The best places for birding in Costa Rica don’t have to be the most visited places, they just need to be the places with the best habitat. Then again, “best places” are subjective, they depend on the birder doing the talking, what someone prefers to see, or how a person prefers to go birding.
“Best birding” for birders who would much rather scan for shorebirds might not include a walk in rainforest. There are birders who would rather watch migrating raptors than study the subtleties of flycatcher plumages, and many people prefer the nice looks that come from easy-going edge birding rather than catching glimpses of occasional rare birds in places shaded by towering trees.
For me, I suppose the best places for birding depend on what I want to see, the number of birds present, and the variety of birds available. Based on those factors, I tend to lean towards sites with extensive forested habitats. Such places host the highest avian diversity and even though dense vegetation, tall trees, and low light conditions present challenges, patient watching still yields results. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention that forest also lends itself to earbirding; something I do just as much or even more than sight birding.
Although I find all natural habitats interesting, I have also, always been partial to forest. As a young person, that’s where I took the wild things to be. In my pre-teen mind, the forests of the Southern Tier of New York state, Pennsylvania, and Algonquin were where the birds lived. I would gaze at maps and look for the wild places, the areas with the most amount of forest and imagine what lived therein and how much more area used to be covered with extensive stands of massive, ancient trees.
These days, we can look at satellite maps, see where the remaining forests occur, note where to focus reforestation efforts, and where we might find the best sites for birding, at least for birding in rainforest. In Costa Rica, one of those better, little birded sites is the road that leads to the Manuel Brenes Reserve. Like other country roads, it’s not paved and a combination of mud and rocks doesn’t make it very suitable for a small vehicle with two wheel drive. However, it is flanked by good-sized areas of intact foothill rainforest and that’s why the birding is simply excellent.
Yesterday, my partner and I paid a visit to that site, one that was long overdue. During a morning of birding, we identified 90 species, these were some highlights:
Quite often, birding at this site is accompanied by the loud calls of bellbirds. Start birding near the entrance and you might hear one or two of these cool cotingas calling from somewhere in your auditory surroundings. Venture further on the road and you get much closer. With luck, you might see one perched high above but just as often, they are in trees just out of sight, just out of reach.
Mixed Flocks with Tanagers and More
This particular site can have fantastic mixed flocks. Some of the best I have ever seen in Costa Rica have happened on this road; dizzying flocks with too many birds to look at. Yesterday morning, compared to past visits, mixed flock activity was a bit subdued but we still managed to come across a few that yielded close looks at Emerald, Speckled, and Black-and-yellow Tanagers along with less colorful birds like Russet Antshrike and Eye-ringed Flatbill.
This plain brown bird doesn’t look like much and can be tough to see in its dim understory home but what it may lack in looks, it makes up for with its intriguing whistled song. We heard at last two of these special rainforest birds and also enjoyed listening to other songs of the foothill rainforest; the complex song of the Nightingale Wren and the simple phrases of Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes.
Quality Species Heard
Other uncommon species we heard included Lattice-tailed Trogon (at least 5!), Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Bicolored and Ocellated Antbirds, and Streak-crowned Antvireo.
The road to Manuel Brenes isn’t regularly visited on tours and its not in the best of shape but the birding is always good. I would love to spend a few days exploring that road and also visiting at night. Including the small marsh at the beginning of the road, it already has a 400 plus species list, I wonder what else uses those beautiful, mossy forests?
September is here. It means we are that much closer to winter and the high season but most of all, birds up north are on the move. Soon, waves of the avian kind will be passing through Costa Rica, the heralds of the annual fall passage are already here.
As always, we’ve also been seeing some interesting bird species, some rarities among the many, more common and beautiful birds. Planning a trip or have a birding trip planned to Costa Rica? Hundreds of birds are waiting for you. Check out the latest news items for Costa Rica birding and get psyched for your trip:
Waved Albatross, Gray-bellied Hawk, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and Oilbird
In terms of rare birds and notable records, these ones come to mind. There wasn’t any photo for the albatross but when it comes to massive sea wandering birds in Costa Rica, there’s not a lot of room for confusion. This report comes from the Marino Ballena area and is a reminder that this rare mega from the Galapagos can turn up anywhere near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, at any time.
The hawk was spotted by local guide Randy Gomez during some casual birding around Chilamate. This austral migrant and excellent Ornate Hawk-Eagle mimic seems to be a very rare yet annual visitor to Costa Rica. Although it may migrate south very soon, hopefully, this young bird will decide to stick around for the winter months. It’s a good reminder to take a closer look at any Ornate Hawk-Eagle.
Red-fronted Parrotlet is always here but it’s also always tough. These small and uncommon parrots are typically heard and, if you are lucky, quickly glimpsed in flight. It’s a rare day when they are seen foraging. That rare day recently happened in the Bajo de Paz area when local birders spotted this species feeding at a fruiting tree.
Oilbird is another annual visitor (or rare resident) typically seen during the wet season. Recently, a perched Oilbird treated lucky birders with great views at the Curi-Cancha Reserve.
Shorebirds and kites are making major movements but most other birds are just arriving to Costa Rica, and many aren’t here yet. This morning, I saw my first of hopefully many fall Red-eyed Vireos and my first fall American Redstart. Where did those birds spend the summer? The vireo will continue on but perhaps the redstart will stay. Hopefully, thousands more birds will be on their way and visiting these bio-rich habitats soon.
New Species for the Costa Rica List!
