The official Costa Rica bird list stands at 932 species but soon, it’s going to hit 933. The bird species about to bump the list up a notch is the Dark-billed Cuckoo, an Austral migrant that was expected for Costa Rica but had never been documented until January 16. When the star bird appeared, a few people wondered if this was the same species I may had seen near Ciudad Neily two years ago. Although they are related, no, that bird was the Pearly-breasted Cuckoo, yet another Austral migrant that could also certainly occur.
That particular sighting was never confirmed to be the Pearly-breasted or the extremely similar Yellow-billed Cuckoo but at least the Dark-billed Cuckoo has been found and documented. Even better, the bird was photographed and subsequently seen by several local birders. If it sticks around, and you bird the rice fields south of the Ciudad Niely hospital, maybe you will see it too! I hope the bird also stays around long enough for me to see it but if not, at least a bunch of other local birders “got” it.
I figured it was a matter of time before a Dark-billed was found in Costa Rica because the species migrates within South America, is fairly common, and has already been documented from Panama, Nicaragua, Belize, and even Texas and Florida. As for it being found near Ciudad Neily, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one (or maybe two) were seen there; this part of the country seems to routinely attract Coccyzus species cuckoos.
While birding around Ciudad Neily, I have personally seen several Mangrove Cuckoos, the possible Pearly-breasted (but more likely Yellow-billed), and other have also seen Yellow-billed. Perhaps the second growth and woodland edges adjacent to wetlands provide especially good habitat for larvae prey preferred by the cuckoos? Following that line of thought, it’s also interesting to note that, in winter, Mangrove Cuckoos utilize similar habitats at and near Cano Negro (speaking of that hotspot and megas for Costa Rica, Chambita found a Greater Ani there yesterday!).
Whatever the explanation may be, a new species for Costa Rica and other cuckoos are yet one more good reason to go birding around Ciudad Neily. The rice fields and associated wetlands are fun but there’s also other, forested habitats in the same area that harbor an excellent variety of species. To learn more about birding around this hotspot and where to watch birds in Costa Rica, get the second edition of “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”; a 900 plus page bird finding book for Costa Rica and overall birding companion for this birdy country. Go see some cuckoos, I hope to see you here!
In Costa Rica, the dry and high season is most definitely here. I’m seeing beautiful sunny skies, dry conditions, and a lot more tourists than the times of the rain. Oh, it still rains, especially in the mountains and on the Caribbean slope but nothing like the deluges witnessed in 2022. With so many folks headed to Costa Rica any time now, I figured another post with some tips would be relevant.
Although this highland endemic has never been rare, as with other quail-doves, it can be tough to espy one inside the forest. Thankfully, in recent times, this pretty bird has become much easier to see. When visiting the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, keep a close eye for quail-doves on the ground below the feeders. They are sneaky and easy to miss but if you keep watching for them, you have a fair chance of connecting. The usual species is Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, sometimes two individuals but, just in case, we should also watch for possible Purplish-backed Quail-Dove (it has a more pale gray front and smaller patch of purple on the back), and Chiriqui Quail-Dove. Both of these beauties also occur in the area.
If you won’t be visiting Cinchona, pay a visit to the birding oasis of Casa Tangara dowii. Buff-fronted and occasional Chiriqui Quail-Doves are regular at this special site.
Clay-colored Thrushes are Very Common
This plain brown thrush isn’t our national bird for nothing. They can be very common in many areas, especially in the Central Valley and garden habitats. Keep that in mind when you see numerous brown, thrush-like birds flying past or in fruiting trees. On most occasions, that bird will be a Clay-colored.
So Are Winter-Plumaged Chestnut-sided Warblers
Another bird worth knowing is the winter plumaged Chestnut-sided Warbler. In humid and semi-humid habitats, this warbler species is pretty darn common. See a small gray bird with an eye ring that reminded you of a gnatcatcher? That was a Chestnut-sided. Some still have chestnut sides, many do not, you should see a lot of them.
White-ringed Flycatchers Only Live in the Caribbean Lowlands
Remember that if you become tempted to believe you are seeing White-ringeds in the Central Valley and Pacific slope.
Those aren’t White-ringeds. See a couple kiskadee-type flycatchers at the top of a tree in the Caribbean lowlands? Does the bird have a broad white eyebrow? Thin bill, bit of white below the eye, and a bit of white edging to the tertials? A sort of trilling call? Those are White-ringed Flycatchers.
Go Exploring in Guanacaste
The northwestern region of Costa Rica is spacious, birdy, and underbirded; perfect for exploration! Local birders do what they can but it’s a huge area with plenty of habitat. With that in mind, if you are wondering where to go birding in Guanacaste, you can see a heck of a lot with roadside birding. Check forested riparian zones, open habitats (a lot of that going on), and any wetlands.
To bird forest trails, you’ll have to visit national parks and protected areas like Santa Rosa, Palo Verde, Horizontes, and other places. To learn more about birding opportunities in Guanacaste and elsewhere, check out my 900 page bird finding guide for Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
Consider Private Reserves or Roadside Birding Instead of National Parks
That might sound bonkers but it all comes down to access and entrance and exit times. While national parks protect critical habitat and do have great birding, sadly, most just aren’t open during the prime birding times of 6 to 8 in the morning and 3 to 5 in the afternoon. Trust me, in the dry season, you really have to be out birding by 6. If not, you’ll miss a lot!
