Costa Rica has so many fantastic sites for birding, it can be a challenge to know where to go. How to pick the sites for your best birding experience? The answer depends on how you want to connect with birds, what you want to see, and budgets for time and money.
I’ll leave a more thorough treatise of such questions and answers for future posts. In the meantime, I would like to focus on a site that would be tough to leave off of any birding itinerary for Costa Rica. This special spot is one of the classic birding sites in Costa Rica, a location that has made a positive impact on thousands of birders (as well as non-birders), the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.
Also known as the Cafe Colibri and the Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando, I have often written about the benefits and beauty of this site. Even so, no birding spot is static, especially ones like Cinchona where tropical forest is growing back with a vengeance. Check out these reminders and reasons to include a visit to Cinchona during a birding trip to Costa Rica:
Regenerating Forest Can Grow Fast
Before the 2009 earthquake, the Cafe Colibri was a two story structure situated next to mature, fairly intact forest. At least that’s sort of how I recall it. I do know that more birds were present and even umbrellabird was seen every now and then (!). Tragically, more than 30 people died in the the 6.6 earthquake, it destroyed the two story structure that was the original Cafe Colibri, an adjacent, similar establishment, and much of the adjacent forest.
Although the disaster was a terrible blow to Cinchona in every possible way, since 2009, regarding the Cafe Colibri, it has been rebuilt on the original foundations, and the forest has been steadily growing back. It will take decades before trees reach their previous heights but as the vegetation has grown, more birds have returned, including species that are more dependent on forest.
With that in mind, when visiting the Cafe Colibri, keep an eye out for such birds as Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser,Sooty-faced Finch, and other species. These species have been occurring with more frequency and it wouldn’t be all that surprising for shy birds like Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, and foliage-gleaners to eventually make appearances. Let’s hope so!
While visiting Cinchona yesterday, the owner and matriarch of the Colibri Cafe mentioned that an interesting bird had been seen. I wondered what it might be, maybe some different tanager at the feeder? Much to my surprise, she showed me a picture of a subadult Ornate Hawk-eagle!
A pair of this fancy, powerful raptor live rather close to Cinchona but they seem to mostly stick to forests away from the main road. It’s not that often that one is seen in the canyon and usually not perched in one of the remnant, bromeliad covered trees visible from the Cafe Colibri. As the habitat improves, we can only hope that this becomes a more regular occurrence.
Still Great for Hummingbirds, Maybe Even Better
Cinchona has always been a hummingbird hotspot. Time of year and weather conditions can have an effect on the number of birds and species but a visit is always warranted, especially when 7 or 8 species of hummingbirds can be accompanied by fresh, delicious Costa Rican coffee. Even better, this past year, yesterday included, the uncommon and local Black-bellied Hummingbird has become regular at Cinchona. There might be a delay for the bird to appear but it’s hard to find fault with a wait highlighted by close views of Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing, Brown Violetear, Lesser Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, and White-bellied Mountain-gem!
The barbets are nice too…
More Parking Spaces…and Donkeys
The Cafe Colibri now has paved and delineated parking spots on both sides of the road that make it that much easer to enjoy this special place. For whatever reason, the other side of the road also has a corral with a couple of donkeys (if you feel like ticking off the “hand feeding of mules” box on your list of things to do during a birding trip to Costa Rica).
Every Visit Helps a Local Business that Loves Birds, Birders, and Conservation
Supporting the people who support birders, birds, and bird awareness is just as important as being treated to exquisite views of Green Thorntails. Please support the Cafe Colibri by enjoying a meal and leaving a generous donation.
If traveling to or from Sarapiqui on Route 126, make sure to visit one of Costa Rica’s first classic birding sites, the Cafe Colibri. If planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, see which places to visit and prepare for your trip with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!
Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.
In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.
With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.
Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:
A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.
Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.
Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.
This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.
Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.
Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!
While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.
Birding is “just” watching birds, plain and simple. As long as you are paying attention to birds, watching or listening to birds to enjoy, appreciate, identify, or study them, that’s birding. Slow birding is, as one might imagine, taking your time with birds, doing the birding thing more like a patient puffbird or heron than a fast and furious Big Day Merlin.
TheMerlin might be the antithesis of slow birding.
These are some of the benefits of slow birding in Costa Rica, of practicing stillness, patience, and the general way of the Sloth as you watch the birds:
Careful Patience Pays Off in the Rainforest
Take a brisk hike through rainforest and you will see a lot of plants. Some other things, leafcutters, but mostly plants. Slow it down, even stand in place for a while and birds are eventually revealed. The same goes for other animals, insects, and countless other denizens of the tropical forest.
Be patient like a waiting heron and you will see more because everything is in hiding, including the birds. A bird can’t take any chances when they live in a place where highly camouflaged predators lurk in the leaves, where so many other animals are always looking for an easy meal. They hear you coming down the trail and may retreat or keep still until you walk on by. Wait around, though, and they might get used to you, realize that you aren’t really a threat. That’s when the birds start to become active again, begin to call and forage because although staying hidden keeps a bird alive, so does eating. Be patient and wait for birds to forage, for a tinamou to step onto the trail for tanagers to move through your field of view.
The slow birding day only gets better when a Speckled Tanager pops into mind blowing view.
Slow and Attentive Birding is Highly Productive Birding
Birding on the slow and easy doesn’t mean mindlessly standing around and looking at your phone or casually strolling down a trail as you check your photos. Productive slow birding is moving slow so you can be attentive to your surroundings. Standing still and moving slow gives you the time needed to scan every bush, check every branch, and listen for every peep.
This is especially useful in tropical forest because so many birds hide in plain sight. A suspicious rock might actually be a tinamou. There could be trogons and other frugivores lurking near fruits in the canopy. Puffbirds and other sit and wait predators might be watching you from a forest perch. Have a birding passenger pay attention while driving on the road to Poas and they might even see a quetzal silhouetted in the mist (as happened a few weeks ago!).