Yes, another bird makes it onto the country list! This latest special addition was the Lesson’s Seedeater, a small migrant from South America photographed by a local researcher in Tortuguero National Park in June. This smart little bird lives in northern South America and usually migrates to the Amazon. Indeed, the only time I have seen one was years ago while birding with Alec Humann in the incredibly fantastic forests of Yasuni National Park.
This species is one of several Austral migrants not unexpected for Costa Rica. A rare occurrence indeed but given the plain appearance of the female, one can’t help but wonder if one or two have been overlooked on past occasions.
New Update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide App
A recent update will be available for the IOS version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app (no Android version is available at this time). It will include Spectacled Petrel and Yellow-nosed Albatross (two other recent additions to Costa Rica), and some other updates to enhance every birding experience in Costa Rica.
After this update, this birding app for Costa Rica will feature
Images for 940 species on the Costa Rica list.
Vocalizations for 869 species on the Costa Rica list.
Images, information, and sounds for 65 additional species that may eventually occur in Costa Rica.
Updating My Bird Finding Book for Costa Rica
I’ve been busy updating “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. The new version will be edited and include more than 60 additional sites for birding in Costa Rica. It’s quite the task but it will be worth it for birders to have the most up to date, accurate, and comprehensive information for birding in Costa Rica. It should be ready before the start of the high season.
In the meantime, the book can still be purchased to support this blog. If you do buy a copy from now until the end of October, when it becomes available, I will also send you the updated version.
The Urban Birder is in Costa Rica
David Lindo, the Urban Birder is currently doing a tour in Costa Rica. I first met David in Israel at the 2016 Champions of the Flyway and had hoped to eventually share birds with him in Costa Rica. It was nice to be able to do that with him and one of his tour participants before they started their tour. I was also fortunate to have him sign a copy of his children’s book for birds, “The Extraordinary World of Birds“.
This book is a veritable treasure, not just for young people interested in birds, but perhaps even more so for young people who don’t know a thing about birds. A fun encyclopedia of information about all things avian, it’s chock full of images and illustrations of birds from all over the world and is exciting to read. Hopefully, it will find its way into the hands of as many kids as possible and get just as many interested in birds and their natural surroundings.
On a personal note, it also reminds me of the books I used to gaze at in the Niagara Falls public library, books that opened my mind to birds and so much more. One big difference is that David’s book is so much better in every way; I suppose just what I would expect from someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and a passion to connect young people with nature. Want to help birds? Buy a copy of this book to donate to schools and the young people in your life.
As always, there’s lots more to say about birding in Costa Rica but there’s nothing like coming to this beautiful country to see them with your own eyes. I hope to see you here.
Most birders don’t visit Costa Rica to look at shorebirds. Their rung on the birding priority ladder is outpaced by endemics and hundreds of other species not possible at the home patch. Even so, sandpipers and plovers are always fun to watch and if you get a chance to do some shorebirding in Costa Rica, you’ll reap the following benefits:
Lots of Birds
Bird in Costa Rica in the right places and you might hit a wader jackpot. Thousands of shorebirds migrate through and winter in Costa Rica, much more than we manage to document. As I write, I’m sure that fantastic flocks of sandpipers and plovers are moving along both coasts. Some birds stop, many fly on and pass through Costa Rica’s bit of air space in less than a day. Among those migrating groups of birds, among the birds that stop to rest and others that continue on, a rarity or two could certainly be present.
Marbled Godwits, Surfbirds, and Wilson’s Plovers
Birders who aren’t from this side of the globe will get their fill of Western Hemisphere waders. Yellowlegs, Willets, “Hudsonian” Whimbrels, Western, Semipalmated, Least, and Stilt Sandpipers, and more. Among some of the more interesting and wanted shorebirds are Marbled Godwit, Surfbird, and Wilson’s Plover, lot’s of Wilson’s Plovers!
Find a Siberian Vagrant
As with other places that concentrate shorebirds, Costa Rica can also host vagrants from Siberia. So far, such lost shorebirds have taken the form of Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and Pacific Golden-Plover but given Costa Rica’s position on the Pacific Coast flyway, more are certainly possible. I’m sure a few of those species have been here but passed through unseen or unnoticed. Four species of stints are possible, the most likely ones maybe being Red-throated and Little Stints, the others being Little, Temminck’s, and Long-toed Stints. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is also likely (one was seen in Panama), and Lesser Sand Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit could also make a surprise appearance.
Yeah, real long shots but all are long distance migrants that migrate through or too similar latitudes in southern Asia and all have occurred in Washington state or California. Some have probably made it to Costa Rica at some point, hopefully a few will make it here again. It doesn’t hurt to be ready to recognize them (and is why these and other possible vagrants are included on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app). Unfortunately, separating winter-plumaged Red-necked and Little Stints from Semipalmated Sandpipers is an incredible challenge. If you see any funny looking Semis in Costa Rica, take a closer look and take a lot of pictures.
Much More than Shorebirds
A befits the bird-heavy nation of Costa Rica, one of the other benefits of watching shorebirds is seeing lots of other birds too. As one might expect, various other waterbirds will also be present, often, birds like Roseate Spoonbill and White Ibis. On the Pacific Coast, there will also be a fair selection of dry forest species and mangrove birds including chances at uncommon species like Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Mangrove Rail, and Mangrove Hummingbird.
Provide Important Data on Wintering and Migrant Species
As with all birds, keeping them around depends on knowing how many occur and where they make a living. Taking a day or two to focus on shorebirds, making careful counts and then uploading the data to eBird is an easy way to help.
It’s always worth it to watch shorebirds. In addition to helping with eBird data, in Costa Rica, a scopeful of elegant migrants from the far north can act as a relaxing break from the challenges of forest birding. Learn about the best spots to see shorebirds in my Costa Rica bird finding guide. I hope you see a lot!
