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Horizontes- Good Birding in Guanacaste

Known for sun, beaches, and wide open vistas, Guanacaste is a popular tourist destination that encompasses the northwestern region of Costa Rica. Acting as the southern terminus for the tropical dry forest ecosystems of the Middle American Pacific slope,the lay of the land offers an appeasing blend of windswept fields dotted with octopi-like acacias, evergreen riparian zones that act as avian oases, patches of remnant dry forest, and rich wetlands.

The blend of easy birding and good tourism infrastructure makes northwestern Costa Rica an ideal part of the country to mix birding with a family visit. Those factors also make Guanacaste a good choice for local birders and even more so because the region offers high potential in Costa Rica for finding rare migrants. American Pipit has occurred as well as vagrant sparrows, wood-warblers, Aplomado Falcon, and even Gray Kingbird.

A few of the top sites for shorebirds are also in Guanacaste and since the region sees so little coverage for large areas of good habitat, who knows what else might be lurking along a dry creek bed or near some hidden pond? Maybe Costa Rica’s first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher? Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Maybe even a Burrowing Owl? Long shots for sure but they might honestly be out there and the best thing about looking for them is seeing hundreds of other bird species in the process.

This past weekend, while guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I visited Horizontes, one of many sites in Guanacaste that sees little birding coverage. Although we didn’t find any crazy megas, both Robert Dean and I agreed that the site would be perfect for finding rarities during the height of the dry season as wetlands shrink and thus act as oases for birds. Even though we didn’t manage to add Lark Sparrow to our Costa Rica lists (a real mega around here), we were still very pleased with the overall birding at Horizontes and plan on making a return visit.

Horizontes is a large habitat restoration project just south of Santa Rosa National Park and based on the numbers of birds we saw, it seems to be working. These are some suggestions and remarks from birding there:

Several Key dry forest species are present, check out my eBird lists from my visit.
Although much of the forest is in varying degrees of second growth, there are some larger, older trees in a riparian zone and we had a very good assortment of dry forest species including uncommon species. Some of the highlights included-
Thicket Tinamou– common! Although in keeping with tinamou decorum, still tricky to see.
Double-striped Thick-Knee– we had a few.
Plain Chachalaca– we heard a few of this very uncommon species for Costa Rica.
Elegant Trogon– we heard a few.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper– we had a couple.
Northern Potoo– we did not see one but they are regular at this site, with a bit more time to work with I am sure we would have found one.
Western Tanager, White-lored Gnatcatcher and many other regular Guanacaste species were very common.

Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite– we saw a covey near the main buildings.
Yellow-naped Parrot– we had regular sightings of this endangered species.
Myiarchus flycatchers– these were especially common, in fact, along with the gnatcatcher, some of the most common birds heard and seen throughout the day. Great-crested were very common and an example of the important role reforestation projects can play to provide habitat for this and other boreal migrants.
Brown-crested and Nutting’s were also seen quite often.



Mangrove Cuckoo– we had beautiful looks at a couple of these cool birds.

Western Kingbird– an uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.

Bird the main roads
Although birding a trail or two is worth the effort, we had our best birding right along the main tracks through the reserve.

A White-necked Puffbird was nice as were close looks at a female Hook-billed Kite.

Check the lagoon especially during the dry season
We had fewer birds than hoped but still managed nice looks at Painted Bunting and an uncommon for Costa Rica Magnolia Warbler. Once the surrounding area dries out, this site would be a good one to check for much rarer species.

Stay there to save money or just visit as a day trip
The accommodations at Horizontes are basic but fine and clean and include rooms with bunk beds and fans (standard for a field station). The food was local fare and it was delicious!
However, it’s also just as easy to visit as a day trip from Liberia, Playa Hermosa, or other nearby beaches. The road in was also driveable even with a regular car (albeit with careful driving).