For more productive birding, one idea is hitting the edge of national parks or nearby roads until opening time. Another is opting for private reserves or lodge grounds when the opportunity presents itself.
I’m sure I could think of some additional tips but that’s all for now. Remember to study before your birding trip to Costa Rica and be ready to get bird-dazzled.
“Wait. What’s that up ahead ?!?” We had been trudging slowly but surely uphill, one step after another, through the foothill rainforests of the Soltis Center in the Tilaran Mountains of Costa Rica. It was midday and expectedly quiet; peaceful but not the best hour for birding. Even so, while birding in rainforest, anything can happen, at any time. Even during the quiet times, you can’t let your guard down. You have to be constantly ready, always on the alert for a shy bird to pop into view, to notice a deathly still viper, or hear the soft notes of a mixed flock.
While our group of five participated in the 2022 Arenal Bird Count, fortunately, despite the noon time quiet, Robert Dean, the artist of “The Birds of Costa Rica” and other field guides had kept his bird radar on. The bird he had noticed was one of the truly rare ones, one of those species often possible but rarely encountered. Even better, the bird didn’t flush and fly off into the woods. Our lucky number fluttered from a low perch and down onto the trail, right in front of us. As I focused in on it, I could barely believe what I was seeing.
“Violaceous Quail-Dove!” There it was, right in the middle of the trail, the most elusive and weirdest of quail-doves in Costa Rica (and maybe elsewhere too). Uncharacteristically, the male dove let us watch it for several minutes as it walked back and forth and eventually flew back to its low perch. I should stress here that “several minutes” in quail-dove watching time is equal to at least three hours. Most forest encounters with quail-doves are painfully brief and give you scarce chance to appreciate their beautiful iridescence and plumage patterns. In other words, they might be pretty but away from any feeding situations, they aren’t all that birder friendly.
In fact, not long before we saw our super birder-friendly Violaceous, I might have glimpsed another quail-dove. I say “might have” because in true Q-Dove fashion, I saw a plump dove shape in the undergrowth and just as I raised my binos, the bird fluttered off into dove sp. netherland. It could have certainly been a Gray-chested Dove too but oh well, whatever name that missed species went by was made up for by our crazy good views of the V Q-Dove.
The bird sat on its perch until our need for more trail progress flushed it into the safety of the forest. This sighting was arguably our best bird of a 150 plus species day and the best I have ever had of that species. Given that I’ve only seen this species something like three times, that’s a pretty easy statement to make. Yes, it’s a dove, a bird in the same family as the classic pigeon of cathedrals and city streets, as Mourning Doves, Collared Doves, and other familiar birds but, along with several other little known dove species, it’s an odd and elusive one.
The ironic thing about the V Q-Dove is that despite it being very little known and infrequently seen, the bird is not considered threatened. This is mostly on account of its large, if disjunct, range and because we know little about the bird. It’s assumed that it occurs in regular numbers in various parts of its range and that may be true but honestly, what do we really know? How many are out there? Are they just tough to find?
I suspect that the answer is a little bit of low numbers and being difficult to detect but if it were more common, it seems that there would have to be a lot more records. Based on my experience with the species in Costa Rica, what I have read and heard about it from other places, and known life histories of other uncommon doves, here’s my take on the bird as well as a tip or two for seeing and identifying it:
This dove doesn’t like to stick around. Well, it probably will if the habitat is to its liking but it likely rolls with the changes and needs to keep moving until it finds what its looking for. This would explain its scarcity and why there are random records from heavily birded places like La Selva and San Luis Canopy. Similar nomadic behavior is also shown by several other dove species in various parts of the world.
I wish I knew what sort of food it was looking for but I do have an idea about its preferred microhabitat.
Advanced, Viney Second Growth in Mature Forest
I don’t know for sure but what I can say is that the bird we saw at Soltis seemed tied to this one distinctive part of the forest that was dominated by old second growth decorated with hanging vines. In fact, its favorite perch was this classic, thick, hanging u-shaped vine. Sturdy, maybe a meter above the ground, good visibility, and a nice ruddy color…I mean if I were a bird, I’d be claiming that perch too.
This microhabitat also happened to look very much like the other spot where I have encountered more than one individual of this species in Costa Rica. This was in Hitoy Cerere in advanced second growth at the edge of mature rainforest. For what’s its worth, that spot also had lots of hanging vines and at that site, Robert and I also saw the dove perched in them.
I don’t know if this microhabitat is what the bird truly needs but a preference for such a limited type of habitat would explain its scarcity and likely nomadic behavior.
There’s no way to know how many of this species are in Costa Rica or elsewhere but I don’t see how they could be numerous, at least not in Costa Rica. Even taking into account the challenges of seeing them, they are still very rarely seen or heard even in the most reliable of places. If they do need some special type of habitat, then any degree of deforestation could further limit their numbers. I doubt they are in serious trouble overall but then again, who knows?
In Costa Rica, I owuld guess that their numbers are probably pretty low, maybe less than 500 total.
Perhaps More Common in Moist Forest of the Nicoya Peninsula and Mountains of Guanacaste
According to Stiles and Skutch and sightings by local birders, this species is somewhat more reliable in moist forests of the Nicoya Peninsula and the northern volcanoes in Guanacaste. The plain dove with the amethyst nape and rufous tail is seen and heard more regularly in such places but even then, it’s not in any way common. Bird forested ravines near Cabuya, Bijagua, and Rincon de la Vieja and you’ll have some chance of finding it but it could still take a fair bit of focused effort.