Birding isn’t just watching birds. It can be a fun and stress-free outlet, an educational journey, and a personal challenge. However, no matter how many birds you see, no matter how you experience birds, birding is always a key way to relax and connect with your natural surroundings. A relaxed birding trip is when you go birding but you also sample and enjoy local cuisine, maybe spend some time in the pool, maybe spend more time in one bird-rich place to watch bird at your own pace.
Costa Rica is ideal for relaxed birding. It’s a place where relaxation and nature connection go hand in hand, especially for birders with non-birding partners. Beautiful tropical scenery and an incredible number of birds make this friendly country ideal for a relaxed birding trip.
The following are 5 additional benefits of relaxed birding in Costa Rica:
Beautiful Garden Birds
In Costa Rica, you don’t have to go far to see a lot of exotic, beautiful birds. Some photographers visit this birdy country and take pictures of a couple hundred species without setting one foot on a single trail. Stay in the right gardens and fruiting trees can host euphonias, tanagers and other small species.
Incredibly, stunning Golden-hooded Tanagers are also regular garden birds!
Flowering bushes and other plantings attract hummingbirds. The Violet-headed Hummingbird is one of several glittering species regular at many sites in Costa Rica.
More Protected Habitat Makes for Easier Birding
Costa Rica is such an excellent place for easy-going birding because there’s a lot of easily accessible and protected habitats. Even better, several quality eco-lodges are found within or next to such protected areas. It’s why Costa Rica is an easy place to see large birds like Great Curassow and Crested Guan,
In general, more habitat means more birds without having to go on long, muddy hikes.
Fun for the Non-Birding Partner
Relaxed birding works very well when visiting Costa Rica with a non-birding partner. This type of birding means that you can get in fantastic birding in the morning and enjoy the rest of the day doing fun things with your partner. It can also mean birding for most of the day while your partner does other activities. There’s always plenty of fun stuff to do in Costa Rica.
Birding Boat Trips
Don’t feel like going on a long, hot hike? You aren’t alone! Boat trips in the right places are an excellent substitute. Float down a tropical river and you can see everything from waterbirds to trogons, raptors, and a roosting Great Potoo.
You Still See Lots of Great Birds
This is probably the best thing about relaxed birding in Costa Rica. When a well planned, easy going birding tour in Costa Rica stays in the right key places, many species are seen right at the lodge, even birds like trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, and literally hundreds of other species.
To learn more about carefully planned, fun and relaxed birding tours in Costa Rica taking place in January, 2023, contact me today at firstname.lastname@example.org
The official list of the Bird of Costa Rica boasts more than 900 species. That much biodiversity in a place the size as West Virginia or Denmark makes for a heck of a lot of birds to see. Go birding in Costa Rica and you’ll see a lot of them too, probably watch trogons, motmots, tanagers and maybe three dozen hummingbirds. However, one of the birds you aren’t so likely to see is one of the birds we all want to see the most. That special, evasive bird is the Harpy Eagle.
A bird true to its name, the Harpy is a taloned monster, an apex predator of the rainforest. Reaching a length of three feet, the bird is literally larger than life. Pairs of this magnificent eagle of eagles use extensive areas of forest replete with monkeys sloths, and other prey items. It’s one of the top birds of the world but sadly, the Harpy is not an easy bird to see. Unlike many other raptors, this eagle rarely soars. Similar to forest Accipiters, forest-falcons, and cats, it uses stealth to catch prey, lurking under cover until it sees its chance to quickly fly and use massive claws to snatch animals by surprise. Factor in a large territory and it’s no wonder the Harpy is tough to see, even in rainforest that supports healthy populations of the eagle.
The Harpy is a recurring topic of conversation among local birders because very few have seen one in Costa Rica, we don’t know if any breeding pairs still occur, and, every birder who has not seen a Harpy must see one. Honestly, like the Resplendent Quetzal, the Harpy is a bird species every birder deserves to eventually witness. I wish there were funds and special programs developed with this goal in mind, to help birders experience the Harpy Eagle, help them make a pilgrimage to meet this life goal.
At the moment, birders do the Harpy trip to eastern Panama or the Amazon. They are taken to known nesting sites because that situation is by far the most reliable way to see this stealthy canopy predator. If we knew of a Harpy nest in Costa Rica, oh that would be major game changer. It would be aboost for tourism, it would help all of us local birders finally lay eyes on this elusive bird in this birdy nation. Until then, all we can do is keep looking for them in the right places. On July 21st, 2022, the right place ended up being a section of road in northern Costa Rica.
On that fateful day, a group of tourists happened to make local headlines when they chanced upon an adult Harpy Eagle while driving along the main road between Mirador de Pizote and Boca Tapada. It’s a road I have traveled several times, the main road that goes to Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque Lodge, and other birding spots in that area. The sighting was a welcome surprise but I’m not surprised it happened where it did. It’s exactly where one would expect to see a Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica.
This part of northern Costa Rica has large areas of intact primary forest connected to larger areas of forest in the Indio-Maiz Reserve of Nicaragua. Based on the amount of habitat and sightings of Harpy in Indio-Maiz, Harpy Eagles should be present in the forests near Boca Tapada; if not a pair or two, then at least occasional wandering individuals. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t we seeing them?
