Costa Rica is an easy place for fantastic, tropical birding. Whether the plane touches down in the Central Valley or the airport near Liberia, it doesn’t take long to get into excellent, protected tropical forests with things like curassows, antbirds, trogons, parrots, fancy wrens, and the list goes on. This is why hundreds of birders visit Costa Rica every year, and why I have more than 600 species on my year list (and it’s only August). It also helps to have megadiversity, easy access to good habitats, experienced guides, and birding information that ranges from excellent field guides and birding apps, to a new map with hotspots, and a comprehensive bird-finding guide for Costa Rica.
But, for folks who feel like getting away from easily accessible sites such as Carara National Park and the foothill rainforests around Arenal, Costa Rica plays host to several remote, little birded areas. These are the places that tend to have the most intact forests and could host populations of Crested Eagle, Red-throated Caracara, Gray-headed Piprites, and other decidedly uncommon birds. The only problem is that the reason why they host intact forested habitats coincides with the reasons why they are visited by very few birders. Why trudge through mud and rain for a chance at a few rarities around Rara Avis when you can still see lots of other birds around Sarapiqui? Why explore sites around Laguna del Lagarto when you can just spend your time in the Arenal area? Why take a boat ride up a river to reach an indigenous community when you can dine on wonderful Italian cuisine and relax in a pool near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca?
When it comes down to it, if you don’t go, you don’t know what’s really there. However, if you check out Google Earth, you will have an idea of the amount of forest in those hidden corners of Costa Rica, and intact forest is key for 99% of those rare species you are probably missing. Yorkin is one such place. To have an idea of where it is located, check out Google Earth or a map of Costa Rica, and go to the far, eastern corner where Sixaola marks the border with Panama. From there, trace your way up that river past the town of BriBri, then take the first river to the east. This is the Yorkin River, it marks the border, and is where I went with the Birding Club of Costa Rica this past weekend. I hadn’t been there before but based on the location, and amount of forest, it looked like a place that could turn up any number of rarities and maybe a new bird or two for the Costa Rica list.
These are some observations and highlights from that trip:
- Not as hard as you think: Well, at least getting there. It takes around four hours to drive to BriBri from the San Jose area, and another 15 to 20 minutes to reach the village of Bambu. In Bambu, you have to look for the boat drivers at the only store there (look for a fairly large thatched roof structure on the east side of the road). If you have a vehicle, they will show you where to leave the car. Then, when all is ready, you get on a motorized dugout canoe, and head up-stream for an hour. Upon arrival, your host from the Yorkin women’s ecotourism project will show you to your lodging, and so on. It takes a while but it’s fairly easy and reminded me of trips to ecolodges in the Amazon basin.
- Be ready for the boat ride: Although the voyage is straightforward and thus fairly easy, you might want a small cushion for your seat on the boat, and will definitely want to bring something for the rain. It rains often and the boat doesn’t have a roof. That said, the drivers will put your stuff in plastic bags if you like. It’s pretty tough to bird from the boat but keep the binos at the ready because you motor through good forest for most of the ride and I would not be the least bit surprised if Harpy and Crested Eagles live in that area. In fact, I bet they do. They wouldn’t be exactly common but you never know when one might be perched in view.
- Bird before you get on the boat: Speaking of birding from the boat, actually, it’s worth it to bird around Bambu and from the departure point for the boats. Without too much effort and in very little time, we had a Snowy Cotinga, Lesser Nighthawks, Pearl Kite, White-lined Tanager, toucans, and several other species. Scanning the forest canopy with a scope from the edge of the river would also be worthwhile.
- Bring rubber boots: After optics, this should be the most important item on your packing list. The trails are pretty muddy! Bring the boots, you will be wearing them most of the time.
- Pack light, pack for hot, humid, wet conditions: There’s not a lot of room on the boat, so try to pack light. The weather is hot, humid, and rainy most of the time, so pack accordingly and use dry bags!
- Not much electricity: Solar panels provide electricity, but it might not be enough to charge your devices. Maybe, but keep in mind that this really isn’t a place to hang out with “devices”. It’s more of a place to explore, hike muddy trails, look for rare birds, and learn about BriBri culture.
