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!
Half a year has come and gone. In Costa Rica, the hot and sunny weather of the high season is a distant memory. April brought the rains and since then, they have been dutiful in humidifying and soaking this birdy nation. It’s expected and needed even if we could do without the landslides and local flooding. I should mention that the landslides haven’t been major but small ones do affect roads now and then, even closing the main highway between San Jose and Limon for a few days.
Such closures are an annual occurrence, all one can hope for is not having to use that important road when they do happen. One good way to avoid any such road issues is by avoiding that highway during days and nights of heavy rain. Luckily, I haven’t had to drive there this past week. Eventually, I will need to take Route 32 and as long as my driving happens during better weather, I look forward to it. I hope I can stop at an overlook on that highway to listen for uncommon birds and scan for rare raptors.
Some of those birds could be new for my year list. Not that I’m trying for anything in particular but needless to say, I’ve got a pretty good running total. Since January 1st, I’ve identified 635 species in Costa Rica, almost all of them seen while guiding or watching birds for fun.
Ironically, I’m not striving for any Big Year goal. Those 600 plus species are more of a hint at the incredible variety of birds that occur in Costa Rica, and the high number of species one can see after birding in key spots. Some of those 2022 birds include Red-fronted Parrotlets heard and briefly glimpsed flying over the entrance to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, hearing and seeing both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles flying high overhead at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, the male Lovely Cotinga at Rancho Naturalista, other cotingas, migrant Cerulean Warblers gleaning rainforest leaves, 70 flycatcher species, Scaled Antpitta at Bajos del Toro, Black-chested Jay, and so much more.
Whether because of their rare status or memorable birding situations, the following highlights stand out:
After missing it our first time around, Marilen and I were very pleased to see this choice mega migrant upon arrival at Punta Morales. With more birders in the field, more regular yet uber rare migrants are being found. The Hudwit is one of them.
Like the godwit of Churchill, Manitoba fame, this species might also visit Costa Rica on a regular basis. However, since “regular” could mean one or two birds per year, you gotta be pretty lucky to connect. Fortune was with me while birding in Puntarenas this past April.
For the past few years, one of the nicer looking gulls has been showing its elegant self in Costa Rica. I assume it’s the same bird but it’s not here all of the time. It may pass through in spring and fall, or might be wandering around Central America. All we really know is that a birder has to be seriously lucky to chance upon it. As luck would have it, while dipping on the first appearance of the godwit, this gull flew in to make it onto the year lists of Marilen, myself, and other local birders.
Views of this fantastic and uncommon species are always a treat but especially when you can share it with other birders. I was pleased to hear and see it at a reliable spot, the Museo Nochebuena on the high slopes of Irazu Volcano.
On one of those same Maroon-chested mornings, a client and I had fantastic looks at a Bare-shanked Screech-Owl. Sooty Thrushes were calling, other high elevation birds were singing and yet based on past experience, I wondered if this owl might also decide to call back, even during the light of day. After an imitation, sure enough, one of these beautiful owls responded and gave us perfect views, no flashlight required.
Cuckoos are always cool. I was happy to have seen this neat species around Ciudad Neily in southern Costa Rica, near Tarcoles, and a fantastic bird sunning itself in Tortuguero.
Watching one of these uncommon wintering species on a humid night near Esquinas Lodge was a treat.
48 Hummingbird Species
That means all of the regular ones except for the Garden Emerald, a bird I should come across at some point in 2022.
What else will 2022 bring? The only way to find out is by going birding. I’m eager to watch some mixed flocks and explore out of the way places. It can be drier in July, I hope you get a chance to bird Costa Rica soon!
Global Big Day, 2022 has come and gone. Once again, thousands of birders around the globe recorded their observations in eBird to collectively identify more than 7,500 species! In Costa Rica, we always play our part and this year’s Global Big Day (GBD) was no exception. The local birding community captured 5th place for number of checklists (more than 2,500 were sent to eBird) and had a grand total of 685 species. Not bad for a country as big as West Virginia!
If the count had taken place while wintering birds were here, we would have seen much more. Ditto if May 14th didn’t see Costa Rica doused with torrential rains. Don’t get me wrong, I have no complaints, just stating the facts is all. Knowing that any degree of Big Day record breaking would be severly hindered by heavy rains and a normal lack of wintering species, my partner Marilen and I opted for more relaxed birding. An easy-going GBD if you will.