Keep an eye out for rare birds
Since few people bird at Horizontes and the site has potential for turning up rare species, it’s good to keep this in mind and be ready to take pictures of any unusual birds. We were told about a strange bird that has occurred there that sounded like it might be some owl species and maybe even a Great Horned (a real mega for Costa Rica).
However, despite visiting the site where it has showed both during the day and at night, we didn’t find anything different. I want to check again though…

Check other nearby sites for more species
Given the proximity of rice fields and other wetlands to Horizontes, it’s worth venturing outside the station to bird other sites. On an afternoon visit to the rice fields at Las Trancas, we did very well with excellent looks at Spotted Rails, Harriss’s Hawks, Northern Harrier, and many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Hello rail!

Horizontes is easily visited as a day trip, all a birder has to do is drive in and pay the national park entrance fee. Meals and overnight stays would need to be arranged in advance but that should be easily done by contacting the station manager.

The best time to visit is during the dry season, note that some of the roads may be impassable during the wet season. Although Santa Rosa has better forest habitat, what we liked about Horizontes was the feeling that we were birding in an area with little coverage and high potential. If visiting Horizontes, please post your results to eBird and mention them in the comments for this post. Good birding in Costa Rica!

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Recent Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica along the Via Endemica

Road maps for Costa Rica refer to it as Route 126 but that’s only on paper or in pixels. As with most byways in Costa Rica, the signs that tell you which route is which are as scarce as cotingas. This is why us locals refer to Route 126 as “the road between Varablanca and San Miguel”, “the road that goes by the Peace Waterfall”, or similar descriptors. Confusing! Well hell yes! BUT, nowadays, we got Waze! That, Google Maps and other navigational apps help keep all of us birding drivers on track in Costa Rica.

Although you won’t find any apps referring to Route 126 as the “Via Endemica“, they really should. I mean where else in Costa Rica can one so readily find so many regional and actual endemic bird species (and isn’t that one of the big important things in life)?

Last week, I was on that good birding road again while guiding restoration ecologist and local birder Jeff Tingle. As one might expect from birding the Via Endemica, whether good photos and/or good sightings, we had several highlights:

Zeledon’s Antbird

This shady species is fairly common in the Socorro area but it can go unheard and unseen all too often. On that day, we heard a few and had one very cooperative friendly male. Thankfully, this cool bird with the blue eye shadow just said no to skulking and went all in with the birding program.

Becards and foliage-gleaners

What do these two types of birds have in common? Not much aside from being Neotropical avian standards but the other day we did well with a pair each of uncommon becard and foliage-gleaner species. On the becard side of the coin, the cute little Barred Becard treated us well at a couple of stops, both male and female showing very well. Then, much to my surprise, we saw a rare for Costa Rica Black-and-white Becard next to the road near Cinchona! I have never seen the bird there before, I hope it’s a sign of the forest coming back and habitat improving.

Regarding foliage-gleaners, we did well with two uncommon species. The Scaly-throated showed in the same flock as the rare becard and then again in a more usual spot for it, the forest above the Albergue Socorro. The other Furnarid was a Streak-breasted Treehunter that, like birding magic, appeared right in front of us near Varablanca.

Hunting trees!

Mixed flocks

Also known as “bird waves”, “multi-species flocks”, and in some birding circles, “bird pandemonium”, this is when a bunch of birds suddenly appear, often foraging like mad and leaving shortly thereafter. It’s the bird version of dine and dash, a real feathered ambush of the senses, and the larger the flock the more likely a birder is to lose all sense of decorum. We didn’t have anything that curassow crazy on the Via Endemica, but we did do well with consistent mixed flocks and life was good. Ruddy Treerunners, Collared Redstarts, Flame-throated Warblers, Yellow-winged Vireos and other species at high elevations, and a mostly different set of birds at lower elevations.

Black-cheeked Warbler was one of the high elevation mixed flock participants. 

The endemic ground-sparrow (s)

The icing on the cake of the Via Endemica is the presence of the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. I think we should actually  it the C G Sparrow (or maybe even Calvin Gucci?) as a reflection of its cool demeanor. As with any famous character, it’s not common by any means nor easy to see but if a birder checks the right cafetales and sites, he or she may connect and even get paparazzi with this fancy towhee. The bird has been treating me well at the Villas San Ignacio. It’s sort of impossible to pinpoint where it can be seen at the hotel but it is present. We had good views of a couple of this fine G Sparrow last week. The same goes for the other snazzy G Sparrow in Cost Rica- ye olde White-eared. We also had a couple at Villas San Ignacio.