The answer to that question gets back to the fact that Harpy Eagles are very difficult to detect, even in places that harbor healthy populations. Factor in birding coverage being rather limited and Harpy sightings become even less likely. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that more people are visiting the Boca Tapada area, especially Mirador de Pizote, the site closest to where the Harpy was seen. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that more eyes in the field resulted in a Harpy being noticed. The sighting also occured on one of the few spots where forest comes right up to both sides of the road. It looked like a good place for a Harpy to cross the road, a good place for it to sneak through the trees.
Thanks to the local guide who reported the bird, the sighting was made known right away and that same day, several local birders raced there to see if it could be refound. Some of the those same birders also took a boat trip on the Rio San Carlos the following morning. These efforts were worth a try and I’m glad they made the attempt but I wasn’t surprised they did not see the bird. I was rooting for them and hoping they would see it and there were several very experienced guides and birders on board but seeing a Harpy Eagle requires a good deal of luck. Having extensively birded in forests where the Harpy occurs in “good numbers” and knowing how incredibly infrequently myself and other guides saw them, away from a nest, I know all too well how unreliable that bird can be.
A Harpy passes through an area but then where does it go? The bird likely moved to another part of its territory to look for prey. Or, it kept moving around in search of a mate, or, it was somewhere nearby but hidden inside the forest. We’ll never know where that special bird went but the sighting was nevertheless monumental. It shows that, without a doubt, in 2022, Harpy Eagle still occurs in Costa Rica and, it was seen where it was expected.
This sighting is the best of incentives to go birding in the Boca Tapada area, even more incentive to educate local folks about Harpy Eagles and reforest. It might not have been sighted later that same day nor the next but when it comes to Harpy Eagles, that means nothing. A Harpy is a tough bird to see, unless you go birding in places where they could occur, you’ll never see one anyways. The good thing about birding in the places where they do live is that there are hundreds of other cool birds to see too.
A couple days after the sighting, my partner Marilen and I spent a couple of nights in Boca Tapada. We knew we had little chance of refinding that Harpy but it was still good to try, still good to scan the canopy and keep looking. Not to mention, any day birding in lowland rainforest with Green Ibis, Pied Puffbird, Cinnamon Woodpecker, and dozens of other cool birds is always a good time.
For our brief sojourn, we stayed at Las Iguanitas, a small and fiendly place right in the village of Boca Tapada. That worked for us, if you don’t might basic yet friendly lodging for a good price, it’ll work for you too. It was also fun speaking with the owner. He does tours in the area and had some interesting things to say about Harpy Eagle, most of all, possible additional sightings in less accessible spots. He also showed us a Black-and-white Owl that visits the lodge nightly, major points for that!
Additional choices for accommodation include Mirador de Pizote (a nice little place that caters to photographers), Maquenque Lodge (more upscale, good for families and small groups), Pedacito de Cielo (nice little place, also caters to photographers), and the lodge I have always visited, Laguna del Lagarto (oldest ecolodge in the area, good for groups, photographers, and has trails in excellent habitat).
Birding around Boca Tapada has always been exciting, now, even more so! I can’t wait to get back for more raptor searches. With that in mind, it’s important to mention that a Harpy isn’t limited to the one spot where it was seen. It has a huge range, it could potentially occur along any road or trail with good forest around Boca Tapada. I hope you visit the area too, maybe I’ll see you there.
Birding trips to Costa Rica are exciting, eye-opening birding events. The first trip dazzles with a colorful and fantastic barrage of species and most are lifers. Visit a different part of the country and the second trip will be just as exciting as the first. You should also catch up on some of those unseen species from the first trip, maybe a Royal Flycatcher,
maybe a tinamou or a White-bellied Mountain-gem.
Subsequent trips can be equally exciting, even when visiting some of the same bird rich sites. The complex nature of tropical birding promises novel experiences and is invariably accompanied by chances of seeing rare species and better views of uncommon birds. Whether stepping onto Costa Rican soil for the first time or the tenth birding trip to Costa Rica, the experience will also be accompanied by expectations, some more valid than others.
As with every birding destination, in Costa Rica, changes can happen to habitats and other aspects of the local birding scene. The following are five honest expectations from the perspective of an insider. I hope they help your birding trip.
Clay-colored Thrush is Abundant, Pale-vented Thrush..Not So Much
Yes, you can expect to see a lot of Clay-colored Thrushes. The national bird, the “Yiguirro” is numerous and present in most edge and garden habitats. It’s less expected in dry areas, inside the forest, and in the highest of elevations but it can show up in all sorts of places. Its ubiquitous nature makes it a good bird to know. See a brown, thrush-sized bird flit to a branch and move its tail after landing? You’ll see a lot of those, most will be Clay-colored Thrushes.
Does this mean the similar looking Pale-vented Thrush is just as common? No, it does not. That shy species only occurs in foothill and lower middle elevation rainforest and can be quite uncommon.
eBird Sightings for Costa Rica- Not the Final Word
In Costa Rica, eBird is a great tool. It can show where some rare birds have been seen and give some ideas on where to go birding. However, naturally, the handy app only shows data where people have submitted eBird lists.
This is good to keep in mind if you see quality habitat but aren’t sure if the site is worth birding because no one submitted any eBird lists. Always remember- appropriate habitats determine where birds occur, not where people have gone birding.
Speaking of birding in Costa Rica, it’s also worth mentioning that even when bird species are reported in eBird, that doesn’t mean you will see them. Yes, that sort of goes without saying but honestly, many species are naturally rare and/or refuse to play the birding game. It can take a good deal of time to see such anti-social birds, even when birding with an experienced guide. Not to mention, some of those sightings in eBird are errors and quite a number of species are left off of lists because the observer couldn’t identify their vocalizations or didn’t get an adequate view as dozens of birds flash-mobbed their way through the rainforest in mixed flock madness.
