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Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.

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Birding Costa Rica at the Edge of La Selva- Looking for Lowland Specialties

“La Selva” means “the jungle”. It’s a term for forest that is strictly tropical in composition and appearance, a humid green landscape punctuated by palms, pale trunks mottled with fungi and foliaged with unfamiliar leaves. It’s a place where the trees grow tall and branch out high above, heavy wooden arms decorated with bunches of bromeliads, orchids, and other “air plants”.

Down below, the ground is typically muddy and it sticks to your boots (and is why rubber boots are the norm for jungle footwear). Birds hoot and whistle from the forest, most unseen. Wait long enough though, look in the right places and they eventually appear. Lowland rainforest birding is extra patient birding but it has its rewards. Keep on birding and the species keep showing especially if you can mix more than one habitat into the blend.

That mix of microhabitats is one of the reasons why birding the edge of La Selva is so much fun. The constant parade of species makes for gratifying, satisfying birding. The constant chance at something rare makes for exciting birding. Add easy, good birding from roads to the mix and we can see why the edge of La Selva is a major, classic Costa Rica birding hotspot.

Birding inside the La Selva station is even more exciting but since access is only possible for guests and folks who pay for one of their tours, sometimes, you just have to be happy with birding the edge. Fortunately, given the reliable good birding, happiness comes easy when birding the edge of La Selva.

The experience is a fine combination of forest and edge species, many of them common, some of them less common. With so many birds sounding off and flying into sight, guiding at the edge of La Selva tends to be busy birding. Which bird to look at now? Which to point out, focus on, or try to see? Your best bet is to go with the flow and identify them as they appear but, as with most sites, some birds are easier to see near La Selva than other places. Some species only live in the hot, flat lowlands. These are the birds that take precedence because you might not see the during the rest of your trip:

Slaty-breasted Tinamou

The low whistled calls of this tinamou are often heard at La Selva. Although they are much more reliably seen on trails in the reserve, I have also seen them by peering into the forests along the entrance roads (with lots of patience!).

Semiplumbeous Hawk

This smallish, smart-looking rainforest raptor is regular in the forests of La Selva, including forests at the edge of the reserve.

Gray-rumped Swift

It won’t take long to see some of these small lowland aerialists twittering just above the canopy. It’s worth noting that the population in Central America is a pretty good future split from birds in many parts of South America (except for maybe Ecuador and Colombia).

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Rufous-taileds are the most common species but Blue-chesteds also occur, especially at flowering bushes. Keep watching the flowers, keep checking for a dull hummingbird with a dark grayish tail.

Rufous Motmot

Despite its size, this big, eye-catching species tends to stay out of sight. Listen for its hooting calls in the early morning and keep watching for it; it’s more common at La Selva than some other places.

Pied Puffbird

Make a careful check all small birds perched on high branches. They might not all be Blue-gray Tanagers, one of them might be a Pied Puffbird. This small puffbird seems to be fairly common around the edge of La Selva.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

One of several possible woodpecker species at La Selva, this bronze crested beauty is fairly common around La Selva. It’s also restricted to the lowlands.

Great Green Macaw

La Selva continues to be a classic site for this critically endangered bird. Wait long enough at the edge of La Selva and a pair will eventually fly past.

Black-crowned Antshrike

This common forest antshrike of the Caribbean lowlands is frequently heard and usually eventually seen. The same goes for the zebra-patterned Fasciated Antshrike.

Snowy Cotinga

Sarapiqui is a good area for this special bird, especially on roads at the edge of La Selva. Even so, it’s still easy to miss it. All you can do is keep checking the tops of trees and watch for one doing its distinctive butterfly-like flight.

Plain-colored Tanager

This small, uncharacteristic tanager is a bird of the lowlands and fairly common at the edge of La Selva. If you see a small group of pale birds with high pitched calls fly into a fruiting tree, there’s a fair chance that they are Plain-colored Tanagers.

Nicaraguan Seed-Finch

This cool, large-beaked bird isn’t always present but it does show up from time to time. It’s worth listening and looking for it in the brushy, grassy field adjacent to the reserve. I saw one there last week.

