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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!

6 replies on “Some Suggestions for Birding in Manzanillo, Costa Rica”

Interesting post. It seems I’ve managed to get to more out-of-the-way places in Costa Rica than beaten-track places. Along with the La Gamba/Golfo Dulce region twice, I visited Manzanillo/Cahuita 14 years ago accompanying a group of college biology students on a general nature trip, not focusing on birds. We hiked the 5 miles from Manzanillo nearly to the Panama border, as well as walking the beach trail in Cahuita. We didn’t get many notable birds, but the most exciting find was a beautiful Golden Eyelash Viper next to the beach trail. I was at the back of the line, and everyone passed by it without noticing it curled up there–amazing!

@Mary- That is quite the hot hike but always an interesting one! Cool that you have been to some of the out of the way gems in Costa Rica.

What guide would you suggest to go to some of the above places? We will be spending our vacation in the area starting February 9. Do you guide privately.

@Marilyn- There are several guides in that area, a few I know and can recommend are Abel Bustamente, Justo Lopez, and Carlos Solano.

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