The best birding in Costa Rica depends on what you are looking for. If that translates to an abundance of great looks and photos of beautiful common birds, you’ll find that personal paradise in many a hotel garden. If shorebirds are your thing, high tide at Punta Morales is a good bet (along with checking Puntarenas for random megas like Pacific Golden-Plover). However, if your most wanted birds are the rare, the uncommon, the challenging members of the local avian kingdom, then the search can get complicated.
To know where to go for birds like Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Song Wren, or cotingas, eBird gives good hints. However, the true key to seeing them is knowing how to find them, and knowing the best places to visit, especially when many such places are well off the regular birding routes. Such little visited and less accessible places often have better birding than popular hotspots (and is one of the reasons I include many of them in “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”}.
A Blue-and-Gold Tanager high on a perch in misty weather.
What?!? Better than eBird hotspots? Well…yes and that’s probably the case for any place lacking major eBird coverage (in other words, most nations). Don’t get me wrong, eBird is a huge help and fantastic birding tool but, birds are always where the habitat is and if such places aren’t visited by many birders, they can’t get much coverage on eBird.
This is why, when guiding for custom, target bird trips, I often visit sites off the regular birding map. These are places that don’t fit into regular birding tour circuits because of location or access but can be an excellent fit for small birding groups in Costa Rica doing their own birding thing.
Recently, I enjoyed some of that fine back road birding in Costa Rica. Here are some highlights from three such sites:
The Road to Manuel Brenes Reserve
What can I say? Quality habitat is where the birds are and this road fits the bill. It can be rough and is best done with four-wheel drive but if you can bird this road, you’ll have chances at common, uncommon, and rare birds. In late March, during a brief, hour or so early morning visit, we seriously lucked out with one of the kings of Costa Rica birds, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.
This crow-sized cotinga can be seen at this and other suitable places but, thanks to their random, quiet behavior, and low numbers, umbreallbirds in Costa Rica are always a challenge to find. As is often the case with this species, we saw one by pure chance, just as we were trying to locate a calling Barred Forest-Falcon.
As we peered into the dense forest, the cotinga blasted into view and perched in a nearby cecropia. The female or juvenile male sat there looking around and ate some Cecropia “fruits” for ten minutes until it took off like a shot, zipping back into the forest. It flew like a big woodpecker and was surprisingly fast!
Not a bad way to start the birding day! We then focused on the forest-falcon and although we didn’t get the best of looks, we did manage brief views of the bird in flight and perched behind mossy vines.
After listening to the mournful whistle of a Northern Schiffornis, seeing some mixed flock action, and not noticing any signs of Army Ant swarms, we ventured on to our next little visited birding site,
Lands in Love.
After paying the $15 fee to use the trails, we ventured into the forest and found two of our main targets right away; Thicket Antpitta and Tawny-chested Flycatcher. The main entrance to the trails below the rooms is overgrown and not maintained but we still managed to get good looks and photos of the antpitta, and nice views (but not the best of shots) of the flycatcher.
Venturing onto the trails from a spot above the rooms (this trail entrance is maintained), a walk through beautiful, mature lowland-foothill rainforest resulted in good looks at Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antrwren, and Golden-crowned Spadebill. Just as we were leaving the trail, we also ran into an ant swarm of small Labidus ants. These small black ants don’t attract as many birds as the classic, larger Army Ants but they can still attract birds nonetheless.
Their foraging gave us good looks at Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds and a few other birds. We didn’t have any sign of the ground-cuckoo but when I first noticed the bird activity, I could have sworn I saw something sneak off on the ground. Maybe one was there, hiding back in the shadows? The idea me eager to get back into that beautiful forest!
Our other main back road birding sites included:
The Road to the River Next to La Selva, and Roads That Loop Behind Selva Verde.
In the morning, birding next to La Selva, and especially down at the river, can be fantastic. Scanning high trees immediately revealed a female Snowy Cotinga and a White-necked Puffbird. We kept watching and the birds kept on appearing. Three Hook-billed Kites flew in and perched high in a fig. Pied Puffbird flew in to another high perch, Chestnut-colored Woodpecker showed, and we were entertained by additional birds. One of the best were a few Spot-fronted Swifts that flew low enough and at the right angle to see the gleaming white spots on their faces.
I heard Purple-throated Fruitcrows but they wouldn’t come close. Luckily, we caught up with that cool cotinga on the road behind Selva Verde. I don’t usually see it there so it was a nice surprise to hear one call and have it fly into view. It was hanging with a bunch of oropendolas, and as I figured, White-fronted Nunbirds.
As per usual, these choice puffbird species flew high overhead but, eventually, they did us a favor and moved much lower and into much better lighting. As is typical with such flocks, they were joined by Rufous Mourner, Black-striped, Northern Barred, and Cocoa Woodcreepers, and a few other medium sized bird species.
We topped off that quality back road birding with close views of the one and only feathered bug, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and calling White-ringed Flycatchers. After those views, it was time for us to move on but oh how it is worth it to bird the forests near La Selva and Braulio Carrillo! Yesterday, a fellow local birder told me about a verified sighting of a Crested Eagle from near there (near Poza Azul and Tirimbina) a day before we were in the area!
Hopefully, that super mega eagle will stick around but who knows, it was a near adult likely moving around in search of territory. It could be anywhere in northern Costa Rica by now but my bets are on it either using the forests at and near La Selva (that includes the places I visited and Tirimbina), the forests north of Quinta de Sarapiqui, or foothill rainforests near the Socorro area. I sure hope someone sees it again, it will be interesting to see where it is found. I know I’ll be keeping that mega bird in mind!