Our birding wasn’t so relaxed that we stayed home to watch birds between intervals of home-made pizza and refreshments, but we didn’t start birding at midnight either. Instead, we figured we would head out early and just see what we could find in the patches of cloud forest and foothill rainforest on Route 126. Having recently heard Azure-hooded Jay on that birdy road, I was reminded of the many birds always possible on this route.
Our relaxed birding day went something a little bit like this:
An Early Start
Wait, wasn’t this relaxed birding in Costa Rica? Yes, but you can still bird easy even if you get up at 4 a.m. That 4 a.m. part was important to drive to a nearby field and see if any Barn or Striped Owls were around. They weren’t but I’m still glad I tried and other birds were singing anyways. These were species like the ubiquitous Clay-colored Thrush along with our only Tropical Mockingbird, Blue Grosbeak, and Rufous-naped Wren.
We hit the road by 5 and made a stop or two in remnant green space of the heavily urbanized Central Valley. The songs of saltators, doves, Rufous-collared Sparrows, and kiskadees and kiskadee-type birds filled the air. That avian sound wave is why you get up early, even in urban settings, you can just about have the birds all to yourself.
Productive Drive-By Birding in the Highlands
Driving slowly but surely upslope, up towards higher elevations, we noted birds as they called and sang. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes and Chestnut-capped Warblers calling from ravines, Brown Jays screeching from the trees. Many a Red-billed Pigeon, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and even one barking Northern Emerald Toucanet, our only one for the day.
At the highest point, easy drive-by birding gave us some sweet endemics, birds like Black-cheeked Warbler, Black-thighed Grosbeak, and Yellow-winged Vireo.
Other typical montane birds called and made it onto our GBD list, birds like Mountain Thrush, Mountain Elaenia, and Hairy Woodpecker (yes, it lives here too but it won’t look like the ones you see back home).
Misty Weather Pushes us to Lower Elevations
We birded from the car and a good thing too, the montains were shrouded in fog and spattered with light rain. It wasn’t surprising, we knew the weather could present some challenges but given the low visibility, we opted not to bird areas near Varablanca. Instead, we moved move lower, heading downhill to see if we could watch birds without an umbrella.
At a spot overlooking the Peace Lodge, the light rain was still happening but the birds were calling, lots of them. We saw Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, a surprise Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, and heard various other species including one of our best for the day, a Highland Tinamou (!) calling from the green, wet depths of the cloud forest.
We kept descending the road, eventually reaching honest to goodness sunshine! Alas, it was brief but a bit of warm air did push a Short-tailed Hawk and a Swallow-tailed Kite into the sky.
The cloudy weather upped the bird activity and gave us a mixed flock of Carmiol’s Tanagers, Russet Antshrike, three species of woodpeckers, Gartered Trogon, and other birds. Toucans moved through the trees, a jacamar called from below, and other species flew onto our day list. It was great easy going birding, almost all of it from one strategic spot. When the rains came, we decided to head upslope and enjoy a meal with birds at Cinchona.
Lunch at Cinchona
Watching birds accompanied by good food and drink is a gift and Cinchona is Christmas, all year long. Prong-billed Barbets and other birds visited the fruit feeders while Violet Sabrewings and many a Green-crowned Brilliant zipped by our table. Once in a while, I would get up and look over the railing, look to see there was a quail-dove or brushfinch below the feeders. No such luck on GBD but it was still all good.
Racing the Rain
With nothing but rain going on, we figured we might as well head back home, maybe see some birds around those urban parts. It poured for nearly the entire drive, only letting up when we got much closer to our place. We weren’t the only ones headed that way. A monstrous block of deep dark gray was moving in the same direction, I only hoped we could see a few more birds before it gave us a big wet slap.
A stop at one frequently productive spot produced a few swifts but most other birds were absent. They weren’t fools, they had no doubt flew and found shelter from the approaching storm. We followed suit, hightailing it out of there, driving the final ten minutes back to our place, arriving there just in time.
Last Chance Birding from the Homestead
The rains came down hard and heavy, typical for May afternoons in Costa Rica. However, they can also let up, maybe enough for some birds to come out. Hoping for a few more species, wondering what might show in steady but light rain, I watched from the back balcony. I scanned the trees in the distance, kept an eye on roadside wires and for courageous birds flying through the rain.
