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Five Reminders for Birding Costa Rica During the Winter

At this time of year, I tend to be bathing in the warmth of my parent’s home in Niagara Falls, NY accompanied by family and a plate of good old fashioned gnocchi from the Como Restaurant.


My daughter also lives up to her yearly promise of hitting me with a snowball as I enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of red cardinals, chickadees, and juncos. This, year, though, we didn’t make the trip and given the reports of soul-biting temperatures and abundant white stuff, I kind of don’t mind that we stayed in Costa Rica, that I missed out on Como gnocchi in late December. It’s not so bad, I mean I got the chance to do some awesome Christmas Bird Counts, pushed up the year list total a little bit more and finally even saw a Spotted Rail!

While staying here for the changing of the years, I was also reminded of some things to keep in mind when birding in Costa Rica. These are five of them:

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are the de-facto Empid: Never mind the Leasts, here’s the Yellow-bellieds! No matter how uncommonly seen it may be up north, most winter Empids in Costa Rica are this one. Pish and it will probably call back, take advantage of studying them but do keep an eye out for Acadians. The southern Empid is here as well, just not as common as the little flycatcher on vacay from the boreal zone. An occasional Least is also seen but know that the small Empid with the gray head is quite the rare find this far south.

The Yellowish Flycatcher is also common in middle elevation forest but its much more obviously yellow than migrant Empids.

I may have a yellow belly but I still rule the winter Empid scene in Costa Rica.

It’s cooler now: Just like up north, temperatures go down but instead of sinking to bitter freezing cold, they only skip-drop a few degrees. This makes for slightly more welcome temperatures in Carara and other sun-baked areas of the Pacific lowlands, as well as a nippy climate when owling for the Unspotted Saw-whet.

Beware of festivals: Not that there’s anything bad about streets being taken over by prancing horses, random fireworks, and loud music. It’s just that when you need to get somewhere to see birds, such activities can become rather problematic. At least festivities tend to be held in urban areas and not on major highways, and Waze should let you know when you need to make that detour (unless you do feel like partaking in beers, horses, and experiencing the local version of “yee-haw!”).

Dry and windy in the west, rain in the east: Or, is that north and then south? Yes, you could say that too, I suppose it’s easiest to remember that it’s dry on one side of the mountains and wet on the other. A generalization for sure but more or less true at this time of year. It probably won’t infringe upon the birding too much, stick with it and you will still see a lot!

The hummingbirds won’t mind.

Birds take vacations too: Many in Costa Rica move to lower elevations and odd places in quests for food and more pleasant climes. Watch for fruiting trees and bushes in lowland and foothill rainforests on both slopes. That’s where a lot of the birds are!

Beautiful Bay-headed Tanagers might show up.

I hope these reminders are of help for any bird-related trip to Costa Rica. As always, I also hope to see you in the field, especially if we happen to be watching a Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, or a Loggerhead Shrike (nope, not on the list yet and not likely, but I did have a vivid dream about seeing one in Costa Rica).

bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding Update for Rincon de la Vieja

I haven’t posted in a couple weeks but I have a good excuse. At least I think I do, it involves being busy with birding, Christmas Bird Counts, and general family vacation stuff. I’m still doing some of that from now until the final day of 2017 but tonight, I managed to find time to write a post. In terms of birds and Costa Rica, although there’s a lot I could talk about, I’ll limit this one to Rincon de la Vieja National Park.

Rincon de la Vieja is the most prominent mountain visible from Liberia. Just look to the north and there it is, a big blocky uprising of land topped in green, and, quite often, with clouds. Like most mountains in Costa Rica, it’s actually a volcano, and hosts wonderful tropical forests where lots of nice birds live. Last weekend, the very first CBC was held for the park, and thanks to the count organizers, not only was it a success, I also got a cool tee-shirt emblazoned with a Northern Potoo.

The official count bird and emblem wasn’t some birding pipe dream either. Much to our collective happiness, there actually was a Northern Potoo waiting for us at Rincon de la Vieja! One has apparently been hanging out on a typical potoo perch for the past couple of months and did us a huge favor by showing up on that same spot for the morning of the count.

Yes, potoos are seriously weird. An excellent and much wanted year and country bird.

If you are interested in seeing that potoo, ask the park guards at the new information center, they will probably know if it is on the perch. Information Center? Oh yes! The park has a nice new building with restrooms, potable water, where you can learn about the trails, and so on.

If the potoo is on the same perch, you won’t have to walk far either because it’s only about 100 meters past the entrance to the Las Pailas trail. Whether you look for the bird or not, it’s going to be an easy walk because the trail has been recently paved with cement. It’s easy-going, is handicap accessible, and still has lots of good birds.

