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Highlights from Birding Costa Rica, 2023

Birding in Costa Rica in 2023 was 12 months of tanagers, quetzals, puffbirds, and more. Always much more.

Living and birding in a nation jam-packed with biodiversity promises good birding, pretty much all the time. To define “good birding”, I would say it’s having a fair chance of watching a healthy variety of birds with little effort. If you are headed to Costa Rica soon, consider yourself lucky because when you are birding in Costa Rica, good birding is the norm.

For me, this past year was stamped with a number of birding highlights including the following. I hope they give you an idea of local birding delights, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and expectations for this special tropical place.

American Bittern

This rare winter for Costa Rica was a major highlight for local birders. In Costa Rica, we have two main bitterns and three pseudo-bitterns. The two main ones, Least and Pinnated are local and only regular in a few spots. The psuedo-bittern tiger-herons aren’t that tough but since they aren’t really bitterns, I guess we have to leave them in their own vicious heron category anyways.

A juvenile Fasciated Tiger-Heron from Quebrada Gonzalez.

The other bittern possible in Costa Rica is the American Bittern, that water pumping bird of northern marshes. With only a few documented sightings, it’s not exactly regular. This winter, one came on down and picked a small marsh right next to a public road.

Ideal!

Even better, the bird stayed long enough for most local birders to see it! It’s so nice when a twitchable bird stays twitchable for more than a month. A shame the avocet didn’t follow suit but an American Bittern is pretty good compensation for birding in Costa Rica.

Owls

No matter when or where, every owl is a birding highlight. This year, I saw all regular owls except the “Puntarenas Screech-Owl” and that tiny bird of cold mountain nights, the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. That’s no surprise, I mean I’m not even sure if I even tried for it. Maybe just once. I might still go for it before the year ends although it is kind of cold and desolate up there on Irazu and the high Talamancas.

black-and-white-owl

The other owls were cool though! The last ones Marilen and I saw were a pair of roosting Black-and-white Owls at the Bogarin Trail. They should still be there, ask about them at the entrance.

All 6 Motmots

Motmots are such cool birds. Long weird tails, some jade green, splash of turquoise, these birds are exotic! In Costa Rica, we can also see four of them pretty easily. Those nice birds would be the Lesson’s, Turquoise-browed, Rufous, and Broad-billed.

The other two are a bit more on the tricky side of birding. However, if you know where they live, you can see the Tody Motmot and Keel-billed Motmot too. We got our year Keel-billed at the Bogarin trail just before we saw the owls.

Bare-necked Umbrellabirds

This year, I did alright with the big, rare, crow-like cotinga. I only saw two of them but even seeing one is special as sponge candy. The first was a female spotted by my friend Alec Humann right from the deck of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The second was a young male that swooped into view on the road to Manuel Brenes.

Major birds! Right now, there should be a few at those sites, Centro Manu, and lowland rainforests like La Selva and Tirimbina.

Major Winter Birds

This year has been pretty exciting for winter birding in Costa Rica. In addition to the afore-mentioned American Bittern, local birders have also found a couple Lincoln’s Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, American Avocet, American White Pelican, and some other rare species for Costa Rica. One of those choice birds was Costa Rica’s first documented Greater Scaup!

Rarest of all was a Short-eared Owl that showed up at a house in Cartago. As far as megas in Costa Rica go, this would be a triple threat mega, a Steller’s Sea Eagle level mega! Other than this adventurous bird, no Short-eared Owls have been documented in Costa Rica for like more than a century.

It also happened to fly away from that house, there’s a chance it’s wintering in some fields near there… The many pastures and sedge fields of Cartago would seem to be good habitat for it. Hopefully, this star owl has survived and is doing well (and will be found by local birders).

Interestingly enough, both the bittern and the owl can winter in similar habitats. Maybe a few other odd birds are out there. Would a Swamp Sparrow be too much to ask for?

Puntarenas Seabirding

I tell you, the birding is exciting at Puntarenas. At least for me, the seawatching is. Scan back and forth and something eventually flies into view, unexpected and pelagic birds that fly close enough to identify.

This past year, us and other local birders were treated to views of local mega Heerman’s Gull, and rare Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. One fine day, we also scoped a Sabine’s Gull beating the warm humid air with its patterned wings.

Other highlights included Pacific Golden-Plover (maybe the same bird as the previous year?), more than 200 Least Terns, and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. Oh, there was also those mega Peruvian Boobies and Sooty Shearwater too! I wonder what’s on those waters right now?