These species can also be found in other lowland sites and some also occur in foothill habitats but if La Selva is the only lowland area visited on your trip, it’s worth it to try and see them there. Use the filter for Region and Major Habitats on the Costa Rica Birds app to study and mark them as targets. Learn more about birding in the La Selva area and dozens of other birding sites with this birding companion for Costa Rica. Most of all, start studying for that birding trip to Costa Rica today, it will be here before you know it!

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Orange-breasted Falcon- Does it Still Occur in Costa Rica?

In Costa Rica, we see good numbers of Peregrine Falcons, at least during migration. Hundreds pass through the country as they move thousands of miles to and from breeding and wintering areas. Some stay for the winter in Costa Rica and given their status as a feathered top tier predator of the skies, they might not have too much to worry about other than catching enough birds to eat. Watch a Peregrine on a beach or lowland tropical river in Costa Rica and you might even be tempted to feel that the bird was on vacation.

Chasing and catching sandpipers, swallows, and other avian prey is much more a matter of survival than mere fun and games but what can I say? A healthy adult Peregrine makes the chase look so easy.

We can thank the vast majority of our Peregrine sightings to banning DDT (thank you Rachel Carson!) and years of conservation efforts (here’s to the Peregrine Fund and the many biologists and organizations that helped make this happen). Myself and other birders who were wielding binos in the 70s and 80s recall the days when you hoped to get lucky at the hawk watch by seeing at least one Peregrine over the course of several visits. We reveled in the many falcons that flew past Cape May because so many of us weren’t going to see them elsewhere.

Thanks to science, dedication, and hard work, in Costa Rica, as with many places, we can admire the fast flying power punch of a Peregrine Falcon. Us local birders are grateful for Peregrines but we sure wouldn’t mind seeing another , similar-sized home-grown Falco do its deadly thing. That special bird is the Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus), this is its story in Costa Rica. But first, a little bit about the natural history of this coveted species.

A Rainforest Peregrine or an Oversized Bat Falcon?

Orange-breasted Falcon taken by P E Hart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Maybe a bit of both. Slightly smaller than a Peregrine, the Orange-breasted Falcon seems to occupy a similar bird-eating niche but in humid tropical forests. Historically, it occurred from the rainforests of southern Mexico south through Central America and into South America all the way to northern Argentina. Like the Peregrine, it flies fast to catch pigeons, parakeets, and other birds (some biologists suspect that the Orange-breasted Falcon may even fly faster than the Peregrine!).

Also like the Peregrine, Orange-breasteds often nest on cliffs although they have also been recorded nesting in trees in the Amazon rainforest and other parts of their range.

Physically, this rainforest falcon looks a lot more like the smaller and much more common Bat Falcon, especially Bat Falcon subspecies and individuals that have orange coloration on the neck. This similarity has undoubtedly led to many erroneous reports of Orange-breasted Falcons, Costa Rica included. Good ways to recognize an Orange-breasted Falcon include:

  • White throat bordered by orange on the side of the neck and on the breast (although Bat Falcons can show a similar pattern, there’s not usually as much contrast between the white throat and orange on the neck and breast).
  • Large, heavy looking bill that makes the overall shape of the head a bit more like that of a Collared Forest-falcon (at least compared to the shape of the head of a Bat Falcon).
  • No contrast between the blackish color of the head and the back.
  • Coarse, more wavy, orange and white barring on the breast.
  • Size and shape in flight more like a Peregrine compared to the rather Hobby-like shape of a Bat Falcon.
  • Over-sized, strong feet and talons.

The characteristics can be subtle, especially size of the bird. For the best take on separating these two similar looking falcons, check out this classic article by Steve Howell and Andrew Whittaker published in The Cotinga, the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club.

The following birds are Bat Falcons.

Always Rare in Costa Rica

Unlike the Peregrine and Bat Falcon, the Orange-breasted seems to have always been local and rare and especially so in Costa Rica. For Costa Rica, there are no records documented with photo or specimen, and in The Birds of Costa Rica : Distribution and Ecology by Slud, he only mentions two old records along with a pair of his own sightings. Given the difficulty in separating it from the Bat Falcon, and the lack of detailed information about separating them at that time, it’s worth mentioning the possibility of misidentification. At the same time, since a lot more habitat was present when those reports took place, they can’t be entirely discounted either.

