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Birding Costa Rica

Some October Birding News for Costa Rica

The tenth month of the year isn’t exactly the choice time to visit Costa Rica. In the late 90s, I visited Costa Rica in October and was greeted by massive amounts of rain. I still saw a lot of cool birds but it was one heck of a wet endeavor. That’s normal although in fall, the Caribbean slope tends to see less precipitation than other parts of the country (unless a hurricane hits Honduras and throws blankets of rain our way). This is one of the reasons why March and other dry season months are high time for birding in Costa Rica. However, for us local birders, October is one of the more exciting times of the year. We learn how to bird under an umbrella, enjoy beaucoup mixed flock action under gray skies, and become adept at evading flooded roads. Seriously, though, it is an exciting time for local birding because the bulk of migrants have come back to town.

The thousands of Baltimore Orioles that spend the winter in Costa Rica don’t come back until October.

As with any big movement of birds, rarities are out there in the mix of common birds. They are feathered needles in a tropical vegetation haystack (and thus pretty tough to find) but they are out there. Birding becomes more exciting with the prospect of vagrant wood-warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and the small chance of something new for the country. This year, although no one has found our first Hammond’s Flycatcher or Black-throated Gray Warbler yet, the country first Roseate Tern did make an appearance! This was actually back in late September but the news wasn’t released until the observers realized what they had seen and put the sighting on the local rare bird alert (AOCR Bird Alarm). What makes this observation even more interesting is that it showed up on the Pacific coast and not on the Caribbean where it was more expected. In fact, this could be the first documented sighting for the eastern Pacific.

We always see lots of other nice birds when hoping for a super rarity. This is a Red-faced Spinetail.

Speaking of terns, several Arctics have also been sighted and photographed. As expected for this species, it’s usually seen far offshore. These ones were seen on beaches and in the Gulf of Nicoya, and this could be another sign of poor foraging conditions out in the pelagic zone.

There have also been sightings of various expected shorebirds from Chomes and the Punta Morales area along with an American Avocet that has been hanging out since last year. I hope it stays for good and survives so we can always see it!

Semipalmated Plover-one of the usual shorebirds.

Saving the best for last, we have a new Big Day record for Costa Rica! On October 15th, Ernesto Carman (birder, guide, and field biologist working on Unspotted Saw-whet Owls) and Jairo Jimenez birded from the dry habitats and coastal zone north of Puntarenas south to Carara, then up to the slopes of Irazu Volcano, down the road through Braulio Carrillo National Park, and then over to the Las Brisas Reserve near Siquirres. Apparently, the route worked out very well because they got more than 350 species, thus soundly breaking the previous records of 308 and 310 species! I was surprised that they were able to cover so much territory because of traffic problems that typically plague the San Jose area. However, in retrospect, if coming up from Carara, you can sort of skirt southern San Jose on something of a ring road, scoot up to Irazu before reaching downtown Cartago, and get to the Braulio highway by going around the northern edge of the urbanization. Weather also worked out and of course, Ernesto and Jairo know the birds of Costa Rica very well. Check out Ernesto’s account of the Big Day.

Great Green Macaw is one of the standout species among the 300 plus birds they found.

Of course, I am still hoping to break some records with a Big Day. Although the new records of 351 for Costa Rica (third highest in the world), and 425 for Ecuador make that less likely, it will still be fun to try!

Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Bird Lists with Abundance for Poas, Cinchona, and El Tapir/Quebrada Gonzalez

Are you coming to Costa Rica for birding? If so, you are doing the right thing. If not, and you are ever so slightly inclined to appreciate the natural world, think about becoming a birder before you board that plane. Trust me, I’m doing you a favor because if you do end up catching the birding bug a week, year, or decade after a vacation in Costa Rica, the thought of being in a place where you can see multiple trogons, motmots, parrots, and literally hundreds of other exotic birds and NOT going birding just might make you sick. Save yourself from future regrets the size of Texas and try to do some birding when visiting Costa Rica.

Speaking of regrets, this one in particular could end up being a real problem.

Stop at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and check out the hummingbirds. Do the same thing at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and go on a rainforest hike with a naturalist guide who is also a birder. If you do end up using quality binoculars at some later point in life, the pre-birder regrets won’t be nearly as bad.

A Prong-billed Barbet from Cinchona.