New Birds for Costa Rica

Really, there’s too many highlights to mention. However, I have to note new birds documented for Costa Rica in 2023. These are Dark-billed Cuckoo and Lesser Kiskadee near Ciudad Neily, a crazy Common Pochard at Lago Angostura, and an anticipated Cattle Tyrant currently being seen at la Gamba!

The year is coming to an end but it’s not over yet! There’s always more birds to see and with the interesting migrants that have occurred, who knows what will show up next? Happy holidays, I hope to meet you while birding in Costa Rica in 2024!

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Costa Rica Birds- Endemic, Near Endemic, and Other Target Species

Costa Rica birds include everything from majestic macaws to surreal Snowcaps and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. These and hundreds of other bird species exist in the diverse habitats of Costa Rica but the ones you see the most will be the common species.

Common birds are fancy too- check out this Lesson’s Motmot!

By definition, common birds like Blue-gray Tanagers, saltators, and kiskadee-type flycatchers are the familiar ones. There’s nothing wrong with seeing those birds, watching them is good for the soul too and if it’s your first trip to the tropics, they’ll be in that precious lifer category.

However, we can also see widely distributed birds in other places, some of them even in southern Texas, many on hundreds of hotel grounds in a myriad of places. It’s not that such birds aren’t special (they are) but if you can only see certain birds in any given place, those are the ones to target.

Even if you say, “As long as I see birds, I don’t care which ones I see”, you really still should go after those target birds. Who knows, maybe at some future time, you’ll wish you would have seen that Coppery-headed Emerald in Costa Rica. Maybe you’ll wish you would have spent more time looking for Wrenthrush than focusing on yet another flitting flowerpiercer?

It’s sort of like visiting Rome without seeing the Trevi Fountain, going to New York without visiting the Bronx Zoo or eating a serious slice of pizza (the main reasons for visiting NYC of course). It should go without saying. when birding in Costa Rica, “make efforts to see those endemics”. After all, you can’t see them anywhere else.

However, I’ll take it one step further and say that not only should you focus on country and regional endemics, you should also watch for the future endemics.

Those would be the birds that might be split, the cryptic taxa with a good chance of “attaining” species level status. The “new” Howell and Dyer field guide does a fair job of bringing a lot of those cases to light. In the Costa Rica Field Guide app, I have also tried to bring attention to such birds (although I need to edit the text for several more), and lists of endemics and possible future splits are also included in “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” (although I have to edit that too!). Some of these taxa are also mentioned or hinted at in eBird but not all of them.

In any case, I figured it would be useful to have a list of country and regional endemics, as well as good candidate birds for those categories. I hope these lists help!

List of Bird Species Endemic to Costa Rica

8 country endemics, three of which are restricted to Cocos Island.

The Mangrove Hummingbird and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager may have been recently seen in Panama, very close to the border. Also, Guanacaste Hummingbird is a mystery species awaiting rediscovery.

Cocos Cuckoo (Cocos Island)
Coppery-headed Emerald
Mangrove Hummingbird
Cocos Flycatcher (Cocos Island)
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow
Cocos Finch (Cocos Island)
Guanacaste Hummingbird (also known as Alfaro’s Hummingbird and only known from one specimen)

List of Bird Species Only Found in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (as well as the border area of the Darien in Colombia).


These are 110 bird species and likely species that only occur in the countries listed above. Many are easier to see in Costa Rica because the habitats in which they occur tend to be more accessible.

Black Guan
Black-breasted Wood-Quail
Black-eared Wood-Quail
Chiriquí Quail-Dove
Purplish-backed Quail-Dove
Buff-fronted Quail-Dove
Middle American Screech-Owl (birds that live in northwestern Costa Rica)
Dusky Nightjar
Costa Rican Swift
Veraguan Mango
White-crested Coquette
Talamanca Hummingbird
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
White-bellied Mountain-gem
Purple-throated Mountain-gem
White-throated Mountain-gem
Magenta-throated Woodstar
Volcano Hummingbird (three distinct subspecies in Costa Rica, perhaps there are two or three species involved?)

birding Costa Rica

Scintillant Hummingbird
Garden Emerald
Snowcap
White-tailed Emerald
Black-bellied Hummingbird
Blue-vented Hummingbird
Blue-tailed Hummingbird
Charming Hummingbird
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
Bare-shanked Screech-Owl
Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl
“Puntarenas” Screech-Owl- the undescribed Megascops that lives in southern Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama.


