Birding Costa Rica means different things to different people. If bird photography is your thing, that means several great sites for hummingbirds, tanagers, and lots more. Casual birding in Costa Rica? Verandah birding can yield trogons, motmots, and dozens of other exotic tropical species.
Costa Rica is also game for birders who choose to lose themselves in the local avifauna. This is birding that takes in as much as possible and keeps on going, all day long. If such all out, energizer birding is in your cards, Costa Rica is ideal. Let me tell you, ain’t no lie, this place is jam packed with biodiversity.
Even when I’m not birding, I hear the calls of two or three parrot and parakeet species flying over our urban neighborhood. Just before stormy weather, a pair or two of uncommon Spot-fronted Swifts chipper and display over the rows of houses.
There’s more urban birds than you think but there’s far more just a short drive away. The amazing assortment of random bird species possible within two hour’s drive really is sort of wonderfully ridiculous. These tidbits from two days of birding last week give an idea of what’s in store when you go birding in Costa Rica.
Resplendent Quetzal an Hour From the Airport
There are quetzals up in those there mountains. Yes, the ones visible to the north of San Jose. The closest spots are in the Poas area and if you know where to look, those amazing emerald and plush red mega birds are reliable.
This past Tuesday, during a day of bird photography, we had fantastic looks at a male Resplendent Quetzal. On our first stop, as Barred Parakeets zipped overhead and flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons powered upslope, a male quetzal also flew into view.
It gave the quetzal cackle as it’s long tail train rippled emerald green in the morning sun. Although it hid within the dense foliage of a mountain oak, we saw another male further up the road. By its behavior and penchant for for perching in a roadside tree in full view, I’m betting he’s the same quetzal I have shown to other people.
We also saw other high elevation species including Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Yellow-winged Vireo, Large-footed Finch, Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, Sooty Thrushes, and other birds. That’s par for the course birding on Poas but the roadside quetzal stole the show.
Brown Violetears, Barbets, Oh My!
That same day, lunch at the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe (aka Mirador de Catarata de San Francisco) was accompanied by another suite of birds. Among the seven or so hummingbird species were Violet Sabrewings, a male Black-bellied Hummingbird, and a bunch of Brown Violetears.
These local hummingbirds were perching on railings, visiting feeders, sitting in bushes, and always giving too close for bino views!
At the feeder, Prong-billed Barbets made occasional visits, and one male Red-headed Barbet appeared among other regular species.
Later on, we topped off the afternoon with views of Costa Rican Warbler, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Green-fronted Lancebill, and other species of the upper middle elevations. Including heard birds, and only focusing on photography, we still had 90 species including 14 hummingbirds!
Galapagos Shearwaters…Peruvian Booby…Say What?!?
On Thursday, we saw another set of birds visiting birders don’t typically see in Costa Rica. Thanks to an invitation from friend and Big Year birder Yve Morrell (she got the highest ABA total in 2017!), my partner Marilen and I joined Yve and Anthony Arce (her guide and another friend of ours) on a short boat trip in the Gulf of Nicoya.
After a two hour drive to the hot coastal town of Puntarenas, we parked the car at Frank’s Cabinas (or just Frank’s Parqueo) and met up with Yve and Anthony. Shortly after, we were on a small boat making a beeline for a distant rocky island.
Known as “Isla Guayabos”, in recent days, this small island has a popular must visit destination for local birders. Three or maybe four mega rare for Costa Rica Peruvian Boobies have been living there along with a hundred of so Blue-footed Boobies (and other, more regular species).
We didn’t see much on the way there but at the island, we quickly got onto the star birds. We listened to their guttural calls as the many Sulids fly to and from the rock while others showed off their bright blue feet.
After getting our fill of big, diving seabirds, we told the boat driver to head straight into the gulf. That he did but we weren’t seeing anything until I finally spotted what I had been hoping for; a feeding flock of Black Terns!
If any shearwaters and other pelagic species were around, that’s where they would be. As we approached, sure enough, there went a Galapagos Shearwater doing its flutter, glide, flutter thing! Before long, we found ourselves next to a bunch of Black Terns and several Galapagos Shearwaters.
As the small terns dove into the choppy water, the shearwaters would float and dip their heads below the surface before fluttering along to keep up with the tern flock. Boat movements made scanning a challenge but when I could do it, I saw group after group of feeding flock; all made up of Black Terns and several Galapagos Shearwaters.
Try as I did, I did not notice any other pelagic species foraging with them but we still saw a few other choice birds away from the flocks! The first was Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel. We had glimpes of a couple of these fast-flying birds and then got one right next to the boat!
Next up was a dark bird sitting on the water. I wondered, could it be one of those poor refugee Sooty Shearwaters? We motored over to it and sure enough, found ourselves face to face with another rare species for Costa Rica, a Sooty Shearwater! Sadly, this bird of cooler waters was not looking so good. I wish we could have given it a squid or at least something to eat.
Further scanning revealed another dark bird on a log. It flew towards us and yes, it was an expected but welcome species, a Brown Noddy!
If we had stayed out there longer, we would have surely seen more. A lot of birds were out there in the Gulf of Nicoya. However, if we had stayed longer, we would have also run out of gas so yes, we were pleased to return to port.
Those two memorable days were a reminder that there’s a lot of possibilities when birding in Costa Rica, more than you think! Check out the eBird trip report from July fourth, and our short pelagic list from July 6th (with much better images than this post). Hopefully, we’ll be birding at some other sites soon. Maybe look for some rarities, maybe explore little birded areas. Either way, it’s going to be good.