The first time I visited Carara National Park was in 1992. I went by bus with a few friends, one of whom was also a birder. We stayed in the hot coastal village of Tarcoles and made the long, even hotter walk to the national park. There was good birding on the way and on the short trails that left from the HQ; a small building at the southern edge of the park. There were lots of birds; trogons, various flycatchers, antbirds, manakins and many other classic species of lowland rainforest. Fast forward to the present and there are more places to stay, better knowledge of where to find birds around this hotspot, and although populations of humid forest species have declined in response to a drier climate, the birding continues to be exciting and excellent.
I was reminded of the world-class birding during a recent day of guiding in and around Carara. This is a bit of how that long good day of birding went:
Dry forest habitats along the Guacalillo Road
A good road rather near Carara, it’s probably the closest spot to connect with all possible species of dry forest habitats. Since the national park didn’t open until eight, we began the birding on this route. The birding is typically sweet along this road and Saturday was no exception. We were entertained and kept buy by:
–Multiple Turquoise-browed Motmots perched on wires, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows chattering from the roadside, and seeing numerous other common edge species.
-Of note was the calling activity of Crested Bobwhites. We always had at least one within earshot and had excellent looks at the first one encountered.
-Although Lesser Ground-Cuckoo was quiet, we eventually got looks at one.
-Nice looks at Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots.
–White-throated Magpie Jay, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and other dry forest species.
Carara National Park
After nearly two hours of constant great birding, it was time to extend the awesomeness to another completely different habitat, the lowland rainforests of Carara National Park. Although the mosquitoes were pretty bad, highlights there included:
-A close, singing male Ruddy Quail-Dove, views of Streak-chested Antpitta, and even closer prolonged looks at Marbled Wood-Quail.
-Army Ant swarm with several Gray-headed Tanagers, Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed and Bicolored Antbird, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner.
–Royal Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Blue-crowned Manakin, views of Slaty-tailed and Baird’s Trogons, and other nice rainforest species. Oh, and a soaring adult King Vulture right from the parking area.
The Tarcoles area
A post-lunch stop, the edge habitats and seasonal wetlands around Tarcoles turned up a few nice bird species, the best being a sweet roosting Black-and-white Owl (thanks to gen from a local farmer!), Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Lineated Woodpecker, and Black-headed and Gartered Trogons.
Cerro Lodge Road
Leaving this birdy site for last, we had some of the same species as the morning but also saw our target Crane Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and some other new birds before the rains convinced us to call it a day.
After tallying the results, including birds that were heard only, we had a list of more than 140 species. Incredibly, around Carara, that’s pretty much par for the course (!). However, considering that the birding takes place in three or four distinct biodiverse tropical habitats, a consistent high total is also perhaps unsurprising. As always, I wonder what I will find the next time I visit the Carara area? Birding there is best done over the course of two or three days but if you can only manage one, that single exciting day of birding is still worth the trip.
If you only had four days to go birding in Costa Rica, where would you go? What would you do? For most visiting birders, such circumstances are a non-issue, most people visit Costa Rica for a week or more. However, for those of us with such limitations as jobs, family, and other responsibilities, trips of four or five days might be the only means of checking out the avian scene. Is a four or five day trip worth the flight? I dare say that it was for two serious birders from Ohio during recent guiding.
The tour was focused on maximizing time in the field and seeing as many species as possible along with looking for a few choice targets. Since we only had a few days to work with, we couldn’t really bird in more than one or two regions. Therefore, we concentrated on the area with the most chances at lifers and a nice, fat speciose list; the Caribbean slope.
Since we also had to drive through the highlands and stay one morning in the Central Valley, this also gave a chance for a different suite of species on Poas, and a bonus morning of birding at Villa San Ignacio. Given the significant number of bird species that these sites added to the overall experience, birding on Poas and at Villa was a good choice.
The following gives an idea of how things went while birding in Costa Rica from June 14 to June 18:
Poas and Cinchona
After meeting at the airport and picking up the Suzuki Vitara from Vamos Rent-a-Car, we drove to the high elevations of Poas. The birding was rather brief and quetzals refused to play but we did see flyby Barred Parakeets, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, both silky-flycatchers, nightingale-thrushes, Sooty Thrush, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and several other highland endemics.
