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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

The Best Sites for Seeing Cotinga Species when Birding Costa Rica

Cotingas! An appropriately evocative sounding name for breathtaking birds that look like the results of someone’s wild imagination. They all seem to be odd or wacky because birders familiar with temperate zone families just don’t know what to make of them. Purple-throated Fruitcrow- hmmm, if it’s a crow then why does it have shiny purple throat? Three-wattled Bellbird- why does the male have long, black wormy things hanging off of its bill? Bare-necked Umbrellabird- what mad scientists combined a Magnificent Frigatebird with a long lost dwarf cousin of the king of rock and roll?

Before a birding trip to Costa Rica, we flip through the pages of Garrigues and Dean or Stiles and Skutch to feed our excitement and prep for our trip. As if those antbirds with blue around the eyes and delicate, fancy manakins weren’t enough to make you want to change the date of your flight for tomorrow, when the pages fall open to the cotingas, you almost question whether such fantastic looking birds can actually exist. In addition to the three mindblowers above, there are four other species that consistently grasp the attention of birders headed to Costa Rica. These are the two Carpodectes species (Snowy Cotinga and Yellow-billed Cotinga) and the two Cotinga species (Turquoise Cotinga and Lovely Cotinga).

We try to make sense out of their strange dovish shapes and brilliant white or glittering blue and purple plumages and can only come to the conclusion that we MUST see these birds! After ungluing our eyes from the page that showcases these avian treasures, this quartet of Costa Rican birds become major targets. Upon reading the text, however, our elation is given a serious blow by dreaded descriptions of status such as “uncommon” and “rare”. They don’t cease to be target birds but we now know that it’s going to take some serious effort to see them because they are pretty tough no matter how good your best birding aim might be.

Nevertheless, as with any challenging bird species, the probability of seeing them goes up if you know where and how to look for them. The following are my hints and educated guesses for ticking off all four of these major targets when birding Costa Rica.

All four species: Find fruiting trees that attract these hardcore frugivores. Since Costa Rica strangely lacks canopy towers (a major aid in seeing tree-top loving cotingas), this is the most guaranteed means of ticking off the cotinga quartet. Ficus and Lauraceae species trees in particular are goldmines for these birds but also watch for them at any fruiting trees within their ranges. If you notice a tree in fruit, scan those branches and hang out for a bit. Even if a cotinga doesn’t show up, other birds and monkeys might make an appearance.

Snowy Cotinga (Carpodectes nitidus): To make things easier, let’s start with this most frequently encountered member of our cotinga quartet. It lives in the Caribbean lowlands and despite the tragic, extensive destruction of lowland rainforests in its Costa Rican range, still hangs on and is regularly seen in a number of areas. It is often seen in riparian forest although this could also be a function of more forest being found along river corridors or that it’s easier to see into the canopy. It isn’t common but you have a fair chance of seeing it by looking for it at the sites below:

  • La Selva and Sarapiqui- Look for white or light gray (the female) birds where the canopy is visible along the Sarapiqui River, the La Selva entrance road, and around the La Selva buildings. I have also seen it at such lodges as Selva Verde and El Gavilan.
  • Tortuguero-  Snowy Cotingas are regularly seen in the forest canopy visible from the canals.
  • Hitoy Cerere- Good, quality lowland forest means nunbirds, Great Jacamar, and Snowy Cotingas! I saw small groups of this species at the HQ on several occasions during visits in 2000 and 2001.

Yellow-billed Cotinga (Carpodectes antoniae): The other gleaming white cotinga in Costa Rica is much rarer than the Snowy. It isn’t overly difficult to see in appropriate habitat but therein lies the problem. The Yellow-billed Cotinga has evolved on the Pacific slope of southern Costa Rica  and western Panama to be a rather finicky species that requires lowland rainforest adjacent to mangroves. Take away one of these habitats or remove forest that connects the two and this fancy species gradually disappears. Because of limited habitat within a small range, this bird is in trouble. I bet strategic reforestation and planting native fruiting trees would help it though.

  • Rincon de Osa- Extensive, tall mangroves next to primary rainforest make this the most accessible and reliable site to see Yellow-billed Cotinga when birding Costa Rica. You still may need to locate a fruiting tree but you have a pretty good chance of getting this rarity around here.
  • Bosque del Rio Tigre- Yellow-billed Cotinga is often seen near the lodge and if not, the owners offer day tours to see this species at other sites. They should know where it is because they have done studies to assess its status.
  • The Osa Peninsula in general- Yellow-billed Cotinga can show up along rivers just about anywhere in forested parts of the Osa.
  • The Sierpe River- Watching the mangroves from the village of Sierpe or taking a boat ride through them offers a very good chance at seeing more than one as mangroves along the Sierpe River are indeed the main stronghold for this species anywhere in its small range.
  • Ventanas de Osa- Traveling south from Dominical, one comes to a small plaza with a high end liquor store and souvenir shop. Across the street is rainforest that sometimes harbors Yellow-billed Cotinga.
  • Carara National Park- I wouldn’t list this among the best sites to see this rare species but include it to give you an idea of your chances for seeing it there. It still shows up at fruiting trees along both trails in the park, sometimes makes an appearance on the mangrove boat tour, and is occasionally viewed from the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles or from Cerro Lodge BUT don’t expect to see it. The population here probably can’t cope with the lack of forest between mangroves and the national park because it seems to have seriously declined over the years and might even become extirpated from around Carara at any time.

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This Yellow-billed Cotinga was at Rincon de Osa.

Turquoise Cotinga (Cotinga ridgwayi): This gorgeous bird of birds is uncommon but seen with regularity at several sites. Once again, fruiting trees are the way to see it and it could turn up in any forested lowland or foothill area from Carara (where it is very rare) south to Panama. A few of the more reliable sites are listed below.

  • Wilson Botanical Garden- It might turn up, it might not but you have a fair chance of laying eyes on it here and resident birders might also be around to let you know where it has been seen.
  • Los Cusingos- This small reserve and former farm of Alexander Skutch could be the best site to get this species.
  • The Osa Peninsula- The Turquoise Cotinga seems to be most common in the lowland rainforests of the Osa Peninsula. A visit to any lodge here could turn up one or more and perched birds are often scoped from the front of the Bosque del Rio Tigre.
  • Talari Mountain Lodge- Although this site isn’t extensively forested, Turqoise Cotinga is seen quite often.