What to Look For
With a good look, the V Q Dove is pretty easy to identify. Just in case, here are some tips.
Like a Leptotila– As in, it looks and even sounds a lot like a White-tipped Dove. This raises a further subset of questions; like has it evolved to mimic the White-tipped Dove (or other Leptotila) and does this perhaps help it blend in while looking for habitat? Or, did it evolve similar plumage and voice because it occurs in similar ecological situations? In any case, with its pale underparts and plain head, it looks a lot like a Leptotila (albeit a very elegant one).
Pale, plain head, white underparts, rufous rump and tail, rufous wings– Although other descriptions don’t mention the rufous tail, the bird sure has one and in conjunction with other field marks, this is a good characteristic.
Reddish bill– Although this wasn’t noticeable on the bird we watched, this is usually a good field mark.
Listen for calls, look for the perch– If you hear a funny sounding White-tipped Dove in appropriate habitat, look for that perched bird. It can sit high or low on a favorite hanging vine.
Will you see a Violaceous Quail-Dove when birding in Costa Rica? To be honest, the odds aren’t in your favor but I sure hope you see one anyways. Hopefully, the tips above can up the odds. To learn more about finding birds in Costa Rica, including the rare and elusive ones, support this blog by purchasing my recently updated bird finding book for Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
Happy birding and wishing you the best of happy holidays, I hope to see you here!
All photos of Violaceous Quail-Dove were gracioiusly provided by Nancy Stevick.
An impressive number of raptor species occur in Costa Rica. Check the official Costa Rica bird list, count the hawks, eagles, kites, Osprey, and falcons and we hit a respectable 57 species (that doesn’t even include our sharp taloned friends of the night, the owls!). Such a tantalizing total puts Costa Rica on the bucket list of many a raptophile but the high numbers come with a catch. In general, raptors aren’t so common, they aren’t as easy to see as some other places.
After a few days of birding, this apparent scarcity of raptors is noticed by most visiting birders. They wonder why, compared to the number of hawks seen in fields and wooded habitats back home, they see so few raptors? Drive through the countryside and there seem to be far fewer hawks than similar drives in France or Ontario. They start to wonder, with so many raptors on the list, where are they?
In Costa Rica, the truth of the matter is that all of those hawks and other raptors are present but high levels of competition among so many different types of animals only leave so much food for each raptor species. Most of the birds on the list have populations in Costa Rica but they occur in low density populations.
Even so, go birding long enough in green space of the Central Valley and you’ll probably see a Gray Hawk flapping its way from one riparian zone to the next. There will be a pair of Short-tailed Hawks soaring high overhead, perhaps a Zone-tailed Hawk rocking its way through the neighborhood, maybe one of those Bicolored Hawks that have learned to catch pigeons. The two common vultures are a given, Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras may fly into view, and you might find a White-tailed Kite hovering over a vacant field.
Bring the binos to lower, hotter places and more species become possible. However, to see those additional raptors, you’ll need to leave the open country and bird near sizeable areas of rainforest. Rainforests host the healthy variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians needed to support populations of hawk-eagles and birds like White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and Gray-headed Kite. Look long enough in the right places and you’ll probably see these cool birds.
The Tiny Hawk lives there too but unlike so many other raptors in Costa Rica, you can’t expect to see this one. The simple truth about the Tiny Hawk is that it’s especially hard to find. It’s not rare but it’s definitely an odd raptorial bird, one that will give you a run for your birding money.
Around the size of an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird (yes really!), this pint-sized raptor with long, sharp claws makes its living by ambushing small birds in humid forest from Central America south to northern Argentina. With such a large range, you would think it would be seen more often but nope! Many a veteran neotropical birder has only seen Tiny Hawk a few times or has never laid eyes on this challenging bird.
Thinking of my own experiences with the bird, during decades of birding in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, I have probably seen them around a dozen times in Costa Rica, once or twice in Ecuador (one from a ridiculously amazing canopy tower at Yasuni Research Station. Really, it was ridiculous.), and perhaps a few times in Tambopata, Peru. So what’s the deal? Why is it so hard to see? Isn’t it just a tiny Sharpie or Sparrowhawk? Is it just too small?
To answer the latter questions, yes, part of the problem is that the bird is very small. The other part of the problem is that no, the Tiny Hawk is definitely not a small version of a Sharpie or Sparrowhawk. In some ways yes, it does act like those familiar bird predators but in other ways, its got its own Tiny thing going on.
Similar to the small, well-known Accipiters of the north, the Tiny Hawk also hides in dense vegetation so it can dash out and ambush its avian prey. However, unlike the slightly larger Accipiters, it rarely if ever soars and that makes a huge difference. Just imagine if Sharpies never soared, if they didn’t migrate? Think of how often you would see them. Probably still more than a Tiny Hawk but not nearly as much as you normally do.
Those attributes make the Tiny Hawk a tough one to watch and a much more difficult bird to study. Based on scant observations of behavior and its small size, at first, the hawk was hypothezied to be a hummingbird specialist. However, as more Tiny Hawk observations have been made, as more birders have documented its behavior, the truth about this species has come to light; hummingbirds do not make up a large part of its diet.
