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Some of the Best Road Birding in Costa Rica: the Ceiba-Cascajal Road

Great spots for birding in Costa Rica aren’t limited to national parks and protected areas.

Don’t get me wrong, many of those special places are excellent and you can’t go wrong with a day of birding in Carara or Tapanti but they aren’t the only sites to enjoy quality birding time.

In Costa Rica, byways that pass through a mix of private lands with varying degrees of protected status can be replete with excellent “road birding”. One such hotspot is the Ceiba-Cascajal Road, a promising area
that has been consistent with generating a fine variety of rare, uncommon, and serious mega species. As with so many other good birding spots in Costa Rica, it also has an excellent sampling of more expected birds.

Situated west of the town of Orotina in the hot Pacific lowlands, the area is dotted with patches of tropical dry forest, riparian zones, pasture, sugarcane fields, and at least one seasonal wetland. The end result is
habitat for a large number of species and most can be encountered from a good gravel road. This country road links the town of Orotina to smaller settlements and the main coastal highway. Additional side roads probably offer up similar good birding but they might not be as maintained as the main route linking Orotina to Ceiba and Cascajal.

Head to Ceiba and you can keep on birding dry tropical forest and other habitats all the way to Bajamar and Guacalillo; classic areas for birding tours in search of dry forest species. Take the Cascajal route and although it might cover a smaller area, there’s still plenty enough habitat for a fine day of birding. From what I have seen, this road also accesses
more interesting habitat; a mosaic of promising wooded areas with big trees and an open area with a seasonal wetland.

Where to look for birds? While there are plenty of birds to see anywhere along on the roadside, this information should give some notion of expectations:

Dry Forest Birds

A good percentage of tropical dry forest species are present. Although you probably won’t find birds that require larger areas of more intact forest, notably Thicket Tinamou, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, there are plenty of Long-tailed Manakins, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Black-headed Trogons, and Striped-headed Sparrows to look at. The more wooded spots and riparian zones will also be good places to look for possible Stub-tailed Spadebill, Royal Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and various other dry forest birds.

One of the many Turquoise-browed Motmots from this road.

Scrubby areas can have Striped and Lesser ground-Cuckoos, Crested Bobwhite, wintering Painted Bunting, and wintering Grasshopper Sparrow (an uncommon, much desired species for local birders), as well as other rare sparrows. Both wooded and scrubby areas occur on various parts of the road.

Wide Open Habitats

When you feel like taking a break from peering into vegetation, scan the open fields for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Southern Lapwing, raptors, swallows, and various other open country species. The thick-knees may be seasonal but even if you don’t see them, there will still be other interesting open country birds to look at including occasional Red-breasted Meadowlark. One such visit to a spot with open fields turned up Costa Rica’s best documented Burrowing Owl!
The sighting prompted Costa Rica’s subsequent biggest twitch which then sadly became Costa Rica’s biggest dip. Did the bird get scared off by too much photography harassment (a growing problem)? That’s always possible but we will never know.

Double-striped Thick-Knee

Seasonal Wetlands

These can occur in a few different parts of the road; one is a low, wet spot in the area with large open fields on both sides of the road, and the other is on the road to Cascajal. This second wetland is particularly interesting as it has some freshwater marsh vegetation and low scrubby growth in wet fields. Although I didn’t see any on a recent visit, the site looks perfect for Wilson’s Snipe and may host uncommon or vagrant wetland species from time to time. I’m eager to give it a good check!

Night Birding

The nocturnal birding on this road can be very productive. Although it may take some time to find the birds, Barn and Striped Owls occur, Pacific Screech-Owl is common in wooded areas with large trees, Mottled Owl is also fairly common in those same spots, Black-and-white Owl sometimes occurs, and Spectacled Owl can show up in the more wooded riparian zones. And those aren’t the only night birds lurking in the dark!

Although uncommon, both Northern and Common Potoo have been found, Lesser Nighthawks are commonly seen in the evening skies,
and Common Pauraques will flush from the track at night. Given the open habitat, it wouldn’t be out of the question to find a rare White-tailed Nightjar and Chuck-will’s Widdow may be found in the winter months.

It’s also a good idea to pay careful attention to any nightjar seen on or perched near the road just in case you find a rare wintering Whip-poor-will or document Spot-tailed Nightjar for Costa Rica. Although not on the official list, some years ago, one may have been seen by Robert Dean and Eduardo Amengual in dry habitat on the road to Monteverde.

Given this possible sighting and its migratory nature, I included it as one of several species to look for on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
The wet, open fields along the Ceiba-Cascajal Road look like a very good place for this mega to occur.

