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The El Niño Birds Have Arrived in Costa Rica

It’s official, 2023 is an El Niño year. In other words, the waters of the central Pacific Ocean are warmer than usual and will affect weather in various places. Some regions will be wetter, others will be hot and begging for rain. We don’t know yet how long it will last but the peak might not happen until December.

In birding terms, this weather cycle means that some birds may take advantage of the rains but others will suffer. Sadly, seabirds have a rough time, especially species adapted to cold water, especially the ones that live in the Humboldt Current. Those cold waters off the coast of Peru and Chile are a true marine bio bonanza. I can easily picture the first time I witnessed their avian abundance.

Some years ago, I was traveling by bus in Peru, somewhere along the coast north of Lima, maybe near Lomas de Lachay, an important reserve protecting arid vegetation sustained by coastal fog. The land was incredibly dry and barren but offshore, there were flocks and flocks of birds. Hundreds of Belcher’s and Gray Gulls, wintering Franklin’s Gulls, Inca Terns, Peruvian Boobies, pelicans, and cormorants.

The contrast between life in the desert and in the cold gray waves was astounding. On a trip to the Paracas Peninsula, I got a closer look at the incredible amounts of life supported by the cold currents. As the boat made its way to view cormorant and penguin colonies, I noticed dark areas in the water, long, dark lines below the surface. Looking closer, I could see that they were fish!

There were literally millions of anchovies or some other baitfish, massive numbers of small lead-colored fish that formed living rivers beneath the waves.

These were the building blocks of the huge cormorant colonies offshore, the life support system for penguins, pelicans, larger fish, and, I suppose, most everything out there.

A scene from the Paracas Peninsula in Peru.

But those small fish need cold water and birds can only dive so deep. If the ocean warms up, I’m guessing the anchovies go deeper, head to the cool depths because it’s do that or die. Since this is such a big change to their regular ways, I’m supposing that the fish don’t fare well. For the birds, it’s a disaster.

The boobies and other birds that depend on those and other cold water fish simply don’t have enough food, To cope, they do like the gnus, so like any mobile animal that can’t find enough to eat. They split, and keep on moving until they find enough food to survive.

That basic need brings them far north of their usual range, this year, some as far as 1,586 miles (2 552 kms) to Costa Rica. That’s the distance from Lima to San Jose on a plane. For a bird, the trip is probably similar in length but instead of six boring hours of sudoku in a metal tube, they flap their way over countless waves, always pushing north, looking for cooler waters, joining the other birds of the oceans in their search for accessible baitfish.

Given the current El Nino situation and sightings of Peruvian Boobies from Panama, I figured the odds were good for this and other species reaching Costa Rica. A few days ago, that forecast came to pass when four Peruvian Boobies and a juvenile Inca Tern were found on rocks off of the Osa Peninsula. The arrival of Humboldt-related birds has also been happening in the form of Sooty Shearwaters.

Several of the dark shearwaters have been seen on recent pelagic trips, much more than usual. The sightings are notable but we’ve been hoping for rarer birds to appear on those trips. No dice, though, at least not yet.

With the recent Peruvian Booby sightings in mind, I figured today would be a good day to visit Puntarenas. The port city is the most accessible and reliable hotspot for vagrant seabirds in Costa Rica, all you gotta do it get there and start scanning from the lighthouse, right from the tip. Whether because of the mixing of inner and outer gulf waters or because it sticks straight into the ocean, or a blend of those and other factors, Puntarenas turns up the birds.

You might have to wait a while, you will be offered trips to watch dolphins by a guy a bike, and someone will probably try to sell you something but, if you are diligent, you will also see birds. Watch carefully too because you can see some seriously good birds!

Puntarenas is a place for the unexpected flying in with the usual. It’s all good and the longer you stay, the more you’ll see. This morning, we started our birding in Puntarenas at 7 a.m., scanning calm ocean waters. At first, it seemed dead. Where were the pelicans? What about all of the frigatebirds?! The seeming absence of birds was rather alarming but what could we do? The only thing to do was wait and keep watching and sure enough, the birds eventually showed.