Slow Birding is also Easy-Going Birding
Be attentive and you will see more but if you would rather hang out back at the lodge and have a coffee or cold beer while watching chachalacas and aracaris, that’s slow birding too. If that means relaxing while casually watching the birds that fly into view, there’s nothing wrong with that. This type of birding can come with the benefits of savoring local cuisine, quality coffee, and views of toucans and trogons.
Slow Birding in Costa Rica Works With the Tropical Birding Dynamic
The dynamic nature of birding in Costa Rica always makes for exciting birding. Watch the edge of the forest over the course of a morning and new birds keep popping into view. Go back the next day and more birds show up. Walk a trail and it can go from being frustratingly still to a forest suddenly moving with tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species.
These are just a few examples of the tropical forest dynamic; a situation where most birds occur in low density populations, where many birds move in mixed flocks, and where various species concentrate at fruiting trees. When you go slow with the birding from one spot, species after species may appear as they move through your field of view. Move slow and attentive and you might have a better chance of finding that mega mixed flock or an antswarm. Take it slow and easy and you also see more than birds because of course, there’s always more than birds to birding.
Birding opens the door to an endlessly interesting range of experiences. When you go birding, by definition, the focus is on the birds but since watching birds always involves much more than seeing them, the experience of birding entails far more than birdwatching.
For example, birding can be as mundane as meditating on the goldfinches that come to the feeder out back or as vigorous as making an Olympic grade sprint for a better view of a rare seabird. It can be rocking trips on the rolling blue waters of the open ocean, sharing priceless times with favorite peeps, and exploring new places and countries where you end up eating a Cavy (Guinea Pig) in the Andes.
When you find yourself chewing on that tough rodent meat in Cuzco, you may wonder how on Earth you got there, how on Earth did you end up eating the same species of animal as your eighth grade pet. “Birding” is the simple answer and it will also be the same answer when, after partaking in that meal of rodent, you wonder why you traveled to a place where climbing the stairs makes you feel around 20 or 30 years older. But if you wonder why you are short of breath, your answer won’t exactly be “birding”, it will be “where the heck is the oxygen?” or “high elevation”.
Since birds live almost everywhere, in Costa Rica, we don’t just find birds in the hot, humid rainforests of the lowlands. We also find them at the very tops of the mountains that form the country’s backbone and as one might expect, some of the ones that live way up there, only live way up there. This of course means that if you want to see them (and of course we all do!), you gotta head way up into the mountains.
Mountains, with the slopes of scree, sheer cliffs, ice, and other generally inhospitable facets, aren’t always the easiest of places to visit. I guess it’s why some people feel the need to climb them (a friend of mine does that, I bet he has trudged past vivid blue Grandalas in the Himalayas). In Costa Rica, much to the fortune of birders who would rather not do the climbing thing, we have a nice high mountain (technically a volcano) where you can drive right on up to 11,000 feet! That accessible high elevation birdy spot is Volcan Irazu, here are some expectations and highlights:
Fine High Elevation Birding
Get up above 2,000 meters and roadside birding offers a fine range of montane species. Check out the weirdly wonderful Long-tailed and Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, the easily identifiable Black-capped Flycatcher, clown antics of Acorn Woodpeckers, and views of many a Band-tailed Pigeon in flight.
Spot-crowned Woodcreepers and Collared Redstarts sing from the trees, and Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses rustle the leaves with several more highland endemics in tow. Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are the norm and are joined by Talamanca Hummingbird, Lesser Violetear, and Volcano Hummingbird. Keep an eye out for fruiting trees and you might find a quetzal (they are regular up on Irazu), Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges haunt the brush, and the tooting vocalization of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl may give away its position.
Keep on birding and you might even get lucky with one of the toughest widespread birds in the Neotropical region, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. A fair number seem to live on Irazu but they probably escape detection because they tend to be shy and rarely come into the open.
Potato Fields and Forest Patches
Being a volcano, Irazu has rich dark soils that have been used to grow crops for centuries. As you ascend the volcano, you will drive through several fields of soup ingredients; onions, taters, and carrots. These are dotted here and there with remnants of high elevation oak forest, unsurprisingly, the largest patches tend to have the best birding.
Forest patch birding is generally restricted to the roadside but it’s still good, just be careful how you park your car. For the best forest access, see the Nochebuena bit below.
MODOs in Costa Rica
As in Mourning Doves. I know, not exciting but since this North American suburban standby is very localized in Costa Rica, we get a kick out of seeing and hearing so many of them when ascending Irazu. It’s also a reminder that yes, that bird that sounds like a MODO while you watch a Fiery-throated Hummingbird is definitely a Dove a la Mourning.
The Highest of the High Elevation Birds
In Costa Rica, while more species live in the lower, more tropical elevations, there are a few special birds that managed to become adapted to the highest points in the nation. Two of them even became more or less restricted to the brushy treeline habitats that occur on Irazu, Turrialba, and the high Talamancas. This pair of birds of dramatic surroundings are the Volcano Junco and the Timberline Wren.
On Irazu, the wren can occur down to the Nochebuena area but the junco usually requires a drive right on up to the paramo at the edge of the national park. Once you arrive, don’t expect to see them right away. If it’s sunny, it might take especially long for them to appear. However, if you bird that paramo in the cold early morning, you will have good chance of connecting.
The wrens are fairly common but skulky. In keeping with typical wren fashion, they often give a fastidious call. The juncos aren’t as common as one might expect. They seem to occur in low density populations but unlike the wren, they aren’t the least bit shy about singing from the tops of bushes or hopping next to the car.
The Nochebuena Trails and Restaurant
This classic site is a must for any birding visit to Irazu. Even if you don’t feel like walking their trails (some of them uphill and with less oxygen than you are might be used to), it’s still worth visiting the small and friendly diner for a coffee and pecan pie or some other tasty home-cooked cuisine. While eating, you will probably be entertained by views of 4 species of hummingbirds, flyby Acorn Woodpeckers, Flame-colored Tanagers, and other species.
