What can you see in two days of birding in Costa Rica? Like anywhere, experience is a function of location. In the birding way of things, we also need to factor in weather, time, and local birding knowledge. Beyond that, what we see depends on how those birds want to roll.
In Costa Rica, how the birds roll is where a mixed flock happens to move (will it cross your path?), if birds feed within your field of view, and if the skulkers opt to come out and play.
During the past seven days, I was birding in the Poas and Cinchona area one day and at sites near San Ramon the next. There was some overlap but we saw a good bunch of birds. No surprise there, it happens when you visit quality habitats in Costa Rica.
In addition to sharing birds with a wonderful bunch of people, these were some of the other highlights.
Wren what? Thrush? Wren? What’s going on with that funny little bird! Wrenthrush is certainly unique but personally, I prefer using the one and only name for its genus, “Zeledonia”.
It’s a snappy sounding name, a one of a kind word for a one of a kind bird. It really is one of a kind too, I mean, has its own familia and everything. Yeah, what used to be an aberrant warbler is the only member of a bird family endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.
And we had perfect looks at one on the road to Poas.
the bird’s not rare, I often hear them along that road and many other suitable spots but whether they let you see them or not, yeah, that’s another birding story.
Luckily, we had wonderful close looks at the orange-crowned, stub-tailed bird known as the Wrenthrush. I look forward to subsequent trips to wet highland forest where I can experience more of this special little bird.
Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow near San Ramon
The skulky ways and scattered populations of the endemic ground-sparrow can present challenges to seeing one. You’ll do best if you look for them early, like 6 a.m. In common with all local birds, you also need to look for them in the right places.
One such place is a site just outside of San Ramon. In my Costa Rica bird finding book, this site is known as 4.1 a UCR Campus San Ramon. In looking at what I wrote, I think I need to edit it and say that you can see a surprising number of bird species on the dirt road along the southern edge of the campus.
This dirt road is also a great spot to find the ground-sparrow but in testament to its skills at hiding, we only saw one and it took some effort to see it. We eventually got great looks but it wasn’t easy!
This spot was also bouncing with other birds. Long-tailed Manakin, several wren species, various wintering warblers, a couple woodcreepers, and more, the birds kept us busy!
White Hawk at Close Range
After our successful date with the ground-sparrow, we checked some roadside cloud forest along the road that passes through the Reserva Valle de Los Quetzales. I was hoping we would see a quetzal but nope, instead, the birding was fairly subdued.
We still managed excellent close views of a White Hawk and saw some middle elevation species like Collared Trogon, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.
Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and a Bunch of Other Mini Dazzlers
Between birding around Poas and sites near San Ramon, we had a good bunch of hummingbirds, 17 species in total. This included wonderful, detailed views of Coppery-headed Emerald, a svelte male Black-bellied Hummingbird, and miniscule Scintillant Hummingbirds among other species.
As usual, on Poas, the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds entertained while Volcano Hummingbirds did their bee-like thing. Crowned Woodnymphs also dazzled at the Cocora, and we took in the bright beauty of a Purple-crowned Fairy near Varablanca.
Speaking of hummingbirds, this classic spot delivered several species including Violet Sabrewing, the aforementioned Black-bellied, Coppery-headed Emeralds, and some other species.
It was also good for the other usual suspects along with a hungry Black Guan and occasional looks at Buff-fronted Quail-Dove down below. Northern Emerald Toucanet ghosted but maybe it will be there next time? Consolation happened with both barbet species, Crimson-collared Tanager, and other sweet birds in beautiful surroundings.
Despite poor weather on Poas and Cinchona, and windy, sunny weather near San Ramon, we still identified 150 species. Check out the eBird trip report. Two days birding is always good in Costa Rica, just about anywhere you bring the binos. Headed to Costa Rica soon? Practice using those bins and get ready for some major bird action!
Recently, there have a few twitchworthy birds in Costa Rica. Lesser Black-backed Gull in Tarcoles- second country record, first chasable bird! American Avocet at Ensenada- a very rare vagrant scything the brine for several days! White-eyed Vireo also at Ensenada- rare vagrant, good bird to see in Costa Rica!
All present for more than one day, tempting for the Costa Rica birder, and all very twitchworthy. This past Thursday, temptation had its way and we found ourselves driving to Ensenada Wildlife Refuge. The plan was to see the avocet, maybe even visit the shorebird hotspot at Punta Morales, and keep tabs on the Tarcoles gull situation.
At least that was the plan, here’s what happened, here’s what I learned. Even if you don’t chase vagrant migrants in Costa Rica, the following just might help your regular birding in Costa Rica too.
“Twitchworthiness” Doesn’t Guarantee Anything
When you start following the birding way, it doesn’t take long to learn some hard truths. Among those many birding facts of life, we quickly find that birders like to make a weird hissing noise referred to as “pishing”, that warblers look a lot nicer in spring, and that owls verge on being invisible.
We also learn that just because we think we’ll see a particular bird species, noy an ounce of your confidence and faith will make that bird materialize. Beyond field skills, birding is sort of a game of chance. You can use weather, time of day, and other factors to nudge the odds in your direction but nothing’s guaranteed.
But hey, there are upsides to birding chance! You might find something rare! You might see the unexpected and if you pay attention, you’ll always learn a thing or two.
On our avocet chase, I was reminded that even if the bird was seen one day before, it doesn’t have to be there. Twittering flocks of Western Sandpipers were present. Wilson’s Plovers, yellowlegs, stilts, and other expected shorebirds rested and picked in the mud of Ensenada’s brine pools but nope, no neat bird with the extra fine, upturned beak.
We ran into other birding friends, notable our friends from Birding Experiences but even with more eyes looking and checking every pond, the avocet was no more. Well, we thought, at least we can check for the vireo a la white eyes! We knew just where another guide friend had found it, right where to pish and make pygmy-owl sounds. That little thicket dweller was destined for the birding bag.
But, no, the vireo didn’t want to come out either. I can’t blame it, if two-legged beings were making funny noises at me while the tropical sun baked the land, yeah, I would ignore them too.
Noon isn’t the Best Time for Birding on the Pacific Coast
Yeah, a better time to look for those White-eyed Vireos would have been much earlier in the day. You know, when birds are active and calling because it’s a lot more comfortable when it’s not a stifling, windless 90 plus degrees.
So right, why would we go birding in a natural oven at high noon? Our decision was based on upping the birding odds in our favor. On Thursday, noon was high tide and that there is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica. At low tide, most of the sandpipers and plovers forage way out on the mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. They spread out too and many are just too far away to watch.
You gotta visit the shorebird spot at high tide, check the salt pools and other places where they congregate. In keeping with the no-guarantee rule for birding, they might not be at the pools you happen to be checking but hey, what are you gonna do? Stay home and not watch birds instead of being lasered by the long vertical hands of Helios?
