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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Tinamous in Costa Rica: How Common are They?

Tinamous are one of several types of birds guaranteed to be completely unfamiliar to birders from North America and northern Eurasia. Birders from other places may also feel perplexed but may also find their appearance slightly more normal. Africans may be reminded of Guineafowl and Francolins, and folks from Asian and Australia might have visions of Megapodes.

An ancient lineage of terrestrial birds restricted to the neotropical region, tinamous haunt the undergrowth of tropical forest, second growth and, in the Andes and southern South America, grassland habitats. As with other ground birds, tinamous can be tough to see. We can’t blame them, over the course of several million years, it was always in their best interest to stay unseen in home ranges stalked by a fantastic host of deadly predators.

Being highly evolved to stay alive is why they tip their way through the leaves so quietly and carefully, why they would rather sing from the shadows than run into the open, and why tinamous are heard way more often than seen. Those carefully honed attributes work well because in many places, as long as the habitat is present and hunting is controlled, most species are common.

Not that one can expect to see tinamous all the time but in protected areas, these odd, football-shaped birds aren’t that rare, especially in Costa Rica.

Go birding in any sizeable area of lowland rainforest and you will probably hear the calls of a Great Tinamou. This species can also range into the foothills but seems more common in lowland forest. Listen for its tremulous whistles and watch for it in places like Carara, Tirimbina, and La Selva. In these and other sites where it has become accustomed to people, the Great Tinamou can be downright tame.

Slaty-breasted Tinamous aren’t seen as often as Great Tinamous but they are still pretty common. La Selva is probably the easiest place to see them, with patience, you can even connect on the entrance road. In other places, I have heard a surprising number of Slaty-breasteds give their low pitched calls from lowland rainforest, perhaps especially in sites with treefall gaps or other spots with some thick, protective understory.

Like the Great, the Slaty-breasted also occurs in lowland and foothill forest, although only on the Caribbean slope.

Go birding in Costa Rica in lowland and foothill sites with second growth and you will probably hear the loud whistles of the Little Tinamou. Listen for a bird that sounds like a horse that inhaled a hefty dose of helium. Seeing it is another matter; this small quail-like bird jst loves dense second growth habitat. The Little Tinamou might even be one of the most heard, unseen species in Costa Rica. As with other tinamous, with patience, it can eventually be seen. It might just take a while.

Go birding in tropical dry forest and the low whistles of the Slaty-breasted Tinamou are exchanged for the single whistle of the Thicket Tinamou. As with other tinamou species in Costa Rica, this one is much more common than expected. However, in many places, it seems to be shyer than other tinamous and thus more difficult to see. This is probably because it gets hunted more than the other species.

Thicket Tinamous can be viewed in dry and moist forest from near the Ensenada area north to Nicaragua. As with laying eyes on other tinamous, patience is a big virtue, your best chances are in places where they aren’t as shy, places like Palo Verde and Santa Rosa National Parks.

Lastly, we have the least common feathered American football in Costa Rica, the much coveted Highland Tinamou. Among international birders, this species tends to be more of a target than other tinamous because even though it ranges from Costa Rica to parts of northern South America, reliable sites for this bird are few.

It’s not as common as the lowland tinamous but it’s not all that rare either. I have heard them in many places, including a few calling from the cloud forests on the road to Poas, and they occur in fair numbers in most cloud forest sites (up to 2,000 or so meters). With that in mind, the best place in the world to see a Highland Tinamou is probably the Monteverde area. Stalk trails through cloud forest and you might lay eyes on this prize.

Tinamous are more common than you think; learn their calls and practice patience and you might see a few. Wondering where or how to see tinamous and other unfamiliar species in Costa Rica? Find some answers in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

In the meantime, happy birding!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration

The First Fall Migrant Out Back, Costa Rica, 2021

I should have gotten up earlier this morning. As a birder knows, the early hours are when the action really takes place. Watch a suitable spot in that first main hour of another glorious day and you might be surprised by the birds that fly through your field of view. However, start watching two hours later and you might want to curb the expectations. By then, the height of the avian rush hour has passed, you will have missed out on most of the action. At least, that’s how it is in Costa Rica and is why I wasn’t expecting anything when I started this morning’s casual back balcony bird watch.

Not having planned on birding this morning, the watch out back began well after dawn. It was more of a casual listen and look just to see if anything was out there. No focused, dedicated birding, I didn’t even bring the binoculars. I wasn’t surprised to see more of trees and other types of vegetation than birds but there were still a few things of avian origin, there always is.

