Birding in Costa Rica is always good. No, it’s more than good, more like some birding wonderland. 24/7. All the time. Even so, you always hear that the best time to go birding in Costa Rica is January to March.
Yeah, that is the dry season on the Pacific and that’s always good. You can also skip out on some of those northern winter blues but honestly, it doesn’t really matter which month you want to see Costa Rica birds.
Head to Costa Rica in January and it’ll be awesome. Bring those binos to Tiquicia (local name for Costa Rica) in June and it’ll still be awesome. Come to this lovely land of hummingbirds, trogons, and tanagers any other month and you’ll still see a lot.
Yeah, in some places it rains more than other places but that’s always the case, even in the dry season. To see those birds, you just work with the precipitation any which way you can.
Now if you ask local Costa Rica birders about the best month for birding, you’ll probably get a bunch of different responses. The winter months could be a common answer, it’s when we can see wintering birds. The raptophiles among us might mention March or April but if you ask me, I’ll say that the best birding month in Costa Rica is any month.
However, if I had to pick the most exciting month, well, for me, that would be October. Halloween month is sort of like our May. It’s when migration hits full swing, it’s when we welcome birds back to these tropical shores.
There’s the common and expected birds like Baltimore Orioles, various warblers, Western Sandpipers, and other common species. I saw some of those this very morning, right here in the neighborhood.
Those birds are good, watching a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in the same fig tree as Baltimores, Yellow Warblers, and a bunch of local birds was a sweet gift. However, some birds are more exciting simply because we don’t see them so often. October might be our best month for those choice birds.
As with all places where birds are funneled into the local viewing frame, on any given day in October, we might find one of those mega, unexpected species. These are the birds that result in white knuckle driving, leaning forward with anxiety, hoping to reach the mega in time.
October in Costa Rica is major birding, everywhere and at all times. It’s just getting started and yet we’ve already had some tantalizing sightings, some sweet birding experiences. Some of those birds were from late September but maybe they’ll be signs of things to come. Check it out:
It’s either a good year for migrants or we just got more birders in the field. Either way, the twitchworthy birds are turning up. You’ll laugh if you live in Pennsylvania but a bunch of us dropped everything and ran to see a Chipping Sparrow. Even better, this ultra rare bird for Costa Rica was sighted at Calle Viquez- a hotspot pretty close to home!
Marilen and I checked it out a day after the bird was found but so far, no dice. The small sparrow of northern pine-dotted parks was either a one day wonder or has yet to be refound. Hopefully, we’ll find it again.
Other, similarly local megas were Lark Sparrows in Sarapiqui and the Osa, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird near Cartago! These two didn’t stay around all that long but at least a bunch of birders got to see the Lark Sparrow.
It makes you wonder what else is out there? Some adventurous Clay-colored Sparrow down the road? Maybe a Nashville Warbler? A hidden Connecticut? Only way to know is to get out there and look!
Wonderful Warblers, Thousands of Swallows, and More
In more expected birding news, I have been enjoying daily movement of migrating swallows. Every morning, dozens of Cliffs, Banks, and Barns fly just over the roofs. If I could watch all day, I’m sure I’d see hundreds, maybe even thousands more.
They might seem like normal birds, and they are, but when you think of where they came from and where they are going, each and every swallow is a living sign of the incredible.
Warblers are also back in town. Not all of them yet but a good number of those much loved little birds. On Sunday morning, we figured we’d try out luck at the Rio Loro Park. This small park near Cartago can be good for migrants, and it’s also a nice place to walk. No luck with cuckoos or a Veery but we did alright with the Parulids.
While enjoying views of BOPish Long-tailed Manakins, had our first Golden-wingeds of the season along with small numbers of Wilson’s, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Black-and-white, Mourning, Canada, and Tennessee Warblers. We also had Northern Waterthrushes and close, appreciated views of at least two Worm-eating Warblers.
Having grown up just out of reach of “Wormers”, I always love seeing them. Pretty uncommon but regular wintering birds in Costa Rica, the ones from Sunday were my year birds.