Not necessarily! However, you could forget that noon birding stuff and stick to pleasant and productive birding efforts in the morning and late afternoon. You don’t have to stay home either. Like, you could find an ice cream shop or enjoy cold drinks in some shaded place until 3 in the afternoon. I mean, that’s sort of what the birds do anyways…
Slow Ride, Take it Easy…
Another benefit of leaving extra early is avoiding the traffic. You won’t be exempt from bumbling trucks and slow blocky vehicles and other oddities but there won’t be as many. It’ll still be better than driving at other times.
I can’t emphasize enough, on roads in Costa Rica, drive real early or give yourself some extra time! It really is slow going, especially on the highway between Puntarenas and somewhere around Limonal. I suppose at least when you drive slow, you have a better chance of spotting some perched raptor or maybe even finding a Northern Potoo. But please remember to leave that bird searching to the passengers. The driver has to constantly watch for pot holes, bad drivers, and other weird stuff.
Late Afternoon Dining in Puntarenas- a Big Yes!
We did not see the twitchworthy birds, and our extra side trip to the Colorado salt pans added on quite a bit of unexpected driving time but at least we visited Puntarenas!
We got there just in time for a late afternoon meal at the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill. Let me tell you, 4 p.m. could be the best time to visit this small seaside city. From our outdoor seating, we had a beautiful view of the gulf of Nicoya, Franklin’s Gulls picked at the shoreline, and other birds flew by.
While scanning the gulf from my seat, I even saw a distant storm-petrel sp.! Wish I would have had more time to scan for seabirds but we were hungry, we needed a real meal. Along those gastronomic lines, the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill delivered. I very much recommend it and not just because they support sustainable fishing. The food was good and the owner also offers boat trips into the Gulf!
Don’t Do Ensenada as a Day Trip
I used to visit Ensenada and Punta Morales as a day trip from the Central Valley. And yeah, you still could but it’ll just be a longer day than it used to be. Birding time has been reduced by traffic and the roadwork situation to the point where it’s hardly worth it to drive back and forth from that area.
I guess you still could if you left the Central Valley at 4 a.m. but even then, it’ll be a lot more fun and relaxing to bird the coast early and stay somewhere in that area for a night or two, maybe even in Puntarenas or at Ensenada Lodge. That way, you can have plenty of time to check shorebird spot, dry forest, and do seawatching and even boat trips from Puntarenas. There will also be plenty of time for mid-day siestas, cool drinks, and breezy tropical ocean views.
Ensenada, Punta Morales, and other shorebird sites also work well as birding stops as you make your way north to Guanacaste.
On Thursday, we dipped on the avocet and vireo, and we didn’t even try for the gull (which has also gone AWOL). However, we of course still saw other birds (a foraging Gull-billed Tern was a highlight), enjoyed a nice seaside meal, and learned a thing or two. It was also nice to end the birding portion of the day by listening to the rumbling gruff voices of duetting Spectacled Owls near Orotina.
There will always be more birds to chase and as I write, there’s certainly many more birds to find. Time to go look for them! Just not at noon…
To learn more about the birding sites mentioned and prepare for your fantastic birding trip to Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 page site guide ebook for Costa Rica with accurate bird lists, tips for identification, finding birds, and more. I hope to see you here!
Will you be birding Costa Rica soon? Need some recommendations? Here’s my take on birding Costa Rica in the final month of the year. These suggestions probably work for every December. In any case, I hope they help with your upcoming trip.
Expect Rain in the Mountains and on the Caribbean Slope
“It’s raining again…”
It’ll will be raining…but it won’t be that bad. Well, at least not on the Pacific slope! Yeah, in December, the dry season does kick into gear but not everywhere in Costa Rica. This country might be small but it sits at a major junction, one called the continental divide.
Put your pishing skills to the test at Walmart Woods and you’ll be urban birding on the Pacific slope. Go anywhere south of the mountains and it’s the same- all that water is headed to oceans where Nazca Boobies dive and Black Storm-Petrels nighthawk their way over the waves.
Bird the Pacific and the rains should be trailing off or stopping altogether.
Go to the other side of the mountains, anywhere north of the volcanoes and tectonic lift and you’ll be joining currents that flow to the Caribbean. The Atlantic Ocean that is, waters where Great Shearwaters shear and Black-capped Petrels arc and wheel. And oh how we hope to see those lost birds in Costa Rica!
Over on the Caribbean slope, it’s generally wetter and there is no historic, actual dry season. In fact, it usually rains more in December but don’t fret! If you are bringing binos to Arenal, La Selva, or any other site on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, the birding will still be good. In fact, when the rain stops, it can be downright fantastic.
What about the mountains? What about folks headed to Paraiso Quetzal, Savegre, and other montane birding sites in Costa Rica? Yeah, bring a rainjacket or poncho and/or waterproof stuff. It’s more hit or miss in December but once again, when the rain stops, the birds come out. They like it more than the hot, beating sun.
Don’t Rely on eBird Too Much- Birds are Where the Habitat Is
eBird is such a font of knowledge. Where would we be without it? It is very useful, and for those of us OG phone bird alert, pager, and listserv folks, I daresay the platform is still revolutionary.
However. In Costa Rica, it’s not really the final say on birding. That’s because:
Most coverage occurs at the same sites and main birding circuits.
Most lists do not show all the birds that were seen or heard (because a high percentage of people using eBird in Costa Rica don’t know all of the bird vocalizations).
And most lists probably have errors that can be tough to filter out.
This doesn’t mean that eBird is useless. By no mean! In Costa Rica, it’s a great resource for birding. It just means that you should always remember that birds are not restricted to hotspots or sightings on eBird. They occur in their appropriate habitats.
Umbrellabirds at Centro Manu and Other Lowland Forest Sites
It’s that time of year again! Centro Manu continues to be one of the better sites for Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Even so, this endangered bird is not common there. You may need to walk the trails for some hours and really look for them. BUT, you’ll have a very good chance of seeing this mega, especially if you hire the on-site guide Kenneth. As a bonus, he might also know of roosting sites for owls and potoos.
As for other lowland forest sites, yes, umbrellabirds should be there too. The best places are Veragua, the Rainforest Aerial Tram, and Pocosol but they can also occur at Quebrada Gonzalez, the San Luis Canopy, the road to Manuel Brenes, Nectar and Pollen, La Selva, Tirimbina, Arenal, and any site where primary lowland and foothill forest is connected to highland forest.
Those weird big cotingas are just tough to chance upon.
Look for Rare Birds- You’ll See the Common Ones Too!
The best birding isn’t in hotel gardens. Ok, so that all depends on what one mean by “best birding” but in this case, I mean birding that gives you the best chances at the most bird species. As with all places on Earth, that means visiting the largest areas of intact habitat. In Costa Rica, that usually translates to mature, intact forest.
