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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Lifer Benefits of Birding Costa Rica in Cabuya

Bird a place enough and the barrel of lifers gets emptied, bit by bit. Eventually, it only has room for the sneaky tough and unexpected birds; the ones you never imagine seeing, the species relegated to the rarest of blue moon birding moments.

Having birded Costa Rica for some time, that’s how it is for me and that’s Ok! Like others who have been birding for a lifetime, I find myself delving into bird behavior, moving further into the finer details of birding. Oh, I’ll still take those lifers any which way I can but I’m pleased to watch the Cliff Swallows fly high overhead and imagine what they see, the mountains and plains where they eventually go, to places where I once worked in Colorado, the sun blasted former territories of the Comanche people. I’m grateful to listen to the songs of wrens and watch tanagers forage in a fruiting fig. But, give me a chance to see a new bird or two, there’s a good chance I’ll take it.

A few days ago, I got that lifer chance on a pelagic trip out of Malpais. There were some chances for new birds but even then, they weren’t guaranteed. For me, the open seas hold several lifer possibilities but most of those choice birds are much further than the limits of a day trip. A 6 hour trip holds less promise of new birds but a few were still very much possible and the rest, well, since I hadn’t seen them in a while, they were much appreciated pseudo lifers.

I didn’t really have any chances at new birds on land but anyone new to birding in Costa Rica would have a ball around Cabuya. There’s a good amount of habitat and we had some wonderful birding. The following are some reasons for and highlights of birding around Cabuya:

Good Forest on the Road to Malpais

The next time I go to Cabuya (I do plan on going back!), I look forward to some early morning birding on the road to Malpais. It’s not the best of roads and you might have some serious issues during the wet season but even then, I would walk or bike it because the habitat along much of the road is very birdy. Near Cabuya, the road passes through edge and second growth and then eventually passes through some rare and beautiful mature forest.

During a brief bit of dawn chorus, we heard most of the expected species including Gray-headed Dove, Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other species. A few days birding along that road would be some sweet tropical birding.

Northern Potoo, Middle American Screech-Owl and More

On the afternoon of our arrival to Cabuya, local birder Wilfredo Villalobos brought us to a side road that can be good for night birds. We stayed until dusk, listening to the calls of the later afternoon and even heard a Middle American Screech-Owl. When it got dark enough for the small owl to feel comfortable about moving around, it indeed popped into brief view. To make the birding even better, at the same time, a Northern Potoo started calling!

Before long, we were looking at that choice nocturnal species before it flew off into the night. Wilfredo told us that he also gets Black-and-white Owl on that road. Other fairly common owl species in that area include Pacific Screech-Owl, Mottled Owl, and Spectacled Owl.

Gray-headed Doves and Other Interesting Species of the Nicoya Peninsula

The avifauna around Cabuya includes a nice assortment of dry and moist forest species. That means lots of Banded Wrens, Ruddy and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Thicket and Little Tinamous, Red-lored Parrot, Gray-headed Dove, perhaps the rare Violaceous Quail-Dove, and much more.

Seawatching

On the way to Cabuya, we made a few stops along the coast to check extensive rocky outcrops and ocean waters. The rocks had Ruddy Turnstones and at lest one Wandering Tattler (a rather rare and local bird in Costa Rica), and the ocean had 300 plus migrating Franklin’s Gulls (!). The gulls were in a massive raft just offshore and eventually took to the sky to continue migrating north. Many had the rosy blush of breeding plumage and with their chattering, they seemed to be excited about flying back up to the northern prairies.

I would love to visit on days with stormy weather or just do some morning seawatching during migration; I bet some really good birds fly by that spot.

Digiscoped Franklin’s Gulls

Pelagic Trips

Thanks to Wilfredo Villalobos of Cabuya Bird Watching, a number of pelagic trips have been done in this area. What’s especially nice about these trips is that since Malpais is fairly close to deep water, the boat reaches the continental shelf in an hour or less. Since the boat captains are professional fishermen, they are in touch with other fishing boats, know how to find the fish, and therefore, the birds.

On our 6 hour trip, shortly after leaving the coast, upon hearing where the feeding Spinner Dolphins were, we made a beeline to that spot. Holy smokes. Try and imagine a few hundred Spinner Dolphins churning the water and jumping and spinning right next to the boat while being surrounded by hundreds of Brown Boobies, Wedge-tailed and Pink-footed Shearwaters along with smaller numbers of Galapagos Shearwaters, some Sooty Terns flying high overhead, and other birds joining the mix. On our wonderful day, those others included a few Arctic Terns, one Bridled Tern, a couple of Sabine’s Gulls, juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger, a few Brown Noddies, a few Pomarine Jaegers, some Least and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, 1 Masked Booby, and 1 Red-footed Booby!