I should also mention if you do go night birding on this road, keep an eye out for snakes. Please watch for any of these shy and over persecuted creatures on the road and be careful to not injure them!

Raptors

The mosaic of tropical habitats and large dove and rodent population make this road an excellent area for raptors. Keep an eye on soaring birds and check the electric pylons and big trees for perched birds.

Here’s the raptor deal on some of what to look for:

Pearl Kite– Uncommon but regular.
Vultures– Among common Black and Turkey Vultures, keep an eye out for the occasional King and rare Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture in open wet fields.
Osprey- There must be more water in this area than I think because I have often see an Osprey or two flapping overhead!
Hook-billed Kite– Uncommon but present.
Gray-headed Kite– Rare but could occur from time to time in more wooded areas.
Plumbeous Kite– An uncommon summer visitor, more common in the Guacimo-Guacalillo part of the road.
Crane Hawk– Rare but does occur in this area.
Bicolored Hawk– Rare but has been recorded.
Cooper’s Hawk– This is a good area for this uncommon wintering species.
Sharp-shinned Hawk– Another uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.
Northern Harrier– A rare wintering species in Costa Rica, this is a fair spot for it.
Harriss’ Hawk– This road is one of the easier sites for this species in Costa Rica.
Broad-winged Hawk– A common migrant and wintering species.
Short-tailed Hawk– As with many areas in Costa Rica, one of the more commonly seen raptors.
Gray Hawk– One of the most frequent raptor species in Costa Rica.

Roadside Hawk- Another common raptor in Costa Rica, especially in the lowlands.

Roadside-Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk- Uncommon but regular.
Red-tailed Hawk– In the lowlands, occasional wintering individuals occur. This is a good site for migrants from the north.
Swainson’s Hawk– Although most migrate through Costa Rica, some winter in open areas of the Pacific lowlands.
White-tailed Hawk– An occasional visitor to this area.
Collared Forest-Falcon– As with many sites, fairly common but secretive. Easiest to detect when it calls in the early morning and evening.
Laughing Falcon– Fairly common.
American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine– The open fields of this road are good sites for these wintering species.
Bat Falcon– A pair or two seem to be present and can be seen anywhere along the road.
Aplomado Falcon– Yes! Not expected but this vagrant migrant to Costa Rica has been seen at this site and given the open habitat could occur from time to time.
Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras– fairly common.

Parrots

It’s always fun to see parrots! The three most common species in this area are White-fronted Parrot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, and Orange-chinned Parakeet.

Yellow-naped Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, White-crowned Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet are also regular and even Scarlet Macaw can be seen.

One of several overlooked birding destinations in Costa Rica, in large part, we can thank some local birders for bringing attention to the avian richness and potential of this site, especially Beto Guido, Mckoy Umaña, and others.

I look forward to my next visit, hopefully, one that begins before dawn. To learn more about where to see birds in Costa Rica along with insider tips to look for them, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

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Birding Manzanillo, Costa Rica on October Global Big Day, 2021

October is migration season in Costa Rica. It can also be heavy afternoon rain season or even rain all day season but the massive influx of birds is fair compensation. This is the month when us local birders do well by watching green space and inspecting the many Red-eyed Vireos for birds with black whiskers. I’ve put in a fair amount of vireo checking time and although I’m still whiskerless, I’ll keep on looking.

Looking at every gray-capped, pale white and olive bird is worth it and not just because one might have black whiskers. I enjoy each and every one because they have flown from the leafy green summer woods of Ohio, New York, and Ontario. I owe it to them; these are the birds that survived the window gauntlets of the north. I admire their soft, unobtrusive ways and knowing that Costa Rica is just one stop on the flyway train to Amazonia makes these foliage-colored birds sort of unbelievable.

During October Global Big, 2021, I had expected to pass the time checking vireos and other less mobile species right around the home. On account of local driving restrictions, we weren’t allowed to use the car on October 9th, I had become resigned to the idea of local exploration. Not to mention, I had things to do on the day after Global Big Day so why go anywhere? It was birding from home or no birding at all. That was alright, there’s always stuff to see, especially during migration times.

At least that was the idea until my Sunday plans were changed to a later date. Suddenly, the door of possibilities opened to going somewhere for the big eBird count on October 9th! We would have to leave on Friday in order to stay overnight in a place where we could bird on foot or bicycle on Saturday (because of those driving restrictions). Since we would have to wait until Sunday to drive home, well, we would just have to watch birds on that morning too.

It took some quick planning and very few places had availability but before we knew it, our later afternoon and evening plans for Friday included a long drive to Costa Rica’s promised land for migration; the southern Caribbean zone.

