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Birding Costa Rica

Clearing Up Misconceptions about Birding in Costa Rica

Travel to any new place is a step into the unknown. No matter how many images, videos, or blog posts we read, we really don’t know what the full experience will entail until we arrive and even then, not until we exit the airport because the waiting places for plane travel are pretty much in their own, separate universe; one replete with lines, over-priced meals, and fair deals on booze. Walk through those exit doors, though, and you begin to get the real country deal. I still recall the first time I walked onto Costa Rican soil, my first “real deal” of Tiquica. It was the early 90s, and tourism was just getting started. The airport was older, hotter, and felt like a trip back into the 70s, back in the days when rough carpets ruled. When we walked to the exit doors, the dozens of waiting relatives with faces against the glass made us feel uncomfortably famous, a sudden unwanted fame that was quickly ratcheted up a notch when we were met by a milling and stewing of porters and taxi drivers, all chattering at us in Spanish, all at once.

“This is different” I thought, while then also realizing that the air was much more humid and smelled different than home. Not bad, just different scents, tropical ones that hinted at a greater abundance of life. Upon leaving the airport in one of those taxis, the new sights and sounds continued by way of what seemed to be madhouse driving, yellowish street lamps, semi-suicidal motorcycles, and a great desire to get off the road and to our destination ASAP! Since it was night, the birds would have to wait but only until the following morning, and when that sun came up, it was indeed glorious! Common backyard birds were all lifers and included Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, screeching flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Great Kiskadees, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and more!

Crimson-fronted Parakeets are urban birds in many parts of Costa Rica.

It was all new. It was fantastic. Although I had studied that Stiles and Skutch book like one of life’s required manuals, the real experience was of course much broader and overwhelming. Until we work with custom generated, virtual reality hallucinations, it always will be, and even then, I bet it would take a while before the simulation matched the real thing (Will we experience holodeck birding someday? Do we even want to?). Even if or when holodeck travel is available, those of us in the travel and tourism thing will surely continue to write about and share media associated with our favorite destinations. We want others to know what it’s like because we loved the experience, we want our friends and like-minded people to have those same feelings of excitement, happiness, and fulfillment. Nor do we want people to get into any unexpected, awful situations. Travel writers hope that visitors to Costa Rica, Bali, or the modern version of Nikaia will weed out the misconceptions and that’s pretty much why I am writing this particular blog. These are some of the misconceptions about Costa Rica applicable to a birding trip:

You can’t bird during the low season

Ha! As every enlightened birder knows, we can damn well bird wherever and whenever we please! Although I imagine a barbarian birder from ancient Gaul saying something along those lines, it’s something that every modern day birder should also take to heart. Walking through a big city? As the Urban Birder says, “Look up!” Watching a baseball game? Yes, you indeed can watch those gulls fly overhead. Inauguration? Wedding? Funeral? Who says you can’t mentally note the mechanical trill of a Chipping Sparrow or imagine flying up there with the nighthawks?

Sometimes, when you look up in Costa Rica, that “Black Vulture” turns into a Barred Hawk.

The same goes for birding in Costa Rica during the green season. Yeah, it’s more green and the birds love it, you will too! I am reminded of this daily when the Piratic Flycatchers and Yellow-green Vireos compete with each other over who can sing the most. When a Short-tailed Hawk calls high overhead as I walk into the backyard, when a mixed flock of tanagers, woodcreepers, and other birdies blast through the rainforest. You can indeed bird in Costa Rica during the low season and you will love it. I know I do.

It rains all the time

Um, no it does not. Despite now being the official rainy season, it didn’t today. It was cloudy and it rained in some places at different times but since that’s just the type of weather that brings out the birds, yeah, now might be when you want to be here!

There are too many bugs

Once again, nope! While there are some mosquitoes here and there and more in wetlands, it is not even close to the summer mosquito madness up north. Nothing like it, don’t worry, just use some repellent. There are more of other types of insects though and since they make it possible to see more birds and also look cool, that is a good thing.

The Helicopter Damselfly is one of those cool bugs.

Woodcreepers are impossible to identify

If they were, we would just have one of them and it would be called, “The Woodcreeper”. But, since we have a bunch that can all be readily identified, and we don’t live in Great Britain, we have several woodcreeper species, each with its own rightful name. And, yes you can identify them as long as you get a good look at the head and bill. In some parts of the Amazon, well, then you can pull your hair out, but in Costa Rica, with a bit of study and practice, or of course your own experienced birding guide, all of them can be identified.

Bird lists show which species will be seen

Well….yes and no. The problem with some bird lists is when they show species that used to occur, have mistakes, or don’t mention that the Crested Eagle on the list won’t be likely to make an appearance. Some lists are much more accurate but even then, you have to realize that some of those birds might be seasonal, they might be elsewhere at the moment, might only occur in one or two parts of the reserve, and that many are naturally rare species and thus easily missed during a few hours or even two days of intense birding. Yet another good reason for hiring an experienced local guide.

There is a good chance that you will see the beautiful Violet-headed Hummingbird.

You will see every bird

Experienced birders know that this is very rarely the case but no matter how long one has been peering at birds, it’s still a good thing to keep in mind. While Costa Rica does host a huge number of bird species, the price we pay for that biodiversity is lower numbers of individuals per species. In other words, a fair percentage of birds occur at naturally low densities and to make things that much more tricky, most are not uniformly distributed. Add lack of habitat resulting in even lower numbers of some species to the mix along with a dash of limited time and you have to take what you can get. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t see lots of new birds. Quite contrary! Focus on birding with a guide and you will see a lot, just probably not every single species.

You might see a Prong-billed Barbet.

eBird Hotspots

Always remember that there are no real criteria for naming eBird hotspots in Costa Rica. Since almost the whole country is sort of a birding hotspot, it kind of doesn’t matter but I have to mention it so you don’t think that you have to limit birding to so-called hotspots. Any site with quality habitat is going to be good, the more mature forest, the better.

Short Distances=Quick Travel

I have seen several people plan trips in Costa Rica that include far too much driving. The distances beguile. We look at an online map and think, “Hey, that’s pretty close, I can do that!” The only problem is that while crossing the mountains would be super close and fast if we could just soar right on over there in a straight line like a frigatebird, cars don’t have that capability. Instead, you will always be in for slow, curvy roads shared with even slower boxy trucks that can easily drive you mad and almost make you wish you had a disintegration ray. Oh yeah and then there are the Central Valley traffic jams during the dreaded hours of 6 to 9 and again from around 3 to 6. Keep that in mind when making plans for a birding trip in Costa Rica!

The whole country is a paradise for birds

Not exactly. There are a lot of fantastic birding sites within a small area but those open fields with ruminating cows, rows of bananas, and poisoned lands covered in pineapples….not so much. Find the forest, though, and that’s where most will be.

Are you coming to Costa Rica? I hope so, the birding really is wonderful, it’s easy to do even on your own, and the place is much closer and accessible to Canada and much of the USA than a lot of folks realize. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to help plan you trip. I hope to see you here!

Support this blog and give yourself a wealth of birding information for Costa Rica by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. 

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