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A glowing male Turquoise Cotinga from Talari Mountain Lodge.

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This one was at Rincon de Osa. One often sees both Yellow-billed and Turquoise at this site.

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A backlit Turquoise Cotinga.

Lovely Cotinga (Cotinga amabilis): The most difficult of the quartet, this is somewhat of a mystery species in Costa Rica. I suspect that it has declined with deforestation in the Caribbean Lowlands because what little information we have of this bird in Costa Rica points to it being an elevational migrant. Skutch studied a pair that nested and visited a fruiting Lauraceae tree near Varablanca several decades ago and discovered that like several other frugivorous species on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica, it nests at middle elevations during the start of the wet season and likely descends to the lowlands at other times of the year in search of fruit. I scan the treetops every time I visit the Varablanca area but because so much forest has been cut since Skutch’s day and since I have never heard of anyone seeing it at the Waterfall Gardens or Virgen del Socorro, I wonder if it still occurs there. It seems to be espied more often in Honduras and southern Mexico but if you are headed to Costa Rica, you might get lucky by scanning the canopy and watching fruiting trees at the sites below.

  • Silent Mountain- This excellent middle elevation site near Rancho Naturalista is probably the most reliable site for Lovely Cotinga in Costa Rica. It’ a long walk uphill and is probably seasonal but even if you don’t see a cotinga, you might get other rare birds such as Sharpbill or Rufous-rumped Antwren. This is offered as a guided trip at Rancho Naturalista.
  • Arenal- The Observatory Lodge is just about the only place where this species is sighted with regularity in Costa Rica. It might also turn up at fruiting trees along the road into Arenal, around the lake, at the hanging bridges, or at the waterfall near La Fortuna.
  • Tenorio, Miravalles, and Rincon de la Vieja- It has occurred a few times at Las Heliconias lodge during April and should occur on the Caribbean slope of these volcanoes at other sites too.
  • El Copal– During the second week of August, more than one Lovely Cotinga has shown up at fruiting Melastomes right in front of this community owned lodge and reserve!

Since all of the cotinga quartet seems to be prone to wandering, they could show up at a number of other sites as well. Keep watching those fruiting trees, scan the canopy, and if you seen one or know of other sites for these species, please comment about it below!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Carara National Park is good for ground birds

Carara National Park is one of the better sites in Costa Rica for seeing ground birds of the forest interior. These are the terrestrial bird species that opt for shade over sun, that relish quiet, careful walks through the leafy texture of the forest floor, that haunt the dark understory with ventriloquial voices. You wont get warbler neck gazing at any of these birds but good luck in just getting a glimpse! The leaf litter may be rife with tasty arthropods but its always a haven for bird hungry predators so to stay alive, ground birds of the forest interior need to keep alert at all times and feign invisibility. The only problem with this strategy is that it also works on birders. You might see one tinamou and antthrush for every 6 heard, a quail-dove if your lucky, and where the heck are the antpittas and leaftossers?

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Great Tinamou

Its always frustrating to walk through beautiful rainforest without seeing such strange and cool birds when you know that they must be somewhere in the vicinity. In most places, the birds hear you coming down the trail and fade away into the recesses of the forest because they decide that its better not to take any chances on whether or not the two legged thing with binoculars will kill and eat them. If they learn that Homo sapiens doesnt pose a threat, however, then the shy, feathered denizens of the forest floor can lower their guard enough to let you watch them at your leisure. You still have to play by their rules and thus walk and watch in a quiet, unobtrusive manner but at least you get to watch them go about their business.

In Costa Rica, there might be no better place for doing this than Carara National Park. La Selva is also a good site for seeing tinamous and antthrushes in this manner but unfortunately, along with many other understory species, they have become much less common. I was reminded of just how good Carara is for seeing ground birds during guiding there this past weekend. During two mornings of birding along the trails that leave from the park headquarters, we had good looks at most of the ground birds that occur in the park. Our main misses were Great Curassow and Marbled Wood-Quail although these species are pretty rare in that part of the forest in any case. As for the more expected species, we had:

Great Tinamou: At least six were heard but only one was seen as it quietly foraged at a small antswarm. It allowed us watch it for at least ten minutes as we hoped and waited for other birds to show (only Northern Barred Woodcreeper made an appearance).

Ruddy Quail-Dove: A female sitting right on the cement pathway of the Universal Access Trail was a bonus. As she slowly made her way into the forest, we watched her for at least ten minutes while being entertained by very tame Chestnut-backed Antbirds.

Gray-chested Dove: This is one of the easier of the ground birds that occur at Carara. Three to four birds total gave us good views.

Streak-chested Antpitta: One of the star birds of Carara, a calling bird revealed itself by hopping near the trail and puffing its breast feathers in and out. We marvelled at the similarities between its plumage and that of other understory species such as thrushes and Ovenbird.

Black-faced Antthrush: None were vocalizing but we still mananged excellent looks at three birds. Each was noticed by the leaves that were being tossed about as it foraged.

Scaly-throated Leaftosser: Speaking of leaves being tossed, this was also how we got prolonged, close looks at the juvenile of this shy species. It was nice for me to get this uncommon species out of the way so early in the year!

Some of the other ground loving species we got that usually arent so difficult to see were Chestnut-backed Antbird, Wood Thrush, Swainsons Thrush, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Orange-billed Sparrow.

Another reason why Carara is so conducive to seeing ground bird species well is simply because the forest understory is rather open. Although it helps to know their vocalizations, patiently spending an entire day of peering into the understory while carefully and quietly walking along the trails should yield looks at all of the species listed above and maybe some that we didn’t get such as the curassow, wood-quail,  Gray-headed Tanager, and Bicolored Antbird.