In brief, it is good to check out eBird for Costa Rica, but it’s not the final word on where to go and what’s been seen.
Raptors are Infrequent (But be Ready for Them!)
If you have read this blog on previous occasions, you are likely already familiar with the infrequent raptor concept. Same goes if you have already been birding in Costa Rica. We got this amazing raptor list and yet, we don’t see tons of raptors. That’s just the way it is but it doesn’t mean you won’t see them. I know, like, say what? In the classic words of Arnold Drummond, “What you talking about Willis?” (RIP Gary Coleman, one of the coolest 80s kids).
But yes, really, if you bird in the right places and keep looking, you will probably see a bunch of raptors in Costa Rica. It won’t be like birding at home, you’ll have to look for them in the right way or bird with a good guide but those hawk-eagles can happen. Don’t stop looking, you can easily miss them.
Quail-doves, Tinamous, Wood-Quails, Antpittas, and Leaftossers- Quiet and Patience Please
All of these birds look really cool, look like species from our collective birding dreams. Sadly, their shy nature can keep them in those special, imaginary places. They can come into your birding life but you have to look for them in the right places and in the right way. In general, that birding way is the way of patience, habitat knowledge, and quiet footsteps. Mosquitoes buzzing? Resist the temptation to massively slap and destroy them; quail-doves and their terrestrial skulking friends aren’t into loud sudden noises. Instead, let repellent do the work.
Feel the urge to tell a joke, talk about dinner plans or just can’t keep your mouth shut? Before you venture onto that shaded trail, before you move into the realms of the shy forest birds, remind yourself that these birds don’t go for small talk. These birds don’t want to hear a thing. This walk might be your only chance to glimpse a Purplish-backed Quail-dove. Move in silence, you’ll be surprised at what scurries across the path.
As luck would have it, such ninja-inspired trail stalking goes hand in hand with another major tinamou watching factor- patience. For effective birding in tropical forest, patience is far more than a virture. To see more birds, especially the shy ones, staying patient is a necessity. While birding in rainforest, don’t worry if no birds seem to be present, don’t fret that you aren’t seeing birds. Oh you can bet some are nearby, be patient and don’t let down your guard. Keep looking and ye shall eventually find.
Poor Lighting, Birds in Flight, and Bits and Pieces
None of the above will be surprising for folks who have done plenty of birding. When you bird in Costa Rica, you’ll also see a good number of silhouettes, of small birds waaay up there in the canopy, others zipping in and out of views or only showing a tail, or other small bit revealed through a green mosaic of tropical vegetation.
To further challenge your birding skills, there will also be birds in flight, parrots not showing enough colors, unfamiliar raptors shapes teasing over a distant forested ridge. These are all part of the birding game, winning requires patience and persistence.
I could talk about other things to expect when birding in Costa Rica but will end this post by mentioning the most important expectation of all; that of seeing a heck of a lot of birds. Watch birds in Costa Rica and it’s going to happen. Three days of birding can yield 300 species. A week or ten days can have 400 plus species of birds. Go birding at a slower pace and you’ll still see a lot, still see toucans, parrots, macaws, and more. Make a target list from nearly 1000 species on the Costa Rica birding app and get ready for the trip. Costa Rica is a pretty birdy place.
Bird photography in Costa Rica is fantastic. Sure, we could say the same about dozens of destinations and there might be excellent bird photography right in your own backyard but what you might not have birds like
and Orange-chinned Parekeet.
You may not have access to a site that offers more than typical feeder species. In Costa Rica, one such top choice for bird photography is Laguna del Lagarto. It’s a place I have blogged about on more than one occasion and with good reason; this classic Costa Rica eco-lodge offers world class bird photography benefits that can be tough to beat, one of those being a chance to capture images of Tawny-faced Quail.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this beautiful little ground birds, if you haven’t seen many pictures. On account of its shy behavior and dense, dark rainforest habitat, this small quail is one of the most infrequently seen bird species in Costa Rica. However, thanks to the efforts of local birding guide Juan Diego Vargas and Laguna del Lagarto, chances to see Tawny-faced Quail have greatly improved. Even better, not only can you see it, you have a fair chance of getting pictures too!
The problem with seeing Tawny-faced Quail is that this species doesn’t like to be seen. This isn’t one of those birds that will walk into the open, it’s not a bird that takes many chances. In general, small groups carefully move over the forest floor and then freeze at the slightest hint of danger. Since their plumage acts as perfect camouflage in the dark forest interior, you could easily walk right past them and have no idea the bird was sitting still, just a few meters away.
Most birds that live in the understory of the rainforest are tough to see, most are experts at staying hidden. However, most also give whistled songs and calls that reveal their presence. Most do that but much to a birder’s chagrin, the Tawny-faced Quail bucks the trend. This little quail rarely sings and instead of using its voice in the morning, it often waits until dusk and even them, it calls just a few times.
The timing and manner of its song makes this bird incredibly easy to overlook. Even worse, in Costa Rica, this quail seems to sing more often during just two months; May and June. The bird can also be found and heard at other times of the year but based on the experience at Laguna del Lagarto, the most reliable time to see them is definitely during May and June. This is when they call the most and this is when Laguna offers your best chance to see them.
We all know that no bird is guaranteed, anything can happen while birding but I also know that May and June is when most of the local guides have visited Laguna to see and photograph this quail. I know that Laguna has found roosting sites for this bird and have followed careful protocols to make sure every visiting birder sees them. During the past two years, when a roosting quail at Laguna is known, the success rate of visiting birders for seeing this bird has been very high.