In Costa Rica and elsewhere, for unknown reasons, in modern times at least, it seems to be absent from many areas with what one would guess is suitable habitat. Although the species was assumed to occur in various remote parts of Central America, searches carried out during a Peregrine Fun study only found a few birds in eastern Panama and several in the known population of Belize and adjacent Guatemala.

The methods used during their searches included aerial surveys of possible nesting sites on cliffs as well as surveys from the ground. Not finding birds doesn’t mean that they aren’t somewhere out there in other parts of Central America but I daresay it does mean that, if still extant, the species must be pretty rare.

Modern Sightings in Costa Rica?

There have never been any validated sightings of this species from Costa Rica, nor are there any possible sightings reported in eBird. However, there is an intriguing publication of a possible sighting of Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica from 1990. The authors mention seeing what they took to be an Orange-breasted Falcon perched in a snag near Las Brisas de Pacuarito, a site in the Caribbean lowlands just north of Barbilla National Park. Their description of a medium sized falcon with a white throat and orange on the breast and sides of the neck is certainly intriguing. It’s a shame that bird photography wasn’t as easy then as nowadays but isn’t that always the case.

Can It Still Occur in Costa Rica? If so, Where to Look?

This is of course assuming that it even occurred in Costa Rica at all but given the amount of rainforest that cloaked much of the country, I would bet on it. However, it probably occurred in small numbers, perhaps limited by nesting sites and other factors. In modern times, given the total lack of records in Costa Rica since at least 1990, it doesn’t seem likely that the bird still occurs as a breeding species. If it did, I think we would at least see a juvenile now and then looking for territory. Also, if the Orange-breasted Falcon still hunted in Costa Rica, given the growing number of birders roaming the country, it seems like someone would eventually see one.

Based on that information and the closest population perhaps occurring in central Panama, it doesn’t sound like we can expect seeing this super cool falcon in Costa Rica anytime soon. However, I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t still look for it, that we shouldn’t be careful about checking Bat Falcons. I think we should because of the following:

  • If a few still occur in the somewhat underbirded forests of the Caribbean slope of the Panamanian Talamancas, they could disperse into Costa Rica.
  • The areas where that could happen, the foothills of Talamancas near the border with Panama, see very little birding coverage and have extensive primary forests, much of which is difficult to access.
  • There are other remote and underbirded areas also worth checking including Barbilla National Park, parts of Hitoy Cerere, and even remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
The Talamancas near Yorkin.

I suppose it also goes without saying that if a young bird or even an adult does manage to make its way to Costa Rica, we will never know its there unless birders are out there looking in the places where they could turn up. Since the birding in Costa Rica is always exciting, it’s always worth birding those remote, underbirded sites. I mean, you’re going to see a lot of cool birds anyways and will probably find something rare even if you don’t happen to hit the mega birding Orange-breasted Falcon powerball.

If you do bird some of those remote sites, please eBird the results and share your best sightings in the comments. I promise to do the same.

Want to know where to go birding in Costa Rica while supporting this blog? Learn about birding sites in Costa Rica and how to look for and identify birds in Costa Rica with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. I hope to see you here in Costa Rica!

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Costa Rica Birds to Know- The 10 Most Common Raptors

“What is that, an eagle? It’s huge!” This or a similar version in any number of languages is a common phrase heard by birders from Tennessee to Thailand. It makes sense, our primate instincts just won’t allow us to forget about the honest threat that big raptors posed to our little ones way back before the height of the Anthropocene. Not to mention, big raptors are easy to notice, especially when they take flight and tend to look bigger than their actual size.

That thing about perspective tricking us into concluding that big birds are a lot bigger than they really are is one of the first things a birder learns, especially when binoculars reveal that that the massive “eagle” was actually a Turkey Vulture or a healthy Red-tailed Hawk. Until you learn and accept that perception of size is deceptive, you can bet that you are fooling yourself.