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The Costa Rican Riverbird Flush

Cost Rica abounds with rivers, streams, rivulets, brooks, ravines, and glens. Even aquatic ecologists bound by profession to maintain strict definitions for bodies of water that flow down gradients would find all of the above and more in Costa Rica. The mountainous terrain and giant bucketloads of rain combine forces to fill the country with so much rushing water that they would probably feel obliged to come up with new terms to describe their observations.

“Dr. Perry, what definition would you give to this body of water? I can’t seem to find a definition for its clear, then muddy, then marshy appearance.”

“Yep! It’s one of those crazy tropical bodies of water that seems to defy an easy definition! Let’s call it a streamaswampus!”

“Ok, I noted that, have taken water samples, and pictures above and below water with the waterproof camera to document our find.”

“Great! Now back to looking for giant neotropical crayfish.”

While Dr. Perry and his trusty graduate students were marveling at tropical aquatic ecosystems and broadening the lexicon of their field of study, even if they weren’t looking for birds, they probably would have gotten the Costa Rican Riverbird Flush. This doesn’t mean that they would have contracted some unfortunate and frightening skin disorder. No, what I am referring to is seeing at least five bird species that are principally found on rivers when birding Costa Rica. These are the birds that make us stop at every bridge to scan the rocky shore with our binoculars, that encourage us march down steep sets of stairs constructed for viewing scenic waterfalls, and that even drive some of us to risk killing our digital cameras by picking our way upstream on slippery rocks until the feathered, riparian-loving quarry is glimpsed.

Three of these species are perennial favorites on target lists of birders visiting Costa Rica, the fourth is frequently overlooked as a possibility by North American birders because it is more commonly seen in the Rocky Mountains, and the fifth can be any one of a number of river-loving bird species that are practically a given when birding Costa Rica.

The three Costa Rican river birds that get top honors are: Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and Torrent Tyrannulet.

The Sunbittern is so strangely cool that even non birders should want to see it. Is it a rail? Some freaky anhinga thingy? How about a heron (after all it does have bittern in its name)? The Sunbittern is none of the above although it kind of looks like a mutant avian patchwork quilt of all of the above and more. Recent molecular studies have shown that its closest relative is the Kagu, a bizarre and very wanted bird species from New Caledonia that has also defied clear taxonomic placement since its discovery. The Sunbittern gets its name from the large, sunburst-like patches on its wings that it shows when excited or threatened. They can turn up along just about any river or stream that runs through humid forest in Costa Rica but are most easily and regularly seen on the Sarapiqui River near Puerto Viejo. In fact, this might be the easiest place to tick this bird away from the Llanos of northern South America and the Pantanal of Brazil and Paraguay.

Any birder visiting the Sarapiqui area has a very good chance of seeing this species if they just keep scanning the river during their stay. A boat trip should also do the trick but watching for it from the bridge at Chilamate will probably work. You should also see one if checking the river from such hotels as Selva Verde, Tirimbina, Chilamate Rainforest Retreat, or El Gavilan. On a recent trip to the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat, we spotted our first Sunbittern as it foraged on the other side of the river and then were spoiled by an individual that frequented the lodge’s football pitch and area right next to their cabins!

Unless they are standing on a football pitch (aka soccer field), Sunbitterns can be surprisingly difficult to spot because they tend to move slowly and carefully along the edge of the river and blend in very well with a background made mottled by shadow, river rocks, earthen banks, gravel, and sand bars. Watch especially for the white markings in their wings.

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The one on the other side of the river.

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The unofficial mascot of the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat!

The Fasciated Tiger-Heron is also more easily seen along rocky sections of the Sarapiqui than at many other sites in its range. This species isn’t more common in Costa Rica than elsewhere, it’s just that birding guests at any of the eco-oriented hotels located along the Sarapiqui can sit around and watch the river until one moves through its necessarily linear territory. We also had one of these very cool herons while river watching from the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat. Like the Sunbittern, the tiger-heron also blends in amazingly well with its background. The one we recently had at Chilamate looked a lot like the gray river rocks when seen from behind (so much so that I never would have seen it without binoculars). Fasciated Tiger-Heron could turn up at any number of rocky rivers in Costa Rica but it seems to be easiest along the Sarapiqui.

Torrent Tyrannulet is the third of the five most wanted river birds in Costa Rica. like the other two esteemed species that crown a Costa Rican Riverbird Flush, this little flycatcher has a large range outside the country. In my opinion, it’s easier to see in South America and may have declined in Costa Rica in some areas but it can still be found at a number of in-country sites. You probably won’t see it while scanning the river rocks for the Sunbittern or tiger-heron around Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui but could find it at any number of middle elevation, forested rivers. I recently got my 2011 bird along the Balsas River down the road from the San Luis Canopy.

The fourth bird species of the flush is the American Dipper. These plump, aquatic passerines are widespread along clean rivers of the Costa Rican mountains but are rather uncommon. You might see one while looking for the tyrannulet as they occur in the same sort of habitat. I was surprised to get one at Quebrada Gonzalez two years ago but regularly see them at Tapanti National Park and also recently had one on the same stretch of river as my 2011 tyrannulet.

Once you have the four more challenging species, getting the fifth is a far easier task. Just go out birding along any middle elevation stream or river in humid forested areas of Costa Rica and you will see Black Phoebe (a common and conspicuous bird at any time of the year), Lousiana Waterthrush (fairly common during the winter months), or at least a Buff-rumped Warbler (also common in the lowlands).

We aren’t even done with the first month of 2011 and I already have my Costa Rican Riverbird Flush. I hope this is a good portent for the year and a sign that I will reach 600 species by December 31st.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds

Three coquettes seen on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica?

Coquettes are these tiny, insect-like hummingbirds that are strong contenders for being the most exquisite group of birds on Earth. The males in particular, with their incredibly ornate tufts and crests, remind me of glass figurines of hummingbirds crafted by someone with a fearless imagination and tendency towards extravagance, or perhaps jeweled pendants fabricated by an artist who has a thing for wispy plumes.