Baird’s Trogon
Collared Trogon (Orange-bellied Trogon)
Lattice-tailed Trogon
Northern Black-throated Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Fiery-billed Aracari
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Sulfur-winged Parakeet
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Red-fronted Parrotlet
Orange-collared Manakin
Velvety Manakin
Turquoise Cotinga
Yellow-billed Cotinga
Snowy Cotinga
Bare-necked Umbrellabird
Three-wattled Bellbird
Gray-headed Piprites
Olive-streaked Flycatcher
Tawny-chested Flycatcher
Dark Pewee
Ochraceous Pewee
Black-capped Flycatcher
Black-hooded Antshrike
Streak-crowned Antvireo
Dull-mantled Antbird
Streak-chested Antpitta (it is very likely that two species are involved- one from Honduras to the Carribean slope of Costa Rica and Panama, and another that ranges from southern Costa Rica to western Ecuador).

Thicket Antpitta (it is very likely that at least two species are involved- one in Costa Rica and western Panama, and another that ranges from the Darien to western Ecuador)


Black-headed Antthrush (it is very likely that at least two species are involved- one in Costa Rica and western Panama, and another that ranges from the Darien to western Ecuador)

Black-crowned Antpitta
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper (it is very likely that the taxon in Costa Rica and Panama are a valid species)

Ruddy Treerunner
Buffy Tuftedcheek
Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner
Streak-breasted Treehunter
Yellow-winged Vireo
Silvery-throated Jay
Azure-hooded Jay (studies have shown it probably be split soon)
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher
Black-throated Wren
Riverside Wren
Stripe-breasted Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Timberline Wren
Isthmus Wren
Canebrake Wren
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush (studies have shown it probably be split soon)

Sooty Robin
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Spot-crowned Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Flame-throated Warbler
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus
Volcano Junco
Sooty-faced Finch
Yellow-thighed Brushfinch
Large-footed Finch
Costa Rican Brushfinch
Wrenthrush
Nicaraguan Grackle
Collared Redstart
Black-cheeked Warbler
Costa Rican Warbler
Black-thighed Grosbeak
Carmiol’s Tanager
Blue-and-gold Tanager
Black-and-yellow Tanager
White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Sulphur-rumped Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Nicaraguan Seed-Finch
Peg-billed Finch
Slaty Flowerpiercer

Isolated Subspecies that Live in Costa Rica and Panama that may or may not be separate species

These are various bird species with isolated populations in Costa Rica and Panama. Studies could end up splitting some. Always good to see in any case!

Highland Tinamou
Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge
Marbled Wood-Quail
Spotted Wood-Quail
Band-tailed Pigeon
Middle American Screech-Owl (birds that live in northwestern Costa Rica)
Hairy Woodpecker
Resplendent Quetzal
Northern Emerald Toucanet
White-crowned Manakin
Sharpbill
Mountain Elaenia (birds in Central America sound different from birds in South America)
Nutting’s Flycatcher
Black-crowned Antpitta (the subspecies that occurs in Costa Rica and western Panama looks and sounds a bit different from birds in central-west Panama)
Ochre-breasted Antpitta


Gray-throated Leaftosser
Black-banded Woodcreeper
Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Streaked Xenops
Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner
Brown-throated Parakeet
Rosy Thrush-Tanager
White-eared Ground-Sparrow
Green Shrike-Vireo (different subspecies on each side of the mountains)
Scaly-breasted Wren
Black-bellied Wren
Bay Wren
White-breasted Wood-Wren
Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (the taxon from southern Costa Rica and western Panama)
Olive-crowned (Chiriqui) Yellowthroat
Ashy-throated Chlorospingus
Orange-billed Sparrow (subspecies on each side of the mountains sing quite differently)
Cherries´s (Scarlet-rumped) Tanager
Variable Seedeater

To make the birding in Costa Rica even more exciting, some species in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica are distinct subspecies that may end up warranting species status too!

Those include subspecies of Silvery-throated Tapaculo, Fiery-throated Hummingbird*, Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, and other birds. It seems like the more we look, the more biodiverse our planet is.

So, there’s a nice list of birds to think about when you go birding in Costa Rica! Seem overwhelming? You won’t be alone. With well over 900 species to keep in mind, birdwatching in Costa Rica is naturally mindboggling.