In 2021, Alex J. Berryman and Guy M. Kirwan investigated this idea and determined that no, as one might expect from a small Accipiter, the Tiny Hawk does not limit its diet to hummingbirds. It will catch them when it can but it also catches a variety of passerines and other small birds. Interestingly enough, although I have only seen Tiny Hawk with prey on two occasions, both were of passerines; a Shining Honeycreeper and a Scarlet-rumped Tanager.
Speaking of animals that hunt other animals, don’t let the name fool you. Like weasels and other pint-sized predators, for its size, the Tiny Hawk packs a ferocious punch. It’s every bit as voracious as a Sharpie, as tough as a Sparrowhawk, and has been seen taking birds nearly as large as itself, notably, Great Kiskadee and Golden-green Woodpecker (!). In a sense, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, we see similar feats of depredation from another group of birds that act a lot like a Tiny Hawk, the pygmy-owls. As with many raptors, they will catch whatever they can get away with catching.
The Tiny Hawk acts more or less like a Sharpie that never soars, like a pygmy-owl or small cat that uses its small size to stay hidden until it sees its chance. However, it’s still an odd bird. In fact, as it turns out, it’s not actually an Accipiter. What? But it has Accipiter as part of its name! Perhaps, but not for long, there are recommendations to give this bird and the related Semicollared Hawk their very own genus. Molecular and skeletal studies have revealed that these mini raptors are not closely related to other small Accipiters. They form a group related to but separate from them, a group that also includes the Lizard Buzzard of Africa.
Yes. As testament to the old lineages shown by many a raptor, somewhere, way back when, the ancestor of the Tiny and Semicollated Hawks separated from the ancestor of the Lizzard Buzzard! And, before then, the ancestor of those birds separated from the ancestor of the Harpagus “kites” (that would be the Double-toothed and the Rufous-thighed). Perhaps that explains why the Lizard Buzzard has a dark mark on the throat and why it sort of looks sort of like something between a Doubke-toothed Kite and a Tiny Hawk? Those data likely also partly explain why the Tiny Hawk looks different from the Accipiters. It has a slightly different shape, one not shown in many field guides.
The illustrators were probably basing their drawings on the Accipiters they were familiar with and we can’t blame them, the Tiny Hawk is not an easy bird to see and when many field guides were illustrated, few images of Tiny Hawk were available. The real shape of this fun little raptor is more along the lines of a pint-sized raptor with a short tail and almost “Passerinish” look. It’s notable that the Tiny Hawks shown in “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, and in “Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama” by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer are accurate depictions of this bird.
Getting back to the Lizard Buzzard, this cool bird is plumaged rather like an adult Gray Hawk although those features are surely convergent adaptations for the tropical semi-open habitats preferred by these and other species with similar gray-barred plumage. The plumage of the adult Tiny Hawk also shows fine gray barring and is likely an adaptation that helps camouflage the bird in dense vegetation. As for the young birds, unlike various other, larger raptor species, their plumage does not mimic the adult plumages of large raptor species (such as juvenile Bicolored Hawk and juvenile Hook-billed Kite resembling adult Collared Forest-Falcon among other examples).
Instead, curiously enough, juvenile Tiny Hawks have a rufous plumage. Did this trait evolve to resemble a thrush or other non-predatory bird and thus help them surprise the small birds they prey on? When you see a young Tiny Hawk perched high in a tree, that’s sort of what it looks like. But if so, why don’t the adults have rufous plumage too? Perhaps the adult plumage works better at catching prey in more situations. Who knows but it’s interesting to note that various pygmy-owls, a bird that, once again, hunts very much like a Tiny Hawk, also have morphs with similar rufous coloration.
All of this is interesting from an evolutionary perspective but what about seeing a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica? What about watching one go after an unwary Bananaquit? As previously eluded to, laying eyes on this special little bird isn’t the easiest of tasks but as with so many other aspects of tropical birding, there are tricks to up your birding odds. Try these tips to see Tiny Hawk while birding in Costa Rica:
Bird in the Right Places for Tiny Hawk
Yes, you could check eBird sightings and that will help but when birding Costa Rica, always remember that first and foremost, birds live in the right habitat, they aren’t restricted to places where people have eBirded. The right place for a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica is any area of lowland or foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope and, on the Pacific slope, humid forest from around Carara south to Golfo Dulce area. Yes, even around Carara. It’s not as regular there but small numbers probably occur from time to time around Macaw Lodge, Cangreja, and other, more humid sites in the area.
Some years ago, I thought there were some spots that were better for this bird in Costa Rica than others. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. As long as rainforest or foothill forest is present, it seems like the Tiny Hawk can turn up in any number of places with similar degrees of frequency.
Scan the Treetops in the Early Morning and Late Afternoon
Get out there early and check the treetops, check them well. Do the same in the late afternoon. These are the times when Tiny Hawk is more likely to perch in the open, usually on a high branch. If you see a funny looking “thrush”, look twice, use the scope, it might be a Tiny Hawk.
As an aside, if small birds are making a ruckus at any time of day, take a close look, they might be upset about a Tiny Hawk. I saw that happen once in Manzanillo, the small size of the hawk made it easy to overlook, helped it blend in with the small birds that were mobbing it (at a healthy distance!).
Peripheral Birding around Mixed Flocks
Tiny Hawks may follow and catch unwary birds in mixed flocks. When encountering a mixed flock, keep an eye out for any lurking birds at the edge of the flock, especially if the lurker suddenly flies into the flock. Likewise, if you hear the birds give an alarm call, keep looking, keep watching to see if you can get lucky with a Tiny Hawk sighting.