Lest I neglect to mention, oh yes and there was that one fantastic lifer, a White Tern!

This is a screenshot of picture taken by Diego Quesada, an excellent local guide and co-owner of Birding Experiences.

Also known as the Fairy Tern, this Snowy Cotinga looking seabird did us a favor by staying with the boat for a couple hours! I mean, we sort of almost got tired of looking at it. Not really, but we had to look away to keep checking for the other rare birds. Although we didn’t see them on that day, they were probably out there somewhere, we just had too many birds to check over too large of an area!

On the way back, we had more looks at storm-petrels and one sweet Red-necked Phalarope. You won’t see the same birds on every trip, as with all pelagics, they vary by season and other factors, BUT, you will certainly see something cool. To learn more about those trips, contact Wilfredo via his Cabuya Bird Watching page.

If you do manage to visit Cabuya for birding, make sure to contact Wilfredo Villalobos. He may be available to show you around, he and his wife have rooms for rent, and they also serve some tasty pizza!

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4 Months Birding in Costa Rica, 540 Species

In the times of our pandemic, official and personal restrictions have placed a certain degree of boundaries on birding. The view through the window has become a prime channel for bird observation. Backyard birds have been watched far more than at other times, not necessarily because we don’t want to watch the neighborhood woodpeckers, finches or caroling thrushes but because they end up being the only birds we have access to.

It’s nice to have access to this bird.

At least that’s how it’s been for myself and I suspect much the same for many other birders.

In other times, we would have spent more time further afield, travelled to more places, perhaps birded much more with other people. Such a higher frequency of birding options generally results in a higher year list and indeed, in a non-pandemic 2021, I would have probably identified more bird species by this point. However, thanks to occasional guiding in strategic sites, and going birding in Costa Rica when I can, so far, I find my year list surprisingly higher than I had imagined.

After a couple of recent trips to Tortuguero, I am at the edge of 550 species for 2021, here are a few observations about my ongoing year list:

Some Rare and Challenging Species

A fair number of rare and tough species for Costa Rica have found their way onto the list including ducks like Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, Sungrebe, Reddish Egret, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-chinned Swift, Ochraceous Pewee, Tody Motmot, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. The rarest birds have probably been Ruff and Violet-green Swallow, favorite sightings are many and include from shore Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers and such migrants as Cooper’s Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Scarlet Tanager.

Still Missing Quite a Few Common Species

It’s interesting to note that I have yet to hear or see Long-tailed Tyrant, Rufous Motmot, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Royal Flycatcher, and various other bird species hard to miss during visits to Carara National Park and the Caribbean lowlands. With that in mind, I guess the absence of those species from my year list makes sense as I have yet to visit Carara in 2021 and haven’t done much birding in places where these birds are common.

Costa Rica is a True Hotspot for Birding and Biodiversity

A bird list of nearly 550 species from a very limited number of trips (and missing several common species) is a reminder of the incredible birding possible in this small country. In Costa Rica, you don’t need to go far to see a lot and many sites with quality habitat are easily accessible. Know where to go in birding in Costa Rica, stay focused, and you can see literally hundreds of species.

A Fair Chance at Breaking 700

Given the species on my year list and it not even being the end of April, if I can still go birding at the same rate, I should break 700 by the end of the year. Not if strict restrictions suddenly take place and keep me at home for 90% of the time but if I can at least manage key trips to the right places, 700 is in reach. If I can keep up the rate of new birds, I might not even need to visit Durika for Ocellated Crake.

No matter where I end up going birding, or what sort of restrictions take place, I will still be doing a lot more from home. That’s alright, there are birds to see out back but to be honest, after today, I do wonder how many will still be seen. This morning, on the other side of the wall, a crew of guys with saws were diligently cutting back vegetation from the wall. We suppose that’s what the purpose was, to cut back from the wall, perhaps to fulfill some regulation. The terrible part of it was cutting a couple of fairly large trees along with smaller trees that would have played important, precious roles in reforesting an area in desperate need of green space.