One of the first ones we saw was a surprise young Elegant Tern. I expect the slender-billed birds in winter, not so much in summer. It flew past, we never saw it again and began to see more Royal Terns as other regulars flapped into view; small flocks of White Ibis and egrets flying across the gulf, Mangrove Swallows and Gray-breasted Martins zipping over the waves, and fish action.

Scanning the water, we could see dark patches here and there, baitfish being driven to the surface, some flying clear out of the water in their quest for immediate survival. Sometimes, an enticing larger fin would break the surface, a few Devil Rays jumped, and we had great views of the Bottlenose Dolphins that live in the Gulf of Nicoya.

With the baitfish happening, I still wondered, “Where were the birds?”. Scanning eventually revealed some terns and other birds flying inside the gulf and larger numbers as specks on the horizon. Some birds from the inner gulf flew towards us. A few Sulids….not dark enough to be a Brown Booby…dusky head, white tail….Blue-footed Booby!

A Blue-footed Booby from a few years ago.

We had at least four and that was sweet. I hadn’t seen any for a few years. Scan some more and wait…what’s that? Small black and white football of a bird fluttering and gliding low over the water. Yes! Galapagos Shearwater from shore!

It made its way to the inner gulf and that’s when I noticed a black and white bird floating way out there. I said, “Now that’s an interesting bird, I hope that comes closer!” From a distance, it looked black and white, a pattern sort of like a female frigatebird. The only thing that came to mind was one of those lost Peruvian Boobies but to clinch the identification of such a rarity for Costa Rica, closer looks were needed.

Thankfully, that suspicious black and white bird tired of sitting way out there, eventually took to the air, and made its way towards us. Closer it came and I wondered if it would keep coming and give us a super close, detailed flyby. No dice there but it did fly near enough to clearly see that it had a bright white head, dark back, and looked like some dark marking on the face or throat. No doubt about it, even trying to turn it into something else, I had to admit- Peruvian Booby!

I figured this would be a good year to find one at some point but it’s really nice when a hunch pays off. We watched this Costa Rica El Nino mega make shallow dives into the water and float way out there for at least half an hour but had to leave it to its floating ways so we could scan for other birds.

Heck, there might be a tropicbird nearby, there could be an Inca Tern flying way offshore or a storm-petrel or some other major bird. Further scanning failed to turn up any of those niceties and by 8:30, bird activity quieted down but I did manage to scope one more good bird to top off a memorable morning in Puntarenas. While scoping, I saw a dark shearwater flapping and then gliding but not like a small Galapagos Shearwater. This one was gliding in arcs, was bigger, and had a short tail. Sooty Shearwater!

If we had stayed longer, I bet more birds would have showed up. That’s how the birding in Puntarenas rolls but it would have also taken hours of watching, would have been a really long hot day.

We were happy to settle with four year birds, one of which was a major country tick, and at least three were lifers for Marilen. Back at home, I heard that an incredible 120 Blue-footed Boobies were seen from the ferry from Puntarenas along with two Peruvian Boobies. What’s next? I’m thinking Inca Tern and/or Guanay Cormorant. I can’t wait to go back, meditate on that ocean and see what I find!

Support this blog and get ready for your birding trip with my bird finding book for Costa Rica. I hope to see you here. If you do any seabirding, please tell us what you find!

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One Fine Day of Birding in Costa Rica= 150 Species

During one day of birding in Costa Rica, how many species can you find? The answer to that really depends on where and how you do your birding. For example, the current record for Costa Rica is 350 plus species; an incredible one day total for anywhere.

Identifying such an amazing bunch of birds was no simple feat. Local birding experts made it happen by visiting various habitats for nearly 24 hours.

At the lucky, extreme end of a non-stop birding Big Day in Costa Rica, I believe that even more are possible, 400 plus species. It would take stamina, focused skills, great fortune and other factors to fall into place but yes, it is a possibility.