The South Caribbean region of Costa Rica includes any of the lands south of Limon. I always love visiting this underbirded part of the country because there is a good amount of nice forest habitat, beaches and estuaries that turn up interesting seabirds, cool resident species, interesting Caribbean culture, and fantastic bird migration.

Stay just about anywhere south of Limon and you will see a lot. Partly because of room availability, we ended up in Manzanillo. I’m not complaining. This little town near the end of the line around 15 kilometers past Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is surrounded by the rainforests of the Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, an excellent underbirded area that host a healthy variety of lowland species along with a big helping of migrants. Since the village of Manzanillo acts as a clearing in that forest, it can attract some interesting open country species as well as be a great place to see birds in flight as they make their way south.

Some suggestions and highlights from our trip:

Guapiles-Limon Highway- Night Driving is a No No

This principal highway has been under construction for some years now. It will still be some years before it’s finished. When it is finished, the driving should be fantastic, day and maybe night too. Until then, I highly advise only driving that road during the day. On Friday, we found ourselves doing some night driving and…it was like participating in a road trip from another dimension, one where nightmares are the norm. No illumination, no painted road lanes, the only reflectors being some small posts that marked the edge of the road (which happened to be a small cliff that dropped a meter or more). There were also big trucks, a few confusing lane changes, and a few random criminally negligent road craters.

If you do find yourself driving that particular byway during the dark hours, if you make it to Limon and its any consolation, the driving after that point is sweet and easy-going. Time your trip accordingly.

Birding in Manzanillo Village- Check the Streams

In the early morning of October 9th, I walked a block or two up the road to a small stream that passes next to an empty weedy lot and heads straight into wetlands with Raffia palms. As soon as I got there I heard a splash followed by soft ticking calls. I knew it had to be one of the small kingfishers and as I had suspected, yes (!), it was the smallest one.

That American Pygmy-Kingfisher flew downstream but right after its departure, I heard more ticking calls, this time from the part of the stream next to the vacant lot. A quick scan and I couldn’t believe my luck, it was the rarest of the small kingfishers, a Green-and-Rufous! Next thing I knew, it was zipping my way, seemingly pursued by a Clay-colored Thrush. The jade and burnt orange kingfisher flew about a meter next to me as it jetted past.

This is a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher from Cano Negro.

Birding that same spot also gave us nice looks at Prothonotary Warbler, Canebrake Wren, and some other birds, the most interesting being a surprise Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, a bird much more normally encountered on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific slope.

Pay an Early Visit to the Trails in Gandoca Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge

We ended up visiting the official trails of the refuge after in the later par of the morning. We hadn’t planned it that way, in fact, we hadn’t planned on doing that at all. But since we were walking over that way, we ended up entering and walking the trails for a short ways.

We saw several Tawny-crested Tanagers (very common in this area) and some other birds but if I could do it again (and I would like to), I would enter the trails right at the opening time of 6:30. That would result in much more bird activity coupled with less people activity. On our weekend visit, the place was crowded like Disney.

I should mention that visiting the trails (of which there are a few, most follow the beach) was as easy as writing down your name and some other information, having your bag briefly checked for alcohol beverages (leave the wine back at the hotel!), and visiting a hand washing station (commonplace in Costa Rica since the start of the pandemic).

Check Out the Soccer Field (Football Pitch)

As with settlements of all sizes in Costa Rica and most parts of the world away from Canada and the USA, Manzanillo had a soccer field (football pitch). This is always a good place to check, especially during migration. It’s where Costa Rica’s sole record of Whistling Heron was made and where other occasional vagrants have appeared.

On our visit, the field hosted a bunch of Eastern Kingbirds, Dickcissels, and a few resident species. The kingbirds were perched on the ground either resting and/or fluttering after bugs. I have never seen anything like it! As a major bonus, one of the only kingbirds perched in a tree next to the pitch just happened to be a long overdue country bird; a Gray Kingbird!

The pale Caribbean version of a TK gave us fantastic looks in perfect light. At some point, we had to stop watching it, a shame we didn’t bring the camera!

Bird the RECOPE Road or the Road Towards Puerto Viejo for Great Forest Birding, or Bird Both

Both of these options are just outside of the village and both are excellent for a number of Caribbean lowland species. We didn’t see anything crazy but the birding early Sunday morning was nevertheless excellent. I heard fruitcrows and Central American Pygmy-Owls, had fun watching Northern Barred and Black-striped Woodcreepers, and was challenged by trying to watch dozens and dozens of small birds way up there in the canopy. Most were Red-eyed Vireos but other bird were with them too, it was the fun type of busy.