Those same trees would have also played some role in carbon sequestration at a time when we damn well need as many trees as possible, need to let trees grow big and old and magnificent. The larger trees were used by many migrant and resident species, the flowering vines on them were constantly visited by butterflies, Blue-vented Hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, orioles, even wintering Painted Buntings. I even saw Cerulean Warblers on a few occasions, I saw Golden-winged Warblers there as well. It was where the Merlin perched on a few special mornings, it was where an Olive-sided Flycatcher sallied for insects just last week.

It wasn’t a huge amount of habitat but given the number of birds I saw there (every single morning) and the scant bit of reforestation taking place, I dare say that even that bit of habitat was important. I apologize for going somewhat off topic at the end of this post but when they cut those trees down, knowing what used them, what lived there, it was like losing a vital patch of locally woven life that interconnects the Amazon, Andes, and places to the north. It was seeing important and rare potential, decades, maybe a couple centuries of carbon sequestration being needlessly eliminated. And for what? Too close to the wall. Those trees, you know, they might cause trouble.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica lowlands

2021 Birding in Tortuguero National Park- 6 Updates

Tortuguero National Park protects a fairly large area of mature lowland rainforest mostly accessed by canals. This winning combination of water and forest opens the door for a nice suite of tropical birds adapted to tropical forested rivers and lagoons (think Sungrebe, Agami Heron, and small kingfishers). Add a good variety of lowland rainforest species that can be watched from the easy-going comfort of a boat and outside chances at large raptors and rare migrants, and Tortuguero becomes a quality Costa Rican birding destination.

Sungrebe

Despite the easy-going, enjoyable birding, Tortuguero National Park doesn’t find itself on the regular birding circuit. Yes, birders do visit and custom birding tours include Tortuguero but since the park requires a fair detour from other sites, it tends to be left as a trip for birders to do on their own. Luckily, thanks to cooperation and organized efforts by folks from Tortuguero, this site is very much sited as a trip that can be easily organized and done all on your own even during a pandemic. See these 6 updates to see what’s in store for a Tortuguero trip in 2021:

A Good Road to La Pavona

La Pavona is where most of the boats depart for Tortuguero. This waypoint basically consists of a good-sized open-air restaurant, lots of secure parking, and a point on the river where the boats leave from. In the past, at least half of the road there was a rocky, slow ride. Not any more! A couple years ago, the road was paved all the way to La Pavona to make for a quick and easy drive.

A Very Productive Forest Patch on the Way to La Pavona

With the drive to La Pavona being quicker than in the past, it can be tempting to head straight to the parking area. However, a few kilometers before Pavona, there is a patch of mature forest that merits a stop. On a recent trip, a quick stop produced an excellent variety of lowland species. Shortly after exiting the car, I had Chestnut-colored and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, White-necked and Pied Puffbirds, toucans, Laughing Falcon, White-winged Flycatcher, Plain-colored Tanager, and more.

A fruiting tree was also bringing in a lot including various migrants. There was probably 20 Red-eyed Vireos (or more), several Scarlet Tanagers, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, an Eastern Kingbird or two, and other birds. This forest is easy to recognize because (sadly) it’s the only mature forest right next to the road.

Organized Parking and Boat Service from La Pavona

Once you get to Pavona, the parking area is well organized (at least it was the other day). A parking lot attendant sold me the parking ticket before I got out of the car, and I was able to buy my boat tickets from the driver of our private, pre-arranged boat (your hotel can probably do this). Boat tickets can also be purchased in the restaurant along with small meals and drinks. The boat ride itself was an hour and a half ride that featured a couple of crocodiles and some birds. Speaking of birds, keep the binos ready because the boat travels through good wild forest, rare birds are certainly possible!

Quality Boat Trips Inside the National Park

Although there is good migrant birding around the village and forest birds outside of the village, for the best birding, boat trips in the national park are needed. Most hotels can arrange trips and most are quite experienced but if you want a good birding trip, make sure to ask for a good birding guide. Our birding club trips always do well with the boat trips by staying at Casa Marbella Bed and Breakfast and doing trips with them. The owner, Daryl Loth, has lived and guided in Tortuguero for many years and knows where the birds are.

Although you never know what will show up, as with any boat trip, they are pretty good for Sungrebe, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, parrots perched and in flight, kingfishers, raptors, and much more.

Online Reservations are Required!

These days, and perhaps for good, you simply cannot enter the national park by just showing up to pay for tickets. I know, like..what? Yes, that’s right, there is no way to buy tickets upon entrance. This was done to further limit contact between the park guards and people and perhaps better control the number of people entering the park during the pandemic. That said, buying tickets online is easy enough.