I hope you do feel like walking the trails though; it’s a beautiful hike. Take your time, be ready for some mud, and explore for wood-partridges, the pygmy-owl, and many other species. Listen carefully and keep a close eye out for the ground-dove, this is the best place to find it! After the trail passes through the fields, it eventually enters forest with a lot of bamboo. Timberline Wren is present along with nice mixed flocks of expected species as well as chances at the rare Slaty Finch and Peg-billed Finches.
The high elevation birding experience also has its other charms, not the least of which are the fantastic views.
A morning of birding Irazu is a good way to get an easy fix of high elevation birds and makes for a good birding day trip from the San Jose area. If you stay until dark, you can also look for nocturnal species including the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Whether just birding during the day or into the night, be prepared for very cool and rainy weather. If staying for the night, contact the Nochebuena, they also have a cabin that can be rented.
“La Selva” means “the jungle”. It’s a term for forest that is strictly tropical in composition and appearance, a humid green landscape punctuated by palms, pale trunks mottled with fungi and foliaged with unfamiliar leaves. It’s a place where the trees grow tall and branch out high above, heavy wooden arms decorated with bunches of bromeliads, orchids, and other “air plants”.
Down below, the ground is typically muddy and it sticks to your boots (and is why rubber boots are the norm for jungle footwear). Birds hoot and whistle from the forest, most unseen. Wait long enough though, look in the right places and they eventually appear. Lowland rainforest birding is extra patient birding but it has its rewards. Keep on birding and the species keep showing especially if you can mix more than one habitat into the blend.
That mix of microhabitats is one of the reasons why birding the edge of La Selva is so much fun. The constant parade of species makes for gratifying, satisfying birding. The constant chance at something rare makes for exciting birding. Add easy, good birding from roads to the mix and we can see why the edge of La Selva is a major, classic Costa Rica birding hotspot.
Birding inside the La Selva station is even more exciting but since access is only possible for guests and folks who pay for one of their tours, sometimes, you just have to be happy with birding the edge. Fortunately, given the reliable good birding, happiness comes easy when birding the edge of La Selva.
The experience is a fine combination of forest and edge species, many of them common, some of them less common. With so many birds sounding off and flying into sight, guiding at the edge of La Selva tends to be busy birding. Which bird to look at now? Which to point out, focus on, or try to see? Your best bet is to go with the flow and identify them as they appear but, as with most sites, some birds are easier to see near La Selva than other places. Some species only live in the hot, flat lowlands. These are the birds that take precedence because you might not see the during the rest of your trip:
The low whistled calls of this tinamou are often heard at La Selva. Although they are much more reliably seen on trails in the reserve, I have also seen them by peering into the forests along the entrance roads (with lots of patience!).
This smallish, smart-looking rainforest raptor is regular in the forests of La Selva, including forests at the edge of the reserve.
It won’t take long to see some of these small lowland aerialists twittering just above the canopy. It’s worth noting that the population in Central America is a pretty good future split from birds in many parts of South America (except for maybe Ecuador and Colombia).
Rufous-taileds are the most common species but Blue-chesteds also occur, especially at flowering bushes. Keep watching the flowers, keep checking for a dull hummingbird with a dark grayish tail.
Despite its size, this big, eye-catching species tends to stay out of sight. Listen for its hooting calls in the early morning and keep watching for it; it’s more common at La Selva than some other places.
Make a careful check all small birds perched on high branches. They might not all be Blue-gray Tanagers, one of them might be a Pied Puffbird. This small puffbird seems to be fairly common around the edge of La Selva.
One of several possible woodpecker species at La Selva, this bronze crested beauty is fairly common around La Selva. It’s also restricted to the lowlands.
Great Green Macaw
La Selva continues to be a classic site for this critically endangered bird. Wait long enough at the edge of La Selva and a pair will eventually fly past.
This common forest antshrike of the Caribbean lowlands is frequently heard and usually eventually seen. The same goes for the zebra-patterned Fasciated Antshrike.
Sarapiqui is a good area for this special bird, especially on roads at the edge of La Selva. Even so, it’s still easy to miss it. All you can do is keep checking the tops of trees and watch for one doing its distinctive butterfly-like flight.
This small, uncharacteristic tanager is a bird of the lowlands and fairly common at the edge of La Selva. If you see a small group of pale birds with high pitched calls fly into a fruiting tree, there’s a fair chance that they are Plain-colored Tanagers.
This cool, large-beaked bird isn’t always present but it does show up from time to time. It’s worth listening and looking for it in the brushy, grassy field adjacent to the reserve. I saw one there last week.
These species can also be found in other lowland sites and some also occur in foothill habitats but if La Selva is the only lowland area visited on your trip, it’s worth it to try and see them there. Use the filter for Region and Major Habitats on the Costa Rica Birds app to study and mark them as targets. Learn more about birding in the La Selva area and dozens of other birding sites with this birding companion for Costa Rica. Most of all, start studying for that birding trip to Costa Rica today, it will be here before you know it!
Getting ready for a birding trip to Costa Rica? Maybe just dreaming about coming to Costa Rica. Either way, this information is for you, for the birders, future birders, and birding curious folks of the world. This post will be especially useful for people on the edge of coming to Costa Rica.
In any case, I’ll start by saying that even if the following information doesn’t include birds you hope to see nor sites you expect to visit, there are no worries in this birding house. Rest assured that all of those other birds, the dozens of hummingbirds, chipping flocks of tanagers, haunting calls of antbirds and wrens, toucans, and the rest are present in Costa Rica and waiting to be seen.
In other words, the birding is fantastic as usual. As for myself, I’m looking forward to getting out and exploring sites old and new. I sort of always feel that way, am touched by that instinctive curious pull to explore the mossy forest, the places where biodiversity lurks and chirps from the shade, where countless life hides high overhead, in plain sight.
Look and listen close and you will find treasures, especially in biodynamic Costa Rica. Now for some news:
Yes, that’s right, we got the plural going on up in here! A small group of this uber elusive almost wannabe fruit-dove have been showing at one of the best sites for it; the trails of the Museo Volcan. Situated on the upper slopes of Volcan Irazu at the Noche Buena Restaurant, these trails access edge, second growth, and high elevation forest good for a number of uncommon birds. In addition to the ground-doves (which rarely show this well), Slaty Finch, Peg-billed Finch, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and other nice birdies are also possible. Needless to say, a number of lucky local birders have been twitching those doves!