The group as a whole (along with their relatives, the Thorntails) just look unbelievable and so of course they are among the most wanted of hummingbird species. As is common with many bird species that elicit gasps when viewing their illustrations in a field guide, however, coquettes are (sigh) also among the least guaranteed of hummingbird species. I think one or two species in Peru and Brazil grace feeders with their presence but none of the three species that have been identified in Costa Rica have developed a taste for sugar water.

In addition to their disenchantment with “feeder juice”, there are three other reasons I can think of to explain the difficulty in seeing coquettes:

1. They are inconspicuous and bug-like by nature. Seriously, when they fly around, they resemble a slow and steady bumblebee or other fat, largish insect. This is probably no coincidence because such a strategy likely allows them to sneak into flower patches that are viciously guarded by larger hummingbirds. Thus it pays to check out chunky bugs seen flying around when birding Costa Rica. They might turn into coquettes when viewed through binoculars and if not, well there’s a lot of super cool looking insects in Costa Rica in any case.

2. Coquettes feed on smaller flowers, many of which occur way up in the tops of trees. Even if you do see a coquette as it feeds in the canopy, you will probably pass it off as a bug because it will look like one 100 feet above where you are standing. On a more positive note, coquettes also feed on Stachytarpheta bushes at eye level. Not always, but watch some Porterweed long enough in the right place and you have a fair chance of seeing one.

3. Coquettes move around in search of their favorite flowering trees. How could we not expect persnickety behavior from such flamboyant creatures? The three coquette species of Costa Rica move up and down slope and who knows where else to get their fill of select, vintage nectars. It is perhaps this fact that presents the biggest challenge to seeing them. Little is known about their movements in Costa Rica except that they might be present for a time at one site and then who knows where the following week.

So, they are tough to find but how about some information about each species? The three coquettes that have occurred in Costa Rica are the Black-crested Coquette, White-crested Coquette, and the Rufous-crested Coquette.

The one that is most regularly seen when birding Costa Rica is the Black-crested Coquette. Buzzing around the humid forests of the Caribbean Slope from southeastern Mexico to Central Costa Rica, this creature can show up at a number of sites but appears to be most regularly seen in Costa Rica at foothill and middle elevations south to about Rancho Naturalista (a good site for them). The other, easiest site for this bird when birding Costa Rica is the Arenal area. They could be seasonal there but birders have an excellent chance of connecting with this species by watching the flowering bushes around the Arenal Observatory Lodge or entrance to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. El Tapir just outside of Braulio Carrillo Park has also been a regular site for the Black-crested Coquette as was Virgen del Socorro.

The White-crested Coquette looks particularly stunning but it’s not easy despite only being found from Carara south to western Panama. It didn’t seem like they were very tough to find when I was birding the Golfo Dulce and Osa Peninsula some years ago but that may have been a fluke. I recall seeing them pretty easily around patches of flowering Inga. species trees and have even had them at flowering balsas. I suspect that southwestern Costa Rica is still the most reliable area for this species when birding Costa Rica (the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre often know where to find them) although it occurs as far north as the Carara area (where it’s super rare) and even moves into the Central Valley at certain times of the year (maybe October and November?).

The Rufous-crested Coquette is a vagrant to Costa Rica that hasn’t been positively identified for a number of years. I bet at least a few show up in country and get overlooked though, especially if they search for flowers in the underbirded southeastern sector of the country. Since this bird has been recorded just across the border in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the southeast is also the most likely area for it to turn up. These little, rufous-crested sprites were historically recorded from San Jose though so it’s not entirely out of the question to have one turn up in the Central Valley or perhaps even in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

In fact, one may have showed up at El Tapir just last week. Not only that, but rumor has it that it was also sharing space with the other two coquette species in a roadside garden somewhere near the arial tram! If true, this would be like hitting the once in a lifetime Costa Rican birding jackpot. So far, it’s still just a rumor and hasn’t been authenticated but given the coquette’s propensity for wandering combined with freaky weather that could affect flowering patterns, it’s not entirely out of the question. If I check the situation out and hit the jackpot, I will make up for the lack of coquette photos in this post by showing all three in my next.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations sites for day trips weather

Irazu, Costa Rica birding in the mist this past weekend

Recent heavy rains have blocked access to much of the Pacific Coast, the only birders seeing quetzals on Cerro de la Muerte for the next week or so will be those who trek up the “mountain of death” on foot, and collapsed bridges have even isolated the Guanacaste beaches of Samara and Nosara.

This past weekend didn’t seem like the ideal time to go birding in Costa Rica (and it wasn’t) but since I hadn’t heard of any landslides on Volcan Irazu, I didn’t cancel a Saturday guiding stint up on this massive volcano that overlooks the Central Valley from the east.

The weather was looking nice around San Jose but sure enough, when we approached Cartago, misty surroundings reminded us that we had essentially entered a slightly different climatic zone. I hoped that the foggy air would clear the higher we went, that maybe we could break on through the wet blanket as we ascended the mountain. It was pretty misty at our first stop at a ravine that hosted remnant cloud forest but not too thick to watch Volcano Hummingbirds zipping around, Band-tailed Pigeons alighting in the trees, Slaty Flowerpiercer doing its usual, hyperactive, nectar robbing thing, and Common Bush-Tanagers sharing the undergrowth with Wilson’s Warblers (the bush-tanagers here at the upper limits of their range). Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Flame-colored Tanagers also called within earshot but playback couldn’t entice them to come out and play.

Further up, at our next stop near the Nochebuena Restaurant, we didn’t exactly leave the clouds behind but we at least seemed to have climbed above the main strata of saturated air. Tame, Sooty Robins greeted us from the tops of purple fruiting bushes.

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Sooty Robins are big, common, high elevation thrushes endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes sounded like Hermit Thrushes as they sang from the undergrowth but contrary to their usually ultra-tame attitude, remained hidden. Band-tailed Pigeons were especially common and gave us nice looks as they fed on acorns that had fallen to the ground from awesome, old growth oaks. This is a commonly seen species when birding Costa Rica but I always love getting good looks at them and wish they could come to my backyard (even though I know that’s not going to happen). I admit that I have this thing for Band-tailed Pigeons and have thought of three possible explanations:

1. As a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, I associated them with the wild, exotic, unreachable coniferous forests of the American west. This meant that they hung out with Steller’s Jays, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Cougars, and Jeremiah Johnson which in turn meant that they were on the uber cool end of the awesomeness spectrum.