Perhaps roosting birds will also be found at other times of the year? Hopefully, but at the moment, May and June are the best months to book a trip to Laguna del Lagarto and photograph this bird. It’s one of several excellent side benefits when visiting Costa Rica for bird photography. Laguna being one of the better places for bird photography in Costa Rica, some of those other benefits include close photo opps for toucans, tanagers, tityras, puffbirds, and a host of additional rainforest species like the stunning Green Honeycreeper shown below. I know I’m looking forward to the next time I visit this special place!
An impressive number of raptor species occur in Costa Rica. Check the official Costa Rica bird list, count the hawks, eagles, kites, Osprey, and falcons and we hit a respectable 57 species (that doesn’t even include our sharp taloned friends of the night, the owls!). Such a tantalizing total puts Costa Rica on the bucket list of many a raptophile but the high numbers come with a catch. In general, raptors aren’t so common, they aren’t as easy to see as some other places.
After a few days of birding, this apparent scarcity of raptors is noticed by most visiting birders. They wonder why, compared to the number of hawks seen in fields and wooded habitats back home, they see so few raptors? Drive through the countryside and there seem to be far fewer hawks than similar drives in France or Ontario. They start to wonder, with so many raptors on the list, where are they?
In Costa Rica, the truth of the matter is that all of those hawks and other raptors are present but high levels of competition among so many different types of animals only leave so much food for each raptor species. Most of the birds on the list have populations in Costa Rica but they occur in low density populations.
Even so, go birding long enough in green space of the Central Valley and you’ll probably see a Gray Hawk flapping its way from one riparian zone to the next. There will be a pair of Short-tailed Hawks soaring high overhead, perhaps a Zone-tailed Hawk rocking its way through the neighborhood, maybe one of those Bicolored Hawks that have learned to catch pigeons. The two common vultures are a given, Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras may fly into view, and you might find a White-tailed Kite hovering over a vacant field.
Bring the binos to lower, hotter places and more species become possible. However, to see those additional raptors, you’ll need to leave the open country and bird near sizeable areas of rainforest. Rainforests host the healthy variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians needed to support populations of hawk-eagles and birds like White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and Gray-headed Kite. Look long enough in the right places and you’ll probably see these cool birds.
The Tiny Hawk lives there too but unlike so many other raptors in Costa Rica, you can’t expect to see this one. The simple truth about the Tiny Hawk is that it’s especially hard to find. It’s not rare but it’s definitely an odd raptorial bird, one that will give you a run for your birding money.
Around the size of an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird (yes really!), this pint-sized raptor with long, sharp claws makes its living by ambushing small birds in humid forest from Central America south to northern Argentina. With such a large range, you would think it would be seen more often but nope! Many a veteran neotropical birder has only seen Tiny Hawk a few times or has never laid eyes on this challenging bird.
Thinking of my own experiences with the bird, during decades of birding in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, I have probably seen them around a dozen times in Costa Rica, once or twice in Ecuador (one from a ridiculously amazing canopy tower at Yasuni Research Station. Really, it was ridiculous.), and perhaps a few times in Tambopata, Peru. So what’s the deal? Why is it so hard to see? Isn’t it just a tiny Sharpie or Sparrowhawk? Is it just too small?
To answer the latter questions, yes, part of the problem is that the bird is very small. The other part of the problem is that no, the Tiny Hawk is definitely not a small version of a Sharpie or Sparrowhawk. In some ways yes, it does act like those familiar bird predators but in other ways, its got its own Tiny thing going on.
Similar to the small, well-known Accipiters of the north, the Tiny Hawk also hides in dense vegetation so it can dash out and ambush its avian prey. However, unlike the slightly larger Accipiters, it rarely if ever soars and that makes a huge difference. Just imagine if Sharpies never soared, if they didn’t migrate? Think of how often you would see them. Probably still more than a Tiny Hawk but not nearly as much as you normally do.
Those attributes make the Tiny Hawk a tough one to watch and a much more difficult bird to study. Based on scant observations of behavior and its small size, at first, the hawk was hypothezied to be a hummingbird specialist. However, as more Tiny Hawk observations have been made, as more birders have documented its behavior, the truth about this species has come to light; hummingbirds do not make up a large part of its diet.
In 2021, Alex J. Berryman and Guy M. Kirwan investigated this idea and determined that no, as one might expect from a small Accipiter, the Tiny Hawk does not limit its diet to hummingbirds. It will catch them when it can but it also catches a variety of passerines and other small birds. Interestingly enough, although I have only seen Tiny Hawk with prey on two occasions, both were of passerines; a Shining Honeycreeper and a Scarlet-rumped Tanager.
Speaking of animals that hunt other animals, don’t let the name fool you. Like weasels and other pint-sized predators, for its size, the Tiny Hawk packs a ferocious punch. It’s every bit as voracious as a Sharpie, as tough as a Sparrowhawk, and has been seen taking birds nearly as large as itself, notably, Great Kiskadee and Golden-green Woodpecker (!). In a sense, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, we see similar feats of depredation from another group of birds that act a lot like a Tiny Hawk, the pygmy-owls. As with many raptors, they will catch whatever they can get away with catching.
The Tiny Hawk acts more or less like a Sharpie that never soars, like a pygmy-owl or small cat that uses its small size to stay hidden until it sees its chance. However, it’s still an odd bird. In fact, as it turns out, it’s not actually an Accipiter. What? But it has Accipiter as part of its name! Perhaps, but not for long, there are recommendations to give this bird and the related Semicollared Hawk their very own genus. Molecular and skeletal studies have revealed that these mini raptors are not closely related to other small Accipiters. They form a group related to but separate from them, a group that also includes the Lizard Buzzard of Africa.