Red-billed Pigeons were on their usual perch.

Cabanis’s Wrens called from a leafy wall of second growth, Blue Grosbeaks sang, and a Yellow-bellied Elaenia “screamed”. Fresh coffee is good but it’s always better with bird song! My casual coffee and birding changed when I noticed a small, “dull” bird perched on the tip of a thin, broken snag. I hustled back inside to get the binocs but sure enough, even though it was a two second interval, the bird had gone.

You can’t expect a bird to wait, it’s got survival to be concerned with. I kept my eyes on that snag, though, because I had a fair notion about the bird I had glimpsed. I figured it might come back and sure enough, a few seconds later, it zipped back to materialize on its perch. By instinct, I got my binoculars on the bird and a quick check confirmed my suspicion.

Western Wood-Pewee (from another day but on the same perch)

For birders from western North America, a WEWP might not seem like much, especially if you are visiting Costa Rica. For me, though, it won the prize as my first fall, 2021 passerine migrant seen out back. It was expected and the perch it chose was where I often see them but I was still impressed.

Impressed because the small flycatcher with the long wings could have spent the summer in Alaska. It could have flown from the conifers of Colorado, shared space with Lazuli Buntings and watched Cougars prowl. It could have come from Yellowstone, been seen by birders there or so many other places. Before it came to Costa Rica, it had to watch out for and avoid the Sharp-shinneds and Merlins that would be ever eager to end its life (they gotta eat too). Around here, it has to avoid Bat Falcons, snakes, and other hungry predators.

This past summer, “my” WEWP may have fled from horrendous fires, may have seen the clouds of smoke and high-tailed it south earlier than expected. No matter where it came from, it probably stopped off in Mexican mountains on the way, maybe even in places where I watched Red Warblers decorate dark conifers long ago.

All I can say for sure is that it came from some far off place to fly through long nights, always flying south, and when it got to Costa Rica, it chose a perfect perch out back. I hope it caught its fill of bugs. I hope it stays well on its way to wintering grounds on Andean slopes. When Western Wood-Pewee migration happens in spring, as it makes the journey back to the mountains of the north, I hope it stops here again. Most of all, I hope we can make the changes needed to ensure habitat for the bird, for us humans, and for future people to see a WEWP and feel amazed.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

What are These “New” Birds for Costa Rica?

Costa Rica just got some birds added to the country list! Well, at least some common name changes in eBird. Since the recent, latest taxonomic changes made to the super popular birding platform, if you happen to spot a Tawny-throated Leaftosser doing its reclusive ground bird thing while birding in Costa Rica, you won’t find it listed with that name. As of the latest taxonomic change, it has been officially renamed “Middle American Leaftosser”.

Why the new name? An official change in nomenclature for a bird can happen for a few different reasons, one of the most common being that the bird in question was split into more than one species. Since we have yet to be converted into robots, instead of calling the newly recognized evolutionary groupings something like Tawny-throated Leaftosser Number One, Tawny-throated Leaftosser Two, and so on, they are usually given names that reflect certain distinctive aspects of their plumages. But wait, don’t leaftossers look sort of you know, the damn same? Yes, many do but there’s an easy, fitting fix resolved by distribution. When the separate species look pretty darn similar, they can just be named after where they occur.

That works out just fine for Middle American Leaftosser. It fits and since vocalization differences and high molecular differences have been known for this taxon for some time, the split was also very much anticipated (welcome to the world of birding Middle American Leaftosser!). But why did the split take so long to happen? The reason why this particular renaming and other new names for birds in Costa Rica happened now is because studies were finally published that demonstrated evidence to propose splitting those birds. Proposals were then made to taxonomic committees (oh yes, they do exist!), and once accepted and included in the Clements List, eBird then also accepted those changes. And voila, here we are.

Since the official Costa Rica bird list also follows the Clements list, we can probably expect those new names in the next edition of the Birds of Costa Rica Field Guide by Garrigues and Dean, and in update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

These are the other “new birds” for Costa Rica, the ones to look for when making those eBird lists:

White-browed Gnatcatcher– This is a split from the Tropical Gnatcatcher and is the name given to birds that occur in Central America and in some dry habitats west of the Andes. Although descriptive, now, in addition to worrying about separating this bird from the similarly plumaged White-lored Gnatcatcher, we can also worry about confusing their names (and they do occur together in many places too).

