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Birding Costa Rica

No Summer Birding Doldrums in Costa Rica

Ironically, the summer is quiet time for a lot of birders up north. Although it would seem that the warm weather makes it easier to get outside and see what’s going on in terms of nature, a fair percentage of birders take a break during the three months of summer. The mid-year lull seems to be mostly followed by birders who have been looking through their binoculars for five years or more. This is because they think that they already know what’s around, and don’t expect anything new, so, aren’t as eager to explore than during seasons when unexpected migrants and vagrants can occur.

Beginning birders still do a lot of birding in summer probably because a new bird or two are still easy to come by, even near home, and they are still close enough to the exciting start of the learning curve to easily find new knowledge in most things they see. Once experienced birders realize that there is always more to learn and master about the avian side of life, they can find themselves back at the beginning of another, new learning experience and can get just as excited about summer birding as spring or fall (well, maybe not May but that’s in a special category of its own). Not to mention, vagrants can and do turn up in summer no matter where a birder lives, so it does pay to get out there and pay attention. I was reminded of that just after coming back from a recent family trip to Niagara Falls.


As usual, we were too busy doing family stuff to do any visiting, but I did manage to go birding a few times. Down at Goat Island, my favorite local birding patch right above the Falls, it was a treasure to be re-acquainted with species like Tufted Titmouse, gulls, and other common species. A singing Indigo Bunting was a nice surprise, as were hundreds of swallows and Chimney Swifts feeding over the river and islands. On another day, I had a fine day of birding with Alec out at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. We saw a pair of Cerulean Warblers feeding a juvenile. Will those birds come to Costa Rica next month? I picked up other year birds including Bobolinks and American Bittern. Both of those are on the Costa Rica list but very rare vagrants. I always wonder why we don’t get more records of Bobolinks, but I never hear their tinking calls so often heard by birders up north who listen for the faint calls of nocturnal migrants, and the species is almost never seen in CR except for Cocos Island. Although Alec and I didn’t find any vagrants, I did see that a vagrant White Ibis was found in WNY just after coming back to Costa Rica; a species that would have been missed if someone hadn’t gone birding during the “boring” summer months.

Speaking of this volcanic, byodynamic country, the summer birding doldrums are much less of a fantasy here than in the north even for myself or others who have spent countless hours in every habitat. Although we won’t see any wintering species, the plethora of resident species always makes things exciting, especially when so many of them are rare. I could still pick up some lifers (although they may require more time and effort than I typically have- Tawny-faced Quail comes to mind), and any trip to tropical forest can result in views of species and behaviors we just don’t see that often. Maybe I will finally get that picture and recording of the oddly rare Gray-headed Piprites so we can finally update the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app with images and sounds of that species. Maybe I can do the same for Black-banded Woodcreeper, and the local variety of Ashy-throated Chlorospingus (both are likely splits).

Red-headed Barbet

You might see a fancy male Red-headed Barbet.

If you are in Costa Rica right now, don’t worry about being here at the wrong time. There are no summer birding doldrums in Costa Rica because the birding is always exciting. Those rare birds are out there but even if you don’t see them, you will still see a lot when birding in the right places.

lesser violetear

Or, close looks at a Lesser Violetear.

Look for them in the right way and you might see those rarities anyways (get my 700 plus page e-book to learn about the best places to look and how to find the birds you want to see). Always remember that you will see lots of birds no matter when you go birding in Costa Rica.

birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Where to See the New Species on the Costa Rica Bird List

They might not be there yet, but will be as soon as the official bird list for Costa Rica is updated with the recent changes made to the AOU North America list. Every supplement to the AOU list comes with some changes but they usually pertain to Latin names or placement of species and genera on the overall list. This time, though, there are several changes for Costa Rica, including new names and armchair ticks (!). It means that The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide will need to be eventually updated, and that I will have to see when we can add the new changes to the Panama and Costa Rica Birds Field Guide apps.

None of the birds are new to the country but the way we view them in a species context is. These are the changes in species and names and where to see them:

Gray-necked Wood-Rail: This common, raucous species has been neatly split into three species, with two of them in Costa Rica. Although we still have to figure out exactly where they replace each other, or occur together, there seems to be one on the north Caribbean slope, and another everywhere else. Those two new birds are the Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail. They mostly differ by the amount of rufous on the nape and by vocalizations. In the meantime, though, if you see a wood-rail at say La Selva or other sites on the north Caribbean slope, it is probably a Russet-naped. If seen anywhere else, it is a Gray-cowled. So, if you have seen Gray-necked Wood-Rail on both slopes, give yourself one armchair tick.

These Russet-naped Wood-Rails were seen at Lands in Love. They often hang out by the duck pond. The bird below is a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail. Yep, they look pretty similar.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Green Violetear: Not anymore. Now, these common green, highland hummingbirds are known as Lesser Violetear! These are the same species as the former Green Violetears in South America, and were split from birds that range from Nicaragua north to Mexico. Those ones are now known as “Mexican Violetear” and it is this species that has shown up in the USA (as far as I know). If you have seen Green Violetears in Mexico and Costa Rica, give yourself another armchair tick.

Lesser Violetears are easy to see at many highland sites in Costa Rica including Monteverde, Poas, and the Talamancas. They visit feeders and flowering plants, and call with such broken record regularity, you may feel compelled to plug your ears or chase the hummingbird away (that won’t work, it just comes back and calls again, and again, and again, and…)

Lesson’s Motmot: The former Blue-crowned Motmot has a snazzy new name. These birds are the ones we see in Costa Rica and are quite common in middle elevations and on the Pacific slope. Watch for it in hotel gardens in the Central Valley, in riparian zones in the Pacific lowlands, and in the Monteverde area. If you have seen this motmot in Costa Rica and Mexico, once again, enjoy another tick!

Plain Wren: Finally, we have the Canebrake Wren being officially recognized as a full species. Watch for it in lowland second growth anywhere in the Caribbean lowlands. You might have to watch for a while until it reveals itself because it’s a skulking pain, though. Less expected was a split of the Plain Wrens on the Pacific slope. Although we probably still need to figure out where they replace each other, it looks like birds from Quepos to Panama are now known as Isthmian Wren, and those north of there are Cabanis’s Wren. They look pretty much the same and have similar yet different vocalizations, so your best bet is to make sure that you actually see Plain Wren anywhere north of Quepos and anywhere south of Quepos. Both are common in coffee farms and second growth. If you have seen Plain Wrens in the Caribbean lowlands, in the Central Valley or Monteverde, and around La Gamba, pat yourself on the birding back with two armchair ticks!

This is a Cabanis’s Wren, the Isthmian looks pretty much the same.

Costa Rica Warbler: This was part of a three-way split from the Three-striped Warbler. The original Three-stripeds live in the Andes, while the Costa Rican is yet another highland endemic of Costa Rica and western Panama. The third member of the Three-striped taxo club is the Tacarcuna Warbler, a species only found in highland sites in eastern Panama. Look for the Costa Rican Warbler at any cloud forest site including the La Paz gardens, Monteverde, and many other sites. It’s fairly common and if you have seen this bird in Costa Rica and South America, help yourself to one more armchair tick.

Thanks to the AOU, it looks like I just added 6 species to my lifelist! I hope you did too.