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] .