You have to go to this site, make an account, choose the national park (for Tortuguero boat trips from the village, this will be Tortuguero National Park- Cuatro Esquinas), and then follow the process. This includes choosing the time, date, and number of people. You will also have to put in your name and passport number (or cedula if a resident of Costa Rica), pay with credit card (no American Express) and make sure to get that done in less than 10 minutes. If not, you will have to start the process over. Make sure to get your conformation, this will be shown to the park guard, probably by your boat driver or guide (he or she will take a picture of that confirmation).

Macaws in the Village, Always Lots of Other Birds

Great Green Macaws still visit the village and are often seen on boat trips. With this species having been recently declared “Critically Endangered), Costa Rica has become an especially important place to see it, probably the easiest place to see this spectacular bird anywhere in its range.

If looking for interesting migrants, check the village! White-crowned Pigeon has been showing in December and could perhaps occur at other times and who know what else might fly in? It doesn’t hurt to scan from the beach either, interesting waterbirds can fly past. For resident species, try the trail into the national park and watch from the boats. A healthy number of typical lowland species are possible, there will be a lot to see!

Although I prefer to go birding in Tortuguero during migration, the quality habitats will be good for resident birds any time of the year. You will probably run into some rain (March, April, and September tend to be drier) but when the rain stops, the birding can be fantastic. I hope to travel back there soon and find that elusive Crested Eagle.

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Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.

Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.

They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.

Its why Nicaraguan Grackles are reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.

Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.

Medio Queso, a fantastic wetland site in northern Costa Rica and a good place to go when you wonder where to go birding in Costa Rica.

Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.

Pretty Similar

Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.

If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.

Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.

Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.

What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?

In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.

If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.

It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!

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5 Reasons Laguna del Lagarto is a Top Site for Birding in Costa Rica

What are the top sites for birding in Costa Rica? Which places will treat you to the best variety of Costa Rica birds? In all honesty, based on birding most corners of Costa Rica since 1992, I would still insist that it depends on what you want to see. Since each bioregion has its own avian offerings, naturally, birding in the cool, misty rainforests of the Talamancas i a world away from scanning humid skies for King Vultures and treetops for Snowy Cotingas in the rainforests of the lowlands.

King Vultures are common at Laguna del Lagarto.

That said, each bioregion has its best sites; the accessible places where there are plenty of birds to look at and where rare species are possible. Although even sites within the same region have their own strengths, in the Caribbean lowlands, one of the places that truly comes out on top is also one of the first authentic ecolodges in Costa Rica; Laguna del Lagarto.

These are 5 reasons why I believe this ecolodge in Costa Rica is one of the top birding sites in the nation:

Extensive, Quality Rainforest

No matter where you go, the birding is usually best in large areas of natural, old-growth habitats. At least that’s the case for rainforest. The incredible complexity of this archetypal tropical habitat provides niches and possibilities for a huge number of bird species (and other cool living things) BUT that same complexity only works in full in large areas of old growth forest.

This is why its pretty easy to see a large number of edge species in any number of places, but why birds such as large raptors, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and White-flanked Antwren require visits to places with intact, mature rainforest. Laguna del Lagarto is one of the few, rare ecolodges in Costa Rica that protects and has access to such areas of mature lowland rainforest. They are still large enough to host populations of everything from nunbirds to antbirds, and rare raptors, and can be explored on several trails at Laguna as well as along nearby roads.

Rainforest Lagoons

Mature rainforest is necessary for fantastic birding in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica but its not the only type of habitat used by birds. Forested lagoons and other wetlands are also important for various key species like Agami Heron, Sungrebe, Green Ibis, kingfishers, and others. Laguna del Lagarto has several lagoons visible right from the lodge and that can also be explored by canoe.

The Rare Factor is Always High

When large areas of quality habitat are present, the chances for rare species go up. Since the forests at Laguna are contiguous with other areas of mature rainforest that connect with the huge and extremely important Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, this opens the door of possibilities to the rarest of the rare. Those would be birds like Red-throated Caracara and even Harpy and Crested Eagles. Seeing them at or near Laguna would be a rare and extremely fortunate event but its not out of the range of possibilities. Those species do live in forests connected to Laguna and could certainly show up (they have in the past).

More typical endangered, rare and uncommon species that occur regularly at Laguna include:

Great Curassow, Tawny-faced Quail, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Agami Heron, Gray-bellied Hawk, all three hawk-eagles, Central American Pygmy-Owl and 5 other species of owl, Short-tailed Nighthawk, 2 potoo species, American Pygmy and Green-and-Rufous Kingfishers, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, Great Green Macaw, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Gray-headed Piprites, Song Wren, White-vented Euphonia, and Slate-colored Grosbeak. Check out the eBird list for Laguna del Lagarto.