Naturally, such places also coincide with the best sites for rare birds. Focus on those rare species and you’ll see the common ones too. You’ll also see plenty of uncommon bird species. Just make sure to spend some time at the edge of the forest and scanning the canopy before walking beneath the trees.
Want to see leaftossers? I know, say what? But seriously, leaftossers, foliage-gleaners, more manakins, and many other birds. You’ll need to leave the tanagers in the garden and visit quality forest habitats.
Avoid Driving Rush Hour in the Central Valley
As a final note, I’ll just mention, no, urge you to avoid driving in the Central Valley during rush hour. The Central Valley is basically San Jose and all its urban connections. There are major traffic jams on a daily basis, perhaps exacerbated by roadwork, always by daily fender benders.
Drive in it and you’ll be missing out on hours of birding time (in addition to testing your stress levels). Avoid it by NOT driving Monday through Friday in the Central Valley at these times:
5:45 am-8:30 am
4:00 pm-6:30 pm
It can also get gridlocked on Saturdays! Sundays, though, Sundays are fun driving days except when ascending Route 27. On Sunday afternoons, the weekday rush hour traffic gets transferred there by the many folks coming back from the beaches.
If you must drive in and out of the Central Valley, leave early, even by 5, and stay out all day. Instead of wasting time in traffic, dine out and then go owling somewhere. That’ll be way more fun!
I’m sure I could day more but these suggestions will help for now. For more Costa Rica birding information, search this very blog and support it by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It’s also a great way to prepare for your birding trip- it has up to date information about most birding sites in Costa Rica along with tips for seeing and identifying everything.
I hope to see you here! Happy Thanksgiving and happy birding!
Last week I wrote about some of the latest in Costa Rica birding news. As happens, shortly after mentioning avocets, warblers, and chances at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos, another major birdworthy sighting cam to light.
As it turns out, on October 22, local birder and photographer Christian Bonilla found a mega of mega birds for Costa Rica. The American Bittern is not a colorful bird, nor is it endangered or a species difficult to see in its usual cold marsh range. But it most definitely is a major bird for Costa Rica!
You see, we just don’t see American Bitterns in Costa Rica. We see other hefty herons, especially the Bare-throated Tiger-Herons like the bird pictured above. But not American Bitterns.
Sort of like the White-faced Whistling-Duck and Short-eared Owl, the American Bittern is on the official Costa Rica bird list but it’s more of an historic species. It’s a bird from times when the Central Valley was a mosaic of wetlands, moist woodlands, and farmlands.
That was some 100 years ago. Since then, the wetlands have been mostly drained and whatever birds wintered in such places have likewise left for other, more suitable places. Given the destruction of wetlands in the Central Valley, I figured that the bittern was one of those species very unlikely to appear in these lands.
I mean, much of its former wintering sites in Costa Rica were destroyed long ago, and the species can just happily winter in other sites much closer to its breeding grounds. Why would any of these hefty herons bother flying all the way to Costa Rica?
At least that’s what I thought. It’s why I merely wrote “Hope to chance upon one in marsh habitat.” in the “How to see this bird” section of its description in the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I suppose that advice for seeing an American Bittern in Costa Ricas still holds true but I would also add, “Watch for this rare wintering species in seasonal freshwater marshes, especially in the highlands.”
Not that birders visit Costa Rica to see American Bitterns but hey, you never know.
However, in 2023, one did fly all the way here. Actually, since there have been a couple other likely sightings during the past 20 years, other adventurous American Bitterns have probably also made the trip. Those birds just weren’t documented like this one was.
This sighting makes me wonder if a bittern or two has always wintered in Costa Rica. I mean, they aren’t exactly obvious, many wetland sites in Costa Rica aren’t very accessible, and we don’t have birders combing every corner of the country.
Although it was found in late October, local birders kept the sighting on the downlow because they were concerned that photographers could drive the bittern away. Fortunately, last week, they changed their minds, the American Bittern location was released and the twitch was on!
On Sunday morning, hoping to avoid any crowds and to have a better chance at seeing the bird, we visited the site bright and early. The spot is a small, seasonal marsh just outside of Paraiso de Cartago, right next to a puddled, dirt road that sees runners, cyclists, and plenty of other passersby.
As we discovered, it’s also a beautiful area of habitat. The small marsh is bordered by scrubby habitat that bounced with Morelet’s Seedeaters, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and beautiful little black-backed Lesser Goldfinches.
Scanning in the back, I saw a thrush-sized black bird with white shoulders flit through my field of view. White-lined Tanager! Off to the left, a suspicious dirt clump morphed into a hunched over Green Heron. White-throated Crakes sizzled from the grass, saltators, and other Northern Jacanas also chattered.
I tell you, it was one heck of a beautiful morning in that fresh Cartago air.
There were also nearby woodlands we did not explore. They could have held some rare warbler, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did but we had another bird to look for. There was that bittern somewhere out there, somehow hiding.
With such a small area, several birders looking for it, and no one seeing it, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were one day too late. Was it going to be like the failed pochard twitch? Could the bird have left? It certainly could have. I mean, it’s a migrant that doesn’t need to stick around, a bird that could just up and leave whenever the heck it wants.
And therein lies the multi-pronged challenge of the twitch. Not only do you need to find the bird, you also have to accept that you just might not see it. You gotta quell the roots of anxiety, go Zen and accept that your Ross’s Gull may have been eaten by a Great Horned Owl (that happened to me once). You don’t have to remove the anxiety but since living stress-free is healthier living, taking that Zen route really is best.
Going Zen birding might also help you see the bird. Forget that no one is seeing it. Instead, think about why no one is seeing the bittern. Let’s see, it hides extremely well, even in bits of habitat, and doesn’t need to move. Think about that as I scan the reeds again, carefully look and hope to see some bit of a bird, some brown piece that doesn’t quite fit.
I scanned and still no dice, not even after double and triple scanning. Hmm, maybe from another angle. For some reason, I walked up an embankment and scanned from a different angle. And there the bird was, obvious as can be!
At least as obvious as a bittern head partially obscured by reeds can be. But seriously, there it was, very much visible way back in that small marsh, at just one angle. Move a few steps to the right and there was only reeds and singing seedeaters. Check from the left and there wasn’t any bittern, a complete forget about it.
Fortunately, though, our American Bittern had not given up on Paraiso de Cartago. We could all see it from that one spot! It wasn’t a full, on stage view of a bird begging for attention but we could focus in on it. There was its pale eye, the coffee brown colors in its plumage, stretching its neck up to look way back at us. Photographers would have preferred different views but seeing it through the reeds somehow seemed more realistic, more in line with the classic bittern experience.
It reminded me of the bitterns I had seen pretending to be cattails in upstate New York, of chunky northern herons that shared space with calling Virginia Rails, Soras, and witchety yellowthroats. This one was sharing space with another yellowthroat species, was stalking frogs in a very different locale but there it was. An American Bittern in Costa Rica. Heerman’s Gull, American Bittern, Lesser Kiskadee, what’s will be next on the twitching list?