2. They aren’t Rock Pigeons. As iridescent as the necks of Rock Pigeons (aka Rock Doves) could be, they were just too common to be cool and were black-listed by the dreaded “introduced” label.

3. I am crazy about birds. I just like watching birds no matter what my binoculars bring into focus so this could be a simple explanation.

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A young Band-tailed Pigeon looking kind of grotesque as it chokes down an acorn.

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I love the dark green nape!

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This one was hanging out in the same tree as a pair of a much more exciting bird for most people…

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a Resplendent Quetzal!

First we saw a female who was nice enough to provide us with stellar scope views before she swooped off into an oak grove across the street. I figured this was my cue to use the outdoor facilities and of course as soon as I stepped behind a tree, the unmistakable, long-trained silhouette of a male quetzal appeared over the road as it flew into the same tree where the female had been. A closer look at said tree showed why is was the favored hangout of those Irazu quetzals. It was a Laureacae species or “wild avocado” and its branches were dripping with the energy rich fruits that quetzals probably require for survival.

Running back across the road, the vivid emerald green of the male was immediately apparent and we enjoyed scope views of this always fantastic bird for 15 minutes while Acorn Woodpeckers laughed from the treetops and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers flitted through nearby vegetation.

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It was also nice to see Black-capped Flycatchers, an easily identifiable Empidonax only found in high elevation forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

Once the quetzals had retreated back into the shade of high elevation oaks, we made our up to the treeline habitats of Irazu National Park. Unfortunately, the fog had come back with proverbial pea-soup vengeance and although we could walk over the ashy ground to the very edge of the crater, we couldn’t see any further than a couple hundred feet at the most. Thus, the green lagoon at the bottom of the crater was hidden from view but at least (since we were birding and not really volcanoing) we got Volcano Juncos!

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Volcano Junco, the fierce looking denizen of paramo habitats in eastern Costa Rica and western Panama.

As is typical for high elevation birds in many areas of the world, they were tame, rather fearless, and had no qualms about picking at food scraps left over by tourists. Heck, they and the local Rufous-collared Sparrows even jumped right into the trash bins!

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Hmmm, what did the tourists leave for my lunch today!

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A Rufous-collared Sparrow getting ready to jump into the garbage.

Visibility worsened as the mist turned into a light, horizontally falling (blowing?) rain and so we left the crater area and took a side road just outside of the park limits to hopefully see Large-footed Finch and Timberline Wren. We got more excellent looks at juncos and heard a distant finch with an extra large shoe size but there was nary a peep nor rustle of vegetation from any Timberline Wrens so we slowly drove back down to the Nochebuena Restaurant with the hope that the fog would dissipate.

The restaurant doesn’t exactly have an extensive menu, but it’s good enough, is the coziest place on Irazu, and has hummingbird feeders that can be watched from some of the tables. We of course, sat at the best spot in the house for the hummingbird spectacle and studied four of the species that occur high up on Irazu; Green Violetear, the tiny Volcano Hummingbird, needle-billed Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and the giganto Magnificent Hummingbird.Birding Costa Rica

A female or young male Volcano Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a female Magnificent Hummingbird.

After lunch, a brief respite from the mist got us one of our best birds of the day. A bunch of scolding birds had gotten our attention and as we walked towards them, I noticed a Sooty Robin make a swooping dive at a fence post. A closer look showed that it was more concerned with what was sitting on the fence post, a brown lump that turned into a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl when viewed through the scope!

It took off before I could digitally capture it but at least we all got perfect looks at this uncommon, highland endemic. Interestingly enough, this was in the same spot where I got my lifer Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in 2008.

Aside from more Band-tailed Pigeons walking around, not much else showed so we went further down the mountain in search of sunshine and birds. Incredibly, we did manage to find the only sunny spot on Irazu and the rich undergrowth also made it excellent for birds!

Birding Costa Rica

The one sunny spot on Irazu.

Thanks to the good visibility, good habitat, and good luck, we watched a mixed flock near this area for around 40 minutes. A bunch of new birds for the day and others we had already seen showed up in the form of Yellow-winged Vireos (very kingletish and common on Irazu), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Mountain Elaenia, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-cheeked Warbler.

These were our last birds for the day because below the sunny spot, the fog was so thick we could barely make out the road until we had descended the mountain and left the Cartago area. The weather was a bit trying but at least we didn’t have to contend with driving rain, landslides or washed out bridges. Since we also had perfect views of Resplendent Quetzal and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, I daresay that we had a better day of birding than most birders in Costa Rica on November 6th, 2010.

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Tips on parrot identification when birding Costa Rica

I never tire of watching wild parrots. Since I don’t exactly get tired of observing any birds, perhaps what I really mean to say is that an inescapable twinge of excitement accompanies every screech and sighting that can be attributed to any of Costa Ricas 17 Psittacid species.

Whether it’s the daily flyovers of Crimson-fronted Parakeets that screech from the skies above my house in the Central Valley, Scarlet Macaws that grumble from the canopy of the tall forests in Carara, or elusive Barred Parakeets that remind me of crossbills as they chirp and zip over the ridges of the high Talamancas, there’s always something special about seeing a wild Psittacid. I think “wild” might be the key word here because the parrots or macaws we saw in Niagara Falls, New York were either in the pet store or featured in television commercials. They just couldn’t be real, wild birds no matter what those bird books said because that would be just too cool to be fact. Therefore, every time I see a parrot, parakeet, or macaw in Costa Rica, I feel a flurry of excitement and recurring revelation that vanquishes my childhood doubts about the existence of such amazing birds.

Parrots in Costa Rica are as essential to the local landscape as Cecropia trees, Blue-gray Tanagers, and volcanoes and thank goodness because they add a bit of excitement to each day lived in this snow-free, tropical country. Not all are easy to see and there are identification challenges but I hope that the following information will give you a fair idea about what to expect as far as Psittacids go when birding Costa Rica:

Macaws, genus Ara– two species, easy to identify.