Rest assured, Tommy Shaw wasn’t talking about birding when he wrote this song but whether you listen to Styx while birding or not, being aware of the size/perception illusion is partly why we as birders know that condors and giant eagles aren’t really roaming the countryside (although we sure wish they were, we know it’s just some Grand Illusion). Depending on the part of the northern hemisphere where one wields the bins, Red-taileds, Common Buzzards, and Black Kites also remind us of how frequent big birds of prey can be.

In many places, it doesn’t take more than a drive down any country road to start seeing raptors perched here and there on posts, or to notice the silhouette of a raptor flying high overhead. In Costa Rica, that flying raptor is usually one or both common vulture species (Turkey and Black). Since these scavengers are such a regular part of the avian landscape and probably the first birds seen upon exiting the plane, I’m going to leave them off the following list. The birds I will mention are the 10 additional raptor species (non-owls) most commonly seen in Costa Rica. Go birding in Costa Rica and you will find that they aren’t as frequent as roadside raptors in some other parts of the world but you can probably still bet on seeing them.

White-tailed Kite

Locally known as the “bailarin” (dancer), this rodent catcher often hovers in place above grassy fields. Like most raptors in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly abundant but because there is plenty of habitat for it and because it isn’t shy about hovering in plain sight, get ready to see it.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Another bird easily seen because of aerial behaviors that make it wonderfully obvious. It occurs year round in parts of southern Costa Rica and is a wet season visitor in other parts of the country. Enjoy the elegance in hilly and mountainous areas with humid forest.

Gray Hawk

In many parts of Costa Rica, including the Central Valley, this is our buzzard, our Red-tail, our common kite species. Based on how often one hears and sees this “Mexican Goshawk”, this edge bird does quite well in the patchwork of habitats created by human endeavors.

Roadside Hawk

True to its name, this smallish hawk is a regular feature of roadside cables, telephone posts, and trees. In hot lowland areas, it can be more common than the Gray Hawk. Like the Gray Hawk, it also frequently calls and soars.

Short-tailed Hawk

Another of the most common hawks in Costa Rica, keep an eye on the skies and you might see this species every day of your birding trip. It often takes to the air with groups of Black Vultures, possibly flying with them to reach its aerial hunting grounds as unobtrusive as it can manage. Once up there, it soars and hovers in plain sight until it can fall like a rock onto some unsuspecting bird or lizard. Even better, it also comes in two cool color phases!

Common Black-Hawk

This cool and chunky raptor lives up to the “common” in its name but only on the coast. Watch for it soaring or perched near any coastal habitat but especially areas with coastal forest, including mangroves. This expert crab catcher can also hang out right on the beach.

Crested Caracara

A big bird that flaps around here and there as it searches for carrion and small and easy prey. Deforested lands and drier weather have made this large falcon a common sight even in the Central Valley. Its shape and foraging behavior sort of remind me of the Common Raven.

Yellow-headed Caracara

Another flappy, screechy falcon that thrives on carrion and small, easy prey. This bird is especially common in the Pacific lowlands where it sometimes perches on cattle so it can pick off their ticks or just be up to its own odd caracara devices.

Red-tailed Hawk

Although this bulky Buteo is not as abundant as birds up north and is restricted to the highlands, it soars a lot and is common enough to make it onto this list. As a bonus, resident birds look quite different from the birds of the north.

Broad-winged Hawk

Only in the winter and on migration but worth a mention because during those seasons, this small hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors in Costa Rica. It makes Costa Rica a great place to study the subtleties and traits of Broad-winged Hawks.

These species are the most commonly seen raptors of Costa Rica but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a few more. On account of them being regularly seen in appropriate habitats, honorable mentions must go to Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk (since literally thousands migrate through Costa Rica), Gray-lined Hawk (replaces the Gray Hawk south of Dominical), Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey.

And that’s not all! Quite a few other sharp taloned birds also live in Costa Rica including hawk-eagles, the wily Crane Hawk, the striking White Hawk, and others. To learn more about identifying raptors and sites to see them in Costa Rica, check out this Costa Rica bird finding book. Use the Costa Rica Birds app to study vocalizations and images, and make target lists, and get ready for some truly fantastic birding. As always, I hope to see you here.