I also listened for the birds that sometimes call from out back, the laughing Barred Antshrikes and Lineated Woodpeckers, the whistling Rufous-and-white Wren. They were quiet on the afternoon of May 14th but my vigil still paird off for a few other species. That pair of White-fronted Parrots I had been waiting for eventually flew into view, Yellow-throated Euphonias called, and I managed to add a couple other birds.
When the sun set, we finished our GBD with 177 species; not bad for an easy-going day of birding in Costa Rica!
The birding day on May 14th, 2022 was done and then I turned on the news. A mass shooting..at a supermarket..in Buffalo, NY. Any evil occurrence is horrible but when it happens in places you know, at a supermarket chain you grew up with, it’s hard not to feel the tragedy hit you like a hammer. I have lived far away from WNY for many years but it is the place where I learned to play baseball, the place where I made many friends, where I started birding, where I grew up, where I once worked at a Tops Supermarket, the original home. It’s where I have also spent so much time in Buffalo, NY.
Yet another mass shooting, one that included callous murders of community leaders, of beautiful people for racist reasons. I’m not just saddened and horrified, in all honesty, I am really trying not to be pretty fricking angry. Evil atrocities such as this don’t happen for nothing. They are made easier by weapons designed and perfected for murder but they have their roots in the negative word streams of the great fomenters, the people who purposely extoll lies and sick ideas to large audiences. And why manipulate negative emotions? Because it works for making money, because it can work to help you get elected. What it doesn’t work for is anything good, not even in the slightest. May such misguided people be called out and exposed for who they really are; people making the world a worse place for personal gain.
Winter in Costa Rica doesn’t arrive with snow squalls, white winged gulls and early nights. Located in tropical latitudes, I’m not even sure if I can call it winter. Ticos don’t. To them, it’s “summer” because, for much of the country, December marks the beginning of a pleasant, sunny dry season. The “winter” is from April on through November; when we get all of that rain.
To be honest, we still get plenty during other months of the year, especially on the Caribbean slope. It’s why heavy rains are a frequent accompaniment to Christmas Counts at Arenal and La Selva, why a small umbrella is essential gear for a birding trip to Costa Rica no matter when you travel. I won’t knock the rain though, it’s a main reason why we also have such an abundance of biodiversity and birds.
Speaking of all things avian and getting back to winter, since these are the winter months of the northern hemisphere, Costa Rica does see some cooler weather in December and January. It’s mostly in the mountains, it happens with cold fronts and it can also bring birds. No winter finches this far south but we do get other species, the ones us local birders we hope to see are ducks, sparrows, and waxwings, maybe a Yellow-rumped Warbler, maybe something super rare.
Based on some recent sightings, if the trend continues, it looks like this winter could end up being one of the best seasons for rare birds we have ever had. Well, at least for local birders. If you will be taking a birding tour to Costa Rica or visiting to bird Costa Rica on your own, our “rare birds” probably won’t float your boat but no worries, the resident species will be waiting for you!
We like those fancy resident birds too but the species we run to see, that we twitch, are analogous to species local birders twitch in other places. They are birds that visit Costa Rica once in a blue moon or are even new for the country list. One such species is the latest star of the local birding show. It’s a goose and I was not expecting it! Even though I included more than 60 potential species for Costa Rica on the latest version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, the Greater White-fronted Goose was not one of them.
Yep, you read that right. A Greater White-fronted Goose. In Costa Rica. A bird that brings me back to cold March mornings in western New York when we would scan the large flocks of Canada Geese for one or two White-fronteds. A bird of other places than Costa Rica.
Since there is at least one record for Belize, maybe I should have had the Arctic migrant in mind as a potential addition for the Costa Rica bird list. I thought other new additions would happen first but the Greater White-fronted Goose beat them to it. It’s not officially accepted for the Costa Rica bird list yet but the five birds found at the Las Trancas rice fields on November 29th are sure acting like wild ones. Five together whose appearance may have coincided with the arrival of a northern cold front, and with no signs of anyone keeping them in these here parts, I think there’s a very good chance these are the real, non-domestic deal.
Fortunately, several local birders have already seen them. Unfortunately, we have not and since work has begun in the fields where they are being seen, it doesn’t seem likely they will stick around until we get up that way. If they do leave that spot, hopefully, they won’t go too far and we can also witness a seriously out of place species for Costa Rica.