Scarlet Macaw: Bold, brilliant, and loud, its pretty hard to miss this species. In Costa Rica, they used to range the length of both slopes but habitat destruction and persecution have nearly eliminated them from the Caribbean slope and reduced them on the Pacific slope to two, well-known populations, one at Carara and a larger number of birds on the Osa Peninsula. There is also a small population around the dry forests of Palo Verde and Curu, and they have been making a slow comeback on the Caribbean slope.

birding Costa Rica

Scarlet Macaws are always spectacular.

Great Green Macaw: This flagship species of Costa Rican conservation is kind of like the “sea turtle of the rain forest” in terms of its status and buzz about its plight. Like sea turtles, this bird is in serious trouble and needs as much help as it can to avoid going extinct in Costa Rica. The main threat to its future existence in Costa Rica is destruction of lowland rainforests and cutting of a tree that it very much depends upon, Dipteryx panamensis or “Almendro”.  Like Scarlet and Red and Green Macaws in southeastern Peru, the Great Green relies upen big, old growth Dipteryx species trees for nesting and as a food source. Unlike, macaws in Peru, however, Great Green Macaws in Costa Rica have not used nest boxes with very much success. This awesome bird can still be seen in the Sarapiqui area and is more common in Tortuguero and near the Nicaraguan border but I doubt that I will see it again at Quebrada Gonzalez (I used to see flocks there during the wet season).

Amazona genus parrots- four species, watch for their distinctive, shallow wing beats and learn the calls!

Mealy Parrot: This large parrot is commonly seen in forested sites of the humid lowlands (although I get the impression that its numbers have decreased since I first came to Costa Rica). When perched, they are easy enough to identify but hard to see as they quietly forage in the canopy. Like most parrots, you are more likely to see them in flight. They are easily confused with Red-lored Parrots throughout their range and with Yellow-naped Parrots on the Pacific slope in the Carara area. Watch for the green front and pay attention to their harsh calls.

birding Costa Rica

A Mealy Parrot attempting to hide behind a branch.

Red-lored Parrot: Another good sized parrot, this edge species is pretty common in the lowlands and is the only Amazona species parrot in Costa Rica with a red front. Its calls can sound similar to those of the Mealy Parrot but have a more ringing quality to them, like “clink clink” rather than the harsh squawking of the Mealy.

Yellow-naped Parrot: About the same size as the Red-lored, trapping and habitat destruction have reduced its population although it is still regularly seen in a number of areas including Cerro Lodge, Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, and Palo Verde. As the yellow nape can be hard to see in flight, pay attention to its distinctive calls that have a human-like or “laughing” quality to them.

White-fronted Parrot: The smallest of the Amazona genus parrots in Costa Rica, is still flies with shallow wing beats but is more frequently seen in flocks than the other Amazona species and is fairly common in dry forest. Its yellow bill, white front, and red patch on the forewing also separate it from Mealy, Red-lored, and Yellow-naped Parrots. Listen for its more rapid, staccato-like vocalizations.

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A not so great shot of a psycho-looking White-fronted Parrot.

Pionus genus parrots- two species, watch for their distinctive, deep wingbeats.

White-crowned Parrot: This edge species is one of the more common parrot species in Costa Rica and can be seen from the lowlands to middle elevations (including green spaces in the Central Valley). The white crown and bill can often be seen in flight. Also listen for their screeching, “trebled” call.

birding Costa Rica

A White-crowned Parrot hanging out in the canopy at El Gavilan lodge, Sarapiqui region.

Blue-headed Parrot: An edge species that replaces the White-crowned further south, the Blue-headed Parrot is mostly seen in the Golfo Dulce and southeastern lowlands of Costa Rica although it can show up at least as far north as Sarapiqui. They fly with the same deep wingbeats as the White-crowned but have a darker head and bill and more abrupt vocalizations.

Pionopsitta genus parrots- one species, “a parrot that sounds like a parakeet” and has wingbeats in between those of an Amazona and Pionus.

Brown-hooded Parrot: A bird of rainforests, this species is most common in heavily forested, humid zones although it is also sometimes seen in flight over the central valley or other deforested areas (how I got it on my yard list). Watch for the red on the underwings, look for the brownish head, and listen for the rather musical, parakeet-like calls. That’s probably a bad description of their vocalizations, but is what comes to mind!

Pyrrhura genus- one species, a long-tailed parakeet of the Talamancas.

Sulphur-winged Parakeet: Like most members of this primarily South American genus, it has a small range and is the only parrot species restricted to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama. It’s pretty common in the cloud forests of the Talamancas and is usually located by its high-pitched, reedy calls. It is the only long-tailed parakeet likely to be seen in its range although sometimes can overlap with Crimson-fronted Parakeets when they move to lower elevations.

birding Costa Rica

Sulphur-winged Parakeet from the Dota Valley.

Aratinga genus- four species, rather common, long-tailed parakeets.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet: One of the most common and easily seen Psittacids in Costa Rica, it has fortunately become adapted to nesting on buildings in the central valley. Long-tailed parakeets seen in the central valley are almost always this species. Watch for the red front and red underwings.

birding Costa Rica

Crimson-fronted Parakeets- I see this species on a daily basis.

Olive-throated Parakeet: A bird of the northern Caribbean lowlands, it needs more forested habitats than the Crimson-fronted. Plain-looking, long tailed parakeets seen in the Caribbean lowlands are this species. They lack red in the plumage and have wings with darker, contrasting flight feathers than the Crimson-fronted.

Orange-fronted Parakeet: This is the common, long-tailed parakeet species of dry forest. They overlap with the Crimson-fronted in the Carara area but can be told by their orange fronts and duller green plumage.

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Orange-fronted Parakeet from Tambor, Costa Rica.

Brown-throated Parakeet: A recent invader from Panama, watch for it in southwestern Costa Rica from the Panamanian border west to Piedras Blancas National Park. It overlaps with the more common Crimson-fronted Parakeet but lacks the red front and has an orangey-brown throat.

Brotogeris genus- one species, common, short-tailed parakeet of deforested lowlands.