For whatever reason, Cinchona was not nearly as productive. Most of the hummingbirds were there and the cafe provided much appreciated, delicious, home-cooked cuisine but the barbets and toucanets had taken an afternoon break from the fruit feeders. On the rest of the drive to the lowlands, we also saw Bat Falcon and White Hawk among a few other nice birds and were greeted by a flyover Green Ibis at our hotel in the Caribbean lowlands.
The Sarapiqui Lowlands
Quinta de Sarapiqui was our base for the next three nights, a good choice for birding the lowlands and doing a morning trip to mid-elevation sites at Virgen del Socorro. The hotel accommodated with early morning coffee and if we had wanted, would have also arranged early breakfasts. Given their feeder photo action, it’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time at the hotel but we had too many other birds to see further afield.
During one full day and an afternoon in the Sarapiqui area, we did well with 150 or more species. The first morning at the edges of the La Selva reserve gave us several key species including fantastic Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-fronted Nunbirds, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Pale-billed, and Rufous–winged Woodpeckers, woodcreepers, antshrikes, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-necked, Pied, and White-whisked Puffbirds, and more!
We stopped for a tasty lunch at the riverside restaurant, Rancho Magallanes and birded onward, taking a road near Quinta that accesses a wetland and lowland rainforest.
The wetland was rather quiet as was the birding in sunny conditions for the rest of the afternoon BUT fantastic close looks at Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle made up for the low activity! One of the rarer raptors in Costa Rica, this hawk-eagle is very difficult to find, we had one soaring with vultures and watched it for as much as we wanted. We also picked up a few other lowland species and had brief looks at Scarlet Macaws but came up short with target Great Green Macaw and Snowy Cotinga.
Since that area can also be good for night birds, we stayed until dark. As dusk grew, a Great Potoo called and we saw Short-tailed Nighthawk fly overhead. I then found the potoo and we watched as it sallied from a high snag before flying overhead on long, silent, owlish wings. Next on the list was a Vermiculated Screech-Owl that showed well followed by a Mottled Owl that came in and also gave great looks! Four nocturnal species in less than 40 minutes. This was outstanding and can’t be expected on every visit but does show how good this site can be for night birds. No luck with Black-and-White Owl on the drive back to the hotel but I bet we could have found one if we would have stayed out for another hour or two (not what we wanted after birding from dawn to dusk).
Virgen del Socorro
Realizing that we could see a lot more species by visiting Socorro, we spent a morning up that way. Highlights included views of Dull-mantled and Zeledon’s Antbirds, Nightingale Wren, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Emerald Tanager, White-vented Euphonia, and some 120 other species.
I had hoped for lunch at Mi Cafecito but since this site was busy with some folkloric activity that included loud music, we drove back into the lowlands. At a new restaurant in La Virgen that also mentioned trails and views of the river, we checked out birdy gardens and the river. It looked ideal for birds like Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Snowy Cotinga, and the macaws but a birder doesn’t see much during the sunny 2 p.m. doldrums, at least we didn’t.
Our last full day in the Caribbean lowlands began at the hummingbird hotspot of El Tapir. The main target, Snowcap, did indeed make an appearance and showed very well as did a few other hummingbird species. No luck with the coquette but the birds we saw in the forest may have made up for not seeing that exquisite little hummingbird. On the first trail, some foliage in movement revealed a serious mega, Bare-necked Umbrellabird! It wasn’t that close to the trail but it was big enough to get some clear looks at the oddly shaped head and red skin on the neck. It appeared to be a young male. Over on the other trail, Ocellated Antbirds took center stage as we checked out an antswarm! For a moment, I thought, “If a ground-cuckoo shows up, this could be the best visit I have ever had to El Tapir, ever”, but the ants weren’t that active and we didn’t see much else.