Central American Pygmy Owl

Don’t Forget About the Village Birding

Manzanillo itself also makes for some nice birding. We enjoyed flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and streams of migrating swallows. Common Nighthawks in the evening and plenty of parrots, tanagers, flycatchers, and other birds during the day. There were also the two aforementioned kingfishers, a calling Great Potoo at night, the Yellow-crowned Tyarnnulet, and other species. It’ the type of place where every bird should be checked and where a Tiny Hawk can suddenly appear at the tip top of a tree.

Our October Global Big Day turned out to be a pleasant 127 species surprise. Not bad for doing all of our birding on foot, taking a short afternoon nap, and meeting with friends for drinks on the beach. I can’t wait for my next birding trip to the southern Caribbean zone of Costa Rica.

To learn more about this and other birding sites in Costa Rica, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“; a 700 plus page birding companion for Costa Rica.

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Costa Rica Birding News October, 2021

October in Costa Rica is a month of migration. It’s our May, the time of year for local birders to perk up their ears, check those recent sightings in eBird and get themselves into the birding zone. Knowing that thousands of birds are passing through Costa Rican territory night and day, it’s a challenge to not wander outside and connect with that migration flow.

However, if there were a birding bible, it would likely say, “One cannot live on watching birds alone, there are other important things in life too.” With that in mind, I am grateful to be able to get in an hour of birding on most mornings and I also venture further afield now and then. Thanks to eBird and Facebook pages, I’m also kept informed of some sweet sightings made by Costa Rica’s strong (and growing) local birding community. Check out some of the latest notable birding news from Costa Rica:

White-cheeked Pintail at Punta Morales

Local birder Mckoy Umana has found more than one rarity. Thanks to his skills of observation and dedication, Mary and I saw a beautiful mega Gray-hooded Gull last year at Punta Morales. A few days ago, he did it again by finding a mega White-cheeked Pintail at the same site! Several other birders have gone to see this vagrant duck, I hope it stays long enough for us to lay eyes on it too. One can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual that was seen near Ciudad Neily earlier this year. It also makes me wonder what other cool vagrant waterfowl are waiting in present and future birding wings.

Oilbird Tracked with Transmitter!

Thanks to another talented local birder and guide, an Oilbird in Costa Rica has finally been tracked with a transmitter! Given that we don’t know where these nocturnal birds are coming from, this is probably the most important Costa Rica bird news of the year. Thanks to persistence and hard work carried out by David Rodriguez, for the first time, data are finally available showing movements of an Oilbird in Costa Rica.

Oilbird in Costa Rica
The Oilbird is some weird, nocturnal, mega whatnot. This was my lifer from 2013.

Although the transmitter stopped recording before it entered any caves (as far as is known), it did show that the bird traveled more than 200 kilometers while visiting sites near the Pacific Coast.

Cerulean Warblers Tracked with Transmitters!

Odd nocturnal birds weren’t the only species tracked in Costa Rica. Thanks to MOTUS towers that were recently erected, Cerulean Warblers fitted with transmitters have been tracked in Costa Rica and in Panama. This work was accomplished by Ernesto Carman, Paz Irola, and other folks associated with the Cerulean Project.

A Good Year for Buff-breasted Sandpipers (or Just Better Detection?)

This fall migration seems to have been especially good for Buff-breasted Sandpipers. This long distance Arctic migrant was seen by several local birders at sites in Guanacaste and at the Juan Santamaria Airport (my partner and I were pleased to have seen one a few days ago). Each year, “Buffies” migrate through Costa Rica but since they don’t have a huge population and can just fly right on over Costa Rica in a jiffy, they can be easily missed.

For the past few years, though, Buff-breasteds have been seen in Costa Rica at several sites on an annual basis. Unfortunately, I doubt the additional sightings are from an unknown yet very welcome increase in their numbers. Don’t we all wish that were the case! Such a hopeful situation would be wonderful and I would love to be proved wrong but more Buffies being seen in Costa Rica is almost certainly a result of there being higher numbers of skilled local birders looking for them. The more people looking the better, now who’s going to find us a Red-necked Stint? If not one of those Sibs, a Curlew Sandpiper will do…

Pacific Golden-Plover Seen at Cocos Island

Speaking of lost shorebirds, in September, a Pacific Golden-Plover was reported from Cocos Island. Given that one was also seen there last year, a few other records from mainland Costa Rica have also come to light, and because we are talking about a bird all too easily passed off an an American Golden-Plover, I can’t help but wonder if the bird from Alaska occurs as an annual vagrant. Yet another situation for observant local birders to be aware of.

Bare-necked Umbrellabirds at Centro Manu

Yes, finally, some news about a resident species every birder headed to Costa Rica would love to see! This rare mega is a choice species equally hoped for by local birders. It can turn up at any number of sites but because they are so few in number, chances at seeing them always seem frustratingly dismal. Not at the moment!