I’m sure there are more highlights I could tell but the best are the ones a birders makes for him or herself. Check out the Via Endemica in Costa Rica and tell us what you see in the comments.

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Arenal Christmas Bird Count- An Exciting Birding Event

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”. Christmas! Navidad! The festive season makes those brief December days and long dark nights somehow easier to handle. Or, maybe it’s just that we aren’t two months into the winter season and really tired of looking at gray skies, dirty sidewalk snow, and birdless bare branches. But that stuff is for the northern realms, not for warm and tropical Costa Rica. Around here, in December, we only need worry about how many birds we can find during our annual Christmas Counts!

Yes, this really is the most wonderful time of the year for many of us local birders and it has everything to do with our “conteos de aves”. I know that the annual count is special for many a birder in many places but seriously, here in Costa Rica, we tend to kick it up a notch. Not just a day to get together and count birds, our counts tend to me more like events that bring dozens of birders together whether they are official registered Audubon counts or not.

The Arenal event is one such count. Although it’s not officially registered as an Audubon count circle, we carry out the count in similar fashion and use it to gather data and promote birding in the Arenal area. It actually starts well before the count date with the count organizers contacting hotels and agencies that might be interested in sponsoring the count, registering counters, seeing where various people can stay, and then seeing which person will lead which route along with assigning people to each route. Oh yeah and then there is the catering but I’ll get to that later.

The routes for the Arenal count cover everywhere from the La Fortuna surroundings to the Hanging Bridges, Sky Trek, the Observatory Lodge, Arenal Lake, and even a rafting count on the Penas Blancas River. Basically, fantastic birding everywhere and with every route recording well over 100 species. Sound enticing? It sure is and is why this count sees more than 70 people participating each year.

Participants from 2014.

The first year of the count, 2013, actually had the highest participation with 95 birders in the field. Last year, 71 people were counting birds, probably less than other years because of other counts taking place at the same time. However, even with less participants, we still had 338 species for the count circle, around average. That said, our highest total was 377 species in 2016 and with the right combination of weather and participation, we could certainly record even more.

Regarding species, this one is also exciting because it’s one of the few counts in Costa Rica that finds birds like Uniform Crake, Lanceolated Monklet, Song Wren, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Bare-crowned Antbird on the same day!

Last year, our group got the monklet although it can turn up on at least three or four routes.

Once everything is ready, people confirmed for the annual Arenal count get together in La Fortuna for a meeting held the night before the count. This has taken place at hotels, in a gymnasium, and even at the local market and is vital for socializing with other counters, going over the routes, and seeing a presentation that talks about the official count species and research being carried out in the Arenal count circle. This is accompanied by coffee and cookies as counters try on tee-shirts that show the official count species on the front and logos of count sponsors on the back. It’s always a cool, unique shirt and it ends up acting as valuable marketing for the hotels and travel agencies that support the bird count because believe me, those count shirts get around! I have worn more than one of mine on trips outside of Costa Rica as well as within the country and since the shirts are unique, people do notice and even ask about them.

Over the years, the Arenal count has gotten support from 6 public institutions and 30 private enterprises, I wonder who the lucky sponsors will be this year?

After the pre-count meeting, birders meet up with their respective count leaders to figure out if they should start counting in the middle of the night or wait until dawn. Personally, I prefer to start around 3:30 at beautiful Finca Luna Nueva, the route I usually do. Then, everyone heads off to their respective places for lodging to hopefully get some sleep before count day. On count day itself, the birding is often an exciting blend of fast and furious avian action between bouts of pouring rain.

Last year gave us a break with the weather and because of it, we managed several owls along with a wonderful sunny day of birding.

Counters usually finish up around 4 or 5 and then head to the count dinner. This is typically a catered affair where we are served that Costa Rican staple rice with chicken, refried beans, and some potato chips along with a bit of salad. It’s good birding food and seems to work perfectly after a long, fantastic deal in the field. Some count sponsors are also present and can have tables with optics, brochures, and works of art. Eventually, once it seems as if all are present, we go through the bird list, mentioning each species and each count group raising a hand if they identified the bird mentioned. Stories and locations for rare birds are shared, and another birding event in Costa Rica comes to an end.