The Cope Experience
After a couple of hours at El Tapir, our fortune continued when we made the short drive to Cope’s place and were immediately greeted by another choice species, White-tipped Sicklebill! We had arrived at just the right time because the bird flew in, fed for about one minute, and then left for good. The feeders weren’t all that active but as usual, the birding was replete with close, satisfying looks at Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and various other species.
Over in the woods, the fine birding continued with scope views of Spectacled Owl and nice looks at Honduran White Bats roosting under a Heliconia leaf. We searched the forest for Crested Owl to no avail but did have excellent views of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle! Semiplumbeous Hawk also vocalized but wouldn’t come close, probably to avoid the hawk-eagle.
Before moving on, Cope said, “Let’s go check the old spot for Crested owl. I haven’t seen it there for some time but it’s worth a look.” We waited in the air-conditioned vehicle as Cope looked for the owl. After a few minutes, he returned and motioned us to follow him- a good sign! Sure enough, there they were, and not just one Crested Owl, but a pair with a juvenile!
To finish off the experience, we swung by a Great Potoo nest to digiscope a juvenile.
Although we could have seen more, by 2 p.m., it was time to drive back to the Central valley. As luck would have it, I noticed something perched on a snag as we drove the main road through the rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. No, it couldn’t be..but it was! An adult Ornate hawk-Eagle! Our third and final hawk-eagle in Costa Rica and in just three full days of birding.
Villa San Ignacio
On the last morning of the tour,we birded the grounds of Villa San Ignacio. The habitat at the hotel lived up to expectations with more than 50 species recorded from 6 until 8. Although endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow was a no show, we did see White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Lesson’s Motmot, Plain-capped Starthroat, White-fronted Parrots, Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-white Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, and various other additions for the trip.
After that final sweet morning of birding, we dropped off the car and said our goodbyes. The final count was nearly 300 bird species identified. Although some of those were inevitably heard only, three hawk-eagles, antbirds, and an umbrellabird sort of made up for it!
The birding was focused and we didn’t stop for any siestas but even if you wanted a more relaxed trip, three days in Costa Rica could still turn up a heck of a lot of species. Interested in a quick trip to Costa Rica? Want to see quetzals and more? Stay at hotels ideal for birding? I can help, please contact me at [email protected] .
On your way to Costa Rica? As the plane descends below the clouds and makes its approach to the Juan SantaMaria airport, look out the window to the north. You might notice that one of those green-topped mountains is punctuated with a big, rocky crater. That particular mountain would be Poas, one of the main volcanoes that overlooks the Central Valley. You can actually visit that crater, walk right up to the edge, and look in to see the steam rising from an uninviting, acidic pool of water. The experience requires an online reservation and the stay is limited to 30 minutes, but that is one way to visit Poas.
Another way is not actually going to the crater of this popular national park but visiting the upper slopes of the volcano from the road. With the trails being closed near the crater, this is currently the most productive way for a birder to visit Poas, and is also the easiest means of seeing a great selection of cloud forest species just 45 minutes from the airport. Yes, it really is that close and there really are Resplendent Quetzals, Wrenthrushes, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and many other highland endemics up there in the forests of that green mountain.
The straightforward access to habitats on Poas make for quick and easy cloud forest birding. Although most birders get their highland species fix in the Dota Region and/or Monteverde, a birder with an extra morning, day, or afternoon can’t go wrong with a visit to Poas. These are a few easy ideas and some of the birds that can be seen and photographed:
Birds in the Central Valley
Before driving to Poas, you may want to check for other species at or near your hotel. A fair number of bird species occur in hotel gardens, remnant forest in riparian zones, and on coffee farms. Although the majority are common species of edge habitats that can also be seen elsewhere, some are more easily seen in the Central Valley. These include such species as Lesson’s Motmot, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and Chestnut-collared Swift among others.
Take Route 146
This is the most direct and quickest route to the Poas area. Although there is very little room to pull over and bird on the way up, some of the side roads can have both ground-sparrows, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and other more common species.