Rains and the July Dry Spell
The rainy season is here and that’s good for the birds and the wet , tropical ecosystems they depend on. In most places, it rains every afternoon. In the mountains, the water falls or mists or soaks for much of the day and night. A few places have been subjected to some flooding but so far, there have been few landslides or other typical occasional effects of the annual rains.
On the bird front, the rains also generate insect hatches that help many species raise broods. That wealth of flying insects can make it much easier to see various swifts. On recent mornings when thousands of recently hatched ants have helicoptered up above the trees, I have been gifted with rare close looks at Chestnut-collared, Black, White-chinned, and Spot-fronted Swifts among the more commonly seen Vaux’s and White-collareds.
As for July, according to the local weather forecast system, the annual mini dry spell is expected although mostly for the Central Valley and Pacific Northwest. It might also be hotter and drier in August than July.
Range Expanding Dry Forest Species
Keep an eye out for lowland and Pacific slope species that have been expanding their ranges into the Central Valley and elsewhere. Recently, such dry forest species as Turquoise-browed Motmot, Common Ground-Dove, and Orange-fronted Parakeet have been spotted at typically wet sites near Cartago. This is unheard of but perhaps not unexpected during the current climate crisis. As far as birding goes, don’t be surprised if you see some birds away from where they would be more expected.
As this hotspot sees increased birding exploration, its potential continues to be realized. Some of the more interesting and coveted recent sightings have included views of Black-and-white Becard, Sharpbill, Ochre- breasted Antpitta. Many other “good” birds are also possible and the birding at Quelitales is always excellent.
Another fairly new, classic birding hotspot, the headquarters of the Costa Rican Birding Hotspots Route continues to be an excellent easy place to see Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and other nice highland species. Lately, a Chiriqui Quail-Dove has also been showing!
White-cheeked Pintail Surprise!
Apparently, this mega for Costa Rica has not flown the coupe! Recently, it was spotted near Ciudad Neilly, the same region where it was being seen earlier this year. Maybe it has been there since then, hiding somewhere out in the rice fields? Hopefully it will stick around for much longer. Since this birding site (Coto 47) gets flooded now and then during the rainy season, if you visit, access may or may not be possible.
The Local Bird Information Keeps Getting Better
I wouldn’t know about the pintail, ground-doves, nor other sightings (such as umbrellabird seen recently at Arenal Observatory Lodge), if it weren’t for local birders heading into the field and reporting their sightings. Many thanks go to them! As the birding community in Costa Rica has grown, more information about bird distribution and sites have become available. The more people interested in birds and nature the better, let’s look forward to having more sites for uncommon species.
What About the Pandemic?
Yes, it’s still happening but in some places, things are certainly looking up. In Costa Rica, a sudden rise in cases happened in May and there are still a fair number of daily cases BUT, it has also been steadily decreasing and some experts believe that we had our peak. Vaccinations in Costa Rica continue to move forward, at the moment, 15% of the country is totally vaccinated. Hopefully, the rate of vaccination will increase especially since we are expected to receive another shipment of vaccines any day now.
In the meantime, mask wearing and other protocols are still in place and it seems that most people and businesses follow them. Visitors must still fill out an official online health form and need to have a certain type of health insurance (even if you have been vaccinated). See more details about those requirements here.
If you are headed to Costa Rica soon, get ready for fantastic, easy birding in beautiful tropical settings. If the trip is later this year or the next, get the Costa Rica Birds field guide app to start studying those birds now, there’s a lot to see!
In Costa Rica, we see good numbers of Peregrine Falcons, at least during migration. Hundreds pass through the country as they move thousands of miles to and from breeding and wintering areas. Some stay for the winter in Costa Rica and given their status as a feathered top tier predator of the skies, they might not have too much to worry about other than catching enough birds to eat. Watch a Peregrine on a beach or lowland tropical river in Costa Rica and you might even be tempted to feel that the bird was on vacation.
Chasing and catching sandpipers, swallows, and other avian prey is much more a matter of survival than mere fun and games but what can I say? A healthy adult Peregrine makes the chase look so easy.
We can thank the vast majority of our Peregrine sightings to banning DDT (thank you Rachel Carson!) and years of conservation efforts (here’s to the Peregrine Fund and the many biologists and organizations that helped make this happen). Myself and other birders who were wielding binos in the 70s and 80s recall the days when you hoped to get lucky at the hawk watch by seeing at least one Peregrine over the course of several visits. We reveled in the many falcons that flew past Cape May because so many of us weren’t going to see them elsewhere.
Thanks to science, dedication, and hard work, in Costa Rica, as with many places, we can admire the fast flying power punch of a Peregrine Falcon. Us local birders are grateful for Peregrines but we sure wouldn’t mind seeing another , similar-sized home-grown Falco do its deadly thing. That special bird is the Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus), this is its story in Costa Rica. But first, a little bit about the natural history of this coveted species.
A Rainforest Peregrine or an Oversized Bat Falcon?
Maybe a bit of both. Slightly smaller than a Peregrine, the Orange-breasted Falcon seems to occupy a similar bird-eating niche but in humid tropical forests. Historically, it occurred from the rainforests of southern Mexico south through Central America and into South America all the way to northern Argentina. Like the Peregrine, it flies fast to catch pigeons, parakeets, and other birds (some biologists suspect that the Orange-breasted Falcon may even fly faster than the Peregrine!).
Also like the Peregrine, Orange-breasteds often nest on cliffs although they have also been recorded nesting in trees in the Amazon rainforest and other parts of their range.
Physically, this rainforest falcon looks a lot more like the smaller and much more common Bat Falcon, especially Bat Falcon subspecies and individuals that have orange coloration on the neck. This similarity has undoubtedly led to many erroneous reports of Orange-breasted Falcons, Costa Rica included. Good ways to recognize an Orange-breasted Falcon include:
White throat bordered by orange on the side of the neck and on the breast (although Bat Falcons can show a similar pattern, there’s not usually as much contrast between the white throat and orange on the neck and breast).