That would be an incredible bunch of birds but they would come at a cost. It wouldn’t exactly be a day of rest. Birding would have to commence at midnight and wouldn’t end until late in the same calendar day. There would be literal running to and from sites while staying focused on birds the entire time. Really, there wouldn’t be much appreciation of birds either. It would be all about hearing as many as possible, maximizing the numbers to see how far you can bird to the limit.

That’s not the type of birding day most people would prefer and I would not recommend it for a birding trip to Costa Rica. You’d miss out on taking in the birds, enjoying them to the fullest. Instead, easier days of birding at various sites would be the ticket to happiness. The good thing is that even while birding like that, in Costa Rica, you can still see a heck of a lot of birds in one day.

Spend a full day in the field and you’ll probably see more than 100. Focus on birding in the right places and you’ll see and hear quite a few more. That’s how a recent day of guiding in the Poas-Cinchona area went. Out of 150 bird species identified, these were ten highlights:

Great Black-Hawk

The Great Black Hawk has declined in Costa Rica.

We had a few raptors and probably would have had more if there was sunny weather. Even so, we still saw one of the rarer species possible in this area, the Great Black-Hawk.

In Costa Rica, this forest raptor has become pretty uncommon and only occurs in high quality habitat. We had one suddenly fly close overhead in good habitat at the edge of Braulio Carrillo National Park. I wonder what else lives around there…

Resplendent Quetzal

In keeping with seeing this spectacular mega world bird in the Poas area, we had fantastic views of one or two males near the Volcan Restaurant. They probably move through that area on a daily basis but you gotta get there early.

We did just that and had the quetzal as one of our first birds of the day!

Black-bellied Hummingbird

Black-bellied Hummingbird

This uncommon hummingbird still shows at the Cinchona hummingbird cafe and is regular at the edge of Braulio Carrillo National Park. This square-headed local hummingbird is always a special one to see.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

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Any day with Fiery-throated Hummingbirds is a good day! They are common in the upper parts of the road to Poas National Park. Even if I rarely spot color on their throats, I always love seeing them.

Scintillant and Volcano Hummingbirds

The two smallest hummingbirds in Costa Rica are also regular on this route. Watching birds that look like glittering feathered bugs is a treasured, surreal experience.

Zeledon’s Antbird

How can you not love the name of this bird? It sounds like something from another planet. With the big pale blue, natural eyering bling, this ant bird sort of looks like something from another planet too.

But this is of course our place, our world full of fantastic, sacred biodiversity meant to be treasured.

All nightingale-thrushes

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One…two…three..four..five! Ha ha ha! Five nightingale-thrushes! I admit, two were heard only but we still “had” all of them; one with an orange bill, one with a black bill, another with a ruddy cap, a fourth with a slaty back, and a final one with a black head.

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis

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In the Virgen del Socorro area, these small beauties were out in force.


Quite a few Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers were around.

Poas is a good area for both silky-flycatchers. We had excellent looks at several of both species.

Black-thighed Grosbeak

This hefty yellow and black grosbeak was singing and showing at a few different places. We had our first in the same spot as the quetzal, another beautiful bird to start a wonderful day of birding in Costa Rica.

When you can spend a day sharing birds in beautiful tropical surroundings with fun people, that unto itself is the best highlight of all. However, we also saw more birds than the ones mentioned above, birds throughout the day including three toucan species, Prong-billed Barbet, and more. See the whole list at my eBird trip report.

This was a great day of birding but to be honest, identifying that many species in a day atthose sites isn’t out of the question. If the weather cooperates, incredibly, that’s more or less the norm when birding Costa Rica.

To learn about all the best sites for birding in Costa Rica and what to expect, support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you here!

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New and Rare Birds in Costa Rica- Coming Soon?

When it comes to birding in Costa Rica, the country is fairly well covered. Many a birding pilgrimage is made to this beautiful and biodiverse nation and with good reason. There are hundreds of bird species and a high percentage of sites are accessible. We also have a sizeable local birding community and, as with every place, it’s a vital factor in finding more birds.