Now that I have made my public service announcement, whether you have already chosen the birding way or are an unrealized pre-birder, these two items could be of interest:

  • A checklist of the birds of El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez with abundance– Yes, it also has information about a tour I give to that area but if that doesn’t interest you, no problem, please make use of the checklist. Please use it for inspiration to visit these excellent sites close to San Jose because every day trip will be worth it. By chance, this excellent site is the first place I went birding in Costa Rica (that was in 1992), and continues to be one of my favorites. I kept seeing new birds visit after visit, became intrigued as to why I was not seeing Black-crowned Antpittas hopping around the forest floor, and have witnessed some of the best mixed flocks I have ever seen in Costa Rica. On the checklist, note that most of the birds are uncommon or rare. This is the norm for these sites but means that a full day of birding usually turns up sightings of rare species, and several visits could turn up really tough ones like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, the aforementioned antpitta (gnatpitta), Black-eared Wood-Quail, and other rarities.

    Male Snowcap one of the signature birds of El Tapir. It also shows up at Quebrada Gonzalez.
  • A checklist of the birds of Poas, Cinchona, and other sites down to 500 meters with abundance– Once again, if you don’t feel like learning about the usual day tour that often results in 100 plus species, just scroll down a few pages to the checklist at the end. Since it covers some moist habitats on the Pacific slope, and humid forest from 500 meters to 2,300 meters, it’s a pretty big list. Once again, with so many possibilities, and different habitats with different birds, the route really merits more than a day of birding. It’s also a very easy area to get in some birding on your first and last days in Costa Rica.

    Green Violetear from Cinchona, one of several hummingbird species possible on this route.

The bird species and information about abundance come from several years of personal observations at these sites as well as conversations with other guides and birders. Please feel free to download those pdfs and share them, I hope to see you while birding in Costa Rica.

Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

Some Suggestions for Birding in Manzanillo, Costa Rica

We all have our favorite spots for birding, even for those of us who happen to live in a country that is basically one big birding hotspot. That’s what Costa Rica is. Find some good forest and there will be a bunch of birds to watch and take pictures of. Even so, if you want to say, for example, look for Black-chested Jay and Sulphur-rumped Tanager while  thousands of hawks kettle overhead, you can’t do it in the Central Valley. The same goes for birding around Carara National Park, the Sarapiqui area, or even the Osa Peninsula. To lay the eyes on the birds mentioned above, we need to bring the binoculars to lands south of Limon. This is well off the  regular birding route, about 4 hours by car from the vicinity of San Jose, and well worth the trip because the area is fantastic for lowland rainforest birding.

It’s also very good for migrants and this is why I guided a trip to Manzanillo for our local birding club this past weekend. We did indeed see some migrants and quite a few other birds. If you go birding around there, here are some suggestions:

  • Birding in uncharted territory: Despite the fantastic birding, very few people go birding south of Limon compared to other areas in the country. It’s just too far off the beaten track for tours and thus receives scant attention from birders nor many mentions in trip reports. This is partly why I love  to write about the area when it comes to birding, the other reason is because I love birding down that way. Little coverage means that every visit provides an opportunity to increase the birding knowledge for sites south of Limon and there’s always the chance of finding some really exciting  bird. If you bird down that way (something I wholeheartedly recommend), please put those observations into eBird. This is a list of a day at Manzanillo and our list of 102 species from a couple hours on the RECOPE road just outside of Manzanillo.

    We didn't find the jay, tanager, or antvireo but did identify around 160 species including this Zone-tailed Hawk.
  • Check out the Carbon Dos Road: I did, but it was just for an hour and well after dawn. This road provides access to the Fila Carbon above Cahuita, a forested ridge that probably has the jay, the tanager, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and lots of other good birds. From our brief scout, we found good access to the edge of nice rainforest, and some good views of the forest canopy. Although we didn’t see any cotingas, it looks like a good area to check for Snowy and maybe even Lovely, and could turn up many other species. We saw loads of Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, other migrants, and had a fair number of resident species. Our eBird list.

    The Carbon Dos Road.
  • Bird the Puerto Vargas entrance to Cahuita National Park: This was another brief stop and another place I would like to bird at a more bird-friendly time of day. Tall forest flanks the side of the road, it’s smartly placed on the coastal migration route, and is probably good for Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and many other birds including the jay. We dipped on those but what could we expect from a 15 minute stop?

    The Puerto Vargas entrance.
  • Check out the Puerto Viejo Botanical Garden: This is one of the best spots to bird in the area because it provides some access to good forest. Although it doesn’t open early, you can still get in some very good birding on the muddy trail next to the entrance. The trail is unmarked but obvious. It can be followed to a stream and then across the stream and up the ridge if you like. If you don’t want to cross the stream, you can see several birds right around the entrance. We did that and although we couldn’t find a Spot-crowned Antvireo, we did have good looks at Dot-winged, White-flanked, and Checker-throated Antwrens, Chestnut-backed Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Canada Warbler, Plain Xenops, and so on.