Large, heavy looking bill that makes the overall shape of the head a bit more like that of a Collared Forest-falcon (at least compared to the shape of the head of a Bat Falcon).
No contrast between the blackish color of the head and the back.
Coarse, more wavy, orange and white barring on the breast.
Size and shape in flight more like a Peregrine compared to the rather Hobby-like shape of a Bat Falcon.
Unlike the Peregrine and Bat Falcon, the Orange-breasted seems to have always been local and rare and especially so in Costa Rica. For Costa Rica, there are no records documented with photo or specimen, and in The Birds of Costa Rica : Distribution and Ecology by Slud, he only mentions two old records along with a pair of his own sightings. Given the difficulty in separating it from the Bat Falcon, and the lack of detailed information about separating them at that time, it’s worth mentioning the possibility of misidentification. At the same time, since a lot more habitat was present when those reports took place, they can’t be entirely discounted either.
In Costa Rica and elsewhere, for unknown reasons, in modern times at least, it seems to be absent from many areas with what one would guess is suitable habitat. Although the species was assumed to occur in various remote parts of Central America, searches carried out during a Peregrine Fun study only found a few birds in eastern Panama and several in the known population of Belize and adjacent Guatemala.
The methods used during their searches included aerial surveys of possible nesting sites on cliffs as well as surveys from the ground. Not finding birds doesn’t mean that they aren’t somewhere out there in other parts of Central America but I daresay it does mean that, if still extant, the species must be pretty rare.
Modern Sightings in Costa Rica?
There have never been any validated sightings of this species from Costa Rica, nor are there any possible sightings reported in eBird. However, there is an intriguing publication of a possible sighting of Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica from 1990. The authors mention seeing what they took to be an Orange-breasted Falcon perched in a snag near Las Brisas de Pacuarito, a site in the Caribbean lowlands just north of Barbilla National Park. Their description of a medium sized falcon with a white throat and orange on the breast and sides of the neck is certainly intriguing. It’s a shame that bird photography wasn’t as easy then as nowadays but isn’t that always the case.
Can It Still Occur in Costa Rica? If so, Where to Look?
This is of course assuming that it even occurred in Costa Rica at all but given the amount of rainforest that cloaked much of the country, I would bet on it. However, it probably occurred in small numbers, perhaps limited by nesting sites and other factors. In modern times, given the total lack of records in Costa Rica since at least 1990, it doesn’t seem likely that the bird still occurs as a breeding species. If it did, I think we would at least see a juvenile now and then looking for territory. Also, if the Orange-breasted Falcon still hunted in Costa Rica, given the growing number of birders roaming the country, it seems like someone would eventually see one.
Based on that information and the closest population perhaps occurring in central Panama, it doesn’t sound like we can expect seeing this super cool falcon in Costa Rica anytime soon. However, I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t still look for it, that we shouldn’t be careful about checking Bat Falcons. I think we should because of the following:
If a few still occur in the somewhat underbirded forests of the Caribbean slope of the Panamanian Talamancas, they could disperse into Costa Rica.
The areas where that could happen, the foothills of Talamancas near the border with Panama, see very little birding coverage and have extensive primary forests, much of which is difficult to access.
There are other remote and underbirded areas also worth checking including Barbilla National Park, parts of Hitoy Cerere, and even remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
I suppose it also goes without saying that if a young bird or even an adult does manage to make its way to Costa Rica, we will never know its there unless birders are out there looking in the places where they could turn up. Since the birding in Costa Rica is always exciting, it’s always worth birding those remote, underbirded sites. I mean, you’re going to see a lot of cool birds anyways and will probably find something rare even if you don’t happen to hit the mega birding Orange-breasted Falcon powerball.
If you do bird some of those remote sites, please eBird the results and share your best sightings in the comments. I promise to do the same.
Want to know where to go birding in Costa Rica while supporting this blog? Learn about birding sites in Costa Rica and how to look for and identify birds in Costa Rica with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.I hope to see you here in Costa Rica!
“What is that, an eagle? It’s huge!” This or a similar version in any number of languages is a common phrase heard by birders from Tennessee to Thailand. It makes sense, our primate instincts just won’t allow us to forget about the honest threat that big raptors posed to our little ones way back before the height of the Anthropocene. Not to mention, big raptors are easy to notice, especially when they take flight and tend to look bigger than their actual size.
That thing about perspective tricking us into concluding that big birds are a lot bigger than they really are is one of the first things a birder learns, especially when binoculars reveal that that the massive “eagle” was actually a Turkey Vulture or a healthy Red-tailed Hawk. Until you learn and accept that perception of size is deceptive, you can bet that you are fooling yourself.
Rest assured, Tommy Shaw wasn’t talking about birding when he wrote this song but whether you listen to Styx while birding or not, being aware of the size/perception illusion is partly why we as birders know that condors and giant eagles aren’t really roaming the countryside (although we sure wish they were, we know it’s just some Grand Illusion). Depending on the part of the northern hemisphere where one wields the bins, Red-taileds, Common Buzzards, and Black Kites also remind us of how frequent big birds of prey can be.
In many places, it doesn’t take more than a drive down any country road to start seeing raptors perched here and there on posts, or to notice the silhouette of a raptor flying high overhead. In Costa Rica, that flying raptor is usually one or both common vulture species (Turkey and Black). Since these scavengers are such a regular part of the avian landscape and probably the first birds seen upon exiting the plane, I’m going to leave them off the following list. The birds I will mention are the 10 additional raptor species (non-owls) most commonly seen in Costa Rica. Go birding in Costa Rica and you will find that they aren’t as frequent as roadside raptors in some other parts of the world but you can probably still bet on seeing them.
Locally known as the “bailarin” (dancer), this rodent catcher often hovers in place above grassy fields. Like most raptors in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly abundant but because there is plenty of habitat for it and because it isn’t shy about hovering in plain sight, get ready to see it.