These words could never portray the true excitement of this count, a day when we give ourselves over to birding in an excellent area for birding. However, if you can imagine seeing more than 150 species of birds, one species coming after another, trees of toucans, flocks of Red-billed Pigeons, antbirds whistling from the dark understory of rainforest, Red-lored Parrots filling the air with sound as three species of parakeets zip by in screeching flight, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle calling above a tall jade canopy, and sharing this and more with friends, loving partners, and like-minded people, if you can imagine that, this is what the Arenal count is like. It’s happening this year on December 8th, it’s gonna be good!

Some stats from previous Arenal counts:

2013: 342 species, 95 participants

2014: 332 species, 90 participants

2015: 322 species, 80 participants

2016: 377 species, 74 participants

2017: 338 species, 71 participants

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Early November Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, November is a low season for birding. So few birders visit, some might even call it a “non season” for birding. But the visiting birder deficit belies how good the birding can be. In November, us local birders thrive on sightings of cuckoos, thrushes, and other migrants including hundreds of shorebirds. Although it can rain, it’s not usually for the entire day and the cloudy weather keeps the birds moving. Although very few birders visit this birdy country during the month of lead gray skies; the ones who do take a chance on Tiquicia in November enjoy a welcome blend of elbow room and wonderful birding.

I was reminded of those benefits during recent guiding followed by an additional morning of easy-going birding. These were a few highlights of mine and other birders in Costa Rica from the past week:

Three Days, 300 Plus Bird Species 

It was actually three and a half days but the count was still well over 300. My client is accustomed to watching a lot of birds and also understands better than anyone how hard it can be to see them (Yve Nagy Morrell put in the time and effort needed to get the highest total of bird species in the ABA region during her Big Year in 2017- quite the accomplishment!). That said, we saw so many birds (including several seriously choice species!), the birdless moments were minimal.

There are too many highlights from those three days of avian excitement to mention, some that come to mind are good looks at Hook-billed Kite, Snowcap, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Spectacled and Black-and-white Owls a la Cope, King Vulture, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo to name a few.

Scarlet Macaws in the village of Tarcoles were also nice. This was one of around 90 species found around Tarcoles during a couple of hours that same afternoon! 

Roosting Owls

Thanks to Cope, we had wonderful looks at Crested and Spectacled Owls. A couple days later, thanks to the Bogarin brothers at the Bogarin Nature Trail, I had fantastic looks at another Spectacled Owl!

Cope’s Crested Owl 

Spectacled Owl from Bogarin

Quail-dove bonanza

I admit that might be pushing the description a bit but three species of quail-doves on three days of birding in Costa Rica is seriously, unusually good. The Buff-fronted at Cinchona made an appearance, Olive-backed walked across the trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, and we also had a beautiful surprise Ruddy stroll into view at the same site.

Keel-billed Motmot at the Bogarin Nature Trail

After my birdy days with Yve, the Bogarin Trail had Mary and I looking at an extremely cooperative Keel-billed Motmot. Although few migrant species appeared in our fields of view, we heard one Uniform Crake and enjoyed point blank looks at species visiting the feeder.

The usual Russet-naped Wood-Rail was also in the house at Bogarin.

More data on Unspotted Saw-whet Owls

As if the birds above weren’t enough, Ernesto Carman and crew have been tracking Unspotted Saw-whets in the high mountains and gathering valuable data about this rare, little known species! Now I know why it can take a while to find one during a night of cold, high mountain birding.

Return of the Rufous-crested Coquette

A Rufous-crested Coquette has once again made an appearance at Rancho Naturalista. Attesting to the welcoming, gracious character of this excellent birding lodge, the owners have invited any and all local Costa Rican birders to visit and see the coquette. They just ask for a donation to help with buying materials for bird education and workshops. I hope the mega stays long enough to see it this year!

If the past few days are any indication, November is a good time to visit Costa Rica for birding. There will probably be some rain to contend with but when it stops, the birds can come fast and furious! Coming to Costa Rica? I know some excellent tours available for good prices, contact me at [email protected] to learn more!