Thankfully, lots of local birders have been seeing the bittern these past few days. A good thing too because with its little marsh steadily trying out, who knows how long it will stay? This might be the only American Bittern they see, I hope it does us a favor and stays long enough for everyone to take in that bittern experience.
November is that transition between fall and winter, the time of lead-gray skies, gull flocks and hints of snow. In Niagara, scan the cold waves chopping the lake and you could spot a big white owl flying in from the north. Keep watching the hundreds of ducks on the move, you could see an eider, will likely test the numb level limit of your hands. But the freeze test might be worth it, you could see something truly crazy (like an unbelievable Short-tailed Shearwater apparently!).
The August migrants are long gone from the north but I can tell you where they went. I know where the Baltimore Orioles are living it up, where the Wilson’s Warblers are chipping and the Prothonotary’s are holding sway. We’re seeing plenty in Costa Rica, here’s some other news for November, maybe even for the upcoming high season too:
The avocet has landed! We don’t get very many of these extra elegant birds, not in Costa Rica. One turns up every so often but the event ain’t annual. As with most past sightings, 2023’s avocet appeared on the Pacific Coast. Local birders have been twitching it at one of the better spots for shorebirds; Ensenada Refuge.
I hope it stays long enough for us to see it too. Heck, I hope it stays all winter. If you see one, even if it doesn’t seem all that exciting, please eBird it, local birders will be sending gratitude.
Other birds that Costa Rica isn’t known for are Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Recently, all three species have been seen, hopefully they’ stick around too. We don’t get too many of this trio of Caribbean wintering birds, it would be nice to catch up.
In all likelihood, there’s surely more of these and other rare wintering warblers in Costa Rica. The problem is they could be anywhere, a “place” where we just don’t have people birding. One can only pish so much. How to find those birds? All you can do is get out birding, keep birding, be fast on the bino draw, and go with the birding flow.
Corso has Been Good
I’ve had the pleasure of stopping at the Corso Farm on several recent occasions. Each visit has been pretty productive, has yielded several hummingbirds. The best have been Scintillant Hummingbird and Magenta-throated Woodstar. The woodstar comes and goes but the Scintillants are usually present.
Their minute dimensions might keep them hiding from the other hummingbirds but keep watching, they’ll eventually come out.
Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at Pocosol…
This mega is always at that site but will you see it? Of course that is the constant and most important birding question. Recently, one was seen with a youngster, right next to the station! I think that’s a pretty good sign they’ll be around.
If you visit, give yourself enough time to find those ants. They’ll be lots of other birds to look at too! Check out my birding site guide for Costa Rica to learn more about this fantastic site and hundreds of other key places to go birding in Costa Rica.
Lots of Rain this Month- Be Prepared
Last but not least, there’s been a lot of rain going on. That’s expected for November but it’s still worth mentioning. You see, these rains can cause landslides and they always generate local flooding.
They’ll probably be gone in a month but if birding Costa Rica in the meantime, keep an eye on weather conditions, limit time on Route 32, and be extra careful around Parrita, Ciudad Neily, and most areas on the Pacific Coast.
I suppose that’s about it for now. I could also mention that there’s awesome tanager flocks, calling antbirds, soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and more but as newsworthy as they sound, when birding in Costa Rica, those and hundreds of other birds are wonderfully regular. Get ready for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, I hope to see you here!
Costa Rica is not a vast country. We don’t have endless landscapes that leap past the horizon and yet, there’s still much to discover. The humid tropical forests are packed with dense vegetation, looped with life. Hidden wetlands beckon and lurk from valleys, and even old overlooked fields could hide a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo.
What else shelters in “the weeds”?
As with every coast, seawatching is an open window to tantalizing opportunities. What will fly by today? What might wander in from distant marine realms, however small the possibility? Costa Rica’s dual shores provide two such chances at lottery birding redemption.
Even in the same old birding places, there’s always more to see. Bird some of the richer spots and you could get lifers on every one of a dozen visits (no kidding, you just gotta know where to go birding in Costa Rica). You could also stick to the popular birding circuit and connect with literally hundreds of species.
You can’t go wrong but, for the more adventurous, additional birding corners await exploration. These are places off the beaten track, too far from other sites to fit into tours or just too plain far. For a country the size of West Virginia, as one might surmise, such less visited sites tend to be close to Panama or Nicaragua.
Last weekend, we visited one of those far off places. It’s a spot I have wanted to check for some time but have always ended up birding similar sites that were just a little bit closer. That place is Gandoca and it’s pretty much right at the end of the road.
Gandoca is a tiny settlement just on the other side of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Reserve. Go there and you’re almost in Panama. Heck, on the way there, you can see forested hills in Panama that probably host Harpy Eagle. No such mega massive eagle welcomed us in Gandoca but we still had some fun and exciting birding. Check out the eBird trip report and some observations and suggestions based on this past trip:
The Road in to Gandoca is Bumpy and Not very Birdy
The highway is wonderful. Really. No holes, quick, easy-going, that’s not what you usually find in Costa Rica! However, once you turn off the highway, you’ll be in for several kilometers of classic, rocky road bumpiness.
It’s not too bad but just saying, it’s good to be prepared. The birding on the way in isn’t so great either. Yes, it’s Ok but at least half the road passes through banana farms, tree farms, and some pasture. We rode in at night with hopes of uncommon nightjars but nope, only Common Pauraques, at least on that night.
The Best Habitat is near Gandoca and the Colibri Ecolodge
The title says it all. The best habitats are the forests closer to Gandoca and the Colibri Ecolodge (Colibri Cabinas). Although they weren’t primary forest, they were still old enough to host a fair number of forest birds. I bet they could also host a surprise or two.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron! Uniform Crake! Hermits in Abundance!
I suppose these were our “best birds”. The tiger-heron was hanging out in a backyard ditch at the Colibri. Amazingly, we almost missed it! Luckily, we ran into Richard Garrigues (author of the Birds of Costa Rica) and some of his family. Richard told us about the tiger-heron and a few seconds later, we were all admiring this uncommon Costa Rica bird at close range.
The crake wasn’t surprising, this species is actually quite common in Costa Rica. However, you don’t get to see those mammal wannabes all that much. On our final morning, while admiring a caiman in a roadside pool, a juvenile Uniform Crake came scooting out of the forest and let us watch it pick at the edge of the water. We were pleased that the caiman didn’t turn around and try for a crake sandwich.
As for the hermits, they were just nice and common. It’s always nice to constantly hear and see Long-billed Hermits in action but the birding gets better when all four possible species appear.
We truly lucked out on Saturday. On Friday night, there must have been a huge wave of migration. In the morning, invisible, buzzing Dickcissels passed overhead while small flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Swainson’s Thrushes foraged in the trees.