The other main vagrant will be even less exciting for birders from the north but around here, this species is one heck of a rarity. Costa Rica’s first twitchable Chipping Sparrow is hanging out at an organic farm in the Talamancas. Several local birders can now claim it for their country lists and with luck, it will stay long enough for many others to see it too.
I’m not sure if I’m going to chase that one but then again, it never hurts go birding is in the mountains of Costa Rica. Beautiful scenery, wonderful birding, and fantastic coffee. Life can be good!
Another reason to always go birding, to always pay close attention to every bird is because other super rare species are waiting to be found, perhaps more so this year. They are out there, some vagrant sparrow could easily be skulking in some fallow, unbirded field. Today, birders in Panama added Red-breasted Merganser to the country list! Since two rare for Costa Rica Herring Gulls were also seen today in Tortuguero, I bet the recent cold front has brought some other lost or adventurous birds to this birdy nation.
Since we have more local birders in Costa Rica now than ever before, let’s hope that more of the rare ones turn up and stay long enough for local birders to find and see them. I wonder what else is out there waiting to be found?
Many thanks goes to Ruzby Guzamn Linares for discovering the mega goose and sharing the information.
Migrant species are birds too! Well of course they are but when they can also be seen back home, even the best of them tend to receive less attention. Eye-catching Baltimore Orioles, cool Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, inquisitive Yellow Warblers and other birds that flew all the way to Costa Rica. Not looked at. Incredible but then again, when a birder has the choice of focusing on familiar birds or seeing once in a lifetime lifers, the best course of binocular action becomes obvious.
I can’t fault visiting birders for paying less atttention to Baltimore Orioles. If I could look at those or a host of new birds, I wouldn’t spend much time focusing on those pretty blackbirds either. Always cool to look at (and do enjoy looking at them in Costa Rica) but they aren’t really the main reason to visit Costa Rica for birding.
Even so, if you make a personal oath to avoid looking at birds seen on many a previous occasion, it’s still worth knowing about the possibilities. No matter where you go birding, the more prepared you are for the trip, the better it will be. Study in advance and you don’t just identify more birds, you also have better knowledge of what to expect, where to find various species, and have a more fulfilling trip. These are some of the more common migrant species you can expect to see while birding in Costa Rica.
Bird nearly any waterway in the country and you can expect running into some of these common teetering waterbirds. They may look plain but in Costa Rica, they share space with the likes of Sunbittern and tiger-herons.
If you thought that perched raptor really looked like a Broad-wing, it probably was. During the winter months, this hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors. However, taking a closer look doesn’t hurt; juvenile Gray, Gray-lined, and Roadside Hawks can look similar.
Hear that classic “wheep!” call? No other local birds makes that sound and Great-cresteds frequently give that call in Costa Rica during the winter. They can be seen in many habitats but are probably most common in tropical dry forest (which they share with other similar-looking Myiarchus species).
It’s not the only Empid in Costa Rica during the winter but it is the most common one. To make things a bit more confusing, it often gives a single call note easily confused with call notes given by Acadian Flycatchers.
Coming from some of the same breeding areas as the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Philadelphias also winter in many of the same places as the small flycatcher. Costa Rica is an excellent place to study this bird because in this country, the Philly Vireo rules as the common wintering vireo (Warblerings are very rare).
Hordes of Bank and Cliff Swallows migrate on through but many Barns stay in Costa Rica. Expect lots of this common, beautiful bird in open habitats in the lowlands.
As mentioned above, many of this beautiful bird winter in Costa Rica. They often give short versions of their whistled song, come to feeders, visit fruiting and flowering trees, and occur in flocks. Enjoy them!
That “chicky tuck tuck” call is a familiar sound in many parts of Costa Rica. Whether looking for birds in hot and humid lowland rainforest or wearing a light jacket in the mountains, you will probably see more than a few of these red beauties.
As befits this fun group of special little birds, they really deserve their onw category. Several species winter in Costa Rica, these are the ones seen the most:
Wilson’s Warbler– One of the more common species of montane habitats, its a good idea to learn its call before the trip.
Tennessee Warbler– Expect lots of these little birds at flowering trees, especially on the Pacific slope.
Black-throated Green Warbler– Go birding in montane forest and you should run into some of these. Keep an eye out for uncommon Twonsend’s and rare Hermit Warblers (and the ultra rare Golden-cheeked!).