Although far from guaranteed, lately, several of this endangered species have been seen at Centro Manu. This species moves around so it’s hard to say how long they will be there but recently, one or more have been seen on a daily basis. Might they stay until January? The answer probably depends in part on how much food is available.

Fortunately, we may have some good gen about the big cotinga’s daily occurrence thanks to local birder Kenneth Guttierez. His family owns the place and he checks the trails just about every day. Let’s hope the birds stay into February. I should also add that their presence highlights the importance of forest reserves in the transition zone between foothills and lowlands. This ecotone is what umbrellabirds (and various other birds) need, it should be a priority for reforestation efforts.

That’s about all for Costa Rica birding news for today. I could also mention that hundreds of resident species are waiting to be seen but that’s actually not news because in Costa Rica, fantastic birding is expected. Hope to see you here!

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A Good Day of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

What’s a good day of birding in Costa Rica? For that matter, what’s a good day of birding anywhere? A common answer is “a good day of birding is any day when you go birding”. I can’t deny a certain degree of veracity to those words but let’s face it, no day of birding is the same, sometimes you get better views, others are highlighted with rare species, and the best of days exceed all expectations.

In trying to keep with the Zen birding way, before I look for birds, I try to erase the expectations. I am aware of the possibilities, that’s always important, but don’t actually expect anything. This way, the birding experience is more realistic because after all, the appearance and occurrence of birds are beyond our control. All we can do is up the odds in our favor by planting trees or taking other actions to protect bird habitat, learn how to look for and identify birds, and then carefully look for them in the right places.

Today being in the heart of fall migration, I can’t honestly say I didn’t have expectations but I still went birding without expecting to see certain species. I knew various species were out there, suspected that rare ones were present too but also walked out the door knowing that I can’t know if or when we would cross paths with them. All one can do is the things one can control; put in the birding time, observe, and be quick with the binos.

With or without expectations, today, September 26, 2021 was a good day of birding in the Central Valley of Costa Rica (perhaps my best). These are some of the reason why:

Major Migration

Each morning, lately, I have started the day looking out back, checking to see which birds have arrived from the north. Most mornings, a few birds are there, some days more than others. There have been a few good mornings but nothing like today, a day that featured an observable morning flight. Multiple warblers and vireos shot out of the vegetation, as per usual, flying upstream. A few stopped but most kept going and I couldn’t try and follow, there were other birds to look at. At times, a few too many.

A bird flying into a Cecropia turned into a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Eastern Kingbirds materialized in a treetop to my right. Something else zipped in and landed…this fall’s first Summer Tanager! Scanning the background revealed a small flock of Bronzed cowbirds, a larger flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeet and a constant movement of Bank Swallows. I had 50 species in maybe 30 minutes and we were about to head out the door to look for more.

A Summer Tanager in Costa Rica from another day- many of this species winter in Costa Rica.

Nonstop Birding

Hundreds of arrivals from the north and cloudy conditions made for excellent bird activity. At our first main stop, a small area of shade coffee, Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow and Blackburnian Warblers flitted in the trees, four Orchard Orioles chattered from an empty lot thick with grass, and swallows kept streaming overhead. More Bank Swallows moved through along with dark-throated Cliffs, elegant Banks, and a random massive Purple Martin. Before we left that spot, we also heard our first fall migration Swainson’s Thrush and had close looks at the following key species.

Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow

While searching for hidden cuckoos, I heard the tick ticking calls of one of Costa Rica’s major target birds, the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. I see this species at this site from time to time but it’s never guaranteed. Like other skulking ones, this southernmost towhee is a fickle bird that inherently calls its own shots. This morning, three of them gave us a break and allowed us to appreciate their clownish face pattern.

Upland Sandpiper

Next on the list of sites to visit was a place with large expanses of short grass, a busy place that breeds noise but our only close option for grasspipers. Our main target was Buff-breasted Sandpiper and although scanning the runways did not turn up that Arctic visitor, we couldn’t find fault with an Upland Sandpiper. Our second of the year, this special grassland bird was busy foraging near Eastern Meadowlarks and a Killdeer. Perhaps it was reminded of its summer home.

Sunbittern

After the airport, we checked the San Miguel reservoir. This small body of water can be a magnet for waterbirds, when dry, it can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper. Today, no mud flats meant no Baird’s and with the place being covered with Water Hyacinth, we only saw Northern Jacanas, Muscovy Ducks, herons, Purple Gallinules, and a few other birds. With so much vegetation present, thoughts of Masked Duck came to mind (it could easily be there) and we scanned for it but didn’t see one today.