The foliage was also full of Bay-breasted Warblers, and wood-pewees and a few Empids sallied from the forest edge. An Olive-sided Flycatcher topped a snag, and Eastern Kingbirds flew into view.
No cuckoos seen nor other rare birds but it was still marvelous.
Not to mention, the migrants busied fruiting figs with trogons, Crested Guans, chachalacas, tanagers, and other local birds. Stuff was busy, it was deep chocolate goodness.
Check for New Birds for Costa Rica
One other thing I highly recommend while visiting Gandoca is looking for new birds for Costa Rica. I’m ashamed to admit I did not carry out this honorable task as much as I should have. However, in the future, I would suggest seriously looking for Pacific Antwren, White-tailed Trogon, Blue Cotinga, Cocoi Heron, Cattle Tyrant, Carib Grackle, and Rufous-breasted Hermit.
I daresay any of these birds are possible in that area (perhaps more along the main highway) and is why I included them on the Costa Rica Birding App as “not seen” birds. The hermit in particular could be easily overlooked. I mean it looks extremely similar to a Bronzy Hermit, you’ll need photos that show the undertail coverts and the face.
Bird Other, Nearby, Little Birded Sites
Bird Gandoca for sure but if you can, it’s also worth dedicating time to birding other sites in the area. Those would be places like the Paradise Road, sites near Bribri, Manzanillo, and the RECOPE road to name a few.
Visit Gandoca and you gotta be ready to drive for a good ways. Make sure your car is charged and don’t expect many stores in the area but you will find peace. You’ll also see a lot of birds, maybe something mega.
October 14, 2023 was a random day for the non-birding part of humanity. For the rest of us, this date was one of the big ones; a special time when birding takes center stage. Thanks to eBird, October 14th was the perfect excuse to put birds at the forefront, lend them more importance than traffic jams and mall walks or milking cows.
That doesn’t mean you had to ignore such pleasantries or duties or otherwise. It just means that while you bumped along in that oil-infused taxi, while you worked or carried out the farm chores, you could still pay attention to birds and participate. Give them avians their due by remembering what you identified and uploading to eBird.
Of course there were other, more appropriate ways to celebrate October Big Day, the main one being all out birding. No chores, nothing else on the table, just you and the birds along with thousands of other like-minded people doing the same bird-focused thing.
During our collective watching of birds, what did we manifest? Alas, no Eskimo Curlew or other extinct species but us birders all around the world still managed to identify thousands of bird species. In Costa Rica, we played our part and tallied 718.
Thanks to better knowledge about finding birds in Costa Rica, our October GBD results included all the quail-doves, all the wood-quails, and some. I was surprised not to see any pelagics on the list but oh well, I guess no one made it offshore. Perhaps the waves were too high? In any case, 718 birds sans pelagics is a grand total, one worthy of self congratulation accompanied with fine cold beer.
As I had mentioned in a previous post, Marilen and I also participated. Things didn’t go as planned as I had hoped but it was still good, we still saw a good number of birds. This is some of what I learned from October 14th, 2023.
Keep owl silhouettes on your mind
My outrageous Big Day strategy needed an early start. Well, I’m not sure if midnight is early but since that’s when you can start counting birds, I suppose we can refer to it as such. That early hour found us driving through the open areas of Ceiba de Orotina.
I stopped and listened every so often. No night migrants, no nothing but eventually a Common Pauraque. On Big Days, that road bird of the night is usually our species numero uno.
Moving along, I tried to keep an eye on the surroundings, hoped to spot an owl or something out of place. That idea worked when I noticed a distinct shadowy little shape standing on a post. Oh a Burrowing Owl would have been amazing but we were still happy with point blank views of a Pacific Screech-Owl.
That looking for owl silhouettes also came through with Striped Owl near Jaco. In classic Striped Owl fashion, it was perched on a roadside cable and gave us fantastic views.
Reconsider night driving
Our passage through the dark of quiet Orotina was fleeting. More time would have brought us several other birds but we had another, more vital place to be. Our destination required an hour and a half drive but it would be worth it. The site was our big shorebird break, our tern hattrick destined to reward us with waterbirds.
Getting there was not for the faint of heart. Nor for folks with cataracts or anything less than nerves of steel. Taking the Zen approach, I’m proud to say I managed to move us along without giving myself early arthritis. That would have been generated by gripping the steering wheel with hydraulic prowess.
You see, the road to Guanacaste is being worked on. At the moment, one big section is a rather narrow two lane road that looks more like a forgotten alley to limbo. At least during the dark of the night. And with very little to no illumination, oh yeah, it’s necessary night lights dark!
But what about the road lines? If they had been present, yes, they would have been a wonderful help. But in Costa Rica, such lane paint and reflective little things that keep you from sailing into a ditch are often absent. Especially on roads being worked on.
We traveled at a steady pace. Some other less concerned fools passed several cars at once or blinded everyone with bright lights. At least it didn’t rain. That came several hours after we had left the area. Thank goodness too because part of the “highway” became a lake, and another section suffered a landslide.
Suffice to say, if you can avoid driving in Costa Rica at night, by all means, avoid it!
Flooded roosting areas for shorebirds means no shorebirds
Night driving from Puntarenas to Punta Morales was not the dreamiest of trips but it had to be done. I wanted those roosting birds! Except that after we had bumped down that rocky little road to sandpiper salvation, all was quiet.
Oh snap! It couldn’t be! But nope, my ears weren’t fibbing. Instead of being greeted by calling Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, and Western Sandpipers, I heard a single flyover Royal Tern. Yes, that was a bird too and we took it but it wasn’t quite what we had hoped.
Upon checking the salt pans, we saw that yes indeed, they were as full as monsoon swimming pools. Not a single shorebird in one of the best shorebird spots in Costa Rica. I couldn’t blame them, little webbed footers and mud probers would have drowned.
As consolation, we picked up both night-herons and a bunch of Wood Storks but we left there ASAP. It was back to the night road to the other side of limbo; that would be Caldera and then on to Jaco.
Owls don’t always call when and where they did on other days
We made it to the much better lit road next to the Caldera mangroves and gave them a quick check. I was hoping to relive finding a Northern Potoo. We spotlighted some and stared at suitable branches but nope, “only” a couple more Pacific Screech Owls.
We got to Jaco around 3:45. That would be just in time to listen for more night birds, things like Double-striped Thick-Knees, whistling-ducks, and maybe a few other birds.
The thick-knee did indeed comply, one Purple Gallinule called to connect us with success, and yes, whistling-ducks flew over! Heading in on the Teleferico Road, we also quickly heard Tropical Screech-Owls and saw that aforementioned Striped Owl.
Things were going to plan but then….they weren’t. The other owls we usually heard at that site just weren’t calling. I did my best to coax them; barked like a Mottled Owl, wailed in true Black and white Owl fashion, even played calls of impossible to imitate Crested and Spectacled Owls.