    A Checker-throated Antwren from this area. We also had Collared Forest-Falcon.
  • Visit during migration: Although this area is good for resident species any time of the year, it really is most exciting during migration. I know, most birders from Canada and the USA don’t come to Costa Rica for Eastern Kingbirds and Prothonotary Warblers but it’s always cool to see flock after flock of kingbirds flying overhead like oddly shaped swallows, and who can get tired of seeing twenty or more Scarlet Tanagers in one day? It’s also a good occasion for studying Eastern Wood-Pewee and Red-eyed Vireo; these two species migrate through in the thousands. Of course we can’t forget about the river of raptors. Huge kettles of hawks, kites, and Turkey Vultures are always hard to overlook.
    An eddy in the river of raptors.

    One of the very many Eastern Wood-Pewees.
  • Bird at your hotel: Most of the lodging between Puero Viejo and Manzanillo is located in old, shade cacao plantations and rainforest. The shade cacao acts pretty much like forest and although it seems like several understory species are rare or not present, most of the canopy  birds are. I like the fact that the birding can be great right around the hotel because then, you don’t have to rely on 8 to 4 national park hours, paying entrance fees, and the birding is much more accessible.
    You might see a Slaty-tailed Trogon,

    and White-whiskered Puffbird.
  • Check the rivers and streams: Although they aren’t common, Agami Heron, Sunbittern, Sungrebe, Green Ibis, and uncommon kingfishers all occur in the area.
  • Get in some night birding: This past trip, the night birds just weren’t calling so we did not find Great Potoo, nor Spectacled, Crested, and Black and white Owls. However, we did hear one Mottled Owl and one Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and on past trips, I have had all of the above in one night on the main road between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo!
  • Keep an eye out for rarities from Panama and take pictures: I have heard credible reoprts of White-tailed Trogon and Blue Cotinga from this area (both of which would be new for Costa Rica). It seems like Rufous-crested Coquette, and Flame-rumped Tanager might also occur as vagrants. Take pictures of any unusual birds and let me know at [email protected].
  • Make the trip: Consider visiting this area if you want easy, nice lowland forest birding around and near your hotel. With plenty of beaches, this is also a nice place to bring the family (although know that Puerto Viejo is a definite, busy, backpacker party town).

    This great Italian bakery is another reason to visit!- It's on the edge of Puerto Viejo. The focaccia, pizza rossa, and other goodies are the real deal.

Hope to see you birding in Manzanillo, Costa Rica!

Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica Birds Project

The First Edition of the Costa Rica Birds Project

More than 900 species of birds have been identified within the boundaries of Costa Rica. Would you like to learn more about them? Have you ever wondered what they would say? Do you have a sense of humor? If the answer is “Yes”, “Si”, or “Oui”” to all of the above, then the Costa Rica Birds Project is for you!

“It gets cold up here. But, that’s  how I like it and I don’t and won’t live anywhere else. That’s also why I can’t stop moving around. If I do, I freeze. Don’t believe me? Take a seat on the cold, wet 2,700 meter ground and see how it feels. I know, those “snowbirds” like the yellow ones with the black cap scoff and chatter that I have no idea what cold is but I say to them, “Try hanging out in the paramo for a night and see what happens”! I wouldn’t do it!”

Collared Redstart, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.

“The squirrel had it coming. I make no apologies. It’s my feeder and there it was….munching down that rice like it had to hibernate. Hibernate my feathered a#s. We might live in the mountains but it ain’t exactly snowing. I warned him. I stared him down with my intimidating eyes. He ignored me. Big mistake. We Acorns don’t take lightly to being ignored. I laughed and then I attacked! I felt my beak connect and the rodent hit the dirt. Victory!”

Acorn Woodpecker, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.

“I can’t help it if I have big feet. The other birds try not to stare but I can see it in their eyes, that hesitating manner when they get close, and the whispers. Yeah, I always hear the whispers. “Freak”, they say in hushed tones. Hey, talk all you want. I’m not the one who can’t find food in the forest litter. A couple scratches with my feet and boo-yah! I always find a grub, bug, or some undescribed invertebrate for lunch.”

Large-footed Finch, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.

“Blackbird! No, Sooty Thrush! I might look like some distant relative but I am my own bird. Enough said.”

Sooty Thrush, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.

“Tiny. Tiny and kick ass. That’s what I am. Those two legged creatures are so fascinated by my antics. “Like a bug” they say. They can’t get enough. Losers. I’m all about feeding, fighting, having a little bath, feeding, courtship, feeding, getting busy, feeding. Hell yeah, that’s what it’s all about! Thug life in the mountains.”

-Volcano Hummingbird, somewhere up in the mountains of Costa Rica or western Panama.

Watch for more posts about the Costa Rica Birds Project on Facebook soon!