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Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

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

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

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

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

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

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

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

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

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

Pretty Similar

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

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

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

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When to Watch Birds in Costa Rica

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

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

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

Who doesn’t love a shorebird hotspot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birding in Costa Rica is Exciting in Ciudad Neily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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birds to watch for in Costa Rica

The Situation with Yellow-Green Vireos and Related Species in Costa Rica

Vireos are, more or less, these small warblerish, deliberate birds with miniature shrike-like bills. The Vireonidae family also includes the tiny, active greenlets of Central and South America, the small chattering vireos of scrubby habitats (such as the White-eyed and Bell’s Vireos), and the big and hefty shrike-vireos with equally impressive hooked beaks. Lest we leave them out of the Vireo picture, this family also has some colorful representatives in montane zones of southern Asia; the aptly named “shrike-babblers“.

However, the vireos that seem to capture the heart and soul of this avian family are the ones that take it easy, that take their sweet time to forage in the foliage of trees and bushes, constantly singing as they do so. On account of that repeated carefree song, these are the vireos that tend to engender familiarity among birders of all stripes, the leader of the bunch probably being the Red-eyed Vireo.

When spring gets truly warm up north, go birding, take a walk, or just listen in a park in almost any wooded area from eastern Texas and Florida north to the Great Slave Lake and you will probably hear Red-eyed Vireos. Be as patient as the bird you are looking for, watch for the slightest movement in the leafy scene above and you will eventually espy one, a bird with white underparts, olive above, and a white eyebrow separated from a svelte gray crown by a fine line of black. That’s the Red-eyed Vireo, a plain yet clean-cut bird with a sweet June song. Always one of the first migrants I would come across as I rode my bike to experience May migration on Goat Island, I would hear them throughout the day for for the next two months.

In Costa Rica, although thousands, more likely millions, of Red-eyed Vireos that migrate through this part of Central America on a biannual basis, “our” most familiar of the Red-eyed bunch is actually the Yellow-green Vireo. The Red-eyeds don’t sing around here, they barely even act like the summer birds of the north. In Costa Rica, they don’t have any time for that happy, lazy attitude because they have a vital appointment arranged by the imperative of instinct. The destination isn’t exactly just around the corner. To reach the leafy woods of western New York, the forests of Ontario, at just the right time, these small birds have to fuel up fast and in Costa Rica, this is why we see flocks of them busily picking bugs and larvae from the leaves, eating small berries to bulk up so they can take that personal bird express to the north.

They are only here for the eating business, just passing on through until they can get back to regular vireo business, that of casually foraging while singing all day long. In Costa Rica, that vireo job, living “la dolce vireo vita” is held by the Yellow-greens.

Although they also migrate through, large numbers fly in from habitats in the Amazon to stay and breed. As with their Red-eyed cousins of the north, Yellow-green Vireos likewise come to breeding grounds to take advantage of a sudden wealth of invertebrates, in their case, brought on by the onset of the wet season. Like the Red-eyeds, their constant singing is an essential part of the summer birding scene in the Central Valley and the dry forests of the Pacific slope. Unlike the Red-eyeds, they share their breeding surroundings with the likes of Masked Tityras and Clay-colored Thrushes and have to avoid the nest depredation antics of toucans.

They act and look quite similar but with a good view, these two vireo species are pretty easy to identify. Some of the ways in which they differ:

Red-eyed Vireo

-Daintier grayer bill.

-Mostly white underparts.

-Hint of pale brown on face.

Yellow-green Vireo

-Can have somewhat diffuse face pattern.

-Largish, mostly pale bill.

-Lots of yellow below, mostly on vent and flanks.

Although these are two of the most common Vireo genus species in Costa Rica, they aren’t the only similar Red-eyed type vireos to keep in mind. Granted, the following two are very rare and one has yet to be documented for Costa Rica but they are possible. The Black-whiskered occurs as a rare vagrant and is likely overlooked among the large numbers of very similar Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos. Although a birder still needs a close, definitive look at the head, a Black-whiskered can also reveal its true identify when it sings its distinctive, double-noted phrases. These can be reminiscent of a House Sparrow, the only problem is that it probably keeps quiet in Costa Rica.