Instead, we saw a Sunbittern! Not on the reservoir itself but just downhill, along the main road where a bridge crosses a forested creek. I had stopped there hoping to find migrants in the woods when I heard the whistle of the Sunbittern. Thank goodness it was vocalizing. If not, I doubt I would have noticed it. We saw one of these Gondwana birds from the bridge and heard another. A fine random sighting for the Central Valley and a reminder of how prevalent this shy species is in Costa Rica.

A Snippet of a Cuckoo

Our final sweet sighting for the day was as brief as a gust of wind but it’ll still do. While watching Alder Flycatcher share space with Olive Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and other birds, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo fast-trained it out of nowhere and flew deep into a fruiting fig. We looked, I tried to remind it of other places by whistling like an Eastern Screech-Owl but it must have been in a vacation state of mind, we never saw it again.

As I write, the day’s not over yet. I just counted 90 species from four hours of birding in the morning and 30 minutes more during the afternoon. With a more concerted effort, we could have easily found more than ten additional species but today was already a fantastic day of birding, I hope yours’ was too.

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Birding Costa Rica: Classic Sites or Off the Beaten Path?

The routes that birding tours in Costa Rica follow are like those of most nations; you go where the birds are BUT in accessible places near enough to other sites to make the route feasible during a week or two of birding. They also need to offer the right blend of comfort, service, food, and security.

A Black-crested Coquette from Rancho Naturalista, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites.

No matter where you bring the binos, this winning tour combination is basically why so many birding tours tend to follow similar routes. Not always, but for logistical reasons, many tours follow a similar circuit and why not? If a birding tour route keeps clients happy and can lessen the chances of running into snags, its a good one. Why not always use the same or similar routes? Those routes can also help with planning a birding trip. Using a blend of trip reports and tour company itineraries as a template for your own trip has long been an easy way to know where to go. After all, you can’t go wrong by visiting the same places as the group tours, right?

Maybe…trip success depends on what birds you want to see and how you want to go birding. See a good number of birds while staying in comfortable rooms? Yeah, those tour itineraries will work but if Black-crowned Antpitta and other uncommon target species are reasons for the trip, the well traveled birding byways won’t be your best option.

The same goes for adventurous birders who would rather explore on their own, visit less birded sites, or pay less. Solo birding, or with a private group? The classic sites will still work to produce a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica but if you want something a little bit different, perhaps see if you can document a Solitary Eagle, don’t overlook the luxury of having the liberty to bird wherever and whenever you want.

Birding on your own, in a small group or on a custom tour and you have a lot more leeway but there’s that one big catch; how do you know where to go? Check out Google Maps and there’s promising looking patches and extensions of ruffled green. But what’s it like on the ground? Some places seem to have roads, some don’t, and some of the better looking spots only have one eBird list.

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to stick to the spots that have been eBirded to the max because after all, at least you know what’s there. With so much coverage, you have a fair idea of which birds roam the woods of places like Rancho Naturalista and La Selva Biological Station (even with an error or two) but what if you want to bird other, lesser known spots?

Isn’t it just as worthwhile to bird places with large areas of forest even if they lack or have smaller eBird lists? You bet it is. The birds aren’t where people have uploaded lists, they occur where the habitat exists and the places with the most species will always be sites with the largest areas of mature, intact forest. It’s pretty simple, if you want to connect with rarities, see more raptors, and see the highest number of species, spend more time in mature forest.

Don’t worry too much about the second growth, you will still see plenty of edge species at and near the forest. If you are up for exploration, try these routes and regions:

Large areas of forest in the north

Check out forest along roads north and west of Rincon de la Vieja, and north and east of Laguna del Lagarto. Not that one could expect to be so lucky but it’s still worth mentioning that Costa Rica’s most recent documented Harpy Eagle sighting happened north of Rincon de la Vieja. I know I wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time up that way. The same goes for sites near Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque, and east of there.

The area south of Limon

There’s a lot of excellent forest habitat near and south of Limon. It’s underbirded, it probably hosts some sweet surprises, and the region seems to be the best part of the country for Black-crowned Antpitta and Great Jacamar. What else might live out there? Various roads that penetrate forest will work for some birding excitement including ones near Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Gandoca, and Hitoy Cerere.

Great Jacamar

The Osa Peninsula

Want to look for Crested Eagle while watching Baird’s Trogons and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, try the La Tarde area and birding on the road to Rancho Quemado and Drake Bay. Seeing one of the prize eagles would be a maybe lottery ticket but it’s always fun to look for it.

Black cheeked Ant Tanager

Other Spots With Promising Habitat

Any other spot with habitat will be good birding, a few to try include the road from Varablanca to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, roads east of Tirimbina, sites south of Guapiles and Siquirres, roads near Dominical, and the Las Tables area north of San Vito.