At present, the official Costa Rica bird list includes 930 plus species, including the Black-bellied Hummingbird shown above. It’s hard to imagine more bird species showing in a place the size of West Virginia and yet, during the past month, we added two more.

How is that even possible? What can I say, on our planet, it seems that high biodiversity is the norm, especially in tropical regions. Not to mention, as a bus driver friend of mine likes to say, “Patrick, remember, anything is possible in Costa Rica.” Gerardo was mostly referring to the behavior of local drivers but we can also apply such sage advice to birding, at least with some caveats.

While wild vagrant Emus are definitely not possible in Costa Rica, some other, more likely species can and will occur. As with anywhere, the main question is if those birds will be found.

Rare vagrants happen because they flew the wrong way, wandered a bit too far, were Dorotheyd by rough weather, or were driven far from home in search of food.

The vagrant birds are out there, waiting to be discovered, and in most cases its local birders who find them.


Pacific Golden-Plover is one of those vagrants being found with more regularity.

Luckily, in Costa Rica, we’ve got a good number of people paying close attention to birds, and they take pictures. This is how Chamba found a Yellow-billed Tern some years ago. It is also why local guides made sure to document an odd-looking duck at Lago Angostura in April. That odd duck turned out to be an incredible Common Pochard.

These factors are also how a crazy Lesser Kiskadee was found in Costa Rica! Discovered on May Global Big Day, 2023, a pair of these unlikely birds have been confirmed near Ciudad Neily (I sure hope they stay long enough to see them…).

I have a list of likely new additions for Costa Rica. To help birders be ready for any possibility, I included them on birding apps for Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize. I figured, it’s digital space, the more information the better and I would like to have those possibilities at my fingertips so…why not? Even so, I had not included the pochard nor the kiskadee! Neither of those odd birds were on my birding radar.

I had placed by birding bets on other, what I believed to be, more likely new species. Two of those prime candidates are the Guanay Cormorant and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Both of these birds have been seen in Panama and I’m sure a lost and adventurous Sharp-tailed has occasionally probed the mud in Costa Rica. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before someone finds one.

Heck, Panama’s second record was seen this past Global Big Day! That of course means that the bird probably flew over and/or landed in Costa Rica. I guess we’ll have to keep on waiting and looking for that particular Siberian. As for the cormorant, I think there’s a pretty good chance one will appear in Costa Rica, sometime soon.

Sadly, I’m not expecting it for good reasons. It won’t be a lost and adventurous cormorant exploring new waters to the north. No, unfortunately, this bird of the cold Humboldt Current will appear because it can’t find food in its regular haunts. As I write, hundreds have apparently turned up in southern Ecuador. They are moving north because the waters where they usually occur are much warmer than normal. Hot really.

It’s the famed El Nino effect but this one is probably augmented by the oceans absorbing extra heat from the atmosphere. How long will it last? Who knows but it won’t be good for seabirds nor myriads of other creatures that rely on colder waters.

The effect could drive a Guanay Cormorant or two to Costa Rica along with birds like Inca Tern, Peruvian Booby, and maybe even Peruvian Pelican. Not to mention, we could see albatross species and other pelagic birds too!

I admit, seeing those birds in Costa Rica would be exciting but the event would also be bittersweet. Essentially, any Humboldt birds in Costa Rica are refugees searching for better conditions. I’m not sure if they will find them here but if they do show up, I hope they will survive and eventually make it back home.

Heck, such birds could be here right now! I’m guessing, though, that they are more likely to occur within the next couple months. An Inca Tern could appear, a penguin might even swim into view. Seeing them won’t be signs of anything good but I’ll still be watching for them, probably from Puntarenas. A pelagic trip would also be a good idea.

If you are headed to Costa Rica in July, maybe some of those El Nino birds will be around? Maybe not but there will still be a lot to look at. Hundreds of expected, resident species are here, my ebook, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” will help you find them.

As always, I hope to see you here, birding in Costa Rica.