While watching for vireos with a black line on the lower part of the face, we can also challenge ourselves (or drive ourselves crazy) by looking for the Chivi Vireo. Although its name might make you wonder if I’m joking, save the laughs for when you see how ridiculous it would be to find one of these pseudo Red-eyed Vireos, a species that would also be a first for Costa Rica. The Chivi Vireo breeds in South America and because it looks so similar to the Red-eyed, was formerly considered to be that species. Some are resident in northern South America, others migrate from places like Brazil and Argentina to the Amazon and ever since genetic studies showed that they are more closely related to Black-whiskered Vireo than the Red-eyed, Chivi Vireos have been recognized as a distinct species.

BUT, since they look just like Red-eyed Vireos, how on Earth would we even recognize one that just happened to overfly its usual destination? In all likelihood, we wouldn’t, but given the right circumstances, finding one in Costa Rica is possible, this is what we would need:

Look for a Red-eyed Vireo from June to August, this is when a Chivi would mostly likely occur.

Take a close look at the undertail coverts. If it looks like too much yellow for a Red-eyed Vireo, the bird might be a Chivi.

Take a close look at the color of the eye– if it looks pretty dark and without the slightest hint of red, it might be a Chivi.

If it sings, record that song! Both main groups of Chivi Vireos sound different from the Red-eyed Vireo. To my ears, the migrant ones we are most likely to get have a sort of warbled or trilled note.

To sum things up, if you see a bird in Costa Rica between June and August that sort of looks like a hybrid between a Red-eyed Vireo and a Yellow-green Vireo and happens to be a singing a song with a trilled phrase, there’s a fair chance it’s a seriously lost bird new for the Costa Rica list. In the meantime, if birding up north, enjoy the cheerful summer phrasing of the Red-eyed Vireos. Birding in Costa Rica? Be happy with the rainy season songs of Yellow-green Vireos but keep listening and watching for something different, you never know what you might find even when birding from home.

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The Backyard Hummingbird in Costa Rica

Backyards and hummingbirds? Ha! Not while growing up just off Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. Seeing a hummingbird, even the only one remotely likely in my area, seemed like a pipe dream, something that could never happen. How could they occur in our tiny backyard? Northern Cardinals, occasional Blue Jays and a once in a while Downy Woodpecker yes but a backyard hummingbird? No way. And yet, on one rare day on a rainy May morning, I did see a hummingbird on our street and it was NOT a Ruby-throated!

All these years later, I can’t say whether it was a Rufous or an Allen’s but it was most certainly one of those western vagrants. An extreme rarity for western New York and yet there it was checking out some potted flowers just across the street from our house in what must have been 1983. I know it must have been that year of parachute pants, Culture Club and Gorf because I spent much of that summer hanging out with Henry and Robbie and it was Henry who noticed the bird. We were on Rob’s porch when non-birding Henry suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, what’s that?”. The subject of interest was a rufous-colored hummingbird inspecting some flowers and then it was gone. I didn’t run to my house for binos, I had no idea how rare and unusual that sighting actually was but I did see it very well and yet I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no social media, I wasn’t connected to any possible rare bird alert and am not even sure if I had met another birder at that point.

Oddly enough, that Selasphorus was the only hummingbird I have ever seen on Augustus Place. Ruby-throateds ended up being regular just outside of town but when I was 11, almost all of my birding was restricted to backyards, a nearby series of grassy vacant lots, and the Niagara State Park. Since then, my sphere of birding has expanded to include many places with a common, garden hummingbird species. Some places have several birds buzzing the flowers and feeders out back, Costa Rica included. However, if we had to name one classic backyard hummingbird for Costa Rica, it would have to be the good old Rufous-tailed.

This edge species is the most frequent hummingbird in many parts of Costa Rica and the de-facto nectivore around San Jose. A common bird of open and edge habitats, the Rufous-tailed is a good one to learn well so you can recognize other hummingbird species that dare to venture into the garden as well as birds that live in more forested habitats. Basically, if the hummingbird has a reddish tail, greenish throat, and mostly red bill, it’s a Rufous-tailed. Different types of lighting can make things tricky but if the bird has those afore-mentioned characters, it is a Rufous-tailed.