Nope. They didn’t want to call on October 14th. That’s alright, we could still get them on the other side of the mountains, way over there at the exhausted end of the day.
Dawn chorus in October?
With dawn approaching, we drove up the Teleferico Road to some intact-looking areas of forest. With luck, maybe an owl would still call? After all, on other occasions, I have heard all of our wanted owl species during the dawn’s early light.
However, the main reason I went up there was to start the dawn chorus. The plan was to begin there and slowly bird/listen our way out to open areas, ticking everything en route!
That would have worked if the birds had called. Some did, birds like Riverside Wren and Gray-headed Tanager, but most did not. We needed more forest birds, the woodcreepers and so many others that can easily make it onto your list with their early morning calls.
Except they didn’t. Maybe October is a bad time for them to vocalize? Maybe some of those birds just aren’t there anymore? Sadly, between rare forest habitat being degraded by climate change and destroyed for development (especially along that road), fewer birds is a real possibility.
Nor hearing enough, I headed to the more open areas. But nope, even there, almost nothing sang. Not even Black-hooded Antshrike and other species I know are present. We did eventually hear and see several other species but to approach any sort of record, we still needed more.
But hey, maybe we would get them in Carara?
BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN BUYING TICKETS FOR CARARA NATIONAL PARK
Except that we didn’t go in Carara.
Yeah, sadly, the national park system has succeeded in raising their levels of bureaucracy to even higher levels of ridiculousness. Not long ago, one could go to Carara, purchase a ticket at the gate, and go in to the park. You know, like how you normally do in most places?
Then, during Covid, entrance tickets could only by bought with a card. Nope, you only have cash? Sorry, you can’t walk these trails! However, you could still buy tickets right then and there, no problem.
Recently, for some unknown yet surely amazing reason, the national park system included Carara in the parks that require buying tickets online, in advance.
The system is cumbersome and doesn’t always work. I suppose yes, then, they know who exactly walks on those short trails and they already have their entrance fees. But what if the system doesn’t work? Well, then you are out of luck.
We tried to buy tickets the night before. However, each time I tried to get tickets, their system said something about there being an error. I tried a few more times, same thing.
I figured well, what are you gonna do, maybe we would try tomorrow? And then I noticed the email from my bank indicating that yes, my transactions actually did go through and that it was for Carara National Park.
So, on October Big Day, 2023, we arrived to Carara and went to the entrance booth. We explained what had happened, we showed them the receipt indicating that we had bought tickets not once but more than once and that SINAC had accepted the transaction.
But nope, they said, “I don’t know what to tell you but the system doesn’t have problems, it should have sent you one of these reservation codes.” I will mention that they did their best to find us in their system but no, even though they could literally see that SINAC had taken our money for entrance fees to enter that specific park, no, they just didn’t know what to tell us. There couldn’t be any problem with their system, we should have gotten that code. The fact that they could see the receipt to enter that park on that day didn’t compute. There was no way, we had to have the code.
Otherwise, you just can’t walk in on those trails. God forbid. Now we could have gone and bought tickets again but after they had basically forced me to give them a donation, I wasn’t too eager to do that again. I mean, if it didn’t work another time, even if I had made the purchase right in front of their faces and did not receive a code, I would have made another donation and they still wouldn’t have let us in.
I’m not sure if I ever will try again because sadly, if their system can take your money like that, what other problems might it have? It’s a sad situation but if you plan on going to any national park in Costa Rica that requires advance purchase of tickets, be very careful!
If you go through the cumbersome process and buy the ticket but don’t get a reservation confirmation, DO NOT TRY AGAIN. Accept that they have stolen your money and make other plans. The thing is if you try to buy it again, they will probably take your money every time you purchase tickets and you still won’t be able to enter the park.
Another option is doing a tour with a local company. That way, they take the risk. In all honesty, it probably doesn’t happen all that often but then again, one of the local guides did tell me that he had heard of that happening more than once.
It’s a shame but there are other options than visiting Carara. I’m going to see if I can set something up for a site or two near there that have the same birds along with actual common sense.
Be flexible but know when to quit
After not being able to enter Carara for ridiculousness, we decided to head up the road that goes to Bijagual. There’s always the chance that we could get many of the same birds from Carara.
We did see a White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and some other birds but no, it was very quiet. Far too quiet to approach the goal required for hitting a Big Day record. Who know’s maybe Carara would have been quiet too?
With that in mind, we aborted the full Big Day attempt. On the bright side, the pressure was off and we wouldn’t have to worry about time. We casually made our way over to Tarcoles, watched some shorebirds, and made the drive back uphill and home.
Lots of people birding is a recipe for rarity finding
Whenever more birders are in the field, more rarities are found! October 14th in Costa Rica was no exception. Thanks to other local birders, we have the option of trying to twitch rare migrant Palm Warbler, and two Prairie Warblers.
I’m sure there’s other stuff to look for too, I’ll have to check and see.
Inspiration to check the dawn chorus in other areas
This past October Big Day experience also encourages me to visit a few sites for the dawn chorus. Instead of Jaco and Carara, what can I find on the roads from the Macaw Lodge area to Tarcoles? There’s a lot of possibilities, I’m looking forward to finding out!
What about the dawn chorus at key sites in the Caribbean lowlands? I’m curious about that too. Will I find a Great Jacamar, Tawny-faced Quail? Only one way to find out.
This past October Big Day might not have gone as well as I had hoped but we still saw a lot of birds. Any morning with 150 species is a good one!
The Big Day is happening soon. We’ll dress for the occasion, strive for a Zen birding mindset, and brew an ample supply of coffee. On a deeper level, some of us have already been studying up on nocturnal flight calls, pondering over the brief modulated calls of Wood Thrushes and the slightly clearer and upward inflected whispers of Scarlet Tanagers.
You know, just in case they happen to call in the pre-dawn while we’re cupping our ears to the night sky because on Saturday, the detection of each and every bird is coveted, warranted, and necessary. Soon, more than any other day, every bird identification will count and the quicker you “get” them the sooner you “got” them.
No, October 14th isn’t some anniversary or other noted event. Well, at least not for the non-birding world. It’s something much more monumental. On Saturday, we collectively mark and celebrate eBird’s 2023 October Big Day and check it out, up here in Costa Rica, we are ready to rock the birding house.
This is some of what birders in Costa Rica have been up to.
Local Birding Teams
In Guanacaste, Team Northwest will be scouring windswept fields, and checking rice fields for Spotted Rails and Paint-billed Crakes. They’ll be birding forests in Rincon de al Vieja and other sites, finding rare migrants, and checking off the dry forest birds.
Chambita and others will be counting birds in the Cano Negro area, and other teams yet to be announced are surely getting ready to show what they can find.