Yes. As testament to the old lineages shown by many a raptor, somewhere, way back when, the ancestor of the Tiny and Semicollated Hawks separated from the ancestor of the Lizzard Buzzard! And, before then, the ancestor of those birds separated from the ancestor of the Harpagus “kites” (that would be the Double-toothed and the Rufous-thighed). Perhaps that explains why the Lizard Buzzard has a dark mark on the throat and why it sort of looks sort of like something between a Doubke-toothed Kite and a Tiny Hawk? Those data likely also partly explain why the Tiny Hawk looks different from the Accipiters. It has a slightly different shape, one not shown in many field guides.
The illustrators were probably basing their drawings on the Accipiters they were familiar with and we can’t blame them, the Tiny Hawk is not an easy bird to see and when many field guides were illustrated, few images of Tiny Hawk were available. The real shape of this fun little raptor is more along the lines of a pint-sized raptor with a short tail and almost “Passerinish” look. It’s notable that the Tiny Hawks shown in “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, and in “Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama” by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer are accurate depictions of this bird.
Getting back to the Lizard Buzzard, this cool bird is plumaged rather like an adult Gray Hawk although those features are surely convergent adaptations for the tropical semi-open habitats preferred by these and other species with similar gray-barred plumage. The plumage of the adult Tiny Hawk also shows fine gray barring and is likely an adaptation that helps camouflage the bird in dense vegetation. As for the young birds, unlike various other, larger raptor species, their plumage does not mimic the adult plumages of large raptor species (such as juvenile Bicolored Hawk and juvenile Hook-billed Kite resembling adult Collared Forest-Falcon among other examples).
Instead, curiously enough, juvenile Tiny Hawks have a rufous plumage. Did this trait evolve to resemble a thrush or other non-predatory bird and thus help them surprise the small birds they prey on? When you see a young Tiny Hawk perched high in a tree, that’s sort of what it looks like. But if so, why don’t the adults have rufous plumage too? Perhaps the adult plumage works better at catching prey in more situations. Who knows but it’s interesting to note that various pygmy-owls, a bird that, once again, hunts very much like a Tiny Hawk, also have morphs with similar rufous coloration.
All of this is interesting from an evolutionary perspective but what about seeing a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica? What about watching one go after an unwary Bananaquit? As previously eluded to, laying eyes on this special little bird isn’t the easiest of tasks but as with so many other aspects of tropical birding, there are tricks to up your birding odds. Try these tips to see Tiny Hawk while birding in Costa Rica:
Bird in the Right Places for Tiny Hawk
Yes, you could check eBird sightings and that will help but when birding Costa Rica, always remember that first and foremost, birds live in the right habitat, they aren’t restricted to places where people have eBirded. The right place for a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica is any area of lowland or foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope and, on the Pacific slope, humid forest from around Carara south to Golfo Dulce area. Yes, even around Carara. It’s not as regular there but small numbers probably occur from time to time around Macaw Lodge, Cangreja, and other, more humid sites in the area.
Some years ago, I thought there were some spots that were better for this bird in Costa Rica than others. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. As long as rainforest or foothill forest is present, it seems like the Tiny Hawk can turn up in any number of places with similar degrees of frequency.
Scan the Treetops in the Early Morning and Late Afternoon
Get out there early and check the treetops, check them well. Do the same in the late afternoon. These are the times when Tiny Hawk is more likely to perch in the open, usually on a high branch. If you see a funny looking “thrush”, look twice, use the scope, it might be a Tiny Hawk.
As an aside, if small birds are making a ruckus at any time of day, take a close look, they might be upset about a Tiny Hawk. I saw that happen once in Manzanillo, the small size of the hawk made it easy to overlook, helped it blend in with the small birds that were mobbing it (at a healthy distance!).
Peripheral Birding around Mixed Flocks
Tiny Hawks may follow and catch unwary birds in mixed flocks. When encountering a mixed flock, keep an eye out for any lurking birds at the edge of the flock, especially if the lurker suddenly flies into the flock. Likewise, if you hear the birds give an alarm call, keep looking, keep watching to see if you can get lucky with a Tiny Hawk sighting.
Forest Clearings and Edges with Fruiting Trees and Hummingbird Activity
Whether because it’s easier to see birds or because Tiny Hawks prefer such situations, small clearings or places with scattered trees adjacent to forest seem to be good places to see this challenging bird (Nectar and Pollen is an ideal situation for this bird). Get a good vantage point and keep watching, check any thrush-like bird that suddenly comes into view. If small birds are active around fruiting and flowering trees or some other food source, there could easily be a Tiny Hawk lurking nearby. Keep watching and be ready for any sudden movement followed by alarm calls.
Follow these tips and yo might find a Tiny Hawk. It’s a challenging bird, I won’t promise anything but if you do look for Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica, rest assured, you’ll still see lots of other birds.
Some of the best birding in Costa Rica is easy-going, relaxed birding. Although a definition of “best birding” is subjective and related to (1) what a birder wants to see and (2) how they want to do their birding, when the results of an easy morning of birding include several hummingbirds and various regional endemics (including uncommon and threatened species), that’s pretty darn good.
When birding in Costa Rica, you really don’t need to take long jungle hikes to see lots of great birds. To see a fantastic variety of species, visiting remote areas isn’t vital, nor is testing the limits of a rental vehicle’s suspension. It does help to know where to go birding in Costa Rica, know the best places to visit, and how to see those birds but you won’t have to buy any trekking boots.