Grass Wren– See a Sedge Wren in Costa Rica? Not any more! The Sedge Wrens in Ohio and other places in the north have been separated from the non-migratory Grass Wrens of Mexico and lands to the south. Keep an eye on the birds in Costa Rica, you never know if or when the populations of “Grass Wren” there and Panama might be given species recognition. They are also very local and probably locally endangered.

Chestnut-capped Warbler– The many years in waiting and anticipated split of the Rufous-capped Warbler has finally taken place! This is a change that will certainly please listers, splitters, systematists, and wood-warblerists (if you like wood-warblers, this means you) and should be appropriately celebrated with your choice of libation. If you saw one of those white-bellied birds in Arizona, it was a Rufous-capped. See one in Costa Rica? Chestnut-capped!

Cinnamon-bellied Saltator– Now that name has a ring to it! Goodbye Grayish Saltator, hello three way split with birds from Middle and Central America now being known as le Cinnamon-bellied Saltator. A nice name for a common garden bird with an easy-going, whistled song.

But that’s not all! There are also birds that were split but continue to have the same name in Costa Rica. Speaking of splits, it would also be negligent to not mention a few good candidates for future splits in Costa Rica (although I have done it before, it’s still worth doing again). Keep an eye on these birds and celebrate the eBird armchair ticks!:

Gray-rumped Swift– Birds in Central America are at least separate from some other taxa in South America.

White Hawk– Not the same as the White Hawks from the Amazon.

Great Black-Hawk– A good one to look into as plumage and perhaps behavior differ from birds in the Amazon (which act more like Common Black-Hawk there).

Choco Screech-Owl– Make sure to see those birds in southern Costa Rica because they are probably something new.

Black-faced Antthrush– If you have seen “this bird” in Mexico or northern Central America (except eastern Honduras), open a beer for the Mayan Antthrush! If you have also seen it in South America, keep tabs on where because although it hasn’t been split yet, based on vocal differences, there could be anywhere from 1 to 3 more species waiting in the evolutionary wings.

Black-headed Antthrush– The birds that occur in Costa Rica and western Panama could have enough differences in their songs to separate them from the ones in western South America (and maybe the Darien).

Streak-chested Antpitta– This is a split I would probably bet on as the differences in song and plumage as as much as ones shown by similar, accepted splits of taxa from the Amazon. Try to see birds from the Caribbean slope and from the Pacific slope (easier said than done unfortunately).

Long-tailed Woodcreeper– An eventual split, at least from Amazonian birds.

Olivaceous Woodcreeper– Several distinct groups have been known for many years, one of them occurs in Central America including Costa Rica. The others occur in various places in South America which means that you have to try and see as many as you can!

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner– The Chiriqui ws already split, hopefully, studies can elucidate how many other species are involved.

Sharpbill– There’s a good chance that each main group is a distinct species. Maybe, maybe not but always cool to see in any case (and not exactly easy in Costa Rica).

Scrub Euphonia- Crack open another cold one for the newly recognized Godman’s Euphonia of western Mexico!

Want to know how to identify and where to find these and other birds in Costa Rica? See “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Until then, I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Pacific slope

Can You See 300 Bird Species While Staying at Cerro Lodge?

Cerro Lodge hasn’t been visited by birders as long as some other places but I would still easily call it one of Costa Rica’s classic birding lodges. The birding is just too good. Shortly after opening around 2008, it didn’t take long for word to spread about Cerro being an excellent base for visiting Carara National Park and other nearby birding hotspots. Folks with binoculars also quickly realized that the birding was nothing short of fantastic, right at the hotel.

The highlights were many; Black-and-white Owls and Pacific Screech-Owls were frequent nightly visitors. The gaudy screeches and colors of Scarlet Macaws were a regular, daily occurrence. Birding from the deck of the restaurant turned out to be excellent for views of endangered flyby Yellow-naped Parrots and several other parrot and parakeet species. It was also good for raptors, especially the uncommon Crane Hawk. Guides scoping the distant mangroves even found displaying Yellow-billed Cotingas! Speck level distant but still identifiable and once in a while, one or two would move through the reforested grounds of the hotel.

These days, the owls don’t seem to visit the hotel as much (although they still live in the area), and some parrots may have declined but the birding is still fantastic. Thanks to an observation tower along with improved habitat, I would say that the birding chances might even be better and photography is excellent. With so many bird species possible at and near Cerro, I began to wonder if a birder could stay there and see more than 300 species.