Orange-chinned Parakeet: This common species vies with the Crimson-fronted for holding the title of the most frequently encountered Psittacid in Costa Rica. Any small parakeet with a short pointed tails seen in the lowlands is this species (it also occurs in the Central Valley).

birding Costa Rica

Orange-chinned Parakeet, a species hard to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Bolborhynchus genus- one species, an uncommon highland parakeet.

Barred Parakeet: If you are birding above 2,000 meters in the Central or Talamancan Cordilleras and see small, plain, short-tailed parakeets that remind you of crossbills or other “winter finches”, you have probably seen Barred Parakeets. They could overlap with Red-fronted Parrotlets at certain times of the year but those will show red and yellow in their plumage.

Touit genus- one species, a rare, little known bird of middle elevations.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: If you see this one when birding Costa Rica, you will have hit the Psittacid jackpot. Not much is known about this species, it is seen very infrequently, and yours truly still needs a better look before counting it as a lifer! It mostly occurs in middle elevation forests and appears to make elevational movements in search of fruiting or seeding trees. Who knows, maybe it was more common in the past before so much of the Central Valley was deforested. I wonder about this because friends of mine saw a small flock for a few days in June in their urban backyard near Heredia! The birds were probably moving around in search of fruiting trees after breeding somewhere up in the Central Cordillera. They have also been recorded high up in the Talamancas as well as in lowland areas. If you see a small, short-tailed parakeet with red and yellow in the wings and lots of red on the head, then you may have gotten the coveted Red-fronted Parrotlet. On a side note, if you do see this species, take as many notes about its behavior, location, etc. as you can so we can get a better handle on its natural history.

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Where are the raptors when birding Costa Rica?

The perceived scarcity of raptors (non-owl raptors) when birding Costa Rica is a recurring topic of conversation between  birders whom I guide and myself. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the following questions and observations:

“We haven’t seen many raptors other than Black and Turkey Vultures”.

“We have seen motmots, lots of hummingbirds, some tanagers, and a bunch of flycatchers. We haven’t seen any of those antpittas or antbirds though (another common theme), and very few raptors”.

“Where the heck are all of the hawks”?

With a field guide (that new classic, “the Garrigues and Dean”) that illustrates 53 (!) species of vultures, hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons, it’s no wonder this is a recurring topic of conversation.

I can’t recall if I wondered the same thing during my first trip to Costa Rica but I know that my raptor list had more holes than a Swiss cheese festival when I boarded the plane back to New York.

The raptor list for Costa Rica is certainly robust so where is the thrush-sized Tiny Hawk, the pint-sized Barred Forest-Falcon, the hefty Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and that king of the rain forest canopy, the monstrous Harpy Eagle when taking a birding tour in Costa Rica?

Well, all I can say is that they are out there, but there are some  factors that explain why we don’t see raptors as often as we do north of the Tropic of Cancer. In no particular order, the reasons for the perceived paucity of raptors when birding Costa Rica is:

1. High diversity=natural rarity. Instead of the raptor scene being dominated by a pair of Buteo species, two Accipiters, a couple of falcons, and a scavenger or two, Costa Rica has a much larger variety of raptors that occupy more specific niches. This means that most species occur at population densities that are lower than birds of temperate zones and are therefore naturally rare. This is demonstrated by raptor lists after two weeks of birding in Costa Rica. A fairly typical count after a two week visit to 4 main sites during the high and dry season might be:

Turkey Vulture- lots

Black Vulture-even more

King Vulture-1 (yay!)

Roadside Hawk (2)

Roadside Hawk birding Costa Rica

Gray Hawk (4)

Gray Hawk birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawk (4)

Osprey (3)

Double-toothed Kite (1)

Double-toothed Kite birding Costa Rica

White-tailed Kite (1)

Plumbeous Kite (2-they went to Cerro Lodge)

Crane Hawk (1-Cerro Lodge again)

White Hawk (1)

Barred Hawk (1)

Common Black-Hawk (4)

Red-tailed Hawk (2)

Crested Caracara (4)

Yellow-headed Caracara (6)

Laughing Falcon (1)

As you can see, the species number is fairly high (18) but few individuals. I should add that this is a pretty conservative count and if one goes to certain sites, uses a guide, and specifically looks for raptors, several more species should be seen.

2. Most Costa Rican raptors are forest species. Not only does this mean that they are harder to see in appropriate habitat (because all of those trees and epiphytes are in the way), but it also means that unless you bird areas with fairly large tracts of primary forest then you won’t have a chance at watching cool stuff like Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, Barred Hawk, or Semiplumbeous Hawk among others.

3. Not all raptors soar. The Red-tailed Hawks, buzzards, falcons, and kites of the north spoil us into thinking that all one needs to do to see a raptor is look up into the sky…..and there they are (!) beautifully soaring and calling up in the blue saying, “Here I am in all my raptorial glory! Watch as much as you like and study my subtle shape to master raptor identification!”

If only the raptors in Costa Rica (and elsewhere in the neotropics) were so extrovert and unashamed! Other than vultures, soaring raptors in Costa Rica are far and few between and the ones that do regularly soar either don’t do it that often or spread their wings as part of their hunting strategy and therefore “hide in plain sight”. Among regularly soaring raptors that are often seen with vultures that kettle up into the hot mid-morning sky are Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. The first two are seen just as often in their preferred edge habitats while the Short-tailed is one of the birds that attempts to “hide in plain sight” by flying so high that it becomes a speck way up there in the clouds.

Of course there are also the massive migrating flocks of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks that pass through but they don’t linger to show off. A good number of Broad-winged Hawks stay for the winter but they don’t seem to get kicks out of soaring around to show off their splayed primaries. What? You aren’t of the opinion that raptors get their kicks, their cheap thrills, demonstrate their joie de vie from soaring around on widely splayed wings? You might change your mind after watching American Swallow-tailed Kites for a few hours.