- Lodging is basic: In case you expected something else, don’t. The lodging is basic but clean and with mosquito nets. I saw a couple of scorpions in my room so shake out your stuff before putting it on! That said, scorpions can find they way into just about any ecolodge in the lowlands.
- Bugs?: Not that bad when we were there. Very few mosquitoes, and a few biting flies here and there. Use repellent and you will be fine.
- Food: Basic, home-cooked stuff and it’s great! Portions might seem small but they usually offer seconds if you need it, and you can always bring energy bars (essential adventure birding, eatable accessories in any case).
- But what about the birds?: There is a fair sampling of edge species around the village but the best birding is a tough hike up to nearby ridges. Bird around the lodging and you will see common stuff but you might also find a Uniform Crake (I heard two of them), see some good birds on the trail near the river (like Yellow-eared Toucanet, who knows what else is possible?), and can look for soaring raptors that fly above the ridge.
- Ridge birding: Since most of our group did not want to climb up a steep, muddy, slippery hill, we barely touched the surface of the best habitat. Frustrating,but that’s the way the ball bounces. However, from what little I saw, if you can manage it, the hike is worth it. We had views into the canopy of the forest and distant fantastic forests of the Amistad International Park, and were just getting into good primary rainforest. We didn’t have enough time to properly bird it but our local guide, Myriam, recognized the calls of White-fronted Nunbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and maybe even Great Jacamar. Others have seen Black-crowned Antpitta up there (and might be one of the best places for it in Costa Rica), and a local birding guide told me that he had seen Lovely Cotinga, toucanets, antbirds, and other forest species. I am pretty sure that piprites is possible as well as most other rare and uncommon forest species. Another indication of wild habitat was Myriam mentioning that Jaguar comes down near her house once every four months, according to her, when someone is pregnant.
- Cacao birding: Cacao is one of the most important crops for this area and is what grows around the entire village area. It’s not the best for birds but still hosts a fair variety of species, especially near the bridge and forest. Some of the stand-outs that we recorded were Yellow-eared Toucanet, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Black-crowned Antshrike, Checker-throated Antwren, and Olive-backed Quail-Dove.
- School birding: One of our best sites was the vicinity of the school. It overlooks the river, is next to a stream, and affords views of two forested ridges. Since it’s also blessed by a breeze, this is a great area to hang out on a hot afternoon. We had White-whiskered Puffbird and other species by the stream, Snowy Cotingas and a few Crested Oropendolas across the river, and, best of all, good views at King Vulture (common here), Black Hawk-Eagle, flocks of migrating Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and, best of all, two sightings of Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. I think many other species are possible on the forested ridges, maybe even Lovely and perhaps Blue Cotinga, and maybe a chance at the really big eagles and Red-throated Caracara.
- Night birds?: I had high hopes for several nocturnal species but all we got was a Mottled Owl. However, we didn’t get in much night birding, especially in better habitats so I still think that most expected species should be present. Myriam was familiar with both potoos as well as all expected owl calls, and maybe even Rufous Nightjar.
- Few large birds: Big birds like guans and Great Tinamou are around but much more rare than other sites in Costa Rica. Even toucans stayed away from the village, and we suspected that this was due to at least some sort of hunting pressure. Those birds are still present but frequent the forest, and are easier to see at other sites in any case.
- The local people: Our hosts were welcoming, very friendly, and very nice. Interacting with them was a wonderful addition to the trip and something I hope to repeat on a future occasion. They are also very tough and accustomed to walking for kilometers through muddy, hot conditions. You can’t walk around on your own but that wasn’t a problem. I just told Myriam where we wanted to go and she took us. However, if you just want easy trails, make sure to tell her because she didn’t think twice about walking on steep and muddy trails (but always warned us of trail conditions).
If I visit Yorkin again (and I hope I do), I would spend at least two full days in the primary forests on the ridges, and probably spend the rest of my time scanning the canopy and skies for raptors and cotingas. I would also spend more time scanning from the river, and even seeing if the boat could stop along the river to scan the canopy from shore. If you go, please leave a comment about your trip!