Another bird easily seen because of aerial behaviors that make it wonderfully obvious. It occurs year round in parts of southern Costa Rica and is a wet season visitor in other parts of the country. Enjoy the elegance in hilly and mountainous areas with humid forest.
In many parts of Costa Rica, including the Central Valley, this is our buzzard, our Red-tail, our common kite species. Based on how often one hears and sees this “Mexican Goshawk”, this edge bird does quite well in the patchwork of habitats created by human endeavors.
True to its name, this smallish hawk is a regular feature of roadside cables, telephone posts, and trees. In hot lowland areas, it can be more common than the Gray Hawk. Like the Gray Hawk, it also frequently calls and soars.
Another of the most common hawks in Costa Rica, keep an eye on the skies and you might see this species every day of your birding trip. It often takes to the air with groups of Black Vultures, possibly flying with them to reach its aerial hunting grounds as unobtrusive as it can manage. Once up there, it soars and hovers in plain sight until it can fall like a rock onto some unsuspecting bird or lizard. Even better, it also comes in two cool color phases!
This cool and chunky raptor lives up to the “common” in its name but only on the coast. Watch for it soaring or perched near any coastal habitat but especially areas with coastal forest, including mangroves. This expert crab catcher can also hang out right on the beach.
A big bird that flaps around here and there as it searches for carrion and small and easy prey. Deforested lands and drier weather have made this large falcon a common sight even in the Central Valley. Its shape and foraging behavior sort of remind me of the Common Raven.
Another flappy, screechy falcon that thrives on carrion and small, easy prey. This bird is especially common in the Pacific lowlands where it sometimes perches on cattle so it can pick off their ticks or just be up to its own odd caracara devices.
Although this bulky Buteo is not as abundant as birds up north and is restricted to the highlands, it soars a lot and is common enough to make it onto this list. As a bonus, resident birds look quite different from the birds of the north.
Only in the winter and on migration but worth a mention because during those seasons, this small hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors in Costa Rica. It makes Costa Rica a great place to study the subtleties and traits of Broad-winged Hawks.
These species are the most commonly seen raptors of Costa Rica but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a few more. On account of them being regularly seen in appropriate habitats, honorable mentions must go to Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk (since literally thousands migrate through Costa Rica), Gray-lined Hawk (replaces the Gray Hawk south of Dominical), Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey.
And that’s not all! Quite a few other sharp taloned birds also live in Costa Rica including hawk-eagles, the wily Crane Hawk, the striking White Hawk, and others. To learn more about identifying raptors and sites to see them in Costa Rica, check out this Costa Rica bird finding book. Use the Costa Rica Birds app to study vocalizations and images, and make target lists, and get ready for some truly fantastic birding. As always, I hope to see you here.
Endangered species are a sign of our human dominated times. We hear about so many animals being endangered that society has become all too accustomed to hearing about the plight of the Giant Panda or Rhinos disappearing, or so many other species being “endangered”. We hear about the term so much, when people talk about wild animals, we almost expect it to be used. It becomes normal, accepted and that’s insane because endangered means nothing less than a steady path straight to extinction. Gone. Gone for good and there ain’t no way the Labrador Duck is coming back, no more return or revival of the Passenger Pigeon or Carolina Parakeet or any of the other 1,000 plus bird species that have likely gone extinct over the past few thousand years.
If it weren’t for the massive effects we as a species have on our natural surroundings, I gather that “endangered species” would be a categorization limited to flora and fauna with extremely limited ranges and/or specializations that make them more vulnerable to sudden natural changes to their habitat or ecology. It might also be limited to the few species already on their way out the evolutionary door. However, since extinction doesn’t normally happen in the blink of an eye, even those naturally doomed species would be very few in number.
For the most part, the Anthropocene has been a bad and mortal ride for other life on Earth but they aren’t taking this trip alone. We are the ones driving this roller coaster of connected life and unless we make it safer for everyone on board, we’re going to engineer a crash that also takes us out of the picture. Luckily, we have made some adjustments, some solutions to keep more life around. Let’s hope that we can also find solutions for the following 8 most endangered resident bird species of Costa Rica:
The king of Neotropical birds, its monstrous proportions, lethal capabilities, and rarity have given it near mythical status…at least in Costa Rica where its status is presently uncertain. Healthy populations of this top raptor formerly hunted in rainforests in many parts of the country; a number of indigenous artifacts that portray the Harpy Eagle show that it was well known among peoples in Costa Rica for thousands of years. However, this was when much larger areas of unbroken rainforest covered the lowlands and foothills of the Caribbean slope and the southern Pacific slope.
These days, this huge eagle is much less prevalent in Costa Rica if it even still breeds in the country. The only documented sightings since 2009 have been one bird in Tortuguero and another north of Rincon de la Vieja in 2017. Both of these were likely wandering eagles in search of territory but given the amount of forested habitat in a few choice spots and studies assessing Harpy Eagle populations in Panama that showed pairs using around 20 square kilometers of forest, a handful of pairs may still occur in Costa Rica. The places to look for them would be in the Barra de Colorado-Tortuguero National Park forest complex, the northern forests connected to the Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, forests of the eastern Talamancas near Panama, forests on the north slope of Rincon de la Vieja and Guanacaste National Park, and maybe even in remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Sadly, although the Osa Peninsula and the adjacent Piedras Blancas National Park may have enough forest to support 3 or even 4 pairs of Harpy Eagles, since the last sighting there occurred in 2006, I doubt it still lives in that part of the country.
If the Harpy Eagle is the king, the Crested Eagle is either a prince or a grand duke of neotropical raptors. It occurs in much of the same rainforest habitats as the Harpy and also acts as a top predator. As with the Harpy in Costa Rica, the Crested Eagle has likewise certainly disappeared from much of its former range.
It is rarely seen but, unlike the Harpy, one or two are spotted just about every year. It may be hanging on (if by a thread) in the same areas where Harpy may still occur, in the forests of the Osa and Golfo Dulce (there have been recent documented sightings), in the Las Tablas area, and in any large area of foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope.