4. Many Costa Rican raptors hunt with surprise and ambush tactics. The problem for birders is that this effective strategy only works when your prey can’t see you which means that the forest-falcons and other forest raptors are naturally inconspicuous. Very short birders who do sloth imitations in the Osa Peninsula might get lucky (or very UNlucky) and attract a Harpy Eagle but in general, one has to be as attentive and disciplined as a fire-walking Shaolin monk and/or just get lucky in catching a glimpse of raptors inside the forest.

You can and do see raptors when birding Costa Rica but no, don’t expect to see them soaring all over the place. Hire a birding guide who knows how to find them and go to the right places, however, and you will fill in a bunch of those gaps in the raptor list.

In general, areas with extensive forest are your best bets. Some of the better places in Costa Rica for seeing a good variety of diurnal raptors in no particular order are:

  • Carara National Park and vicinity. The variety of forested and open habitats make the area around Carara a consistently good place for raptors. Cerro Lodge and vicinity is good for Plumbeous and Gray-headed Kites, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Osprey, and both Caracaras. The nearby national park also has these and Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, King Vulture, and Collared Forest Falcon are regularly seen.
  • The Osa Peninsula. The extensive forests of the Osa and Corcovado National Park offer the remote chance of glimpsing Harpy and Crested Eagles, a fair chance at all three hawk-eagles and Tiny Hawk, and a good chance at seeing White Hawk, Common and Great Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, and several other species.
  • Cano Negro. Cano Negro is a waterlogged, protected area with low rain forests and open country. This adds up to lots of raptors including species that are uncommon in Costa Rica such as Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kite, and Harris’s Hawk.
  • Braulio Carrillo National Park. Spend the mid-morning hours in the parking lot at Quebrada Gonzalez and you have a good chance of seeing King Vulture, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Barred Hawk, and a fair chance at White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite and all three hawk-eagles. You might also see Bat Falcon and Tiny Hawk.
  • El Copal. The vantage point from the balcony of the lodge is perfect for raptors in that it provides an ample view of a forested ridge. Barred Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk are regular while other species such as Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, and Ornate Hawk Eagle could also make an appearance.
  • El Ceibo ranger station, Braulio Carrillo National Park. I haven’t been to this site located well off of the beaten path on the western side of the national park since 1994 but it looked pretty darn good for raptors at that time! White Hawk was easily viewed as it hunted for toads at the forest edge, Bat Falcon was in the area, I got my lifer Barred Forest-Falcon in the forest (pure chance though and could happen at any number of sites), and the view from the ranger station overlooked a large area of forest.
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Birds to know when birding Costa Rica: the Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Before going on a birding trip to some far off wonderful place where nearly everything is a lifer, we gaze at our field guides and it’s like a flashback to the Decembers of our childhoods. The bird book is like the front window of a toy store, a catalog showing bicycles, binoculars (I started birding young), and a coveted Millenium Falcon or X-wing Fighter (!).

Before a first time birding trip to Costa Rica we say to ourselves, “I want to see that, and that, and that, and….definitely that purple and white hummingbird on page 137, and trogons, and a bellbird, a chlorophonia, a quetzal,and about 500 other species!”

The excitement of knowing that all of these amazing looking birds are possible can be dampened, however, once we pay attention to what the book says about the status and behavior of each species.

“Wow, look at that thing! Bare-necked Umbrellabird!! What is it? An avian tribute to Elvis Presley? A rock star crow? I have got to see that!”, and then with a glance at the text….

“Wait….it says that it’s uncommon to rare. Well, I still have a chance! What about Lovely Cotinga…that’s rare too? What IS IT with these bizarre things called cotingas?”

“Better look at the hummingbirds- at least I can see them at feeders. White-tipped Sicklebill! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Let’s see…….very uncommon. Ok, there has got to be some cool-looking birds that are common!”

“Here’s one on page 127- a purple and green hummingbird called the Violet-crowned Woodnymph!”

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

It takes some luck and local knowledge to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and White-tipped Sicklebill in Costa Rica but everyone should see a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. In fact, if you spend a day or two birding lowland or foothill rain forests in Costa Rica, you will probably run into several of them. Although the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird might be the de-facto king of flowers in non-forest habitats, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph calls the Colibrid shots inside the forest.

Sure, the trap-lining hermits are pretty common too but the most frequently-sighted hummingbird when birding rain forests in Costa Rica is the Violet-crowned Woodnymph. They buzz around flowering plants from the understory up into the canopy, test your reaction speed and eyesight by zipping onto hidden perches, and despite being common, befuddle birders to no end.

The problem with hummingbirds in the forest is that the rays of sunlight that make them glow like stained glass, rarely reach the ground after passing through the canopy vegetation. So, unless you can out the scope on that male woodnymph feeding on flowers 100 feet overhead, you can forget about its shining purple and green plumage; it’s going to look like some dark, anonymous hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

The typical, dark appearance of a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As tricky as shady-looking, understory woodnymph males may be to identify, the females present a bigger challenge for most birders. I think they so consistently throw birders in Costa Rica for a loop because they look nothing like the dark-plumaged males. Nevertheless, they have a contrasting gray throat that works as an excellent field mark because no other hummingbird that occurs with them shares this characteristic.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

With a close look, males in the dim understory are also fairly easy to identify if one focuses on shape. Dark plumage, forked tail, and a, “oh so slightly” decurved bill equals Violet-crowned Woodnymph when birding humid lowland forests in Costa Rica.

Note the “oh so slightly” decurved bill and forked tail.

The Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of those common, Costa Rican bird species worthwhile to know before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn it well because you will definitely cross paths with several when birding humid lowland and foothill forests.

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Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

A Dozen Birds to watch for when Birding Costa Rica part one

Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.

So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?

Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be!  These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.

Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.

Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.

For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.

Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.

Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.

For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.

Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.

Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.

In systematic order…

1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs,  it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.

2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range.  Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.

3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.

4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).

5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.

6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…

7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.

Fiery-throateds at La Georgina
female Volcano Hummingbird, Volcan Barva

8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.

male Coppery-headed Emerald, Cinchona

9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.

Black-bellied Hummingbird, El Silencio

10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.

male White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Cinchona
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem Varablanca
male White-throated Mountain-Gem El Copal

11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).

12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.

male Snowcap El Copal

Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!