Birding at Freddo Fresas, Sazones, and other sites in Poasito
Poasito is the main settlement on the upper part of Route 146. Because the area receives a number of local visitors, especially on weekends, there are a number of cafes, restaurants, and other small tourist attractions. A few of these places have gardens and/or access to a riparian zone that can host Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Red-faced Spinetail and other species of middle elevation habitats. At times, fruiting trees can also attract Black Guan, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and even Resplendent Quetzal! The garden at Freddo Fresas is the best spot for hummingbirds and can also be good for other species. Sazones has one of the nicest views of the riparian zone although fruiting trees can also be seen right from the main road.
The Volcan Restaurant
After taking the turn towards Poas instead of Varablanca, the vehicle quickly descends to a forested riparian zone. The Volcan Restaurant is on the left, next to a stream, and is a good place to stop for lunch. Hummingbird feeders in the back attract several species including Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Violet Sabrewing, and Lesser Violetear. Wait long enough and you might also see Magenta-throated Woodstar and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Volcano Hummingbirds are regular, Scintillant only very rarely so, be careful about separating the females of these two similar species. In the forest, various cloud forest species can occur including quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet and Spangle-cheeked Tanager but quite often, this site is pretty quiet.
The high elevations
The best habitat along the road is after Poas Lodge. There are few places to pull the vehicle off the road and one has to be careful of traffic to and from the national park. The birding can be good anywhere along this stretch, the best activity occurring at fruiting trees and where mixed flocks are roaming. A good number of high elevation species are also possible including Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty Thrush, Black-capped Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Ruddy Treerunner, and various other birds. This upper part is also where a birder needs to go to see Fiery-throated Hummingbird. Wrenthrush, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and even Highland Tinamou are present but are more often heard than seen.
Just 7 minutes from Poasito to the east, the crossroads at Varablanca make for a nice stop. There are a few cafes here, the one I recommend the most is the place just across the street from the gas station. They have an espresso machine, various snacks, empanadas, and so on. Although the habitat at this spot has decreased, it can still be good for Yellow-winged Vireo, Collared Redstart, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and other species.
Whether fitting in a morning of birding or a full day of high and middle elevation species, the Poas area is ideal for quick and easy birding from the San Jose area. Email me at [email protected] to learn more about tour options for the Poas area and the best places to stay for birding in Costa Rica. The birding is always exciting, I hope to see you soon!
As is common with subcultural behavior, us birders have also come up with our own set of phrases and terminology, many of those words coming from that bastion of serious birding, The United Kingdom. Thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of British birders, we say things like, “I tried to twitch the Pittasoma but dipped. I suspect that I was the victim of stringing.”
Most readers of this blog probably know what that means but if not, it translates to, “I tried to go and see that Black-crowned Antpitta but failed. I suspect that someone lied about the bird being present at that site.”
Other birding terminology includes such words as “bins”, “pishing”, “lifer”, and “mega”, these last two ranking among the most important and exciting. They are also, by nature, often intertwined. When a bird is a lifer, it’s a species that a birder has never seen before. It’s a lifer because it makes it onto your “life list” but it’s also a lifer because seeing it is a new life event. Pictures of it were probably seen in the field guide, maybe viewed online, but you have yet to see it in life, in person (in bird?). It’s one more goal attained, one more connection made with the incredible proliferation of life on Earth and when the bird also happens to be a mega, the lifer experience takes on even highest levels of birding importance.
A mega is a bird that is exceptionally rare or at least very difficult to encounter. These are the birds that are encountered so infrequently, it seems that they must be ghosts, just don’t seem to exist, because we bird so often in places where they occur and just never, ever see them. Some have referred to such species as “avian unicorns” but birds like the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, the Speckled Mourner, and the Harpy Eagle are indeed real. They are out there, you just have to know the right places to see them, how to see them, and have the time and determination to find them.
One of the mega birds in Costa Rica (and elsewhere really), is the Tawny-faced Quail. Despite the disdain some birders have for grouse and other birds reminiscent of the good old chicken, many pheasant species, ground-loving quails and grouse-like birds are megas because they are just so hard to see, this species included. The grouse are worth the patience, though, and not just because every bird counts but also because most of them have beautiful, intricately patterned plumages. With its combination of rufous, gray, and buff hues, the Tawny-faced Quail is no exception, a shame it’s not easier to find!