Chestnut-sided Warbler– A bird so common in winter Costa Rica, some visiting birders just call it “ubi” (short for ubiquitous, here’s looking at you Mike, Pat, and Shai!). Don’t be fooled by its gnatcatcher looks, if you thought you saw a Chestnut-sided in wintering plumage, you sure did, and again, and again. The eye-ringed bird with the lime green back is especially common in humid habitats. I have to wonder, since this species was historically much more rare, upon becoming abundant, has it had any sort of impact on the habitats in frequents in the winter?
Waterthrushes– Both are commonly seen, Louisiana in its expected favored rocky river and stream habitats, and Northern in any number of lowland wetland sites.
Prothonotary Warbler– This beautiful bird occupies some of the same space as the Northern Waterthrush. It’s especially common in mangroves.
Yellow Warbler– This familiar country bird will be just as familiar in Costa Rica.
These aren’t the only species that winter in these birdy lands. They are common and you will likely see numbers of them but you will also see various additional species. For North American birders, watching these “birds from home” do their stuff on wintering grounds will generate deeper understanding and better apreciation of their avian lives. For birders from other places, they will act as fun lifers to look at and experience. Either way, they are always fun birds to watch.
Study them with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, a digital field and reference guide with all of the species on the Costa Rica bird list and several more that could occur (to show nearly 1,000 species). If you already have the app, the next update will show the latest name changes and include 5 additional species that may eventually be found in Costa Rica. Get ready for birding in Costa Rica- it’s closer than you think!
Fall is happening in Costa Rica. There won’t be any foliage color changes nor any cool, crisp weather but autumn still happens. Much to the enjoyment of birders, in tropical Costa Rica, the signs of September change take an avian form. It’s not exactly like temperate zone migration (don’t expect skeins of geese, nor massive movements of grackles and blackbirds) but then again, we don’t live in a place with annual freezing conditions.
In Costa Rica, the signs of fall are flocks of shorebirds, some of the them staying for the duration, others moving much further south. Fall in Costa Rica is flocks of Red-eyed Vireos hiding in the foliage; more intent on imitating leaves than testing their vocal chords. It’s thousands, millions of swallows and Chimney Swifts flowing south. Keep looking up and you also see the river of raptors; Mississippi Kites, Swainson’s Hawks, and Turkey Vultures.
These are some signs of our autumn, ones that arrives in force but on quiet wings. Some of the newsworthy birding items from Costa Rica for early September, 2021:
First Passerine Migrant Push
The first songbird migrants have arrived on the scene. Both wood-pewee species have started moving through the country along with good numbers of Willow/Alder Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, and the first wood-warblers. Those would be American Redstart, Yellow Warblers, and a few others including the cherry on the birding cake; the coveted Cerulean Warbler. A few of these special canopy birds have been spotted here and there, especially in expected middle elevation habitats on the Caribbean slope. I’m still waiting to get lucky with one out back any day now.
Upland Sandpiper (!)
Not many have been recorded but it’s likely that dozens of the classic grasspiper are passing through the night skies. Most probably don’t stop, others perhaps settle down in wide open, underbirded fields in Guanacaste. A few, though, pause in open habitats of the Central Valley, especially at sites around the airport. On September 3rd, thanks to a message from Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences, and the Garrigues brothers for finding and reporting the bird, Marilen and I saw our annual Upland Sandpiper.
While we watched it, I was reminded how well this prairie species can blend in with its surroundings, it was more or less impossible to see without binoculars.
Tahiti Petrel and Other Pelagic Species
Local birders on a recent pelagic trip off of Malpais were treated to wonderful looks at a Tahiti Petrel along with Sabine’s Gull and other sweet species of the deep marine zone. The numerous trips arranged by Wilfredo Villalobos have had a wonderful double impact on local birding; increased knowledge of pelagic birds in Costa Rican waters while helping local birders connect with cool lifers.
Thanks to these and other trips, we now know that Tahiti Petrel is quite regular in Costa Rica (although perhaps related to warmer waters caused by climate change?) and great pelagic birding is possible just 30 minutes from the coast.
Yellow-green Vireos in Costa Rica- Still Singing
In some ways, the Yellow-green Vireo is analogous to the Red-eyed Vireo of temperate North America. Like the Red-eyed, it migrates to breeding areas and then returns to South America for the winter. On the breeding grounds, it also sings for hours on end and looks a bit like the Red-eyed Vireo. Unlike the Red-eyed, though, it can occur in more fragmented habitat, has a larger bill, and more yellow in its plumage (among other field marks).