Excellent Birding, Even Better Bird Photography

The combination of natural feeders, plantains available for the birds, and access to the lagoons make this pioneer ecolodge in Costa Rica a fantastic site for bird photography. Toucans, Brown-hooded Parrots, tanagers, and a wealth of other species can be photographed at close range. As a bonus, guides at Laguna occasionally know of roosting owls and where to find rare species like Agami Heron. Not to mention, there’s also a hide for King Vulture photography…

Accommodating Service

No birding lodge would be a top site without also providing good service. Laguna does this in several ways, including bringing visitors to roosting owls or other birds they want to see. The lodge also accommodates with early breakfasts and coffee, and have always been willing to please guests to the best of their ability. I know I have always been impressed!

This excellent ecolodge might be a bit off the beaten track but better roads have made it much easier to visit and feasible as a destination on a trip that also includes sites in the Arenal and Cano Negro regions. That said, the habitats at Laguna have such high potential, a tour could easily spend 5 nights there and still see new birds on a daily basis. Not to mention, that would also increase the chances of finding rare species, I can’t wait for my next visit!

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Target Birding in Costa Rica- Violet-green Swallow Surprise

As predicted for birding in Costa Rica, it has indeed been a good year for Violet-green Swallows. Since winter began back in November, there have been several sightings of this rare species for Costa Rica. Some sightings of these overshooting vagrants have come from the coast, others from further afield, all ahve inspired me to scan distant skies as part of my morning birding “ritual”. So far, that hasn’t panned out but as with all birding, the binocular viewing never leaves me empty handed. One day, I picked up a rare for Costa Rica Cooper’s Hawk, most days see a couple flyby Giant Cowbirds, and there are is the usual flock or two of screeching Crimson-fronted Parakeets.

I also hear White-eared Ground-Sparrows calling from down below.

I watch from the back balcony but since many of the more recent sightings were from upper parts of the Central Valley, I realized that I probably needed to expand my search horizon. After hearing about a group of 10 birds (!) being seen in those nearby hills, this past sunny Saturday afternoon, Marilen and I decided to roll the biding dice for a quick trip to the Bosque del Nino area.

An area of highland forest adjacent to patches of woodlands and farms, this site is close enough for a fairly quick drive, seems to be better for migrants than other places, and was decidedly close to several recent reports of Violet-green Swallows. As is usual for Costa Rica on a Saturday afternoon, the drive there was slow and occasionally bumpy but blessed with beautiful scenery.

We made it to the access road to Bosque del Nino by 4:30, stepped out of the car and I kid you not, the first bird I saw was a dang Violet-green Swallow! It zipped over quick in typical swallow fashion but the light was in our favor and showed a small swallow with white underparts (including a white vent) that reached to the center of a short forked tail, too short to be a Tree Swallow.

With a quick look like that, you can’t see violet and you can’t see green but unlike this bird, the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows have black vents. Further viewing revealed a few more Violet-greens foraging over trees and an adjacent field; on these birds, it was easier to see their white faces and white on the sides of the rump. We watched them forage with the more common resident swallows and made our way further up the road.

Upon seeing a large group of swallows forage over an open field, we stopped to scan them and it didn’t take long to realize that umm, yes, this winter is especially good for Violet-green Swallows in Costa Rica. There might have been 70 swallows in the field, probably more, and it seemed like every other one I got one into focus, there was the white on the side of the rump, there were the field marks of birds much further south than they usually winter, smart looking swallows that hail from glades among Ponderosa Pines and other places shared with the wacky Lewis’s Woodpecker, with sublime Mountain Bluebirds.

At least 15 Violet-greens zipped among several more Blue-and-whites and a handful of Northern Rough-wings as a Keel-billed Toucan gave its croaking call, Brown Jays worked a hedgerow, and other birds called from the woods. The roll of the dice on that beautiful late afternoon couldn’t have been more in our favor, I wonder how long those Violet-greens will stay?

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Strategic Birding in Costa Rica at Rincon de La Vieja- Rinconcito Lodge

Rincon de la Vieja is one of the more interesting places to go birding in Costa Rica. An active volcano that also acts as a 34,000 acre (13759 hectares) national park with tropical forest transitioning between dry, wet, and middle elevations…how could it not be great birding?