Forest Clearings and Edges with Fruiting Trees and Hummingbird Activity
Whether because it’s easier to see birds or because Tiny Hawks prefer such situations, small clearings or places with scattered trees adjacent to forest seem to be good places to see this challenging bird (Nectar and Pollen is an ideal situation for this bird). Get a good vantage point and keep watching, check any thrush-like bird that suddenly comes into view. If small birds are active around fruiting and flowering trees or some other food source, there could easily be a Tiny Hawk lurking nearby. Keep watching and be ready for any sudden movement followed by alarm calls.
Follow these tips and yo might find a Tiny Hawk. It’s a challenging bird, I won’t promise anything but if you do look for Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica, rest assured, you’ll still see lots of other birds.
Costa Rica is a meeting place for continents, a natural bridge where life has mingled, mixed, and evolved for more than 3 millon years. It’s why , when birding in Costa Rica, we witness the same Acorn Woodpecker laughter and flights of Band-tailed Pigeons as birders raising binos and wine glasses in California. It is why visiting birders from Ecuador might be reminded of tanagers and spinetails from their own Andean mossy forests. This bio-bridge is also why I see some of the same migrants as my birding friends from Buffalo, NY.
I see migrant birds in many parts of the country but I watch more of them in the green space out back. It’s a small riparian zone but it’s so important. During these days of climate emergency, continued destructive disconnect, and declining bird populations, all (remaining) green space is vital. Even in the small area out back, a narrow corridor dotted with bushes, undergrowth and trees, birds are present, more than you would think.
Yesterday morning, in addition to the usual loud singing of Cabanis’s and Rufous-naped Wrens, the more forest-based Rufous-and-white Wren told us it was still hanging on by way of its beautiful whistled song. A motmot hooted and various flycatchers took advantage of insect hatches brought on by recent rains. Great Kiskadees exclaimed their name while other, smaller flycatchers called from less obvious perches. Blue-gray Tanagers also sallied into the air to take advantage of the abundant food source, in doing so, becoming part time flycatchers, Mountain Bluebird imitators.
The resident birds know when to eat from the early rain season buffet, they know that’s the best time to build a nest. The migrants follow that same instinct except they do the nesting thing thousands of miles to the north. One of those migrant birds was also present yesterday, sharing urban riparian space with the locals.
The Olive-sided Flycatcher had most likely spent the winter in the Andes, in some dramatically beautiful place where the birding is fantastic. Flying ants and other bugs in “my” riparian zone would help fuel its journey further north, all the way to pine forests in the Rockies, maybe boreal woods further north where the soundtrack includes wolf howls and the ancient yodeling of loons.
The same insects that fed a beer enthousiast flycatcher were also fueling the flight of a bird that lives behind waterfalls, the White-collared Swift. Because it uses the skies above the Central Valley, this large swift is resident and yet by spending every night in montane waterfall retreats, the bird is also a visitant. How far do these big masters of flight travel over the course of a day? For all we know, they might fly to Panama and back.
While the insectivores enjoyed the insect bounty, another, more colorful and seriously endangered bird species flew into the high branches of a nearby tree.
More interested in using its raucous voice than catching bug breakfast, this Yellow-naped Parrot called while its mate fed on seeds in a nearby tree. Although current field guides show this species ranging in the dry forests of Guanacaste and Puntarenas, updates should also include the Central Valley as part of its distribution. Some of the Yellow-napeds are probably escapes but I bet most have moved into the Central Valley in response to warmer, drier conditions.
I hope there is enough food for them. I dare say it will be easier for this endangered species to find food in the Central Valley than nesting sites. As with other large parrots, they need big, old trees with cavities; a rare combination in urbanized areas where large trees still get cut down to make room for a parking lot, small plaza, or housing complex. Maybe we could put up some nesting boxes? Maybe we could have a collective mindset that cherishes big old trees?
While looking out back, I hadn’t expected to see a bird that connects the lush forests of the Andes to the spruce bogs of the north. I hadn’t expected to see it next to an endangered parrot while a flock of waterfall living species scythed through the air over a vital thread of green in an urban zone. But then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been that surprised, Costa Rica still acts as a vital meeting place for biodiversity and life persists as long as it can.
There are 6 species of toucans in Costa Rica and birders visiting Costa Rica will be pleased to learn that most of them are fairly common! Colorful, big, and bold, these fancy birds are larger than life. On account of their fantastic appearance, these big-beaked birds have acted as inspiration for characters on everything from cereal boxes to marketing for a number of tropical destinations (Costa Rica included).
In Costa Rica, these surreal and wonderful birds occur in nearly every type of forested habitat. Three species live in the lowland tropical rainforests on the Caribbean slope. They include the bird with the rainbow-colored bill, the Keel-billed Toucan,
the Yellow-throated Toucan (formerly known as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and the Black-mandibled Toucan),
and the Collared Aracari.
Just above the lowlands, the elusive Yellow-eared Toucanet lurks in the foothill and lower middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope.
Not nearly as common as the other toucan species, pairs of this special bird prefer to forage inside the forest and rarely come into the open. Some of the better spots for them are forests in the Arenal area, Volcan Tenorio, and the foothills of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Higher still, we have a chance at seeing the beautiful Northern Emerald Toucanet. Smaller than other members of its family, this pint-sized green toucan is a common denizen of highland forests. Listen for its barking call and you might see one.
