Costa Rica boasts several types of forest habitats and we birders rejoice in this multi-ecosystem situation. The nation-wide mosaic of rainforest, cloud forest, temperate forest, dry forest, and other microhabitats is partly why we have such a plethora of bird species in such a small area. Walk a trail through dripping cloud forests at Monteverde one day and you can catch up with highland endemics like the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Ruddy Treerunner, and Prong-billed Barbet. Drive down to the Pacific lowlands the next day and those species are replaced by Plain-capped Starthroat, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and other avian reps of the tropical dry forest.
The Plain-capped Starthroat is indeed quite plain.
The Pacific dry forests of Middle America have been chopped, changed, and over-grazed for centuries. Since it’s easier for people to transform such areas into semi-open habitats typically preferred by the savannah-evolved Homo sapiens, large areas of intact dry forests are rare throughout the globe. As for the forests that naturally occur from western Mexico south to Costa Rica (and at least one area of Panama), birding intact, mature, tropical dry forest has become an anomaly. On the bright side of the bio coin, it seems that most of the birds and many other animals of this biome persist and adapt to fragmented habitats. That said, I can’t help but wonder how well the plants are faring, and if we lost some insects and other species (maybe even birds) long before they could be catalogued.
To see the birds that still frequent the seasonally dry habitats of Costa Rica (there are quite a few), you can get a good sampling of them in patchy habitats from around the Tarcoles area north to Nicaragua. However, if you want to get the whole birding shebang of dry forest species, your best bets occur in the largest areas of dry forest (who would have guessed?). These can be found in parts of the Nicoya Peninsula, and in the Palo Verde, Guanacaste, and Santa Rosa National Parks. As serendipity has it, the easiest one to access is Santa Rosa, and this park is probably also the best site in Costa Rica for dry forest bird species.
The Casona at Santa Rosa National Park.
Located around 30 kilometers north of Liberia, the park has a good, paved 10 kilometer road that connects the highway with the park HQ at the Casona monument and museum. Although it doesn’t officially open until 8 in the morning (typical for most national parks), since the main office is at the Casona, I suspect that one could bird the entrance road much earlier. Although my most recent visit was a short, family oriented one, I still had really good birding even during the middle of the day. See my eBird list from the Casona. Some thoughts and ideas:
Good for ground birds
Forested, protected areas in Costa Rica are often good for terrestrial birds and Santa Rosa is no exception. Unlike many other parts of their Costa Rican range, Thicket Tinamous are not as shy and much easier to see. Patience in the face of mosquitoes is still very much required but if you can hang in there, you stand a good chance of seeing a tinamou with red legs. Two other choice ground species, Great Curassow and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, are also fairly common.
There is a Thicket Tinamou in this picture albeit a much more shy one from the Playa Hermosa area.
Watch from the Casona overlook
I admit, I was hesitant to walk up the steps in the hot lowland climate but the reward was definitely worth it. But, based on my brief, avian rich experience, the next time I visit, I might run up the stairs like Rocky. I hope to go back some day and watch from the overlook for a few hours in the morning, and then again in the later afternoon because the birding there rocks! The hill overlooks a large area of the national park and is one of the closest things I have seen to a canopy tower in Costa Rica. During my recent short watch, I heard one or two Elegant Trogons and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper among various other expected species, saw a Mangrove Cuckoo creeping through a nearby tree, magpie-jays, and other species. Although I didn’t notice any raptors, it should surely be good for that too!
Bird the universal trail
Although the birding is likely similar on the few roads through the park, this trail is accessed from the Casona area, and makes an easy loop on a cement walkway through nice dry forest. Expect Banded Wrens, Elegant and Black-headed Trogons, maybe a Thicket Tinamou, and several other species. The “good” lighting will also be welcomed by birders who have been trying to snap pictures in the much less sensor-friendly rainforest understory.
Focus on the evergreen forest remnant
Located about halfway in on the entrance road, this area is an evergreen spot with tall trees and is marked by a sign that refers to it as a rare remnant of mature tropical dry forest. It definitely looks older and more complex than the surrounding forest, and since it’s a riparian zone, it also hosts more birds. During a five minute stop, although I didn’t hear or see any hoped for camera friendly Thicket Tinamous, it was a treat to listen to the songs of Long-tailed Manakins, Banded Wrens, and Cabanis’s Wrens, see a Royal Flycatcher, and espy a migrating Eastern Kingbird perched in the canopy. Although there are more mosquitoes, there are also more birds, and it’s worth it to spend a good amount of time at this site.
Royal Flycatchers are always nice to see.
Since Santa Rosa is connected to evergreen forests at higher elevations, it can also attract some unexpected species. Some years ago, at least one ornithologist may have seen a Crested Eagle! He suspected that the bird may have migrated there from the rainforests in the Guanacaste mountains to take advantage of monkeys and other prey items. It’s worth it to fit Santa Rosa into your itinerary, you are going to like it!