Don’t get me wrong, expedition birding has its advantages too and I love being immersed in remote forest birding but Costa Rica offers much easier options. One of the best is the Poas and Cinchona area. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again; roadside birding from the Central Valley to Poas and along Route 126 can turn up an astonishing number of birds (a quick tally of birds that have occurred resulted in 500 species!). More than 100 are rare, various elevations are involved, and 50 of those birds are only present during the winter but that still leaves lots of birds to look for on any visit, any time of year. On a recent morning of birding with very limited walking, some birding highlights included:
14 Hummingbird Species
All were seen from the vehicle or at the Mirador San Fernando (the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe). They included such sweet birds as
and the uncommon Black-bellied Hummingbird.
14 hummingbird species are a good total but amazingly, on the route we took, further effort can turn up at least 7 or more additonal species.
Large-footed Finch and Other Highland Endemics
In the high elevation areas of Poas Volcano, bird activity was somewhat hindered by cold rain. Even do, we still had excellent looks at regional endemics like Large-footed Finch, Sooty Thrush, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, and Flame-throated Warbler along with various other montane species.
The Large-footed Finch is a towhee-like bird that needs cool, wet forest habitats. Like so many other bird species on Poas, it only lives in Costa Rica and western Panama.
Coffee with Black Guan, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and other Great Birds
We spent around two hours at Cinchona and had excellent birding. Most of the usual species came to the fruit feeders including “the Cinchona trio” of Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and Red-headed Barbet.
The hummingbirds were also very active and gave us multiple close views of species like Green Thorntail, Green Hermit, Violet Sabrewing and others.
As a bonus, a Barred Hawk soared into view, Black Guan showed at the feeder, and two juvenile Buff-fronted Quail-Doves occasionally appeared on the ground below the feeder.
There’s nothing like accompanying quality coffee with constant tropical birds at Cinchona!
Costa Rica is made for birding. Whether taking the easy birding route or exploring remote locations, fantastic birding is in the cards. See “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” to learn about the best sites for seeing more birds in Costa Ricaa nd prepare for your trip. I hope to see you here.
This would be the main, busy and important highway that links the San Jose area to Guapiles and Limon. In birding terms, it’s the main road to such excellent sites as Cope’s Place, Nectar and Pollen, Centro Manu, and the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger Station. Before you fret about not being able to go birding at those promising hotspots, fortunately, Route 32 isn’t the only way to get there.
Until the highway is fixed (it could easily be a week or more), you’ll have to take a more circuitous route. The birding upside is that one of those routes is the road that passes by Cinchona. This road, Route 126, is very birdy and scenic but if using it to reach the aforementioned sites, it would make for a very long day trip from the Central Valley. It will be much easier to visit those sites as a trip from lodging in or near the Sarapiqui area.
This important route was closed a few days ago after heavy rains caused a small landslide. Steep slopes and wet weather converge to make such road problems a regular issue on Route 32. Unfortunately, on this occasion, continuous heavy rains resulted in a major landslide; maybe the biggest I have ever seen on Route 32.
It will eventually be fixed but could take a while. With that in mind, if you need to travel to Limon, you might want to consider Route 10 as an option.
Route 32 isn’t the only part of Costa Rica recently affected by heavy rains. There has been some localized flooding and a few other roads have also had problems. For the most part, most roads are open but since that could easily change, make sure to use Waze to stay updated about road closures and conditions during your time in Costa Rica.
The rains also present obvious challenges for birding but one advantage is higher bird activity during pauses in precipitation. Seriously, the birding can be fantastic in the mornings and when the rain stops.
Lovely Cotinga at Arenal Observatory Lodge
In June and July, some individuals of this species move to elevations lower than their upper middle elevation breeding grounds. A recent sighting of a female in the gardens of the Observatory Lodge was a reminder of this behavior. These days, birders should scan treetops in any foothill and middle elevation forest on the Caribbean slope for the turquoise blue of male Lovely Cotinga and the pale, dove-like aspect of the female. They aren’t exactly common but you could find one.
Better for Rails and Masked Duck (aka Duck-billed Pseudo-Rail)
Now that the rains are here, rails and Masked Ducks are more accessible. Seeing them still requires a considerable amount of time and effort but they are much easier now than the dry season. Lately, local birders have been watching Paint-billed Crake and Spotted Rail in the Las Trancas rice fields, and Masked Duck has been seen at a private wetland site in Guanacaste. Paint-billed Crake has also been showing in its usual Coto 48 haunts and could also be found in other suitable wetlands. Rice fields on the Pacific slope are good places to look for this gallinulish crake but they can also appear in any number of marshy areas. Masked Duck could easily be lurking in those same spots.
A Pelagic Trip Might be Nice
As with pretty much everywhere, pelagic trips in Costa Rica are always exciting. At this time of year, it’s possible that rainy weather may bring more nutrients into coastal waters that in turn, attract more birds. I’m not sure if that is the case but I do know that I’ve seen more interesting pelagic species from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry at this time of the year than in the dry season.
Head further from shore and you have a fair chance of seeing Tahiti Petrel and some chance of connecting with Christmas Shearwater in addition to regulars like Wedge-rumped, Black, amd Least Storm-Petrels, and Wedge-tailed and Galapagos Shearwaters. NOT TO MENTION, you could also have some serious powerball birding luck and see something like the country first Salvin’s Albatross that was spotted in late May!
Costa Rica is wet and rainy right now but the birding is still fantastic. Plan your birding trip to Costa Rica with rain in mind and stay updated on road conditions and you’ll do fine. I hope to see you here!