The official list of the Bird of Costa Rica boasts more than 900 species. That much biodiversity in a place the size as West Virginia or Denmark makes for a heck of a lot of birds to see. Go birding in Costa Rica and you’ll see a lot of them too, probably watch trogons, motmots, tanagers and maybe three dozen hummingbirds. However, one of the birds you aren’t so likely to see is one of the birds we all want to see the most. That special, evasive bird is the Harpy Eagle.
A bird true to its name, the Harpy is a taloned monster, an apex predator of the rainforest. Reaching a length of three feet, the bird is literally larger than life. Pairs of this magnificent eagle of eagles use extensive areas of forest replete with monkeys sloths, and other prey items. It’s one of the top birds of the world but sadly, the Harpy is not an easy bird to see. Unlike many other raptors, this eagle rarely soars. Similar to forest Accipiters, forest-falcons, and cats, it uses stealth to catch prey, lurking under cover until it sees its chance to quickly fly and use massive claws to snatch animals by surprise. Factor in a large territory and it’s no wonder the Harpy is tough to see, even in rainforest that supports healthy populations of the eagle.
The Harpy is a recurring topic of conversation among local birders because very few have seen one in Costa Rica, we don’t know if any breeding pairs still occur, and, every birder who has not seen a Harpy must see one. Honestly, like the Resplendent Quetzal, the Harpy is a bird species every birder deserves to eventually witness. I wish there were funds and special programs developed with this goal in mind, to help birders experience the Harpy Eagle, help them make a pilgrimage to meet this life goal.
At the moment, birders do the Harpy trip to eastern Panama or the Amazon. They are taken to known nesting sites because that situation is by far the most reliable way to see this stealthy canopy predator. If we knew of a Harpy nest in Costa Rica, oh that would be major game changer. It would be aboost for tourism, it would help all of us local birders finally lay eyes on this elusive bird in this birdy nation. Until then, all we can do is keep looking for them in the right places. On July 21st, 2022, the right place ended up being a section of road in northern Costa Rica.
On that fateful day, a group of tourists happened to make local headlines when they chanced upon an adult Harpy Eagle while driving along the main road between Mirador de Pizote and Boca Tapada. It’s a road I have traveled several times, the main road that goes to Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque Lodge, and other birding spots in that area. The sighting was a welcome surprise but I’m not surprised it happened where it did. It’s exactly where one would expect to see a Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica.
This part of northern Costa Rica has large areas of intact primary forest connected to larger areas of forest in the Indio-Maiz Reserve of Nicaragua. Based on the amount of habitat and sightings of Harpy in Indio-Maiz, Harpy Eagles should be present in the forests near Boca Tapada; if not a pair or two, then at least occasional wandering individuals. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t we seeing them?
The answer to that question gets back to the fact that Harpy Eagles are very difficult to detect, even in places that harbor healthy populations. Factor in birding coverage being rather limited and Harpy sightings become even less likely. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that more people are visiting the Boca Tapada area, especially Mirador de Pizote, the site closest to where the Harpy was seen. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that more eyes in the field resulted in a Harpy being noticed. The sighting also occured on one of the few spots where forest comes right up to both sides of the road. It looked like a good place for a Harpy to cross the road, a good place for it to sneak through the trees.
Thanks to the local guide who reported the bird, the sighting was made known right away and that same day, several local birders raced there to see if it could be refound. Some of the those same birders also took a boat trip on the Rio San Carlos the following morning. These efforts were worth a try and I’m glad they made the attempt but I wasn’t surprised they did not see the bird. I was rooting for them and hoping they would see it and there were several very experienced guides and birders on board but seeing a Harpy Eagle requires a good deal of luck. Having extensively birded in forests where the Harpy occurs in “good numbers” and knowing how incredibly infrequently myself and other guides saw them, away from a nest, I know all too well how unreliable that bird can be.
A Harpy passes through an area but then where does it go? The bird likely moved to another part of its territory to look for prey. Or, it kept moving around in search of a mate, or, it was somewhere nearby but hidden inside the forest. We’ll never know where that special bird went but the sighting was nevertheless monumental. It shows that, without a doubt, in 2022, Harpy Eagle still occurs in Costa Rica and, it was seen where it was expected.
This sighting is the best of incentives to go birding in the Boca Tapada area, even more incentive to educate local folks about Harpy Eagles and reforest. It might not have been sighted later that same day nor the next but when it comes to Harpy Eagles, that means nothing. A Harpy is a tough bird to see, unless you go birding in places where they could occur, you’ll never see one anyways. The good thing about birding in the places where they do live is that there are hundreds of other cool birds to see too.
A couple days after the sighting, my partner Marilen and I spent a couple of nights in Boca Tapada. We knew we had little chance of refinding that Harpy but it was still good to try, still good to scan the canopy and keep looking. Not to mention, any day birding in lowland rainforest with Green Ibis, Pied Puffbird, Cinnamon Woodpecker, and dozens of other cool birds is always a good time.
For our brief sojourn, we stayed at Las Iguanitas, a small and fiendly place right in the village of Boca Tapada. That worked for us, if you don’t might basic yet friendly lodging for a good price, it’ll work for you too. It was also fun speaking with the owner. He does tours in the area and had some interesting things to say about Harpy Eagle, most of all, possible additional sightings in less accessible spots. He also showed us a Black-and-white Owl that visits the lodge nightly, major points for that!
Additional choices for accommodation include Mirador de Pizote (a nice little place that caters to photographers), Maquenque Lodge (more upscale, good for families and small groups), Pedacito de Cielo (nice little place, also caters to photographers), and the lodge I have always visited, Laguna del Lagarto (oldest ecolodge in the area, good for groups, photographers, and has trails in excellent habitat).
Birding around Boca Tapada has always been exciting, now, even more so! I can’t wait to get back for more raptor searches. With that in mind, it’s important to mention that a Harpy isn’t limited to the one spot where it was seen. It has a huge range, it could potentially occur along any road or trail with good forest around Boca Tapada. I hope you visit the area too, maybe I’ll see you there.
For more information about Harpy Eagles and finding birds in Costa Rica, please support this blog and get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.