BUT, it’s not the only backyard hummingbird in Costa Rica and for folks who live in the highlands or dry areas, it might not even be present. Up in the mountains, many more species are likely, the Lesser Violetear being one of the most frequent.

Like the Rufous-tailed, the violetear is an edge and semi-open species. However, you can still expect to see it with several other species, even beauties like Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

and even Violet Sabrewing.

In dry areas, the Rufous-tailed is replaced by the Cinnamon. Another Amazilia, this bird is pretty much the Rufous-tailed of the dry forest areas of Guanacaste and also occurs in parts of the Central Valley.

While watching one of those feisty Cinnamons, you might also see a Canivet’s Emerald.

Blue-vented Hummingbird is also regular both in dry forests and many parts of the Central Valley.

In humid zones, although the Rufous-tailed is still one of the most common species in gardens and open areas, it shares space with several other species including hermits, Crowned Woodnymph,

Blue-chested Hummingbird on the Caribbean slope,

and Charming Hummingbird on the Pacific slope.

As testament to Costa Rica’s amazing biodiversity, folks who live in or near forest can also expect several other species, some tours see 30 or even 40 species (!). One we get past this pandemic, they will be waiting, maybe even one of Cope’s best backyard species, the White-tipped Sicklebill.

In the meantime, be careful, stay safe, jeep watching birds and study for that eventual trip to Costa Rica.

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Target Birding in Costa Rica? Expect Fantastic Birding

Birding can be practiced in more ways than one might think. A lot of people just watch the birds that come to the backyard feeder and take a casual interest with identification. They are happy with the relaxed avian scene at home and leave it at that. Others try to identify whatever they come across but aren’t over concerned with finding new birds, lifers if you will. We also have people in the birding tribe who have goals of seeing many certain species and even take very necessary trips to outlying places like New Caledonia because crazy cool birds like Cloven-feathered Doves and the one and only Kagu don’t live anywhere else.

In Costa Rica, we see the closest relative of the Kagu on a regular basis.

Birders who visit Costa Rica fall into every category of birding. I have guided folks who just enjoy seeing whatever crosses their path be it a common Blue-gray Tanager or a less common Red-headed Barbet.

Both are nice to look at.

There have been people who would rather get stunner photos of Squirrel Cuckoos and Groove-billed Anis than feed the mosquitoes while waiting for an Agami Heron no show. I have also guided people with specific target lists, folks who have seen thousands of bird species. However, no matter how someone wants to watch birds, most of all, the majority of birders want to see lots of birds. I think most folks realize that there is little control over what occurs, what one can see during a day or two of birding, especially when many of the species are naturally rare or may seem to be part of the anti-birder conspiracy (such as Barred Hawk was and still seems to be with my partner).

This raptor is more nefarious than one might think.

Fortunately, no matter how adept a bird may be at avoiding birders, we always see a lot and this is because Costa Rica is fantastic for birding. Biased? Maybe but I would say the same about many other countries. Honestly, there are literally hundreds of bird species within easy striking distance and the logistics available to reach just about all of them. It’s easy to see a lot of birds here and even if I do focus on target species, mega specialties like Black-crowned Antpitta just don’t get in the way of seeing lots of other birds. This is because most target birds require quality habitats that also support many other species. For this reason, when I was guiding in the Arenal area a few days ago, while we did see target White-fronted Nunbird and Bare-crowned Antbird, we also had the joy of watching a pair of bullish Great Antshrikes at close range,

admired the shining beauty of a male Gartered Trogon,

the odd exotic appearance of Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

beautiful Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Golden-olive, and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers,

and the babblerish behavior of Black-throated Wrens.

There were no Keel-billed Motmots on that day (we could always blame it on the overly wet conditions), but we did watch several Broad-billed Motmots and finished a century species morning with Yellow-throated Toucans perched in the fine light of the post rain.

It does help to know where and how to find every target species but in Costa Rica, even if the rare birds don’t show, you can always expect a lot of many other things. Hope to see you here!