Maintained trails in the park provide access to chances at an entertaining array of species associated with a fine ecotone of habitats including such uncommon and rare birds as Violaceous and Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, Black-eared Wood-Quail, King Vulture and other raptors, Tody Motmot, and even one of the grail birds of the Neotropical region, the one and only Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

By nature of their very being, the visiting birder can’t always expect to see the rare ones, but toucans, White-fronted Parrots, Gray-headed Tanagers, Thicket Tinamous, and plenty of other species will still keep you smiling, especially when you can access key habitats in and outside the park. Accessing those different habitats is essential for seeing a healthy selection of bird species and no focal point is better for doing that than Rinconcito Lodge.

White-fronted Parrot

A small, cozy hotel situated just outside of the national park, these are the reasons why Rinconcito is located in the best spot for birding several habitats:

Access To Two Different Park Entrances

The lodge is right on a good road that leads to two different park entrances; Las Pailas and Santa Maria. The Las Pailas area has trails that access moist forest with a wealth of species. Whether birding, hiking, or both, this part of Rincon de la Vieja delivers. Santa Maria also offers similar excellent birding and hiking with better chances at Caribbean slope species like the uncommon Yellow-eared Toucanet, antbirds, and other species.

A Road To the Wet and Wild Caribbean Slope

For additional exciting Caribbean slope birding including chances at everything from rare raptors to Lovely Cotinga, take the road to Colonia Blanca and then on to Colonia Libertad. Rough enough to require four wheel drive, birders who enjoy exploration will love the rainforests along this route! The area hasn’t seen much birding but has a lot of potential. Surveys in the 90s by Daniel S. Cooper found all 3 species of hawk-eagle, and the mega rare Gray-headed Piprites among other species.

Watch for the weird and wonderful Sunbittern on streams.

The birding is great along much of this road, just be prepared for rain, good mixed flocks, and overall excellent birding.

30 minutes to Oak Savannah Habitats

The western flanks of the volcano host interesting, wind-blown oak savannahs. Although they aren’t the easiest places to bird on account of frequent windy conditions, this unique habitat could have some interesting avian surprises. It would be best visited in the early morning to look for Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows along with an outside chance of finding Rock Wren.

A Bit Further To Wetlands and Other Dry Forest Sites

Although there are plenty of dry forest species at and near the lodge, additional dry forest sites such as Santa Rosa National park and Horizontes are anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half drive from the lodge. The same goes for the open field and wetland hotspots of Las Trancas and the Sardinal Catfish Ponds.

Birding at Rinconcito

But what if you don’t feel like driving anywhere? If you would rather go for an easy-going blend of birding, pool time, and drinks, Rinconcito delivers for that too! Orange-fronted Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, magpie-jays, and other birds are on and near the grounds of the hotel while trails can host Sunbittern and even Tody Motmot.

At Rincon de la Vieja, the windy weather of the continental divide can be a challenge but the birding is always good and there’s no spot more strategic than Rinconcito Lodge.

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When to Watch Birds in Costa Rica

One of the most common questions about watching birds in Costa Rica is when to watch them. The short and most honest answer is “whenever you can”. Honestly, the birds are here, the resident ones all year long and most can be seen just as well during the winter months as during July and August. Most, but not all…

“When to watch birds in Costa Rica” depends on what you would like to see the most.

If you wouldn’t mind checking out the avian moves of summer birds from the north, bird from November to March and you will get your fill of Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers. Want to add some exciting shorebird migration to the Costa Rica birding mix? Check out shorebird hotspots in April, May, and from September to November.

Who doesn’t love a shorebird hotspot?

Want to listen to Yellow-green Vireos, a few other summer migrants and resident species?

Take a birding trip to Costa Rica in May or June. If resident birds are your main cup of tea, then you really could visit any time of the year and do well. For much of the rainy season, high bird activity in cloudy weather tends to make up for birding time paused by precipitation. Bird in the winter months and it will be sunnier in many places but wind and sun can also put temporary dampers on bird activity.

Any and every time of year is great for birding in Costa Rica but what about some of the tougher targets?

What about the cotingas, the ground-cuckoos, the birds in the book and on the app that seem mythical, the dream birds. In general, it will always be good for those birds too, you just need to know where to look for them. Take the umbrellabird for example, it can be seen any time of year but is far more likely in lower elevation and foothill forests during the winter months, and more likely in middle elevation cloud forest from March to July.

