web analytics
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Weekend Costa Rica Birding Highlights

On Friday, I traveled from my old home of Niagara Falls, New York south, way south back to my present home in Costa Rica. Family, cannoli from DiCamillo’s, serious pizza, and good friends in Niagara Falls will always be priceless but home is where the heart is and for me, that’s Costa Rica. Living there for eleven years surely also plays an important role with the “home” designation, and the birds aren’t that shabby either. My present Central American surroundings may be bereft of the cries of gulls against a backdrop of roaring water but I’m alright with a trade-off that includes 900 plus species of birds.

Turquoise-browed Motmot, a common species of tropical dry forest, is one of them.

With that in mind, of course I went birding the day after coming back from the Falls because birding is also part of being “home”. My birding companion and I spent Saturday looking for lowland birds and finding a few key species before the rains took over, and then worked the optics on Sunday in the much drier Pacific coastal lowlands. Without too much effort, as is usual for birding in Costa Rica, we had several choice species along with nice views of birds that are common and always fun to watch. Some of the highlights:

Gartered Trogon

Thanks to it preferring edge habitats, this beautiful mini trogon is common in humid lowland sites. I especially like when it perches on roadside wires because not only does that make it easier to see, but seeing a trogon out in the open, in a situation typically reserved for pigeons, doves, and other everyday birds is a succinct reminder that you are living a dream.

Cerulean Warbler!

I had hoped to find one of these mega wood-warblers but expected it in the foothill habitats of Virgen del Socorro, not in the Sarapiqui lowlands. Yet, there one was, quickly foraging with a mixed flock of small birds on the La Selva entrance road, and it was an adult male! Birders in other parts of the country also saw Ceruleans that day, maybe the last big push of the year for this regular yet uncommon migrant in Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon

Costa Rica’s most challenging trogon made an appearance at a site for it near Virgen del Socorro. Since this species is a foothill purist and prefers mature forest, there are few reliable spots for it. Hopefully, the Lattice-taileds near Socorro will stay around so I can show them to visiting birders.

Lineated Woodpecker

Yeah, it’s common and widespread but who doesn’t like a big woodpecker? We enjoyed close views of one in the Central Valley while unsuccessfully searching for the endemic ground-sparrow. At one point, it was chased by a Lesson’s Motmot.

Pearl Kite!

As we made our way to sites for shorebirds, I figured that a stop in Puntarenas might be worth our while. Although most birds were a bit too far out on the water to see well, we hit the jackpot on the drive out of town with a Pearl Kite perched right next to the road. It even stayed long enough for pictures and for us to refer to it as a Raptor-Flycatcher on account of it perching on wires like a Tropical Kingbird. Actually, if anything, this falconet-like bird is more like a shrike than its raptor cousins.


We wanted to connect with the waders from the far north and eventually did so at Punta Morales. How do they cope living in the arctic and then in the steamy tropics? It’s always incredible to think about the places where those smart looking Black-bellied Plovers spent the summer, where the hundreds of Western Sandpipers built their nests. Although I have seen larger numbers of waders at Punta Morales on other occasions, it was still fantastic to see a few dozen Wilson’s Plovers, many Semipalmated Plovers, one Collared Plover, Marbled Godwits, many a Whimbrel and Willet, a small group of pigeon-like Surfbirds, and some other species.

I can only imagine what happens at Morales and other sites in the Gulf of Nicoya when no one is watching.

The weekend was birdy as always in Costa Rica. I don’t even know how many species we saw but there were the highlights above and other birds (and ice cream!). Hopefully, I will be searching for more migrants very soon, some species are passing through Costa Rica in large numbers, I want to silently greet them as they hurry their way south.


Birding Niagara, Birding Costa Rica

I usually write about birding in Costa Rica; the wealth of biodiversity helps, it acts as a constant, swirling pool of ideas, stories, and images. This, week, though, I am back in Niagara Falls, New York, in the land of gulls for a short trip with my daughter to see family, visit DiCamillo’s bakery, feast on pizza from Goodfellas..you know, the important things. I’m also giving a presentation on the fantastic birding found in Costa Rica and have of course done a bit of birding in Niagara during my stay.