If past Big Days are any indication, the owner and guides of birding lodge Hotel Quelitales will do their best to show how incredibly diverse their corner of Costa Rica is.
The many women birders that make up the Jacanas Team will also be birding in various parts of the country, and hundreds of other local birders will participate too.
This local team will also be in the field. Comprised of moi and my partner Marilen Palacios, all I can say is that we will be counting birds somewhere in Costa Rica. This is one of the few October Big Days when I won’t be working and I plan on taking full advantage of it! We have a rough plan but we’ll see how it goes, see what we find. It’s gonna be good, it always is when you let yourself get carried away with the birding flow in Costa Rica.
eBird Sightings and Whatsapp Groups
In preparation for October 14th, we have been checking the local sightings, seeing who should target which species. However, even more so, local birders are in constant touch with Whatsapp groups. This instant access to bird gen is light years ahead of how it used to be!
I mean, even if I can’t go chase a Black-throated Blue Warbler or Chipping Sparrow (I know but this is Costa Rica), at least I know where they were found.
Due to lack of high coverage and misidentifications, eBird in Costa Rica isn’t perfect but it can still provide some good ideas for your Big Day plan. I know I’ve been checking it out and making plans!
Food and Drink Shopping
Yes, this is part of the Big Day birding equation, a very important part of it. October Big Day isn’t just about seeing birds, about focusing on birds and listening for the quiet sputter of a high-flying Upland Sandpiper. This day is also a celebration, a time to mark the collective enjoyment of bird observation.
Yeah, that’s what it is but not quite either. The deal is more like “bird merging”, feathered nature connection, or maybe exploring the sacred link between us, each other, and the marvelous beauty of life and ecosystems on Earth.
A day like this merits more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Make or get your favorite food! When you check out the chocolate aisle, do yourself a favor and get the good stuff. Buy appropriate beverages to accompany this day of focused birding, get enough of everything you like to keep you in the field, to maintain your focus on the birds.
Don’t forget to buy celebratory drinks too, or at least schedule a visit to the best spot to end your October Big Day.
As in studying. Yeah, it all depends on how you want to watch birds but I believe that the more you prepare yourself for birding, the better it will be. Whether you just check out some pictures of raptors in flight or attempt to tune the senses to nocturnal flight calls, studying birds will help you celebrate October Big Day.
And, if your Big Day goal is going above and beyond with bird identification, you better do some last-minute studying. Recheck those jaeger field marks (as subtle and confusing as they may be), think about odd possibilities like Common Ringed Plover, and look into little known flight calls. Keep it in mind, you just might need that extra bit of neural stuff!
Yes, October 14th is almost here and yet, with horrible and heart-wrenching situations happening in so many places, it’s easy to wonder how we can possibly celebrate anything?
Especially when the worst of situations affect people we know and care about along with so many others whom we would love to know. Bird celebration suddenly seems trivial. However, birding can still act as a mental refuge, and what better way to focus on peace and communion that birding together in so many places, all at the same time.
As I listen for Gray-cheeked Thrushes in the night sky (just one will work!), call for quetzals on Poas, and scan rainforest canopy for cotingas, I’ll be thinking about all the birders who won’t be able enjoy birds as much on October 14th. I’ll be thinking of birding friends, acquaintances, and their families, and striving for calmer, better days when we can meet again and enjoy birds together.
Take care, watch birds on October 14th, and make to treat yourself to the good chocolate.
Birding Costa Rica comes with lots of benefits. Mostly, they happen in the form of multiple birds no matter where you go! Much of that birding grace stems from Costa Rica providing easy access to quality birding habitats. Follow that classic good birding recipe in Costa Rica and you’ll get your birding dish, each and every day.
I’m reminded of this birding truth every time I head into the proverbial field. Some days, the field means a walk to a thread thin, neighborhood riparian zone. Other days, it’s a short trip to cloud forest with quetzals, the one and only Wrenthrush, and lots more.
However, the best reminders of Costa Rica’s adherence to the classic birding recipe are when I guide or bird for multiple days in different spots. This past week I was doing that in a few very different places; focusing on targets, peering into crowns of massive rainforest trees, exploring tropical wetlands, always listening for hints of hidden birds and avian surprise.
The following are some highlights and tips from these recent days of birding in Costa Rica:
The best way to see Timberline Wrens and Volcano Junco on Irazu are by getting up there nice and early. It’s cool up there at 11,000 feet, especially at 7 a.m. However, the extra fresh breeze is worth it. Later in the day, those birds hide, they often take longer to see.
We also birded the trails at the Nochebuena. You gotta be in some fair shape to walk them; there’s less oxygen up there and you’ll feel it! Take your time and do the walk though, it’s worth it. The birding is very good and reliable for the mega Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. We had at least three along with good views of Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, quetzal and various other high elevation species.
It’s also worth it have lunch at their small, cozy restaurant.
This cool little endemic can be tricky but go to the right places at the right time and you’ll see it. Yeah, you could try those Walmart woods in a pinch but there are better places. One of them is the Calle Viquez area and the road that goes by the Finca Rosa Blanca.
However, no matter where you try for them, make sure to do some of that classic early birding. You have a much better chance of seeing the ground-sparrow at like 6 in the morning than later in the day.
Buff-fronted Quail-Dove and Other Birds at and Near Cinchona
The quail-dove is still visiting the ground below the feeders at Cinchona. That would be the Hummingbird Cafe or the Mirador Catarata San Fernando. It’s sneaky as always but if you keep up a careful watch below the feeders, it should eventually show.
Cinchona has also been having the usual nice parade of birds however, now, there’s yet another cool option. If you can speak Spanish, and don’t mind hiking to see birds, ask the cafe owner Jorge (or whomever else seems to be in charge) if you can walk up to the area behind the barnyard stuff (you’ll see what I mean).
The abandoned town of Cinchona is up there along with lots of good birds. Take the main road that goes uphill and to the left. It eventually reaches forest. There aren’t many trails but recent birding turned up uncommon species like Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, and Black-banded Woodcreeper!
Sarapiqui- Always Good
As always, the lowland rainforest habitats in Sarapiqui make for easy, productive birding. While birding from a couple choice roads, we had White-fronted Nunbirds, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Black-striped Woodcreeper, King Vulture, Blue Dacnis, and other lowland species.
It’s far out there and the roads in are not fun ones to drive but there’s always lots of birds at Cano Negro. Highlights during our morning boat ride with Chambita tours included several American Pygmy-Kingfishers, the tough Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, two Sungrebes, Bare-crowned Antbird, Black-collared Hawks, and others!
The night birding also tends to be good at Cano Negro and our jaunt into the dark was no exception. During a quick drive on the main road towards Los Chiles, we had close looks at Great Potoos, Pacific Screech-Owl, and Striped Owl.
Heliconias Bridges Trail
It was nice to visit this classic site again. Over the years, I’ve seen it change and transform from a small and little known site to a fantastic birding site that offers good accommodation and a well-maintained trail.