The bellbird is especially seasonal and certainly easier in Monteverde and other breeding sites from March to July. At other times of the year, look for it in the Pacific lowlands although it can also show elsewhere (check eBird!). As for other cotingas, although the Lovely can migrate to lower elevations from August to February, they are possible in pretty much the same areas any time of year.

Regarding certain crakes and other birds that act like them (hello senor Masked Duck), once again, know the right places and you can find them.

BUT, water levels in summer and fall do make them much easier. I assume there are pockets of wetlands that host Masked Duck, Spotted Rail, and Paint-billed Crake during the dry season but who knows how much those species move around? I mean, once the rice fields are harvested, they have to go somewhere.

A Yellow-breasted Crake sneaks off into a patch of marsh grass.

I suspect they retreat to remnant wetlands but I bet some also head further afield. Given the natural born wanderlust of those birds, they could go anywhere. As for the global wandering nature of birders, whether you feel the need to explore some corner of Angola while listening to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, or would rather bird closer to home, I can say that anytime is a good time to be birding in Costa Rica. The birds are here, the birding is always great, and no matter when you visit, it’s much easier to bird in Costa Rica than you might think.

But quetzals, when is the best time to see quetzals in Costa Rica?

Although they breed in February and March, bird the right habitat and know where to go and you can see them any time of the year.

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Birding in Costa Rica is Exciting in Ciudad Neily

Ciudad Neily is a town situated in southern Costa Rica not all that far from the border with Panama. Named after a Lebanese immigrant who opened a store to accommodate the workers of nearby banana plantations, “Neily” has grown to become a small center of commerce for the southwestern corner of Costa Rica. In recent years, thanks to increased local birding coverage, it has also become a beacon for some exciting birding opportunities.

Although the rainforests that grew there a century ago must have been downright amazing, present day birders visit Neily to look for waterbirds in an extensive complex of seasonally flooded fields. Used for growing rice, it is there that a birder should spend time and not in the monotonous oil palms. The rows of palms can have owls and Common Potoos at night but it’s more exciting out there in the wetlands.

In common with so many other wetland areas, the rice fields of Coto-47 (also known as Las Pangas) tend to attract birds that move around in search of such habitats, some of which are lost because they should be in Panama or even South America.

One such vagrant bird recently seen at Las Pangas was the White-cheeked Pintail. Also known as the Bahama Pintail, this lost duck may have come from northern South America or maybe even the Galapagos. Either way, it’s a fantastic bird for Costa Rica and was joined by several other ducks that are common in northern climes but rare in Costa Rica. Those would be ducks like Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon Teal, American Wigeon, and Green-winged Teal all mixed in with several thousand Blue-winged Teals and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

On a recent trip, try as I did, we did not see the South American duck but we still had fun looking at most of the rare ducks from the north along with droves of herons, egrets, a scattering of Glossy Ibis and other birds.

Shorebirds were present too and with so many places to forage and hide, you have to wonder what might be out there in Las Pangas. Maybe a super mega Temminck’s Stint? Maybe a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Given the habitat, Las Pangas would certainly be a good place to hit the mega bird lottery. The other day, we got lucky enough with a Ruff!

The past few years, Ruff has been found each winter. I doubt it’s the same bird but more a result of having increased numbers of dedicated, careful birders in the field. Even so, any day with a Ruff in Costa Rica is a fantastic day of birding. This Ruff, the only one I have self-found, was hanging with a handful of Pectoral Sandpipers. Comparing and ticking both dowitchers for the year in the same spot was a bonus.

Another bonus of birding in Las Pangas and other sites near Neily is seeing local species like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Crested Oropendola, Blue-headed Parrot, Streaked Saltator, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and other species. Although the dry season doesn’t seem to be the best time for crakes, visit during the rains and Paint-billed Crake is also fairly easy (!).

Although we dipped on the woodpecker, we saw all the other birds mentioned above along with a Ruff, killer looks at Mangrove Cuckoo, and another cuckoo that is likely a Yellow-billed but just might honestly be a Pearly-breasted Cuckoo. Yes, and that would be new for Cota Rica and I’m not kidding. I’m not sure yet, I’m not sure if Yellow-billed can be entirely discounted but we got good looks, we did not see any rufous in the wings, and I am presently studying the photos.

So, yes, Ciudad Neily is a pretty exciting area for birding in Costa Rica. Add nearby forest to the mix and it only gets better.

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A Day of Productive Birding in Costa Rica

One could argue that any day of birding that includes birds is productive but personal birding success also depends on personal birding goals. Last weekend, in keeping with a Zen mindset (to ward off disappointment), I placed the goal bar on a low, bobwhite level rung. In keeping with secret hidden hope, I ventured into places that upped the odds for uncommon birds.