It helps that they also visit fruit feeders!
On the Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris also occur in forests of the Nicoya Peninsula and in some parts of Guanacaste. They share some space with Keel-billed Toucans in areas of moist forest, including sites in the Central Valley.
In the Central Valley and southern Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris are replaced by the flashy Fiery-billed Aracari. This near endemic is especially common in areas with humid forest. It shares such places on the south-Pacific slope with the Yellow-throated Toucan.
Although these toucan species occur at many sites, the places where they are most common are areas with extensive tropical forests replete with large trees used for nesting and as food sources. Since toucans are also omnivorous, their populations fare much better in high quality habitats that can provide them with plenty of fruit and small creatures. In Costa Rica, that would mean larger areas of mature tropical forest.
This is why we tend to find more toucans in Costa Rica in places like the Osa Peninsula, lowland and foothill rainforests in the Sarapiqui region, near Boca Tapada, Rincon de la Vieja, Monteverde, and forests in Limon province. More toucans usually means more of other wildlife because good numbers of these real life cartoony birds are indicative of healthy tropical forest that likewise provides habitat for hundreds of other birds, plants, and animals.
Such sites can be good places to look for manakins, cotingas, tinamous, and many other species that require healthy forest, including two species that prey on toucans; Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles.
To find more toucans and the best places to see birds in Costa Rica, use this Costa Rica bird finding guide. I hope you have a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica and hope to see you here!
What makes a bird rare? Is it because, like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker or Aquatic Warbler, it is threatened by various factors related to its ecological needs? Is a bird naturally rare because it requires certain types of uncommon habitats or situations? Or, is the species something like a Boreal Owl in not being really threatened but just hard to see?
In complex tropical habitats, birds can be “rare” because of these and additional factors. In the case of the Black-crowned Antpitta, this big understory player is probably affected by all three of the factors mentioned above. Hard to detect, difficult to see, we don’t know much about this northernmost Pittasoma but what we do know is that it’s one of the most challenging species to connect with in Costa Rica.
During birding tours to Costa Rica, this cool looking species has the tragic distinction of being one of the least likely birds you will run across. In part, the paucity of sightings is related to few tours actually visiting places where it occurs. However, even then, it can still be a challenge and worse, it seems to be getting rarer with each and every year.
This wasn’t always the case. Although, seeing a BC Pittasoma in Costa Rica has never really been easy, some years ago, it was petty reliable at Quebrada Gonzalez. When the foothill rainforest at this excellent site was perpetually dripping wet, this Pittasoma was regularly heard and seen. At one point, I recall hearing and seeing birds right behind the station and at two different points along the trail. Incredibly, it was a regular bird at this site! You still had to know how to look for it but it could be expected.
That began to change as the forest became hotter and drier. Bit by bit, as the forest at the beautiful forests of Quebrada Gonalez saw longer days with less rain and decreased humidity, there seemed to be a concurrent decrease in the numbers and types of birds. One of the most affected species was the Pittasoma. It still seems to occur on occasion but much much less than in the past.
With that in mind, this is my take on why this mega bird of the forest floor has become much more rare in Costa Rica:
It Needs an Especially Wet Microhabitat in Areas of Intact Habitat
The Black-crowned Antpitta seems to be a bird of very wet forest replete with plenty of streams and muddy, wet soil. At least that’s my impression and those are the only places I have encountered them. I suspect they are adapted to this type of microhabitat because it harbors more of the worms, large insects, and other small animals they feed on. Perhaps there are other factors associateed with this microhabitat they also require?
But that’s not all! It seems that they also need this microhabitat to occur in large areas of intact habitat and even then, they can seem to be absent from what appear to be suitable sites (which hints at this species maybe requiring more specific needs than expected or apparent).
The Pittasoma Mostly Occurs in Less Accessible Places or Does Best in Habitats that Have Beeen Destroyed
The bird is rare but I do think inaccessible areas are part of the situation. Most of the intact foothill forests where it occurs are in less accessible spots, especially in the Talamanca Mountains, its likely stronghold in Costa Rica. Another idea is that the bird might be most suited to the places where foothill forest meet lowland rainforest; places that have been largely destroyed. This idea is supported by more observations of the Pittasoma coming from sites like Hitoy Cerere and Kekoldi.
Additional places to look for it are in Barbilla National Park and less accessible spots in and near Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Top of the Understory Food Chain = Low Reproductive Rate
One of the other main factors that make this species such a rare bird is its likely low reproductive rate. That’s just a guess but given its status near the top of the forest floor avian food chain, I bet this is true. As with many other tropical birds, it may have a long lifespan over which rather few young are successfully raised. This adds up to there being few birds to find over a large area.
Hopefully, we can find more accessible sites to see this spectacular bird of wet forest. Sadly, I fear that if/as climate change continues to decrease rainfall and humidity in foothill forests of Costa Rica, the Black-crowned Antpitta will either move upslope or it will continue to decline and maybe even disappear. Populations also occur in Panama (although birds typically seen are of another subspecies) but if the same factors affect the species there, it could become one more of many amazing facets of life eventually obliterated by a long, lethal combination of greed, ignorance, and refusal to accept that long-term sustainable living is of crucial importance.
I can’t believe it’s 2022 but here we are! Time for a new year list, time to make some annual birding plans, maybe time to sit back and enjoy bird and biodiversity no matter where you may bring your bins. Here in Costa Rica, these are a few of the latest birdingworthy items.