The Tawny-faced Quail is a unicorn birding challenge for reasons shared with other members of the mega club:
Shy and unobtrusive– By all accounts, this bird doesn’t exactly enjoy the “Limelight”. Unlike some other ground birds, this little quail is almost never, ever seen as it forages on the forest floor. A birder could do a Zen staring contest on and to the sides of trails in beautiful forest for hours and still come up empty because this quail does not like to play. Although the dapple of leaves, shades of green and network of rainforest vegetation are pleasant to contemplate, this bird is unobtrusive to an extreme and doesn’t even like to vocalize. It does so occasionally but may call for less then a minute and then briefly calls again several minutes later.
Naturally rare– Rarity can be a hard call to make when a species is already naturally tough to find but based on years of looking and what others have said, I feel confident in saying that this species is rare. This doesn’t mean that it’s about to go extinct, just that it probably has low populations even in appropriate habitat. Although this is normal for many rainforest species, it doesn’t facilitate seeing them.
Access to habitat– As with any bird, you can’t have any chance of seeing it unless you can bird where it lives. As for the Tawny-faced Quails of Costa Rica, they have this curious distribution centered on the northern part of the country. This species also only lives in mature rainforest, perhaps more so in hilly areas, from the border of Nicaragua to the slopes of the northern mountain ranges. Oddly it doesn’t seem to live in the Sarapiqui area, nor south of there.
With those factors in mind, a satellite map of forest cover in Costa Rica shows why we have so few chances of finding Tawny-faced Quail in the country. Most of its habitat is gone and the few places where it may still occur are mostly out of reach. Even if you birded the borders of those forests, that’s probably not going to do the trick for this shy bird. You have to venture into the forest and even then, probably won’t see it.
BUT, many many thanks to Juan Diego Vargas, the mega Tawny-faced Quail has become far easier (or less difficult) to actually see. A local expert birding guide who also re-found Ocellated Poorwill, while birding at Laguna del Lagarto on Global Big Day, 2019, Juan Diego heard a Tawny-faced Quail vocalize at dusk and close to the lodge. Despite searching for it at night with Laguna guide Didier, they did not find it. Showing that determination is often needed to connect with a mega, Juan Diego returned to Laguna another evening and after doing another night search for a bird that sang a few times around 6 p.m., they found it!
As an example of how tough this species can be, Juan Diego had looked for this bird at this same site on various occasions over the years. It has been seen there by others on the trails but on very few occasions. Perhaps it only calls during a certain season or in certain conditions? Maybe he was listening at the wrong time of day? In any case, we now know that one or more of this species could be regular right near the lodge. How do we know that? Not only because Juan Diego found it, but also because our group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica heard and saw one this past weekend.
While guiding in the same area where Juan Diego had the bird and at the right time of 6 p.m., I had hoped I might hear one vocalize. Sure enough, the quail called, only for around 15 seconds, but there it was and with that it made it onto my country list. We went back for dinner and I told Didier we had heard it. He went immediately out to look for the bird and despite knowing where it had called, it took him around an hour to find it. But, find it he did and thanks to that, we were able to lays eyes on this mega lifer on its night roost.
Seeing such a rare species just sitting there on a vine at night was nothing short of surreal. We counted it and it’s no different that seeing a wild bird foraging in the forest or scuttling across a path but it’s hard not to feel that it was almost too easy. Since it took serious effort to find the quail, that’s actually not the case but it was still a surreal way to get a mega lifer.
It remains to be seen if the Tawny-faced Quail will continue to so readily show itself to birders at Laguna del Lagarto, especially if/when a parade of photographers arrive. Hopefully, photographing the bird can be managed correctly and every birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto can lays eyes on this mega for years to come. In the meantime, the birding is always exciting at Laguna, we had Pied Puffbirds, Ocellated Antbirds, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants and more. Contact me to learn about trips to this excellent site.