The view from the tower.

After some analysis using the official Costa Rica Birds checklist, and knowledge of which birds are present at Cerro and nearby sites, these are my findings for birding during the winter months:

Birding Just at Hotel Cerro Lodge: 230 Species

This total includes the “La Barca Road” that goes past the entrance of the hotel but upon seeing the numbers, I admit, I was still somewhat surprised. I have had lots of great birding at the hotel and along that road, many a fantastic birdy morning, but I never got more than 120 species (which isn’t such a shabby number in any case). Even so, the numbers don’t lie and that’s even with leaving off a few vagrants or other very rare species (!).

When one factors the dynamic nature of lowland tropical habitats into account, especially at such a fantastic ecotone as the Carara area, I guess I shouldn’t really be all that surprised by a total of 230 plus possible species. After all, Cerro Lodge is an excellent, birdy spot. Such a good number of birds combined with comfort, a pool, and good food make Cerro a worthy destination all on its own. 300 species aren’t possible right at the hotel but what if we used Cerro as a base to bird additional sites in the area? Let’s say sites less than an hour’s drive from the hotel?

Birding at Cerro, Carara National Park and Sites within an Hour’s Drive: 415 Species!

The 200 plus species at Cerro are plenty to look at but if you really want to boost that birding experience, stay long enough to get the full ecotone monty. When we include the rainforests of Carara along with the mangroves and estuary at Tarcoles, and throw in the rich habitats at Jaco, our list of potentials rushes well past 300 and even surpasses 400 species!

Carara offers a chance at forest birds like the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher.
The endangered Mangrove Hummingbird occurs at sites near Cerro Lodge and has even shown up at the lodge on a couple of occasions.

Once again, this is without including several extreme rarities and vagrants that have occurred. To hit 400, a birder would need to do some careful, focused forest birding in the national park, be quick with the binos, and stay for several days but it could certainly be done. What if we went further afield? Say, to sites within 2 hour’s drive and include a pelagic trip?

Adding Sites Within 2 Hours of Cerro Lodge and a Pelagic Trip: Chances at 40 or More Species

As it turns out, since most of the birds are available rather near the hotel, this strategy wouldn’t add a huge number of species. It would still be fun though, especially a pelagic trip because we all know how exciting those boat trips can be. Not to mention, in two hours, you could also make it to sites good for Costa Rica Brushfinch, bellbird, and some other choice species.

Could You See 500 Species?

Half a thousand species? If you only use Cerro Lodge as a base, probably not. BUT if you also spend a couple nights at Monteverde or birding in the Poas area, sure, 500 is certainly feasible. Once again, I was a bit surprised but if you manage to find 415 species while staying at Cerro and then do two or three days of some focused ninja birding at either of those highland sites, yes, you could certainly find an additional 80 plus species to push you over 500.

It would require lots of birding though. You would have to look for and look at a lot of birds. That won’t be a problem when staying at Hotel Cerro Lodge, major crossroads of tropical biodiversity can be like that.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Recent Rains, Tragedy, and Rare Birds in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, we are in the midst of the wet season but a recent extreme event brought more rain than we needed. Too much rain. Enough to foster terrible flooding, landslides and additional havoc that have upended the lives of many. The rains started sometime on Wednesday, July 23rd and continued to pummel and drench the ground for the next couple of days. Although most of the country experienced a thorough soaking, the brunt of the wet wave from above blasted the Turrialba area and the adjacent southern Caribbean zone.

At home in the Central Valley, the rain was constant and reminiscent of a hurricane only with much less wind. Not being related to Aquaman, there was no way I was venturing outside. I can only imagine what it must have been like in Turrialba where the rains were much worse; nearly 100 square meters more rain fell in one day than typically falls in a month (and these places aren’t exactly dry to begin with!).

Additional parts of the country affected by this extreme rain event were Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, Boca Tapada (think the road to Laguna del Lagarto), Caño Negro, and other sites in the north. One of the most nightmarish accounts came from the village of Boca San Carlos. Situated at the confluence of the San Carlos and San Juan Rivers, the small settlement became completely inundated. Then, the rivers rose to became one and kept on rising until the massive amount of flowing waters reached the roof of the local school. Folks took refuge on top of their humble homes and killed snakes that tried to reach those same “dry” sanctuaries (several of the serpents were likely the Fer-de-Lance, a deadly viper). A woman who survived the ordeal mentioned an unknown hero who arrived with a small boat to ferry them to safety and thus save their lives. She talks about the life-threatening experience at this link to Costa Rica Hoy (in Spanish).