The past few days, it has been interesting to hear snatches of song from a Yellow-green Vireo. Maybe this common wet season resident of Costa Rica’s Central Valley couldn’t help itself but I wonder if the vocal behavior was associated with an especially rainy wet season. Did it think that maybe it should try for one more nesting attempt? Since the songs weren’t all that emphatic, its instincts to move south probably got the better of it.
Bare-necked Umbrellabirds at La Selva
La Selva guide Ademar Hurtado has been making local birders smile by way of Bare-necked Umbrellabirds. After breeding in cloud forests, this endangered mega migrates to lower elevations, including la Selva biological station; a classic post-breeding site for the species. Hopefully, those individuals and additional umbrellabirds will linger at La Selva until they move back upslope in February.
Birding Influencers and Guides in Costa Rica on Proimagen Futuropa Promotional Trip
This past week, several birding influences and guides from several nations have been visiting sites in Costa Rica on a promotional trip known as “Birdingbliss 2021”. Arranged by Proimagen and Futuropa and with help from I.C.T (the Costa Rica tourism institution), Costa Rica Birding, and various hotels, the participants have been getting a taste of Costa Rica birds at Tortuguero, the Dota Valley, the Sierpe Mangroves, Quepos, and other birdy places.
Hopefully, as they experience and showcase the avian side of Costa Rica, they will see plenty of target species and eventually return with guests of their own.
In Costa Rica, with the main part of fall migration just getting started, I better go outside and see what’s around. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!
Tinamous are one of several types of birds guaranteed to be completely unfamiliar to birders from North America and northern Eurasia. Birders from other places may also feel perplexed but may also find their appearance slightly more normal. Africans may be reminded of Guineafowl and Francolins, and folks from Asian and Australia might have visions of Megapodes.
An ancient lineage of terrestrial birds restricted to the neotropical region, tinamous haunt the undergrowth of tropical forest, second growth and, in the Andes and southern South America, grassland habitats. As with other ground birds, tinamous can be tough to see. We can’t blame them, over the course of several million years, it was always in their best interest to stay unseen in home ranges stalked by a fantastic host of deadly predators.
Being highly evolved to stay alive is why they tip their way through the leaves so quietly and carefully, why they would rather sing from the shadows than run into the open, and why tinamous are heard way more often than seen. Those carefully honed attributes work well because in many places, as long as the habitat is present and hunting is controlled, most species are common.
Not that one can expect to see tinamous all the time but in protected areas, these odd, football-shaped birds aren’t that rare, especially in Costa Rica.
Go birding in any sizeable area of lowland rainforest and you will probably hear the calls of a Great Tinamou. This species can also range into the foothills but seems more common in lowland forest. Listen for its tremulous whistles and watch for it in places like Carara, Tirimbina, and La Selva. In these and other sites where it has become accustomed to people, the Great Tinamou can be downright tame.
Slaty-breasted Tinamous aren’t seen as often as Great Tinamous but they are still pretty common. La Selva is probably the easiest place to see them, with patience, you can even connect on the entrance road. In other places, I have heard a surprising number of Slaty-breasteds give their low pitched calls from lowland rainforest, perhaps especially in sites with treefall gaps or other spots with some thick, protective understory.
Like the Great, the Slaty-breasted also occurs in lowland and foothill forest, although only on the Caribbean slope.
Go birding in Costa Rica in lowland and foothill sites with second growth and you will probably hear the loud whistles of the Little Tinamou. Listen for a bird that sounds like a horse that inhaled a hefty dose of helium. Seeing it is another matter; this small quail-like bird jst loves dense second growth habitat. The Little Tinamou might even be one of the most heard, unseen species in Costa Rica. As with other tinamous, with patience, it can eventually be seen. It might just take a while.
Go birding in tropical dry forest and the low whistles of the Slaty-breasted Tinamou are exchanged for the single whistle of the Thicket Tinamou. As with other tinamou species in Costa Rica, this one is much more common than expected. However, in many places, it seems to be shyer than other tinamous and thus more difficult to see. This is probably because it gets hunted more than the other species.
Thicket Tinamous can be viewed in dry and moist forest from near the Ensenada area north to Nicaragua. As with laying eyes on other tinamous, patience is a big virtue, your best chances are in places where they aren’t as shy, places like Palo Verde and Santa Rosa National Parks.