Speaking of birds, Rincon always has a lot to offer, some of the typical species being Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Golden-crowned Warbler, Long-tailed Manakin, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, and Ivory-billed, Olivaceous, Ruddy, and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. All of these are fairly common along with a good variety of other species. Choice birds like Tody Motmot and uncommon sparrows for Costa Rica are also present and there’s always a chance at rarities like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo and Violaceous Quail-Dove. As an aside, Army Ants also seem to be more common at Rincon de la Vieja.

Given its position on both sides of the continental divide and rain trapping capabilities, if you visit the Santa Maria sector, you might see more species of humid forest. The Pailas sector accesses moist and dry habitats but don’t expect to be able to hike up to the crater any time soon, volcanic activity has kept that trail closed. Both the Pailas and Cangreja trails have good birding, Pailas being better for folks with limited mobility. Since Cangreja covers more ground and passes through quite a bit of mature forest, this trail probably offers better chances at connecting with rare species. Nevertheless, rocky parts of the trail combined with ascents and descents only make it suitable for folks who can handle such situations.

As for getting to Rincon de la Vieja, thanks to most of the road to the park now being paved, expect a quick 30 minute drive from Liberia. However, thanks to Rincon’s geographic situation, we can also expect it to be pretty windy up there from time to time, probably more so during the dry season. Unfortunately, that constant wind was with us during the count and it took a serious toll on hearing birds. Persevere though, and you will still see a lot, especially when the wind dies down, or, best of all, when it’s not windy at all.

To learn more about birding at this and dozens of other sites in Costa Rica, as well as more than 700 pages on how to find and identify birds in Costa Rica, see my e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Birding Costa Rica

Christmas Bird Counting in Costa Rica

For many, December is a month of importance. Major holidays are celebrated, winter makes itself known by way of dim days, long nights, and blowing snow, juncos flit through the woods, and birds feast at the feeder. We laugh and make merry with the family, eat too much, and ponder the utility of spiced drinks.

While some of us have our annual viewing of “Die Hard”, others brave busy stores, crowded roads, and a constant barrage of holiday tunes as we strive to acquire the right gifts. After a few days of the annual madness, many of us understand the utility of fortified beverages all too well, but for us birders, whether we feel like enjoying a fine craft beer or not, we can’t help but smile because we have other very important things to look forward to. This being December, Christmas count season is upon us and oh what a jolly fun time it is!

There’s nothing like heading out into the freezing cold pre-dawn to listen for owls in a sky so damn cold it feels like the stars might just shatter. It’s even better when you wonder if your frozen nose is still sitting on your face as you issue forth owl imitations that begin to sound more like, “This sucks for you!” instead of the usual words. It all changes, though, when the voice of an honest to goodness Barred Owl echoes through the winter forest. The sudden communication and connection with nature fosters the warmth and satisfaction associated with birding success and keeps us going throughout the long, cold day. As the day moves forward, we are rejuvenated by each new bird, wonder what is being seen by other counters, and rejoice in just being out there in the woods, fields, shore, or other natural places.

We give ourselves over to birds, just for a day, and that eggnog tastes so much better for having done so because when you get up before dawn, walk miles through wild lands, and share it with like-minded people, you damn well know you are living! It’s always better when a lifer joins you for the personal counting party but if not, it’s still glorious to experience the beauty of the count.

It’s even better when you can do a Christmas Bird Count in Costa Rica and this is why:

It’s not cold– It might rain all day but you won’t have to worry about putting on that parka. This here is the tropics; all those Baltimore Orioles, wood-warblers, and other migrants don’t come here for nothing! No need for gloves or a cozy hat up in this house. Instead, we are concerned about wearing clothing that keeps us cool, carrying enough water to stay hydrated, and keeping up with the chattering of parakeets, chortles of wrens, and the sights and sounds of hundreds of other birds.

No snow in the rainforest at wonderful Finca Luna Nueva.

Constant birds– Unlike some counts up north, in Costa Rica, you will be hearing or seeing birds all day long, many of which will be different. The new birds keep coming in the rich tropical habitats of Costa Rica- be ready for the challenge!

Keep the tanagers coming- this is a Black and Yellow.

Rare stuff– Since many tropical species are naturally rare, you can expect to run across one or more of those birds that you just don’t see that often. You never know what you might find but you walk hand in hand with excitement because the rare ones can take the form of anything from a Yellow-eared Toucanet to a Sunbittern or even Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

It’s an event!– Christmas Bird Counts in Costa Rica are often all out events. A count meeting is usually held the evening before count day and can include a talk or two about a special bird in the count circle, recent bird studies, and/or overviews of the routes. Route leaders are named, counters assigned, and bag lunches are handed out. When the count is finally over, we gather together once more to tally up the 300 plus species, exchange stories, and share a dinner and drinks. Distributors of optics and arts and crafts might also be present and someone might even make a speech.

This year, I have done one count so far, the Arenal Christmas Count, I sure hope I can fit in one or two more so I can end this year with a fine birding blast. Here is a link to counts being held, sign up to experience one or two!