There aren’t as many birds in Niagara as in Costa Rica but it’s still great. I know someone from Costa Rica who would love to be here, love to see Ring-billed Gulls walk in parking lots, be thrilled by a phalanx of Double-crested Cormorants flying overhead, would be elated to see Blue Jays, cardinals, catbirds, and chickadees. Only one of the aforementioned makes it to Costa Rica and not in big numbers either. The rest would be lifers for her just as important as Bay-headed and Silver-throated and Emerald Tanagers would be for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Whether birding is “great” or not only really refers to how we want to play the game, what we want to see and how important those sightings are. Although the land bridge and corridor between Lakes Erie and Ontario is awaiting the next wave of migrants, it’s still great to be birding here, these are some of the reasons why:

Goat Island– My favorite site in these here parts, where I first watched birds, riding my bike there during May and hearing the old woods resound with dozens of wood-warblers, vireos, you name it. Even if I wasn’t birding on the island between the cataracts, it would still be a special place. The sound of the rapids and crashing water is a constant as are gulls flying above the river and sitting on the rocks. Yesterday, even outside of the November gull season, I still had three species, one of which was a Lesser Black-backed. We are still waiting for that one to make it onto the country list in Costa Rica.

Semipalmated Plover– On the Third Sister Island, on a small wet rock that inched its way into a fierce roaring river, we saw a young Semipalmated Plover. I told my daughter, “That bird is from the Arctic!” She didn’t say much, was too busy looking for ancient pre-dino time fossils in the rocks. I hope it joins thousands of its kind that are already in Costa Rica right now, feeding on tropical mud flats, watching the skies for deadly falcons.

Waxwings– It’s always nice to see waxwings, especially when they are such rare choice migrants in Costa Rica. In Niagara, I see them every time I venture outside to look for birds. There they are, many are juveniles, whispering from the tops of trees before flying off in search of berries.

Cooper’s Hawk– Another common bird in Niagara but one that is always a challenge for the Costa Rica year list. I point them out to my daughter. She says, “Cool!” I say that they eat pigeons and squirrels, she says, “Aww, poor squirrels” but she doesn’t feel too bad, she knows that the hawks have to eat too. We have some that make it all the way south every winter but there can’t be a lot. I wonder how many are in Costa Rica every winter season? Maybe less than ten?

Eastern Screech Owl– We went to a campground with cousins, there was a fire, smores, we even carved jack-o-lanterns and I also saw a few birds. A few I also only heard including the screech-owls giving their “winny” call in the otherwise quiet dead of the night. I think I also heard bobolinks as they migrated overhead.

No kiskadees, no flocks of colorful birds, no vultures, no screeching parakeets– Such regular aspects of birding Costa Rica are absent in these here parts right now but I’ll be back to experience them again soon enough. In the meantime, I relish the waxwings, gulls, nuthatches, and even the starlings before returning to a small country with more than 920 species on the official list.

Crowned Woodnymph- yet another common, colorful bird in Costa Rica.

Want to learn about the best sites for finding birds in Costa Rica and how to identify them? Support this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Where and How to See Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

It’s not a colorful bird and it’s not one that has some exotic, amazing appearance. But, it’s high on the list of local birders and should be even higher on the target lists of birders who visit Costa Rica because you won’t find it anywhere else. That bird is the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow.

Formerly known as Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, studies have shown that the birds in Costa Rica should be considered a separate species. Therefore, now, we have another endemic bird! The only problem is that the bird seems to be genuinely scarce and difficult to see. But, it can be seen, a birder just has to know where and how to look for it. We can start by looking at the bird for what it is; a towhee. As in a Canyon Towhee or Abert’s Towhee but one that prefers dense, scrubby vegetation and tends to be camera shy. It likes to forage on or near the ground, usually in pairs.

Here are some ideas on where and how to see it:

  • The right elevation: Not too high nor too low, this pretty little sparrow prefers the middle elevations, like right around 1,200 meters. Higher than that and we tend to find more White-eared Ground-Sparrows. Lower and it’s just too low for the “cabanisi”.
  • Coffee fields with cover: Although the endemic bird does live in open coffee farms, I have seen it more often in coffee that also has brushy edges or trees, or some understory vegetation.