Lastly, we have the least common feathered American football in Costa Rica, the much coveted Highland Tinamou. Among international birders, this species tends to be more of a target than other tinamous because even though it ranges from Costa Rica to parts of northern South America, reliable sites for this bird are few.
It’s not as common as the lowland tinamous but it’s not all that rare either. I have heard them in many places, including a few calling from the cloud forests on the road to Poas, and they occur in fair numbers in most cloud forest sites (up to 2,000 or so meters). With that in mind, the best place in the world to see a Highland Tinamou is probably the Monteverde area. Stalk trails through cloud forest and you might lay eyes on this prize.
Tinamous are more common than you think; learn their calls and practice patience and you might see a few. Wondering where or how to see tinamous and other unfamiliar species in Costa Rica? Find some answers in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
I should have gotten up earlier this morning. As a birder knows, the early hours are when the action really takes place. Watch a suitable spot in that first main hour of another glorious day and you might be surprised by the birds that fly through your field of view. However, start watching two hours later and you might want to curb the expectations. By then, the height of the avian rush hour has passed, you will have missed out on most of the action. At least, that’s how it is in Costa Rica and is why I wasn’t expecting anything when I started this morning’s casual back balcony bird watch.
Not having planned on birding this morning, the watch out back began well after dawn. It was more of a casual listen and look just to see if anything was out there. No focused, dedicated birding, I didn’t even bring the binoculars. I wasn’t surprised to see more of trees and other types of vegetation than birds but there were still a few things of avian origin, there always is.
Red-billed Pigeons were on their usual perch.
Cabanis’s Wrens called from a leafy wall of second growth, Blue Grosbeaks sang, and a Yellow-bellied Elaenia “screamed”. Fresh coffee is good but it’s always better with bird song! My casual coffee and birding changed when I noticed a small, “dull” bird perched on the tip of a thin, broken snag. I hustled back inside to get the binocs but sure enough, even though it was a two second interval, the bird had gone.
You can’t expect a bird to wait, it’s got survival to be concerned with. I kept my eyes on that snag, though, because I had a fair notion about the bird I had glimpsed. I figured it might come back and sure enough, a few seconds later, it zipped back to materialize on its perch. By instinct, I got my binoculars on the bird and a quick check confirmed my suspicion.
For birders from western North America, a WEWP might not seem like much, especially if you are visiting Costa Rica. For me, though, it won the prize as my first fall, 2021 passerine migrant seen out back. It was expected and the perch it chose was where I often see them but I was still impressed.
Impressed because the small flycatcher with the long wings could have spent the summer in Alaska. It could have flown from the conifers of Colorado, shared space with Lazuli Buntings and watched Cougars prowl. It could have come from Yellowstone, been seen by birders there or so many other places. Before it came to Costa Rica, it had to watch out for and avoid the Sharp-shinneds and Merlins that would be ever eager to end its life (they gotta eat too). Around here, it has to avoid Bat Falcons, snakes, and other hungry predators.
This past summer, “my” WEWP may have fled from horrendous fires, may have seen the clouds of smoke and high-tailed it south earlier than expected. No matter where it came from, it probably stopped off in Mexican mountains on the way, maybe even in places where I watched Red Warblers decorate dark conifers long ago.
All I can say for sure is that it came from some far off place to fly through long nights, always flying south, and when it got to Costa Rica, it chose a perfect perch out back. I hope it caught its fill of bugs. I hope it stays well on its way to wintering grounds on Andean slopes. When Western Wood-Pewee migration happens in spring, as it makes the journey back to the mountains of the north, I hope it stops here again. Most of all, I hope we can make the changes needed to ensure habitat for the bird, for us humans, and for future people to see a WEWP and feel amazed.
Costa Rica just got some birds added to the country list! Well, at least some common name changes in eBird. Since the recent, latest taxonomic changes made to the super popular birding platform, if you happen to spot a Tawny-throated Leaftosser doing its reclusive ground bird thing while birding in Costa Rica, you won’t find it listed with that name. As of the latest taxonomic change, it has been officially renamed “Middle American Leaftosser”.
Why the new name? An official change in nomenclature for a bird can happen for a few different reasons, one of the most common being that the bird in question was split into more than one species. Since we have yet to be converted into robots, instead of calling the newly recognized evolutionary groupings something like Tawny-throated Leaftosser Number One, Tawny-throated Leaftosser Two, and so on, they are usually given names that reflect certain distinctive aspects of their plumages. But wait, don’t leaftossers look sort of you know, the damn same? Yes, many do but there’s an easy, fitting fix resolved by distribution. When the separate species look pretty darn similar, they can just be named after where they occur.
