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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Looking for Catbirds in the Caribbean Lowlands

Like most birders from the eastern USA, I became familiar with the Gray Catbird shortly after receiving my first binoculars. They were 7 x 32 Jason-Empires from Sears and had a fast focus lever. Although I can’t recall the moment, I must have used that focusing lever to get a close look at many a catbird during my first days of summer birding. It’s a common bird up that way, a species of sumac thickets and sweet scented vegetation of June mornings. They were easy to hear too, those sleek dark gray birds with their mewing calls.

On my last summer visit up north, I was surprised at how abundant they were in the thickets along the Niagara Gorge. Catbirds were probably always just as common, but since they are decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, I had a new found appreciation for them. Those cool Mimids migrate south but most just don’t go quite as far as southern Central America. This is why it can be a tough one to add to a Costa Rican year list, one that many local birders still need, and a bird that you can’t just take for granted. With that in mind, Mary and I targeted Gray Catbird and a few other choice species during a recent morning of birding in the Sarapiqui lowlands.

You won’t see Luscious Green Honeycreepers in the Niagara Gorge…

A classic birding zone, Sarapiqui lays claim to such famous hotspots as the La Selva Biological Station, Selva Verde lodge, Dave and Daves, and other places that will give your binoculars a work out. Thanks to inspiration from Chris Fischer’s wonderful blog, , we tried for the catbird along with Yellow-breasted Chat and various resident lowland birds required for our year list.

We found our hoped for Rufous Motmot.

Starting at the Comandancia Road, we found suitable chat habitat that must have been the same spot where one had been seen in January. Although the chat failed to come out and play, Mary was successful in calling in a catbird! True to its name (and the sacrificial birder effect), when I went to fetch the car, she heard its mewing cat-like calls. Luckily, it stayed long enough for me to also see it. An excellent year bird, it was also a long awaited lifer for Mary. In fact, she had waited so long to see one, she could hardly believe it was a catbird when looking at it. She told me, “But it looks like a thrush, it looks dark, I have waited so long to see one, it just doesn’t seem possible.”

But it indeed was and our year Gray Catbird joined a very productive list that also included two species of macaws, brief looks at a Snowy Cotinga, and many other year birds including Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Scaled Pigeon, Plain-colored Tanager, White-ringed Flycatcher, and other key species. We even heard Purple-throated Fruitcrows (!) a species I have never encountered at the edge of La Selva Biological Station.

With Gray Catbird in the bag, hopefully we can continue the trend of seeing species common up north but kind of rare in Costa Rica. Those would be birds like Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, other warblers, a Sharpie and a Coop. At least if we don’t see them now, we can still look from them in November. In the meantime, we also have more than enough cool resident species to search for, species like nunbirds, antbirds, and a small owl that lacks spots.

bird finding in Costa Rica

February in Costa Rica

The second month of the year is one of the more popular times for visiting Costa Rica, especially for birders. The combination of dry season and a warm, sunny escape rightfully appeals. For birders from Europe, the deal gets sweetened by Prothonotary Warbler and other wintering birds from the north. It is good time to wear binos in the land of quetzals although it’s not the only time to visit.

Keep in mind that you can see just as many resident species and perhaps more easily at other times of the year. Hotels stays will also be cheaper and there won’t be any trouble finding rooms or experienced guides. But, it’s February now and these are a few things to expect:

More owl vocalizations

Well, I don’t know, maybe not because owls are so notoriously unreliable. But, I do feel like they call more right now, that was certainly the case when Mary and I heard several calling Mottled, Black-and-White, Crested, Spectacled, and a Tropical Screech Owl near Jaco in less than an hour before down! A sweet set of year birds, many more to come in 2019.

Sunny, windy weather

High pressure systems bring windy, sunny conditions to much of Costa Rica and especially in February. It makes for pleasant scenery but takes a bite out of birding. It can also get out of hand in Guanacaste with high wind speeds. If birding up that way, I would look for birds in sheltered spots and around water sources. Speaking of that…

Maybe an interesting migrant or two?

Admittedly of more interest to local birders than folks from up north, now is when we have a better chance of finding a Cedar Waxwing, Northern Parula, or some other rare visitor to Costa Rica. A good way to find rare warblers and other vagrants in Costa Rica during February is to search for them at any water sources in windy Guanacaste. I wish Mary and I were up there now actually waiting by some windswept remnant bit of water. Well, maybe only if something rare shows but I bet something would.

Lots of other typical, great birding

As usual, we can expect this on any visit to Costa Rica. The birding is fantastic, there is always a lot to see and identify with a birding app for Costa Rica. I hope you have a great trip!

big year Birding Costa Rica

A Few Nice Year Birds for Team Tyto

Year birding isn’t the same as every day birding. It can be but in general, if you want to maximize your year list, you have to think long term and use your time wisely. If a rarity appears, you might need to chase it. If you get a chance, a window of birding time to look for winter ducks, this might be your golden opportunity. Pass up the chances and you are less likely to reach your goal because that day scheduled for a bobwhite, booby, or Black-throated Blue Warbler might be too windy or rained out. You might suffer some accident between now and then or there might be a family emergency that pushes birding right out of the picture.

Bird any chance you get but work on the birds that are here now rather than later, go for the tough species and the other ones will fall into place. That’s sort of what Team Tyto (Mary and I) have been doing since January 1st. We go birding when we can and will hopefully, eventually, get to enough places to surpass 700 before the end of 2019. Recently, we added a few nice ones here and there during sojourns to Jaco, Poas, and in the Central Valley…

Northern Potoo

Picking the best one first, we were very pleased to get this species for the year! It’s not easy and would have required a trip to Guanacaste likely accompanied by frustrating times as we listened for it in vain. Luckily, our year tick (and lifer for Mary!) happened while looking for shorebirds at night around Punta Morales (don’t ask). After having pretty much given up on the potoo responding to playback, a chance drive down a dike road to look for Boat-billed Herons brought us straight to the nocturnal prize. It was perched up on a lone post, looking all the while like some sculpture of a weird bird. This year bird gift was right in front of us and gave us walk away views. No Boat-billed Heron on that night but we’ll take Northern Potoo for 2019!

Resplendent Quetzal

What year in Costa Rica could ever be right without adding this star bird during the first few months? We got a pair up on Poas and hope to see more at other high elevation sites over the next several months.

Slate-colored Seedeater

It was good to likewise add this rare bird early in the game. I know a good site for it but who knows how long they will be there? Point blank looks at several of this local seedeater were some of the highlights during a long, fine day of birding. The Jaco area also yielded Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Baird’s Trogon, and a bunch of other cool birds.


Although we only saw one of these nocturnal predators, we still heard and counted several Crested, Mottled, Black-and-White, Spectacled, Tropical Screech, and Pacific Screech-Owls during some pre-dawn owling near Jaco!


Closer to home, it was satisfying to get both ground-sparrows at the same time. Although we will likely see them again in 2019, the endemic and endangered Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow is always a treat. The White-eared doesn’t look too shabby either.

Some good year birds for Team Tyto! We hope to find a lot more, now I just need to convince Mary to brave the freezing cold on Irazu to get that Unspotted Saw-whet Owl…