Our first site was the Ceiba Road near Orotina, a place with odd, open ag. habitats that have become a veritable Patagonia level hotspot for rare birds. Merlin, Northern Harrier, sparrows, even an uber rare for Costa Rica Burrowing Owl (!) have been found at Ceiba. As with other sites that attract odd birds, you bird there with extra careful eyes and ears, you bird with the awareness of rare possibilities. Really, one should bird like that everywhere but in the places where multiple rare birds have occurred, it’s easier to keep an open, focused mind.

Our first stop on the Ceiba road was in a riparian zone and as if on cue, we were greeted by the voice of the northern prairie, the calls of Western Kingbirds. An uncommon bird for Costa Rica, this winter seems to be an especially good one for them. Either that or climate change is pushing them into new areas. Either way, hearing and seeing those quintessential birds was a fine, productive start to the day and one that reminded me of road stops in western Kansas, of walking the wide-open, sun-baked Comanche lands in eastern Colorado.

A WEKI from 2018 in Guanacaste.

Further down the road, careful birding in the open areas turned up some usual suspects and target birds. There goes the hoped for Pearl Kite perched in a high tree! There goes Mourning Doves moving along a distant treeline! That small falcon in the distant haze was an American Kestrel, another one was harassing a pair of Harris’s Hawks.

It was also instructive to study Bronzed and Shiny Cowbirds at close range. Educational yet worrisome to see so many.

Checking the many White-winged Doves failed to reveal any Eurasian Collared-Doves but it’s always nice to be watching birds.

There were several small birds around too, birds like Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and chipping Yellow Warblers but nothing rare, no lost wood-warblers who should have been gleaning in the breezy palms of the Caribbean.

A birding check of a side road further on turned out to be a good choice when Mary found a Grasshopper Sparrow! We had stopped next to a scrubby field and I was scanning swallows when she mentioned a bird perched on a wire. In Costa Rica, we probably get hundreds of Grasshoppers in the winter but see if you can find them. You will here and there but they aren’t exactly abundant, probably spread out over thousands of acres of pasture and grassy fields.

We had two of them and fantastic looks! The first bird perched so close, we should have had amazing photos; it sat still and refused to move. It would have stayed long enough for a shot too but before we could get the camera ready, it was flushed by the only passerby for miles, an older woman dressed in a green and red outfit that came straight out of the realm of Strawberry Shortcake. She just happened to walk up just at the very moment when we could have taken the picture, right at the exact moment!

Every experience is new and unique, there are no repeats on this shared timeline but how many can say that they missed taking a picture of a Grasshopper Sparrow because it was flushed at just the right moment by someone sort of dressed like a strawberry? And in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica? Like, what are the odds? I’m not complaining, just contemplating the unexpected and reaffirming that life is full of surprises.

We did enjoy wonderful close looks and could see how those pale brown whispers of a bird can so easily vanish into the equally whispering habitat of dry brown grass. The Grasshoper Sparrows were a very productive part of that morning and it wasn’t over yet!

Next stop on the birding train was the point at Puntarenas, a place that always offers a chance at interesting seabirds. Despite a stiff wind that hinted at storm-petrels, scanning from the lighthouse didn’t reveal much more than choppy waters. The birds were out there, though, most just a bit too far for identification.

The intriguing view from the point.

Nevertheless, while scanning the terns, one bird stood out. It was a dark brown bird and flying straight and fast, I thought, “now that has to be a jaeger”. When it veered after a tern and followed its every move, its sea-falcon identification was confirmed and then there was another! The second jaeger had more white on the belly but was the same size and shape. By their tern-pursuing antics, size, shape, and amount of white in the wing, I saw them as Parasitics (aka Arctic Skuas). They perched way out there in the Gulf as people walked past on the sand, oblivious to the drama and scandal stirred up by those high-Arctic visitors.

I was reminded of another productive day some years ago during a BOS trip to the shore of Lake Erie when I saw my first ever jaeger, a Parasitic that burst through our field of view too fast to appreciate. On that day, there were also a few people walking on the sand, oblivious to the drama of migration, of the Sharpies flapping by, of the warblers and Least Flycatchers feeding to keep making their way to Mexico. It’s alright, what is productive for some is of no consequence to others, we all walk our own timelines but if you aren’t watching birds, you don’t know what you are missing!

I wonder what the coming days will bring?