In some places, I can’t help but wonder if this big raptor may have taken up the niche left by the absence of the Harpy Eagle. This might help it survive although it would still surely need large areas of healthy habitat and perhaps habitat that hosts healthy populations of large reptiles.
Back in the 90s, there were fairly regular reports of this massive black-hawk from several sites. Even taking into account the confusion of this species with the similar Great Black-Hawk, it seems that the Solitary Eagle was seen now and then in Virgen del Socorro, near San Vito, in the Osa, and other sites.
Not any more.
I’m not sure what happened but given the paucity of sightings, in Costa Rica, the population of this large raptor must be very low. Since there seems to a fair amount of possible habitat for this species (primary forest in hilly areas), it seems that it should still occur in such places as Braulio Carrillo National Park, in the Talamancas, and elsewhere. But if that is the case, then why aren’t we seeing it more often at suitable, accessible sites?
Unfortunately, I suspect that this species has declined in large part because lower rainfall even in protected areas has resulted in lower productivity and thus fewer large snakes that make up an important (or even vital) part of its diet. At the same time, given all of that available habitat, much of which is inaccessible, it seems that there should still be some pairs that breed in Costa Rica. Needless to say, studies to ascertain what’s going on with this large raptor are urgently needed.
This specialized wasp eating falcon has become the classic very rare bird of Central America. Sightings are so few and far between, one would never guess that its raucous screams used to play a common role in Costa Rica’s morning chorus. However, that was some time ago, back when there was enough healthy forest (and perhaps other factors) to support large populations of its requisite wasp larvae prey.
Long gone from most parts of its North American range, in the present era of the Anthropocene, the last Red-throated Caracaras of Central America mostly occur where one might expect them; in the final few remaining large forest blocks. In Costa Rica, some continue to be seen in the heart of the Osa Peninsula and others are occasionally found in northern Costa Rica. Wandering individuals might also still show up on the Caribbean slope of the Talamancas and in the foothills in and near Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Never heard of the Gaunacaste Hummingbird? Don’t feel bad, this lost species is only known from one old specimen. Also called, “Alfaro’s Hummingbird”, Costa Rica’s biggest avian mystery hasn’t been seen since its discovery in 1895.
Recent determined searches have yet to find it but since it can be easily mistaken for the Blue-vented Hummingbird, and because there is more ground to cover, researchers are still looking for it. If you happen to be birding on or near Volcan Miravalles, take pictures of any hummingbirds you find. Who knows, you might rediscover a lost species and the most endangered bird in Costa Rica in one fell swoop.
This becard relative may lack bright, shiny colors but its still high on the wanted list of many a local birder. In Costa Rica, there are very few sightings of this extremely rare bird, and most actually travel to the Canal Zone of Panama or Indio Maiz in Nicaragua to see it!
An uncommon species of lowland and foothill rainforest, this mourner probably needs large areas of intact primary forest, especially along streams. As far as records from the past ten years, there are rumors of it still occurring at La Selva and I know a reputable guide who saw one in perfect microhabitat for it in the Osa (a flat area of primary forest along a stream) but haven’t heard of any other possible sightings. That said, it seems that it should still occur in a few places. Surveys should look for it along streams in lowland and foothill primary forest in all of the largest forest blocks.
Although this bright white bird with the yellow beak and butterfly flight can be readily seen at Rincon de Osa, don’t kid yourself, this species is seriously endangered. In fact, other than the hummingbird, this cotinga would probably be the most globally endangered species in Costa Rica.
The reasons for this unfortunate designation stem from it needing a particular combination of threatened habitats next to each other in a naturally small range. Those habitats are lowland rainforest and mangroves. Take one away or limit their connection and cotingas have troubles. This is why there is a tiny and nearly extinct population at Carara, and why the only other populations are probably limited to areas near Dominical, in and near the Osa Peninsula, and one or two places in Panama.
The overall world population of this cotinga is not precisely known but it believed to be pretty darn small, maybe even as low as 150 birds. Its main hope for survival are the mangroves and rainforests of the Osa and Golfo Dulce. If it starts to decline there, it’s hard to understand how it would not go extinct.
It was hard to choose an 8th species for this list but after thinking about which rare birds have declined the most, I had to settle on this large and bizarre cotinga. Rare for some time, the umbrellabird of Central America hasn’t been getting any more common. One can go birding in perfect habitat time and time again without seeing it and sadly, the reason for not seeing it is simple; there are very, very few of them.
A precious few are seen at La Selva and a couple other sites in the winter months, at Pocosol perhaps all year long, and on breeding grounds in Monteverde but the numbers are always low and sightings rare. Since large areas of suitable forest are present in less accessible areas of Braulio Carrillo and the Talamancas, there is hope that a good number of umbrellabirds also occur there but data are lacking.
Unfortunately, some other birds in Costa Rica are nearly as threatened with extinction or at least require further study. They are:
Like a large Short-tailed Hawk or Booted Eagle, this aerialist hides in plain sight. However, no matter how well it can hide while soaring up there against the clouds, it still seems to be decidedly scarce. Never common, this raptor nevertheless seem to be much more rare in Costa Rica than in the past.
We don’t know how often this equatorial albatross species uses Costa Rican waters but since it has been recorded from time to time and is critically endangered, it certainly merits a mention.
The same thing can be said about this pelagic bird.
Great Green Macaw
On account of steep declines in other parts of its range, this beautiful bird is now considered to be “Critically Endangered”.
Thanks to conservation and reintroduction efforts, at the moment, this major bird is fairly easy to see in Costa Rica. However, if we don’t stay firm with protecting this species, including the Mountain Almond trees it depends on, it could be lost.
A very little known and little seen bird, there are very few regular sites for it. Studies are sorely needed to asses its status and try to figure out what this bird exactly needs for habitat.