Still not sure where to go birding in Costa Rica? Don’t sweat it too much, find some habitat and the birding will deliver. Find out more about birding sites in Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica , a site guide and birding companion to Costa Rica. If you do find a Solitary Eagle, please get a picture and let me know, I know a lot of local birders who would love to see one. Until then, happy birding wherever you might be raising the binos.

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A Few Changes at San Luis Canopy and the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe

Birding sites come and go. Some get better, others become off limits or, in too many worse case scenarios, are converted to housing or sterile pineapple fields. As Joni Mitchell reminded us, new parking lots can also happen and while those frozen patches of tar might make a Ring-billed Gull cackle with glee, other birds would opt for trees.

Thanks to recent guiding, I visited two classic birding sites in Costa Rica and noted a few changes that have happened at both of them. Not to worry (!), the changes are neutral or for the better at the Colibri Cafe in Cinchona and the San Luis Adventure Park. Here’s what to expect:

The Cafe Colibri (aka Mirador de San Fernando, aka Cinchona, aka Cinchona Cafe, aka awesome spot to get mind blown by tropical birds)

Although a parking lot did happen at the cafe, fortunately, it did NOT pave over any bit of paradise. Having nudged my vehicle into undefined parking spaces at the Colibri Cafe for years, I can attest to the new parking area being an improvement. Even better, for kids and domestic animal lovers of all ages, the parking area is now accentuated by a pair of braying donkeys.

As birders are entertained by the occasional loud, toothed voices of corralled mules across the road, they now also have more seating room on the birding deck.

The deck removed a very small part of the garden but it shouldn’t really affect the birds and more space was needed anyways. The new set up also makes it easier to watch the main feeder, a star fruit buffet featuring such beautiful attendees as the Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Silver-throated Tanager, and eye-pleasing species.

The hummingbird scene hasn’t changed, it still provides the chance to witness Brown Violetears extending their “ears”, Coppery-headed Emeralds sputtering and flashing the white in the tails, Green Thorntails doing their best wasp imitation, Violet Sabrewings acting large, purple, and in charge, and more.

violet-sabrewing

I should also mention that the menu is still the same albeit with the addition of flavored coffees available from a flavored coffee machine (which, if my mochaccino was any indication, could be better).

From the very mouth of the owner, the current fees for bird photography are 1500 colones for a bit of time and 2500 for a few hours. Since this is still a pittance, if you visit, please be generous and donate accordingly to this classic, birder friendly spot. My eBird list from September 13, 2021.

The San Luis Adventure Park (aka San Luis, aka San Luis Canopy, aka dream close looks at tanagers)

Over the years, this neat little place nestled in cloud forest on the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna has grown. Although the owners haven’t paved over anything, a bit of habitat has been removed. It’s nothing substantial and won’t affect the birds too much but it does affect the birding, at least a little bit.

As San Luis has expanded ever so slightly, various fruiting trees that were located just behind and next to the buildings have been removed. It’s a shame because those very trees made it easy to watch a wealth of tanagers from the parking area, Blue-and gold included. Not all of the trees were cut down, several are still there, just not as many visible from the parking area. Even so, I can’t honestly blame the owners for removing a few trees.

A few had to be taken out because they interfered with their zipline operations. Others were cut so they could expand a deck and the restaurant. I wish there could have been a better solution but it’s hard to think of one. Since they still protect a sizeable area of cloud forest, I can think of a lot more enterprises much more worthy of criticism for actual unsustainable and destructive practices.

Not to mention, the deck that was built also happens to be where birders can view tanagers at close range, so there is that. Speaking of the tanager deck, while it used to be freely open to birders, a locked door has been installed and access is now only possible by paying $20 in the reception. If $20 seems too much to view Emerald Tanager at close range, not to worry, you get more for that price! This same fee also provides unlimited access to the San Luis Canopy trail; a maintained series of steps that descends a river and has several hanging bridges.

If you can handle a bunch of steps, hanging bridges, and great birding, this might be the trail for you! It accesses mature cloud forest that can feature close looks at various tanagers, excellent mixed flocks, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, a chance at umbrellabird, and many other species. Since the fee also includes access to a hummingbird garden and close looks at Emerald, Speckled, Bay-headed Tanagers and other birds, I would say that’s money well spent.

San Luis is currently open seven days a week, from 8 until 4. The restaurant is good enough and currently features a typical Costa Rican menu (used to be buffet only). My eBird list from September 12, 2021.

As with every good birding site, I look forward to going back, I hope you make it there too. In the meantime, to learn more about identification tips and birding sites in Costa Rica, get ready for an amazing birding trip to Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy fall migration!