Recent Pelagic in the Pacific Finds Band-rumped Storm-Petrel
A recent long range pelagic trip done by Wilfredo of Cabuya Birding didn’t find any new birds for Costa Rica but they did get close looks at an apparent Galapagos subspecies (or species) of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Although this species is expected and has been seen on some previous trips, it is rarely seen and little known in Costa Rican waters. What will they find next?
Recent Pelagic Trip in the Caribbean Finds Manx and Audubon’s Shearwaters
Another pelagic trip in late December found a rare Manx Shearwater in addition to more expected Audubon’s Shearwaters. Since the Audubon’s breeds on nearby islands in Bocas del Toro, they aren’t unexpected. The Manx Shearwater is another matter!
Results Published from Vital Study of Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow
The Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow is a Costa Rican endemic with much of its range in the heavily urbanized Central Valley. Given the seemingly uncommon nature of this bird with a very limited range where many areas of green space are under constant threat, natural history studies have been urgently needed. Now, thanks to years of efforts made by paper authors Roselvy Juárez, María de la Paz Angulo Irola, Ernesto M. Carman, and Luis Sandoval, crucial information needed to conserve this endemic towhee is available! See the paper here.
By following 21 pairs and carrying out various other studies and observations, they deduced territory size, what this bird requires, potential threats, and more. Hopefully, this important information can be used to create adequate plans to conserve this threatened species. Many thanks goes to the authors of this vital study.
Bare-necked Umbrellabird Still Being Seen at Centro Manu!
The umbrellabird that has been spending its non breeding time at centro Manu is still present. Hopefully it will still be there for the next month or so. To try and see it, contact Kenneth at Centro Manu.
Crested Owls with Cope
A day trip with local artist Cope has often been a good way to see roosting Crested Owl. However, because the owls move around, they are never guaranteed. Lately, participants on Cope’s tour have been lucky to see one or two of these roosting beauties. Let’s hope they keep using the same spot for the next two months!
Yellow-billed Cotingas and Tiny Hawk at Rincon de Osa
Yellow-billed and Turquoise Cotingas are still frequenting Rincon de Osa. They aren’t always present but you might find them if you keep scoping from the bridge. Another good spot to check is looking towards the hill next to the mangroves from the edge of the village. In late December, we noticed several males moving through this area.
Another bird to watch for is Tiny Hawk. On a visit in late December, we had two distant birds perched in and near mangroves visible from the bridge.
Crimson-backed Tanagers in Costa Rica
Lastly, an additional bird seems to have definitely made it onto the Costa Rica list. Although the Crimson-backed Tanager seen near Dominical was deemed to be a possible hybrid, views of a bird near Horquetas and another possible sighting elsewhere seem definitive. Based on these sightings, I would guess that this edge species from Panama is probably breeding in a few places somewhere in Costa Rica. How many more are in country? If you see one, please get a picture and eBird it!
More can always be said about birds in Costa Rica but that’s all for now. If you are visiting during the next month or so, I hope to see you in the field. Happy birding!
December birding in Costa Rica is a blend of sun, wind, rain, and hundreds of bird species. A host of migrants add flavor to a speciose sampling of resident birds. The birding is fun, the birding is exciting, and its snowless. It will get cool in the highlands , especially when looking for Unspotted Saw-whet Owls, but you won’t see any of that frozen white stuff in a Costa Rica Christmas.
Instead, you can see tanagers, catch up with the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles that left the summer gardens up north.
Go birding and you can and will see a lot. Here’s some of what’s been happening in Costa Rica on the birding front, some of our December birding news:
Greater White-fronted Goose
This small group of adventurous waterfowl are still frequenting a rice field in Guanacaste. Many a local birder has enjoyed this early, unexpected Christmas gift. I hope they stick around much longer, most of all, long enough for us to see them too!
This is what happens when one rare bird attracts a bunch of birders. More eyes in the field help find additional rare birds. This time, it was a Lark Sparrow seen right on the main road to Palo Verde National Park! There are very few records of this handsome little bunting-like species for Costa Rica and this seems to be the first twitchable individual. Once again, I hope it stays for a while, long enough for us to see it.
Manx Shearwater in the Pacific
I wasn’t expecting this one! In restrospect, I probably should have because there are several records from the Pacific, including from Panama. This choice species was seen during a pelagic trip from Cabuya and was well documented by several visiting and local birders. They also saw three White Terns along with several other more expected pelagic species. The pelagic birding trips in Costa Rica are kicking it! Who will document our first Bulwer’s Petrel? Our first Juan Fernandez Petrel or other deep sea Pterodroma? Those possibilities are why I included them on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Several local birders are on a pelagic trip out today, what will they find?
A Day Total of 171 Species in Cano Negro, 176 in Sarapiqui
I’m not so sure if this qualifies as a newsworthy item but it’s still good to be reminded of how incredibly birdy Costa Rica can be. During the Cano Negro Bird Count on December 4th, during 12 hours of birding, our small team identified 171 species while birding from boat and just a little bit on foot. This is without doing any night birding, without running around to try for more birds, getting some rain, and without visiting a key lagoon that would have given us a few more species.