Even so, it’s always good to know about endemics, and birds to look for. While looking for these, you’ll also see lots more. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

Learn about the best places to see these birds in my bird finding guide for Costa Rica. To learn about itineraries that can target these birds, contact me at [email protected].

*Thanks to local birder Tyler Wenzel for reminding me about that.

Here’s a downloadable PDF version of these lists:

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Highlights from Two Days of Birding in Costa Rica

What can you see in two days of birding in Costa Rica? Like anywhere, experience is a function of location. In the birding way of things, we also need to factor in weather, time, and local birding knowledge. Beyond that, what we see depends on how those birds want to roll.

In Costa Rica, how the birds roll is where a mixed flock happens to move (will it cross your path?), if birds feed within your field of view, and if the skulkers opt to come out and play.

During the past seven days, I was birding in the Poas and Cinchona area one day and at sites near San Ramon the next. There was some overlap but we saw a good bunch of birds. No surprise there, it happens when you visit quality habitats in Costa Rica.

In addition to sharing birds with a wonderful bunch of people, these were some of the other highlights.

Wrenthrush

Wren what? Thrush? Wren? What’s going on with that funny little bird! Wrenthrush is certainly unique but personally, I prefer using the one and only name for its genus, “Zeledonia”.

Wrenthrush.

It’s a snappy sounding name, a one of a kind word for a one of a kind bird. It really is one of a kind too, I mean, has its own familia and everything. Yeah, what used to be an aberrant warbler is the only member of a bird family endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.

And we had perfect looks at one on the road to Poas.

the bird’s not rare, I often hear them along that road and many other suitable spots but whether they let you see them or not, yeah, that’s another birding story.

Luckily, we had wonderful close looks at the orange-crowned, stub-tailed bird known as the Wrenthrush. I look forward to subsequent trips to wet highland forest where I can experience more of this special little bird.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow near San Ramon

The skulky ways and scattered populations of the endemic ground-sparrow can present challenges to seeing one. You’ll do best if you look for them early, like 6 a.m. In common with all local birds, you also need to look for them in the right places.

One such place is a site just outside of San Ramon. In my Costa Rica bird finding book, this site is known as 4.1 a UCR Campus San Ramon. In looking at what I wrote, I think I need to edit it and say that you can see a surprising number of bird species on the dirt road along the southern edge of the campus.

This dirt road is also a great spot to find the ground-sparrow but in testament to its skills at hiding, we only saw one and it took some effort to see it. We eventually got great looks but it wasn’t easy!

This spot was also bouncing with other birds. Long-tailed Manakin, several wren species, various wintering warblers, a couple woodcreepers, and more, the birds kept us busy!

White Hawk at Close Range

After our successful date with the ground-sparrow, we checked some roadside cloud forest along the road that passes through the Reserva Valle de Los Quetzales. I was hoping we would see a quetzal but nope, instead, the birding was fairly subdued.

We still managed excellent close views of a White Hawk and saw some middle elevation species like Collared Trogon, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and a Bunch of Other Mini Dazzlers

Between birding around Poas and sites near San Ramon, we had a good bunch of hummingbirds, 17 species in total. This included wonderful, detailed views of Coppery-headed Emerald, a svelte male Black-bellied Hummingbird, and miniscule Scintillant Hummingbirds among other species.

As usual, on Poas, the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds entertained while Volcano Hummingbirds did their bee-like thing. Crowned Woodnymphs also dazzled at the Cocora, and we took in the bright beauty of a Purple-crowned Fairy near Varablanca.

Cinchona

Speaking of hummingbirds, this classic spot delivered several species including Violet Sabrewing, the aforementioned Black-bellied, Coppery-headed Emeralds, and some other species.

Black-bellied Hummingbird

It was also good for the other usual suspects along with a hungry Black Guan and occasional looks at Buff-fronted Quail-Dove down below. Northern Emerald Toucanet ghosted but maybe it will be there next time? Consolation happened with both barbet species, Crimson-collared Tanager, and other sweet birds in beautiful surroundings.

Despite poor weather on Poas and Cinchona, and windy, sunny weather near San Ramon, we still identified 150 species. Check out the eBird trip report. Two days birding is always good in Costa Rica, just about anywhere you bring the binos. Headed to Costa Rica soon? Practice using those bins and get ready for some major bird action!