Possible Highest Ever Count of Least Terns in Costa Rica
On Sunday, we began the month with some warblers at Rio Loro. However, on Saturday., we ended September with morning birding at Puntarenas. It’s a good time to be at that birding hotspot and Saturday morning certainly delivered.
On the way there, we picked up year Surfbirds at Caldera. At Puntarenas itself, we scored with another bird, in far larger numbers than I had ever imagined.
Least Terns usually pass through Costa Rica in late August and September, mostly on the Pacific coast. If you don’t see them then, you might have to wait until the following year. As luck would have it, as soon as we arrived at the lighthouse in Puntarenas, there went a small group of Least Terns zipping by.
I figured they might be the only ones we would see. Maybe a few more but not that many. I mean, that’s how it usually goes with that tiny tern in Costa Rica. But then I start seeing more flying way out there in the Gulf of Nicoya; tiny, fast wing beating terns, all with a smart black patch in their wings.
I get to scanning the birds on a distant sand bar and there’s a good scattering of egrets and shorebirds. Too far away to identify most of them, I envy the clam diggers and fishermen who are nearly within arm’s reach of those birds.
I keep scanning and notice a big group of terns on a sand bar. Really big group. Maybe a clam digger gets too close and suddenly, they take flight. And I can hardly believe my eyes. Every last one of them was a Least Tern! They were far but at 40 X, were still close enough to note that they were the same size as Least Terns foraging near them. They bank, I can see the black primaries, and I figure I better start counting.
To make sure, I had to count them twice. It just didn’t seem possible but yeah, 250 was the total number of Least Terns flying past and on the sand bar. Since that didn’t take the previous groups of Least Terns into account, I bet there at least 300 of them out there.
It was unheard of number for Costa Rica but that’s how many there were. For whatever reason, some big number of Least Terns were gathered in the Gulf of Nicoya on Saturday morning, September 30th. By 9 a.m., all of them had left. I wonder where they went, if they would cross over to the Caribbean in Panama? Or, maybe winter in the deltas of northwestern Colombia?
To top off the excitement at Puntarenas, we scored with a distant Sabine’s Gull, and saw a small group of Common Terns. It would have been a good day to take the ferry!
Snowy Plover and Bobolink in Tarcoles
That same day, we also visited Jaco and swung by Tarcoles. The tide was high and we didn’t see anything but oh we sure missed some good birds! That same day, a mega Snowy Plover was found! Granted, the only way we could have seen it was if we had hiked out to the river mouth but that bird was present when we visited, just beyond the scrubby mangroves, just out of sight.
A bunch of local birders saw it the following day and today, and one of them also found a Bobolink! This cool blackbird is a rare one in Costa Rica. I’m sure we get more than we realize but still in low numbers, likely scattered in several places.
Ruff in Guanacaste
Topping off the recent rare birds was a Ruff seen near Filadelfia in Guanacaste. It was seen near Buff-breasted Sandpipers and some other nice birds. It’s a good reminder that rare birds are out there, you keep looking and you’ll find them.
October birding in Costa Rica is indeed exciting. There’s lots more to come too including large numbers of thrushes, Bay-breasted Warblers, raptors, and so much more!
I suppose I’ll end by noting that several Upland Sandpipers have been seen in Guanacaste and at the airport. What will be next? Is a pipit or wagtail too much to ask for? Ha ha, probably but on a rare October birding day in Costa Rica, it seems like anything is possible.
When is the best time to go birding in Costa Rica?
The best time to go birding in Costa Rica is any time of the year. However, most people prefer the drier months of January to March.
Can you still see a lot while birding Costa Rica on your own?
You can always still see a lot while birding Costa Rica on your own. However, as with any destination, you’ll always see more with an experienced local guide. My bird finding guide for Costa Rica will also help.
Which Costa Rica Birds can I see?
With a country list of 930 plus species, you can see so many Costa Rica birds, there are too many to mention. 400 plus species on a serious two week trip is likely. Toucans, macaws, parrots, tanagers, several hummingbirds, and more are even possible on shorter trips.