  • Brushy riparian zones: Sites like these might be even better. Given the higher degree of natural vegetation and, presumably, more food, riparian zones could play very important roles for this threatened species.
  • The Central Valley and the Orosi Valley: Check Google Earth or one of those same satellite maps in eBird that shows the Central Valley, look for brushy fields and coffee farms and check those sites. But, know that the bird may or may not be present and even if it is, it still might be hard to find probably because it has a small population. That said, this is where it lives, this is a good place to look. The same goes for the Orosi Valley, especially around Ujarras and coffee farms near there. Higher up on the way to Tapanti, it doesn’t seem to be present (or is very rare) perhaps because of competition with the White-eared.
  • Check eBird: Even better, do what modern birders do for most unfamiliar bird species and check the latest sightings on eBird. Keep in mind, though, that the bird can still be hard to find, the next tips may help.
  • Know the call: The Cabanisi makes a distinctive, sharp tick note that differs from chip calls given by small birds that share its habitat such as the Rufous-collared Sparrow, Rufous-capped Warbler, and the Blue-black Grassquit. Knowing the song also helps but it doesn’t seem to sing very often.
  • Go early!: As with most birds, this one is also more active early in the morning. Listen and watch for it at the edges of hedgerows and brushy habitats but do that before 8 or even before 7.

Come to Costa Rica and you can see this endemic and literally hundreds of other species of birds. Support this blog and learn more about where to find birds with my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

Choice Birds in Costa Rica from Late August

The latter part of August saw me guiding on the other side of the mountains. Although there are some birds in the Central Valley, and I often start a day of guiding by looking for some of them, more occur where the wet forests are. That would be on the upper parts and other sides of the mountains that are visible to the north. Fortunately, those cloud forests and tropical rain forests are close enough for day trips and with more than 400 bird species possible, you can bet that we see a lot.

Some of the choice bird species seen lately while guiding day trips from the Central Valley:

Lattice-tailed Trogon

This uncommon and localized regional endemic was seen during a morning of birding at Quebrada Gonzalez. Fortunately, a male was calling and didn’t stop until we saw it. Fortunately because at first, the bird wasn’t visible. The problem with Lattice-taileds is that they are often high up in trees blanketed with bromeliads. Imagine warbler necking it up into a bunch of bushes silhouetted against a blank, cloudy sky and that pretty much describes the situation. If the bird chooses a perch behind aerial hedges at every angle, seeing it is hopeless. Well, at least until it moves.

After it moved. We got much better looks than this image. 

Thankfully, the male trogon kept on calling until it flew to a branch that was clearly visible along with the yellow bill and pale eye of the trogon (two of the diagnostic field marks to separate it from the Slaty-tailed Trogon).

Streak-chested Antpitta

While we were looking for the trogon, a Streak-chested Antpitta beckoned with haunting whistles. Much to our great fortune, this bird too, eventually showed and gave us fantastic looks!

A fairly recent addition to the foothill rainforests of Quebrada Gonzalez, it’s nice to have a somewhat reliable site for the Caribbean slope form of this bird. Most folks see it at Carara National Park but given the different song that could indicate an eventual split, it’s worth seeing this little puffball on both sides of the mountains.

Resplendent Quetzals

Quetzals live on the slopes of Poas but they aren’t as frequent as sites with more extensive areas of forest. The owner of the Volcan Restaurant told me that he used to see more of these fantastic dream birds up to around ten years ago. The species is still present but seeing one is always a hit or miss endeavor. Last week, we hit the jackpot when six were present at a fruiting tree! Most were juvenile males or females although one adult male was also present, and another one was calling further up the road.

Seeing this mega always makes for a spectacular day of birding in Costa Rica.

A female R. Quetzal in the mist. 

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Connecting with this uncommon and possibly endangered skulker can be another hit or miss birding situation. That said, I have been seeing this handsome pseudo-sparrow species on every outing. The views can be brief but we do get definitive looks at the small endemic towhee.

Coppery-headed Emerald and 15 other hummingbird species

Coppery-headed Emerald

It’s always a treat to watch various hummingbirds do their sped up thing.

Green-crowned Brilliant

Green Thorntail

Buff-fronted Quail-Dove

One of the most appreciated sightings was that of a juvenile Buff-fronted Quail-Dove that has been hanging out at the Cinchona hummingbird cafe for some months now. Also known as the Soda Mirador Catarata San Fernando, this classic Costa Rica birding site is a wonderful spot to sit back and be surrounded by birds while enjoying a coffee and tasty rural fare. Last week, the juvenile quail-dove bucked typical skulking behavior to jump up onto the feeder for walk away views and a memorable end to an already memorable day of birding.

These were some of the choice species seen but not the only ones. Bat Falcon, Hook-billed Kite, King Vulture, tanagers, toucans, and many other species were also nice and all around an hour’s drive from the San Jose area. See information on where and how to find these and other birds with the 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.