Our main reason for visiting is called Tody Motmot but we also had several additional possible targets. The trails cost $14 and go through excellent humid forest. They are fairly well maintained and also include a few, long, hanging bridges.
During our visit, we lucked out with the Tody Motmot, seeing a pair on the main trail, and then two more pairs on the lower heliconias trail! The other top bird was another one easier to see here than many other sites; the Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Before our birding was curtailed by rain, we also had some other species but nothing crazy.
However, the birds are in there, bird these trails slowly and carefully and you’ll see a lot! After birding them, if you enjoy craft beer, visit the nearby Blue River Brewery. This great and friendly little spot also has good views of nearby forest. With luck, you could scope a Lovely Cotinga and see a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle while enjoying your beer!
Birding in Costa Rica! If you are into birds, into watching them, you know why that phrase ends in exclamation. If not, take some high level excitement, spray it with major dream essence, and wrap it up with soul satisfaction. Now imagine savoring that ultra dimensional sandwich and you get an inkling of birding in Costa Rica.
At least that’s how it is for birders, us folks who deeply dig finding, watching, photographing, and/or communing with birds in other ways. No matter how often you go birding in Costa Rica, the excitement is always there but the first trip to southern Central America, now that some ten-fold excitement!
Here in this bastion of biodiversity, birding is like being a kid in a candy store. Like opening up them presents or being 11 and going to the roller rink with best friends and possible crushes. Ok, you had to have grown up in the 70s-80s for the roller rink but you might get what I mean.
There’s a lot of birds in Costa Rica and that’s one heck of an understatement. With so much to look for, so many birds to look at, it would seem that you gotta bird Costa Rica serious. That would be birding with high-focused concentration, birding with quick bino action, and keeping it cool in the face of a mighty mixed flock.
But no, you don’t have to bird Costa Rica serious! You can function as such, oh I do recommend it, but as with every destination, you bird the way you bird. If you are happy with garden birding, cool drink in hand, sure, that works in Costa Rica. If you want to go ultra casual with the birding endeavors, casual works too.
To be honest, you’ll see fewer birds but you know what? You’ll still see a lot! I sort of tested that presumption earlier today when, instead of heading out the door at dawn (or before then), I had a leisurely breakfast and didn’t leave until 9:45 a.m.!
I know, say what? Might that be a waste of time? Not if you are into casual birding! To be truly casual, maybe we should have done our birding from beach chairs while listening to Long Hot Summer by the Style Council.
Margarita sipping would have been required along with a toast to the late great Jimmy Buffett (RIP).
Today, we didn’t go that far, didn’t even go birding in chinos and penny loafers but we still did our birding in Costa Rica a la casual. And it was good.
Check it out.
Cloud Forest Mixed Flocks
Our casual birding day took us to one of the closest, easiest birding areas; the mountains above the Central Valley. This area is pretty awesome and has an easy recipe. Drive 45 minutes and you can reach honest to goodness cloud forest. That’s about it and what would be tropical highland forest replete with bromeliads, mist, and lots of cool birds.
Shortly after getting into the habitat, right away, we coincided with a mixed flock. A pair of Yellow-thighed Brushfinches moved into view, towhees that act like tanagers, pumping their tails and showing off their natural yellow pom-loms.
They were hanging with a couple of rude-sounding Ruddy Treerunners, a bunch of Common Chlorospingus, softly calling, emerald green Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and a few other birds.
But we were casual birding, we had a stream to saunter over to, rushing water to gaze at, fresh air to inhale, and leaf rustling to listen to. Even so, the birds followed us, passed through our field of vision. A couple Spangle-cheeked Tanagers insisted by perching on ferns, right out in the open and at close range. Others flew through and so we watched them, casually yet assuredly.
Olive-sided Flycatchers are Back in The House
As we moved along that quiet mountain road, I saw a hefty songbird making a beeline to perch on top of a snag. There’s not many birds that fly like the one I saw. Not back up north, nor in Costa Rica. Today’s first Olive-sided Flycatcher was just like the first one I saw so many years ago at the edge of a boggy lake in Algonquin Provincial Park.
Dark sides, big crested head, and sitting there right on top. Further on, we saw another, and then two more all doing that same Olive-sided Flycatcher move of flying in a long direct line and then going straight back to the same high perch. Only this time, it’s at the edge of cloud forest, fueling up to fly a bit further, move to bigger equatorial mountains.
The Flutes of Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrushes and Burbling of Barbets
It can be quiet when you go casual birding in Costa Rica. This is on account of not birding when our feathered friends prefer to sing. Oh well, you have to accept the silence of the mid-day, dwell in it and appreciate the quiet. Up there, it’s all good, I mean, the quiet is in good surroundings of ruffled green mountains and mist-touched backgrounds.
Eventually, the birds do sing and call, especially cloud forest specialties like Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes and Prong-billed Barbets. The thrush sings classic, flutey phrases in hidden shaded spots while the barbet makes a long, yodeling vocalization, usually as a duet.
We heard those and some other birds as we casual birded in the Costa Rican mountains. With a bit more time on that cloud forest road, I’m sure we would have heard a lot more but by then, it was noon, it was time to look for lunch.
Toucanets, Red-headed Barbets, and Big Purple Hummingbirds at Cinchona
Our lunch stop was a classic birding spot in Costa Rica, a special place most birders eventually visit. It’s the perfect place to do some casual birding because, check this out; the birds are right there in front of you, while you sit, while you drink your cappuccino.
The places in called “Mirador de Catarata San Fernando” at Cinchona and it must be one of the most ideal places on earth to watch birds with ease while taking in beautiful tropical surroundings and ambiance. Today, as with most Sundays, our visit was accompanied by bunches of people coming and going. Some had kids who excitedly pointed at the hummingbirds while adults attempted selfies with toucanets and hidden waterfalls.
It was a good day for Northern Emerald Toucanets. Two or more of these surreal green birds were in constant view as we casually enjoyed our mid day repast. Barbets came in too, the burbling ones from the cloud forest road and a fancy female Red-headed Barbet.
We did not see any of the migrant Cerulean Warblers that other local birders have been espying but a female Blackburnian Warbler was cool! As she fluttered and checked the leaves, we also had the chance to ponder over the vivid purple plumage of big Violet Sabrewings, the subtle beauty of a Brown Violetear, and the natural lights on a Green-crowned Brilliant.
After leaving Cinchona, we did some casual checking of roadside habitats for migrant warblers. No Cerulean but the Halloween colors of a male American Redstart were welcome, as were euphonias, Bay-headed Tanagers, and a few other species to finish off the day.
Before leaving the cafe, the waiter told us that just 20 minutes before we arrived, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle had flown in and perched in full view. In Costa Rica, you never know what casual birding will bring but you can bet you’ll see a lot.