That works out just fine for Middle American Leaftosser. It fits and since vocalization differences and high molecular differences have been known for this taxon for some time, the split was also very much anticipated (welcome to the world of birding Middle American Leaftosser!). But why did the split take so long to happen? The reason why this particular renaming and other new names for birds in Costa Rica happened now is because studies were finally published that demonstrated evidence to propose splitting those birds. Proposals were then made to taxonomic committees (oh yes, they do exist!), and once accepted and included in the Clements List, eBird then also accepted those changes. And voila, here we are.
Since the official Costa Rica bird list also follows the Clements list, we can probably expect those new names in the next edition of the Birds of Costa Rica Field Guide by Garrigues and Dean, and in update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
These are the other “new birds” for Costa Rica, the ones to look for when making those eBird lists:
White-browed Gnatcatcher– This is a split from the Tropical Gnatcatcher and is the name given to birds that occur in Central America and in some dry habitats west of the Andes. Although descriptive, now, in addition to worrying about separating this bird from the similarly plumaged White-lored Gnatcatcher, we can also worry about confusing their names (and they do occur together in many places too).
Grass Wren– See a Sedge Wren in Costa Rica? Not any more! The Sedge Wrens in Ohio and other places in the north have been separated from the non-migratory Grass Wrens of Mexico and lands to the south. Keep an eye on the birds in Costa Rica, you never know if or when the populations of “Grass Wren” there and Panama might be given species recognition. They are also very local and probably locally endangered.
Chestnut-capped Warbler– The many years in waiting and anticipated split of the Rufous-capped Warbler has finally taken place! This is a change that will certainly please listers, splitters, systematists, and wood-warblerists (if you like wood-warblers, this means you) and should be appropriately celebrated with your choice of libation. If you saw one of those white-bellied birds in Arizona, it was a Rufous-capped. See one in Costa Rica? Chestnut-capped!
Cinnamon-bellied Saltator– Now that name has a ring to it! Goodbye Grayish Saltator, hello three way split with birds from Middle and Central America now being known as le Cinnamon-bellied Saltator. A nice name for a common garden bird with an easy-going, whistled song.
But that’s not all! There are also birds that were split but continue to have the same name in Costa Rica. Speaking of splits, it would also be negligent to not mention a few good candidates for future splits in Costa Rica (although I have done it before, it’s still worth doing again). Keep an eye on these birds and celebrate the eBird armchair ticks!:
Gray-rumped Swift– Birds in Central America are at least separate from some other taxa in South America.
White Hawk– Not the same as the White Hawks from the Amazon.
Great Black-Hawk– A good one to look into as plumage and perhaps behavior differ from birds in the Amazon (which act more like Common Black-Hawk there).
Choco Screech-Owl– Make sure to see those birds in southern Costa Rica because they are probably something new.
Black-faced Antthrush– If you have seen “this bird” in Mexico or northern Central America (except eastern Honduras), open a beer for the Mayan Antthrush! If you have also seen it in South America, keep tabs on where because although it hasn’t been split yet, based on vocal differences, there could be anywhere from 1 to 3 more species waiting in the evolutionary wings.
Black-headed Antthrush– The birds that occur in Costa Rica and western Panama could have enough differences in their songs to separate them from the ones in western South America (and maybe the Darien).
Streak-chested Antpitta– This is a split I would probably bet on as the differences in song and plumage as as much as ones shown by similar, accepted splits of taxa from the Amazon. Try to see birds from the Caribbean slope and from the Pacific slope (easier said than done unfortunately).
Long-tailed Woodcreeper– An eventual split, at least from Amazonian birds.
Olivaceous Woodcreeper– Several distinct groups have been known for many years, one of them occurs in Central America including Costa Rica. The others occur in various places in South America which means that you have to try and see as many as you can!
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner– The Chiriqui ws already split, hopefully, studies can elucidate how many other species are involved.
Sharpbill– There’s a good chance that each main group is a distinct species. Maybe, maybe not but always cool to see in any case (and not exactly easy in Costa Rica).
Scrub Euphonia- Crack open another cold one for the newly recognized Godman’s Euphonia of western Mexico!
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.