialize shorebirds of any kind so off we went to drive over the mountains and down into the Caribbean lowlands.

No birds on the way down although I do recall hearing a Dull-mantled Antbird sing while passing through Braulio Carrillo National Park.

After reaching the lowlands, we realized that we should probably eat breakfast. After passing a few closed looking diners, we stopped at one with a bunch of wooden carvings.

We were welcomed by this macaw.

Checking the forest behind the place turned up a few Red-eyed Vireos but nothing else of note and no Sunbittern on the river. The coffee wasn’t the greatest and the breakfast was pretty slim but that was alright. After all, we weren’t on this mission to critique gourmet, buffet breakfasts.

On we went, following the prominent signs towards Tortuguero and seeing a surprise group of 8 Great Green Macaws when getting gas! Other than that, we only made one brief stop for an umbrella (it usually rains in the lowlands) before making an official stop to watch birds. This happened at the only stretch of the road that passes next to primary rainforest. As soon as we exited the car, we got onto a fair bunch of birds. Most were Red-eyed Vireos and a few wood-warblers hanging out with such local birds as White-ringed Flycatcher and Lesser Greenlet. We also had a Cinnamon Woodpecker and probably also had some other lowland birds that I can’t remember.

Although you can't really see the diagnostics, this is a White-ringed Flycatcher.

After that little stop, we had an unpleasant surprise of pasture instead of rice fields that used to have Slate-colored Seedeater, Red-breasted Blackbird, and was a way point for interesting migrants. Nothing was out in the pasture although we did get our first glimpse of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. A bit further up the road, we stopped at a forested riparian zone that was the place to be for migrants. Dozens of birds rushed through the trees, Red-eyed Vireos and Swainson’s Thrushes being the most common.

Swainson's Thrush.

Thrushes kept hopping out to the side of the stream and despite their high-anxiety flighty behavior, continuous checking turned up a few Gray-cheekeds and one Veery. The wood-warblers included Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Yellows, and there were Scarlet and Summer Tanagers there as well.

After feeling like we saw every bird, we jogged up the road to Pavona. This is where you can leave a car ($10 a day), have lunch, and take the boat to Tortuguero (around $4 each way).

The parking lot at Pavona.

Although the outside chance of a Harpy or Crested Eagle makes the boat trip potentially very exciting, you don’t usually see much. Friday was no exception other than a classic look at a crocodile.

Classic croc.

After getting settled in at the Casa Marbella, we birded the path north towards the airport. Given the absence of birds, it was more like walking with binoculars and hoping but isn’t that was birding is anyways? After two hours of spishing ourselves hoarse, we were over-thrilled to see a single male American Redstart. It even flitted around the trees and let us watch it! This was especially momentous because we saw almost nothing else.

Back at the Casa Marbella, we were mildly entertained by a few distant nighthawks but were all too beat to go looking for owls.

Saturday, October 11th.

The group met the dawn with coffee (much better than the wood carving diner), muffins, and eager scope scanning of the marsh on the other side of the Tortuguero canal. We saw a few common herons but nope, could not parse a Least Bittern out of the grass. That deserves a mention because this skulky little heron was a principal target for more than one person on the trip.

I said Least, not Great!

At 5:45, we took to the boat and headed over to that marsh for a closer look. The next 15 monutes went something like this:

Grass, grass, grass, and more grass. Possible movement? Nope, just grass. Come one! I hear a Dickcissel. Wait, I hear LOTS of Dickcissels! There they are in the bushes at the edge of the forest! And so is that group of birds flying overhead. And that one too, and that bunch of a hundred!

Try as we did, the Least Bittern gave us the marsh grass slip but we at least got excellent looks at Dickcissels perched and in flight as 500 or so migrated through our sphere of detection. Always a cool way to start the day! We then spent the rest of the morning visiting the national park by boat. This is the best and almost only way to check out the park because it has a bunch of canals and swampy forest.

A tantalizing scene.

The sunny weather calmed down the birds a bit too much but we still saw several migrating Peregrines and Mississippi Kites, saw White-necked Puffbird and Green Ibis, and got one of our best birds for the trip, the weirdo Sungrebe!


This lovely little snakey waterbird swam back and forth in front of us in shameless fashion.

One of the other best birds of the trip was a nesting Rufescent Tiger-Heron. Yes, a new country tick for me and Daryl Loth, the owner of the Casa Marbella, was especially impressed because this was the first nest he had seen of this species in that area and that high up during more than 20 years of boat trips at Tortuguero.

The Rufescent Tiger-Heron is sort of like a grandaddy giant Green Heron.

The boat trip was followed by a late breakfast and relaxation because it was so hot and sunny. However as inviting as relaxation and non-movement may be, giving in to temptation can be a fatal move during migration. I was reminded of that when I missed Gray and Western Kingbirds some time that day (pretty good migrants for Costa Rica). I’m not sure if the miss happened while I was birding the path towards the airport or if it was when I sat down to eat an empanada but either way, I missed them. Well, unless you are able to manipulate time and dimensions you can’t be in two places at once so that’s that. Those sightings are also a reminder of the birds that can pass through the village at any moment. Johan saw them with a group of Easterns as he checked out the birds over near the entrance to the national park. Of course they were gone by the time I arrived but at least a couple of people saw them!

This Eastern Kingbird was my consolation.

We also had another Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Prothonotary, Red-eyed Vireo, and some other migrants (including Streaked and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers in the same spot) but overall, the migrant scene was a slow one. That same slow scene played out later on in the coastal forests of the national park. Very few birds, highlights being a Canada Warbler, and a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Another highlight was a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron that hung out at the Casa Marbella.

Where were the migrants? What about all of those Bay-breasteds? Were they just late? Keeping things on the down low? What was the deal? We made up for the slow birding and pondered nostalgic music with a wonderful meal at the Wild Ginger restaurant. Yum.

Sunday, October 12th, the final day of the trip.

This morning was a near repeat of the day before. Once again, we stared at marsh grass and tried to will a Least Bittern to appear. BUT, instead of Dickcissels, we had a good bunch of other migrant species feeding in the bushes at the edge of the forest. There were dozens of birds including Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, and Yellow Warblers along with one Golden-winged and a Common Yellowthroat for good measure. We also had several non-calling Traill’s type flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers, and a single Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Oh yeah, there were also like 200 Eastern Kingbirds flying around.

Off in the national park, we explored another channel and this time, saw an American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and another Sungrebe. Good stuff!

American Pygmy Kingfisher.
Can you find the Sungrebe?

After breakfast, there wasn’t any more time for birding before our 11 a.m. boat. That was of course uneventful and the riparian zone back near Pavona was dead but the rainforest patch was crazy with a mixed flock. There were at least 29 species including Gartered Trogon, Black-crowned Tityra, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and a whole mess of migrants. Those were mostly Red-eyed Vireos.

Then, it was off for the ride back home, no real birding en route except for a grief glimpse of a probable group of Shiny Cowbirds. Despite pulling a u-turn and searching with intent, the probable Shinys were gone. No large eagles but we didn’t win the lottery either…

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