Common in some other parts of its range, on account of the local pet trade, this large oriole has become very rare in Costa Rica. These days, the best places for it seem to be sites in and near Cano Negro. It also likely lives in a few other scattered sites but not many. Hopefully, increased campaigns against bird trapping will change its status for the better.
One of Costa Rica’s most recently described endemics is also highly threatened. This is another bird for which ecological studies studies are urgently needed to try and keep it from suddenly going extinct. I realize that can sound alarming for a bird of second growth but given that urbanization has destroyed and overlapped large parts of its extremely small range, and that it doesn’t seem to be all that common, I think the concern is warranted.
Luckily, at the Project Cabanisi, there are people studying and working on the conservation of this towhee relative. Please consider giving some support to this project.
Edit- One Last Important Honorable Mention!
I’m not sure how I overlooked this one, thanks to Paz Irola of Get Your Birds! and various local bird conservation projects for the reminder!
In Costa Rica, Sedge Wrens occur in small and localized populations that require sedge or dense, grassy habitats, mostly around Cartago and in some parts of the slopes above the Central Valley. Unfortunately, those same habitats aren’t afforded any protection and are thus typically slated for “development” or for grazing.
Climate change is also probably making the situation worse as drier weather decreases the amount and quality of habitat for the Sedge Wren. Not to mention, birds that occur in Costa Rica aren’t the same as the much more numerous Sedge Wrens of the north. They do not migrate, sound and look a bit different, and are either the same species as similar resident Sedge Wrens in northern Central America, the Grass Wren of South America, or a highly endangered species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama. No matter what their taxonomic status may be, they form a distinct phylogenetic group that is under serious threat.
How to Save Endangered Birds in Costa Rica
The birds on this unfortunate list differ from each other in various ways but the solutions to conserving these and so many other birds tend to be the same. To varying degrees, they all need:
Studies to ascertain populations, to see where they occur so we can focus conservation in the right places.
Life history studies to figure out what they need for survival as well as the factors that contribute to their decline.
Short and long term plans for effective conservation. This can include habitat protection, management, and reforestation, awareness education about the importance of these birds, reintroduction, and other efforts.
Not mention, there are also choices we can make to conserve birds at home and further afield such as eating less meat, using organic products, buying songbird friendly coffee, maintaining a garden with native plants, and supporting organizations like the American Bird Conservancy that actively work to protect birds. It also doesn’t hurt to promote birds and nature connection as much as possible.
If you would like to know more about where to find the birds on this list along with other information about birding in Costa Rica, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book designed to help every birder see and identify more birds in Costa Rica.
When visiting California Gulch or some roads in Costa Rica or so many other off beat places we go for birds, the song gets changed to, “I love rocky roads so put another wrench in the toolbox baby!” However, if the Fasciated Tiger-Heron could croon, if that rocky river loving bird could put words to the tune, it might say, “I love rocky flows so put another fish in the eddy baby!”
If you ever wondered what the Fasciated Tiger-Heron does, that lyric just about sums up how it spends most of its time. Unlike so many other herons, this species doesn’t visit marshes, doesn’t wade in estuaries or fly along any ocean shore. It doesn’t even stalk the shallows of slow, steady-flowing tropical lowland rivers. In the nations where our rocky river bittern ranges, those habitats are used by the related Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and the Rufescent Tiger-Heron. At some period in evolutionary history, we can only assume that in occupying and become more adapted to rocky forested rivers, the ancestor of the Fasciated became the bird that it is today.
Like other Trigrisoma herons (the tiger-herons), the Fasciated is a fair-sized bird with a thick, and powerful neck, sharp beak, and medium-length legs. In other birding words, its more or less shaped like a bittern, like a compact, modern dinosaur. However, unlike bitterns, the Fasciated and other tiger-herons don’t bother to hide themselves in the grass, don’t make any noises that sound like a water pump.
No, these birds are too rough and tough characters for any of that quaint country stuff. More in keeping with their dino ancestors, tiger-herons stalk where they wish, make growling noises that sound like some scary predator of the night, and eat baby crocodiles. At least the Bare-throated and Rufescent eat young crocs. The Fasciated doesn’t but I bet that’s only because saurians don’t inhabit the bird’s cold, rocky river habitats.
In fact, the Fasciated is so adapted to rocky streams and rivers, it just can’t seem to live anywhere else. Ranging from Costa Rica through much of the tropical Andes, the Fasciated Tiger-Heron uses rocky streams and rivers that flow through forested landcapes. As one might gather, this special heron also has a morphological feature or two that help it survive in its rushing river home. A bit stockier than other herons, like a feathered goat, it has shorter legs that may help it find better balance on slick river rocks. Its slightly blunter bill might help it catch more crayfish or other prey items peculiar to its cold, splashing home.
Although it’s far from being the only heron that patiently waits in place to eventually catch unwary prey, the Fasciated T. seems to be especially adept at practicing stillness. This river bird stands in place for so long, it can seem more like a garden statue, just another rock in the river than an actual living bird. With water constantly rushing and splashing past it, the heron seems to be making some natural Zen statement. Compared to herons of lowland tropical places, keeping still for long periods of time might be a necessary adaptation to catch enough food in places with fewer prey items. Being “Zen” also probably helps to avoid predators as does another of its characteristic features; its cryptic plumage.
Check a stream for this heron species and you might need to do a double take. Look carefully at the river with binoculars and don’t be surprised if one of those many “rocks” turns into a bird that was hiding in plain sight. Coupled with its art of being still behavior, the mottled gray plumage of the adult helps it blend in remarkably well with the surrounding river rocks and rushing water. The orange and black plumage of the juvenile is another story and raises the question of why the adult seems to be more camouflaged than young birds; a situation typically the other way around.
If you feel like pondering such questions while birding Costa Rica, come visit and scan rocky rivers and streams in rainforest for Fasciated Tiger-Herons. On account of the bird’s natural stealth and likely low density populations, it might take a while to find one. But don’t give up! Think like the heron, check the river with care because you can bet that the birds are somewhere on that waterway. They might be standing just around the bend, or keeping still on the other side of a big river rock, being Zen, hiding in plain sight.