If there is any good news after the sudden loss of homes, possessions, and missing people (which thankfully appears to very few), it’s that the rains did stop, most people were evacuated to shelters in time and are receiving at least some assistance, and all of the roads were quickly repaired. However, as much as that is excellent, positive news, it would be negligent to not mention that given the current climate crisis (and yes, I would say that boreal forests burning, major droughts, life-threatening heat, etc. make it an absolute crisis), such extreme events like this one, floods in Germany, and elsewhere are likely the new norm. We need massive change everywhere and we need it now because if not, it’s only going to get worse.

On the bird side of things, the birding in Costa Rica is wonderful and exciting as ever. Various bird populations are also affected by climate change but it’s still great birding. Ironically, this year being a wet one will also likely help them, maybe give them a respite from prolonged drier than normal weather that has affected productivity which has thus likely, in turn, affected nesting success. This may explain why raptors, woodcreepers, hummingbirds, oropendolas, and various other species seem to occur in rather lower numbers than ten or more years ago.

That said, you can still have plenty of great, exciting birding. Last week, as I navigated rains and looked for weather forecasts, I had excellent birding while guiding on the Manuel Brenes Road, at Pocosol Research Station, El Copal, and other sites.

Birding on the Manuel Brenes Road

Light rain on the Manuel Brenes Road gave a constant boost to bird activity nearly to the point of there being too many birds to look at (and that’s how we want it!). Every time we stopped the vehicle, we had mixed flocks of tanagers and other species including close looks at uncommon Blue-and-Gold Tanagers, Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, and much more.

While the small birds rushed through the misty rainforest, a few Three-wattled Bellbirds called just out of sight, and we heard such coveted species as Lattice-tailed Trogon, Black-headed Antthrush, and Northern Schiffornis. In a few hours, we had more than 70 species. I wonder what an entire day there may have turned up?

Birding Irazu

In late July, the star bird species of the Noche Buena complex was present. Not just one or two calling males either but 12, maybe even 14 Maroon-chested Ground-Doves. Seeding bamboo? Nope! The small, colorful doves were foraging in fallow potato fields along with Mourning Doves, Rufous-collared Sparrows and a couple other common species. They were extremely timid but we still got good looks at them in flight and perched. Having a male Resplendent Quetzal fly over and land in a nearby tree while watching the doves made the day that much more memorable. Good looks at Wrenthrush and Timberline Wren were also a treat, as was hearing the unrepentant calls of an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl that remained hidden in the cold, dark night.

Maroon-chested Ground-Doves were feeding in this field.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

I can’t call this bird rare but it’s pretty uncommon and skulky. We were pleased to have good looks at a pair in coffee farms north of Villa San Ignacio. I think it might be easier during the wet season (or less difficult).

Birding El Copal

El Copal has excellent foothill and middle elevation rainforest. It’s off the beaten track and it’s rustic but the people who run the place are really nice and the birding is wonderful. In addition to the constant tanager show (that included Emerald Tanager, Black-and-Yellow Tanager, and Ashy-throated Chlorospingus), we also connected with such stand-outs as Chiriqui Quail-Dove, White-crowned Manakin, Bicolored Hawk, and Barred Hawk.

No Lovely Cotinga for us on that day but a few lucky birders did see a blue and purple male at the Arenal Observatory Lodge a few days ago.

Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle

One of the least common raptors in Costa Rica, this species is usually seen by lucky birders who scan the skies at Braulio Carrillo, Selva Bananito, or other choice lowland foothill rainforest sites. Much to the local birding community surprise and glee, one or two were found and photographed at a site in the upper parts of the Central Valley! Discovered a couple days ago, and seen by several people today, (August 2), we can only hope for it to take a liking to that area and stay for a while.

I am pretty sure this rare species has never been seen in these parts before and I suspect that it came up there because it wasn’t finding enough food in the place it came from. It’s impossible to say where that may have been but I dare say that the lack of food is likely related to destruction of habitat for pineapple fields and/or fewer of the medium to large birds that this species preys on. There might be enough pigeons and guans for it to feed on in the highlands above Sarchi, though. I sure hope so as it would be wonderful to have a reliable Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle within easy striking distance from hotels in the Central Valley!

Until next time, as usual, good birding, I hope you see that Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle!