More than 920 bird species have been recorded in Costa Rica. That would be a hefty list of possibilities for a country but when we are talking about a place roughly similar in size to West Virginia, Wales, or Denmark, yeah, that’s a heck of a lot of birds in a small area! Granted, a good number of those species are vagrants but at the end of the day, the size of the official bird list for Costa Rica hints at nothing less than fantastic birding.
That would be the type of birding where you see lifer after lifer after lifer, where the new birds keep popping up while enjoying more views of trogons, macaws, and toucans.
It’s birding that includes mega flocks of glittering tanagers, climbing woodcreepers, flitting flycatchers, and other species moving through your field of view.
It’s watching an array of iridescent hummingbirds and testing the limits of photography as they zip back and forth.
Thanks to protected areas in several major ecoregions, the birding opportunities in Costa Rica are both diverse and abundant. In terms of birds to look forward to, there are too many species to mention. Today, these cool birds came to mind:
Motmots are fair-sized birds that sort of look like rollers. Several have long tails with a racket-like shape and are plumaged in shades of green, blue, and rufous. Most love the shady side of life but since they also perch for long periods, they make great subjects for the lens. Six species occur in Costa Rica, visit the right places with a good guide and you can see all of them.
One of the 50 plus hummingbird species that have been recorded in Costa Rica, this sparkling bird is common in lowland and foothill rainforests! On a personal note, I can still recall the first time I saw this species. I was birding the parking area at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park at the end of 1992, looking at the second growth on the other side of the highway. In quick succession, I saw my lifer Buff-throated Saltator, Lineated Woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and Crimson-collared Tanager. Then, to top off the lifer cake, this glittering purple and green hummingbird, a male Crowned Woodnymph, zipped into my field of view. I have seen many more since then but that first woodnymph was the best.
Collared Redstart and other highland species
Costa Rica has wood-warblers, this ones entertains the eye in the highlands. Like several other birds of the mountains, it only lives in Costa Rica and western Panama.
Macaws and Toucans
Fantastic, large birds, thanks to protection and reintroductions, macaws and toucans are fairly common in various parts of Costa Rica.
Another fancy tropical bird, jacamars sort of look like bee-eaters, a living carnaval dart or hummingbird on steroids. It’s pleasing to know that the Rufous-tailed Jacamar is common in many parts of Costa Rica and loves the lens.
With 900 other birds on the list, this is a small sampling of birds waiting in Costa Rica. It’s worth mentioning that Resplendent Quetzals are here too. Want to know where to go and get ready for that eventual trip? Please support this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, hope to eventually celebrate birds with you in Costa Rica!
July in Costa Rica, a month marked by a respite from the rains. Birding tours take advantage of the break in the weather to come to Costa Rica and watch quetzals, Emerald Tanagers, and three dozen hummingbird species. They could just as well catch the same exciting wave of birding on trips to Costa Rica in June, September, or any other month of the year but for the visiting birder, a chance of sun beckons more than a promise of rain. Personally, I almost prefer the rain because although I may need to sit out the birding game during those occasional thunderstorms, the cloudy innings are going to be full of avian excitement. There are times when the mixed flocks just don’t stop and when a fruiting tree dishes up a constant, parading banquet of tanagers.
Such a birding boost tends to happen more on days of cloud and rain although I will admit that a few sunny days are nice. This is why July typically brings us some very welcome groups of birders during an otherwise slow and low season and of course, that bit of July business acts as an important injection of economic activity for every aspect of the tourism industry, birding included.
In a normal July, visit Carara National Park, Monteverde, or other sites and you might run into a birding tour or two. You might feel the lifer excitement emanating from other birders as they see their first Red-capped Manakins, watch flocks of parrots fly past the overlook at Cerro Lodge, locate a speck of a hawk-eagle flying high as it calls from above.
Not this July but we all know that 2020 isn’t a year for much of anything typical. While trying to stay well, and survive both literally and economically, blessed are those of us who can still find time for birding. Many find more than enough time even if the birding does take place at or close to home. In doing so, in hearing the descending calls of a White-eared Ground-Sparrow, at least we can be reminded that avian diversity can occur much closer to home than expected, that many birds can thrive in a variety of settings.
It’s wonderful to have parrots, ground-sparrows, and other interesting birds near our place in Heredia, Costa Rica but even the most appreciative of birders need occasional changes to their avian scene. Out back, I look past the vine-ridden second growth of the riparian zone and urge my gaze up onto the slopes of the nearby mountains, the volcanoes that host barbets, Black-cheeked Warblers, even quetzals. Some of my wanted year birds are up there doing their thing. In a July sans pandemic, I would probably be birding up that way.
I might bird the Poas area although would more likely be checking out a road that borders the cloud forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. That less traveled way connecting Varablanca in the highlands to Socorro in the foothills offers a precious glimpse into wilderness that may host Solitary Eagle and other rare birds. Would I get lucky with antpittas and ground-cuckoos species at an antswarm? Would a forest-falcon make a sudden, stealthy appearance? When the forest is intact, when its lush, complicated body of green and moss and massive trees creeps up and down ravines for several kilometers, it feels like anything is possible.
With high clearance and a four wheel drive, a birder can explore that exciting byway, bird the way down to lower elevations where glittering flocks of tanagers move through the bromeliads, where White Hawks call from the mist, where we can find hawk-eagles and other birds of the deep wild places. In fact, forget the vehicle, a trek down that road would be an exciting expedition coupled with the promise of avian adventure. The trek would provide much needed insight into raptor and cotinga populations. It might tell us if umbrellabirds still inhabit those forests, and might even reveal the presence of unicorn birds like the Gray-headed Piprites and the Black-crowned Antpitta.
It would be best to do this erstwhile expedition for at least three nights, camping along the way. Maybe four would be even better because the more time you spend in quality tropical habitat, the more you see, the better the chance of detecting a higher percentage of what is truly there. It’s like opening the window to see just a bit more, the stuff that was just outside of view, gazing longer at a complex painting to eventually find treasures hidden in plain sight.
Even with that window of focused observation, it still wouldn’t be everything because birds wander, some are in constant natural stealth mode, tropical birds play by their own complex set of rules. But, you won’t find anything if you don’t look and a trek down that road will reveal more of what’s going on than a one-day, bumpy drive. I hope I can do that mini-expedition some day, explore that road at leisure because no matter what I find, I already know that the birding will be nothing less than fantastic.
One of the best places to use as a base while exploring the Varablanca-Socorro road is Albergue Socorro. With luck, in 2021, another lodge with fantastic birding potential in this area will also be open and ready to impress. To learn more about where to look for birds in Costa Rica and to get ready for any type of birding trip to this beautiful country, please support my blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy birding!
Several months into our global pandemic and there’s no end in sight. I have to remind myself that it will end at some point, that tourism will return to Costa Rica at some time, but it won’t be soon enough. Perhaps some tourists will come from Australia or a few other places where the virus is kept under control but I don’t count on it because up in here, it’s no longer under control. Unfortunately, the virus has also taken off in Costa Rica, community spread is occurring in some areas and this makes it very unlikely for the country to establish any sort of tourism bubble with anyone anytime soon.
To me, in part, it happened because too many people didn’t take the situation seriously. Despite a regular education campaign by the government to educate people about the disease, protocols to follow, and behaviors to avoid, too many folks still went to parties and other social gatherings and just didn’t follow correct protocols. It was and is illegal to have parties but there wasn’t enough effective enforcement. Even though a good number of people did follow the rules, and stores counted and controlled the number of people allowed inside, and there was and is constant information about the virus, all you need is a low percentage of the population to spread the sickness and so here we are.
Even with driving restrictions, closures, and other attempts to slow the spread, and with the spread slowed down considerably, I still knew that this was very likely going to happen because literally every time I ventured outside, I saw several people speaking closely, face to face and without masks. We always saw people touching their faces and even hugging each other. Not everyone, but more than enough. I say, though, it would certainly be far worse if a good number of people hadn’t been careful, hadn’t followed guidelines and restrictions.
I knew that community spread was certain after hearing about the police having to routinely break up several parties and clandestine bars, about the lack of adequate measures at packaging plants, and despite the best efforts of the authorities, not being able to control undocumented immigration from Nicaragua. This factor in particular was and is a significant problem for stopping the spread of the virus in Costa Rica because the response of the authoritarian government of Nicaragua to the pandemic has been one of denial followed by little else. The president and his wife (who is the vice president) actually held parades and other major social gatherings as a show of faith against the virus (I wish I was kidding!). In Nicaragua, the particular mix of proteins and genetic material known as COVID-19 has responded quite faithfully indeed.
I can’t even imagine how difficult the situation must be in Nicaragua (both in terms of health care and economics) but I have had some hints and it’s likely why more Nicaraguans have been trying to enter Costa Rica. Sadly, at least a few have come in to Costa Rica, went to the hospital, and subsequently died from COVID-19 shortly thereafter. I can’t blame them for wanting to enter Costa Rica y any means possible; people will do desperate things to survive, especially when they have children than depend on them. Regarding the spread of the virus, this latter factor has certainly come into play in certain neighborhoods in Costa Rica because people who don’t have savings can’t afford not to work.
Obviously, people with no food will do what it takes to find work or do whatever it takes to find food for their kids. In such situations, the virus becomes an afterthought and that could be one of the main factors why the virus has taken off in poor areas of San Jose. It didn’t take much for the virus to take hold in such places and with so many people living in close conditions, it was a matter of days before hundreds of people had it. As of July, Costa Rica has several thousand cases, we are hearing about one or more people dying every day, and the government has responded with a near quarantine.
Counties with a certain incidence of cases and proximity to other counties with a high number of cases now have more driving restrictions and a near total stop to the local economy. On days that a vehicle is permitted to drive, you can only do so between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. and are only allowed to go to supermarkets, pharmacies, and hospitals. You can also go to work but only with a special note. The new restrictions will be in place for a week but will certainly be extended.
Since the goal is to see if the spread can be significantly slowed down, and that won’t happen within a week, I think it’s accurate to say that much of Costa Rica is currently in a certain state of long-term quarantine. Since we can walk as far as we want and probably ride bicycles, it’s not a total quarantine (that would of course be much worse) but, to a certain degree, the closures and lack of ability for transit approximate one.
For some time, I wished the government would have shown images of people who were sick and dying, shown the catastrophic damage that can happen to lungs, try something that makes you pay attention, that forces more people to follow guidelines but even then, I don’t think it would have made a big difference. So here we are, I am grateful that we have masks and have been using them, that we can have a better chance of survival.
I am also grateful for the birds we hear everyday. Every morning and afternoon, a couple of Spot-bellied Bobwhites are out there calling.
Amazingly, I can now say that I have more than my fill of that cool little quail, a bird very similar to one that I dreamed of seeing as a kid. That northern version was a svelte little bird that still ranged just out of reach of Niagara. I loved those pictures of it in the grass, I didn’t care if it was sort of like a chicken, in the city, I never saw those things anyways.
I wondered what it would be like to hear it say its name in that sunny grass, in places where there was no doubt so many more of those other birds that I couldn’t see, that were just out of range. I used to climb these Mulberry trees that grew in a vacant lot at the end of the street. We called it “the field” and it was actually the filled in remains of a canal but it had become a field, a place where we played baseball and where some very few wild things came to live and where if I climbed high enough in one of those trees, I could just see the blue glint of the Niagara River and the green shores of Canada. Somewhere way past there were warblers and other birds, way far west were impossible Western Tanagers and Stellar’s Jays. I wanted to fly past that horizon, away from the sidewalks and concrete of those streets, some day I did.
It’s always win-win situation when you can get something cool and support what you love at the same time. This is why so many of us coffee drinking birders love to buy bird-friendly shade grown coffee, and why we would rather purchase products that support habitat for birds. It’s especially nice when we can buy high quality bird art that supports research and conservation because what birder wouldn’t love to see portraits of their favorite species on the walls of their nest? Who wouldn’t love to have posters showing beautiful tropical species? Whether those paintings remind us of what we would rather be doing or just add the right sort of avian flavor to the personal nest, pictures of birds are an essential accent for the home of every birder.
In Costa Rica, thanks to a new, local endeavor that blends art with conservation, I can admire some high quality bird art and know that my purchase helps with important research for conservation. Started by my friend and colleague Diego Quesada, “CaraCara” is a local business that creates high quality products related to birding where part of the proceeds are for research and conservation. The name of the company was inspired by a bird that has become rare in Costa Rica and other parts of its range, the Red-throated Caracara. Unlike caracaras of open country habitats, the Red-throated needs large areas of tropical forest and bucks the usual caracara opportunistic trend by mostly foraging on wasp nests.
Such picky specialization has undoubtedly led to the disappearance and diminishing of this species in many areas, Costa Rica included. To give an idea of the extent to which some birds can be affected by habitat loss, although the Red-throated Caracara was historically common in many parts of Costa Rica and Central America to southern Mexico, it has totally disappeared from much of that part of its range. It is still regular in large forested areas of the Amazon and the Darien but even there seems to only persist in areas with large blocks of unbroken forest. In Costa Rica, although we still need to learn more about where remaining populations might occur, the only ones known at the time of writing are in the heart of the forests of the Osa Peninsula and in northern Costa Rica.
Diego and other volunteers have been monitoring the very small population in the north since 2013 but for adequate eventual restoration and protection of this species, more information is needed. How large of a range do these birds have? How were they able to persist in the fragmented forests of the northern part of their range? Are there certain tree species that provide better habitat for their food source? Where else do they occur in Costa Rica?
To help populations of this species in Costa Rica and elsewhere, we need to find the answers to these and other questions as soon as possible. On the bright side of the caracara equation, now, we can help find those answers by purchasing bird posters from CaraCara.
This is one of three posters currently available.
Upon taking the poster out of the box, I was immediately impressed by the quality of the paper. Partly made from algae, the paper used for the posters is both durable and 100% sustainable.
The beautiful accurate illustrations are by Andrew Guttenberg and show fine details and colors I haven’t seen in some other posters. Unlike posters with glossy paper, these ones are more like prints of high quality paintings and therefore perfect for the wall of a den and places of business.
Classy and elegant, each poster also comes with a small sheet of information for the birds shown.
The other two posters currently available.
Several local birders and businesses have already purchased this quality bird art. Once tourism gets back into gear in Costa Rica, this elegant avian decor will also act as high quality souvenirs that double as funding for research and conservation of the Red-throated Caracara. However, to acquire these beautiful posters, hopefully, birders won’t need to wait to visit Costa Rica. Soon, they will also be available for purchase and shipping within the USA. Keep an eye on the CaraCara website for more information about that as well as other birding products being developed by this innovative, local company.