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Tinamous in Costa Rica: How Common are They?

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.

In the meantime, happy birding!

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The First Fall Migrant Out Back, Costa Rica, 2021

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.

Western Wood-Pewee (from another day but on the same perch)

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.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

What are These “New” Birds for Costa Rica?

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!

Want to know how to identify and where to find these and other birds in Costa Rica? See “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Until then, I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Can You See 300 Bird Species While Staying at Cerro Lodge?

Cerro Lodge hasn’t been visited by birders as long as some other places but I would still easily call it one of Costa Rica’s classic birding lodges. The birding is just too good. Shortly after opening around 2008, it didn’t take long for word to spread about Cerro being an excellent base for visiting Carara National Park and other nearby birding hotspots. Folks with binoculars also quickly realized that the birding was nothing short of fantastic, right at the hotel.

The highlights were many; Black-and-white Owls and Pacific Screech-Owls were frequent nightly visitors. The gaudy screeches and colors of Scarlet Macaws were a regular, daily occurrence. Birding from the deck of the restaurant turned out to be excellent for views of endangered flyby Yellow-naped Parrots and several other parrot and parakeet species. It was also good for raptors, especially the uncommon Crane Hawk. Guides scoping the distant mangroves even found displaying Yellow-billed Cotingas! Speck level distant but still identifiable and once in a while, one or two would move through the reforested grounds of the hotel.

These days, the owls don’t seem to visit the hotel as much (although they still live in the area), and some parrots may have declined but the birding is still fantastic. Thanks to an observation tower along with improved habitat, I would say that the birding chances might even be better and photography is excellent. With so many bird species possible at and near Cerro, I began to wonder if a birder could stay there and see more than 300 species.

The view from the tower.

After some analysis using the official Costa Rica Birds checklist, and knowledge of which birds are present at Cerro and nearby sites, these are my findings for birding during the winter months:

Birding Just at Hotel Cerro Lodge: 230 Species

This total includes the “La Barca Road” that goes past the entrance of the hotel but upon seeing the numbers, I admit, I was still somewhat surprised. I have had lots of great birding at the hotel and along that road, many a fantastic birdy morning, but I never got more than 120 species (which isn’t such a shabby number in any case). Even so, the numbers don’t lie and that’s even with leaving off a few vagrants or other very rare species (!).

When one factors the dynamic nature of lowland tropical habitats into account, especially at such a fantastic ecotone as the Carara area, I guess I shouldn’t really be all that surprised by a total of 230 plus possible species. After all, Cerro Lodge is an excellent, birdy spot. Such a good number of birds combined with comfort, a pool, and good food make Cerro a worthy destination all on its own. 300 species aren’t possible right at the hotel but what if we used Cerro as a base to bird additional sites in the area? Let’s say sites less than an hour’s drive from the hotel?

Birding at Cerro, Carara National Park and Sites within an Hour’s Drive: 415 Species!

The 200 plus species at Cerro are plenty to look at but if you really want to boost that birding experience, stay long enough to get the full ecotone monty. When we include the rainforests of Carara along with the mangroves and estuary at Tarcoles, and throw in the rich habitats at Jaco, our list of potentials rushes well past 300 and even surpasses 400 species!

Carara offers a chance at forest birds like the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher.
The endangered Mangrove Hummingbird occurs at sites near Cerro Lodge and has even shown up at the lodge on a couple of occasions.

Once again, this is without including several extreme rarities and vagrants that have occurred. To hit 400, a birder would need to do some careful, focused forest birding in the national park, be quick with the binos, and stay for several days but it could certainly be done. What if we went further afield? Say, to sites within 2 hour’s drive and include a pelagic trip?

Adding Sites Within 2 Hours of Cerro Lodge and a Pelagic Trip: Chances at 40 or More Species

As it turns out, since most of the birds are available rather near the hotel, this strategy wouldn’t add a huge number of species. It would still be fun though, especially a pelagic trip because we all know how exciting those boat trips can be. Not to mention, in two hours, you could also make it to sites good for Costa Rica Brushfinch, bellbird, and some other choice species.

Could You See 500 Species?

Half a thousand species? If you only use Cerro Lodge as a base, probably not. BUT if you also spend a couple nights at Monteverde or birding in the Poas area, sure, 500 is certainly feasible. Once again, I was a bit surprised but if you manage to find 415 species while staying at Cerro and then do two or three days of some focused ninja birding at either of those highland sites, yes, you could certainly find an additional 80 plus species to push you over 500.

It would require lots of birding though. You would have to look for and look at a lot of birds. That won’t be a problem when staying at Hotel Cerro Lodge, major crossroads of tropical biodiversity can be like that.