Yeah, I would say that’s pretty birdy! It not only shows how fun the birding can be in Costa Rica, but also how exciting the Cano Negro area is. You just keep seeing more and more birds, including highlights such as Snowy Cotinga, Sungrebe (we had 4 or 5), Yellow-tailed Oriole, a few good migrant warbler, Nicaraguan Grackles, and the list goes on…
Not to be outdone, while birding in Sarapiqui a couple days later, we had 176 species! It was a full 12 hour day but once again, we didn’t do any serious running around to chase birds, had a good stop for lunch, and still missed some expected species.
During the first week of December, several international birders were guided by Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences on a promotional trip that touched on birding in various spots. Highlights were many and included Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, Yellow-breasted Crake, Jabiru, Snowcap, and 400 plus other species. Us local birders are hoping that they will spread the news about the exciting and easy birding in Costa Rica.
Classic and New Sites Open for Business
Just a reminder that classic sites like Cinchona, national parks, Rancho Naturalista, Laguna del Lagarto, and other places are open and waiting for birders, and new sites like Nectar and Pollen are doing the same. The new sites are also a personal reminder that I need to update How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. There’s nothing like getting close looks at beautiful tropical birds!
Health Protocols in Place and Followed
Also, just another reminder that in Costa Rica, health protocols of hand washing and mask wearing are widely followed and enforced (as in if you don’t wear a mask when entering a mall or other similar place, they won’t let you in). Vaccination is also pretty good with more than 63% of the population having had two doses and more than 70% with at least one dose. You can check out the shot progress here
If you are headd to Costa Rica soon, remember to study for your trip, bring an extra data card, and get ready for some fantastic birding. I hope to see you here!
Winter in Costa Rica doesn’t arrive with snow squalls, white winged gulls and early nights. Located in tropical latitudes, I’m not even sure if I can call it winter. Ticos don’t. To them, it’s “summer” because, for much of the country, December marks the beginning of a pleasant, sunny dry season. The “winter” is from April on through November; when we get all of that rain.
To be honest, we still get plenty during other months of the year, especially on the Caribbean slope. It’s why heavy rains are a frequent accompaniment to Christmas Counts at Arenal and La Selva, why a small umbrella is essential gear for a birding trip to Costa Rica no matter when you travel. I won’t knock the rain though, it’s a main reason why we also have such an abundance of biodiversity and birds.
Speaking of all things avian and getting back to winter, since these are the winter months of the northern hemisphere, Costa Rica does see some cooler weather in December and January. It’s mostly in the mountains, it happens with cold fronts and it can also bring birds. No winter finches this far south but we do get other species, the ones us local birders we hope to see are ducks, sparrows, and waxwings, maybe a Yellow-rumped Warbler, maybe something super rare.
Based on some recent sightings, if the trend continues, it looks like this winter could end up being one of the best seasons for rare birds we have ever had. Well, at least for local birders. If you will be taking a birding tour to Costa Rica or visiting to bird Costa Rica on your own, our “rare birds” probably won’t float your boat but no worries, the resident species will be waiting for you!
We like those fancy resident birds too but the species we run to see, that we twitch, are analogous to species local birders twitch in other places. They are birds that visit Costa Rica once in a blue moon or are even new for the country list. One such species is the latest star of the local birding show. It’s a goose and I was not expecting it! Even though I included more than 60 potential species for Costa Rica on the latest version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, the Greater White-fronted Goose was not one of them.
Yep, you read that right. A Greater White-fronted Goose. In Costa Rica. A bird that brings me back to cold March mornings in western New York when we would scan the large flocks of Canada Geese for one or two White-fronteds. A bird of other places than Costa Rica.
Since there is at least one record for Belize, maybe I should have had the Arctic migrant in mind as a potential addition for the Costa Rica bird list. I thought other new additions would happen first but the Greater White-fronted Goose beat them to it. It’s not officially accepted for the Costa Rica bird list yet but the five birds found at the Las Trancas rice fields on November 29th are sure acting like wild ones. Five together whose appearance may have coincided with the arrival of a northern cold front, and with no signs of anyone keeping them in these here parts, I think there’s a very good chance these are the real, non-domestic deal.
Fortunately, several local birders have already seen them. Unfortunately, we have not and since work has begun in the fields where they are being seen, it doesn’t seem likely they will stick around until we get up that way. If they do leave that spot, hopefully, they won’t go too far and we can also witness a seriously out of place species for Costa Rica.
The other main vagrant will be even less exciting for birders from the north but around here, this species is one heck of a rarity. Costa Rica’s first twitchable Chipping Sparrow is hanging out at an organic farm in the Talamancas. Several local birders can now claim it for their country lists and with luck, it will stay long enough for many others to see it too.
I’m not sure if I’m going to chase that one but then again, it never hurts go birding is in the mountains of Costa Rica. Beautiful scenery, wonderful birding, and fantastic coffee. Life can be good!
Another reason to always go birding, to always pay close attention to every bird is because other super rare species are waiting to be found, perhaps more so this year. They are out there, some vagrant sparrow could easily be skulking in some fallow, unbirded field. Today, birders in Panama added Red-breasted Merganser to the country list! Since two rare for Costa Rica Herring Gulls were also seen today in Tortuguero, I bet the recent cold front has brought some other lost or adventurous birds to this birdy nation.
Since we have more local birders in Costa Rica now than ever before, let’s hope that more of the rare ones turn up and stay long enough for local birders to find and see them. I wonder what else is out there waiting to be found?
Many thanks goes to Ruzby Guzamn Linares for discovering the mega goose and sharing the information.