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Which Bird Vocalizations to Study for Birding in Costa Rica?

Going birding in Costa Rica? I hope so. Since my first visit in 1992, experiencing the birds and biodiversity of this beautiful country is something I have wished for every birder. Costa Rica offers accessible tropical habitats, mixed flocks busy with colorful tanagers, toucans calling from treetops, and macaws dominating their surroundings by way of super sized plumage, appearance, and, most of all, screams.

Referring to those loud voices as vocalizations wouldn’t be wrong but we aren’t talking about some sweet rainforest melody. Macaws scream and they do it loud. It’s good, it makes sure you know where to look, where to watch the sky and wait for that avian royalty to fly into view. But I would be amiss if I said it was a song. That term seems better for the more musical voices of Bay Wrens and Clay-colored Thrushes.

birding Costa Rica

The friendly voice of the national bird may be more evocative than its modest appearance.

Just as Costa Rica has hundreds of birds to look at, this birding nation also has just as many birds to listen to. Yes, hundreds, as in several hundreds. If you feel daunted or that it would be silly to try and learn all of those bird songs, well, you might be right. I suppose it depends on how much time you feel like dedicating to the endeavor. However, as with visiting any place for birding, learning at least some of the more common and noticeable bird sounds will be worth your while.

The audible side of birding is just as important as the visual aspect of experiencing the avian. It might be even more important because most birds sing or vocalize and we hear them before we see them.. As with most forested habitats, in tropical forest, we hear many more birds than are seen, maybe even 20 species heard before laying eyes on just one. Knowing which birds make those whistles, chirps, and other calls is key to knowing what’s hiding in the forest, which species are waiting for us back there in the bromeliads and vines and mossy understory. That knowledge also helps locate target species and adds depth to a journey already made rich by time stopping viws of golden-beryl green quetzals, strutting curassows, and surreal wine-dipped Snowcaps.

It might seem daunting but it’s worth learning some of those calls, a few of those songs. With that in mind, these are a good 50 bird species to start with. They are frequently heard, have distinctive vocalizations, are very special birds you don’t want to miss, or a combination of those factors.

Great Tinamou– Listen for the mournful evocative whistles in lowland and foothills rainforests. It can sing any time of day or night.

great tinamou

Crested Guan– If you hear loud, odd sort of barking or honking calls coming from the forest canopy, this species is probably around.

Spotted Wood-Quail– Birding in the Dota Valley? Listen for this bird’s rollicking song in the cool montane airs of the early morning.

Gray-cowled Wood-Rail– This loud, drunken sounding bird calls from riparian zones in many parts of the country, urban green space included.

Green Ibis– Another bird that sounds like it may have had a few too many. It blends its prehistoric sounding calls with an equally prehistoric appearance.

White-throated Crake– Heard much more often than seen. If its sounds like eggs are sizzling in a marsh or tall wet grass, this species is the cook.

Ruddy Ground-Dove– The typical doveish calls of thsi common bird are good ones to learn.

Red-billed Pigeon– Ditto for Costa Rica’s most common pigeon.

Short-billed Pigeon– The Barred Owl isn’t the only bird that says, “Who cooks for you”? This plain colored rainforest pigeon asks the same question.

Squirrel Cuckoo– Some people claim this bird is being rude and saying, “Up Your’s!” I just think its living up to its cuckoo family antics.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl– A common bird in many of the dry parts of the Pacific slope.

Mottled Owl– One of Costa Rica’s most frequently heard owls.

Common Pauraque– The standard nightjar in many parts of Costa Rica.

Gartered Trogon– A common bird, vocal, and a good one to know so you can admire its plumage of many colors.

Resplendent Quetzal– Not as common but one of the most spectacular birds on the planet. They are vocal and hearing them is one of the best ways to find them.

Lesson’s Motmot– Hear a dog or owl giving a double bark or hoot? You might be hearing a Lesson’s Motmot.

Broad-billed Motmot– This motmot makes a funny nasal sounding noise that is difficult to describe.

Rufous-tailed Jacamar– Vocal, locally common, and a good bird to know.

Collared Aracari– This aracari doesn’t sound anything like the larger toucans.

Yellow-throated Toucan– Loud and proud, the yelps of this big-beaked badboy are typical of the audio rainforest scene.

Lineated Woodpecker– It sort of laughs like a Pileated but still sounds quite different.

Collared Forest-Falcon– Learn its mournful calls to realize how common this relusive species is actually is.

Laughing Falcon– The laughter of this masked snake eater carry for some distance.

Scarlet Macaw– It is good to know what the screams of this magnificent bird sound like.

White-crowned Parrot– A common parrot in many parts of Costa Rica.

Barred Antshrike– Another common bird with a characteristic song.

Chestnut-backed Antbird– The friendly whistled notes of this understory species are synonymous with rainforest.

Cocoa Woodcreeper– One of the more common woodcreeper species in the humid lowlands.

Spotted Woodcreeper– A common bird of mixed flocks in foothill and cloud forest habitats.

Three-wattled Bellbird– The loud calls of this special bird are incredible.

Silvery-fronted Tapaculo– Another bird heard more often than seen, you will hear its loud staccato vocalizations in cloud forest and high elevation habitats.

Masked Tityra– It’s just nice to know that some birds sound like cartoon pigs.

Great Kiskadee– A bird that says its name and says it often.

Boat-billed Flycatcher– A kiskadee look-a-like. Maybe it complains about kiskadees getting more attention?

Yellow-bellied Elaenia– Common in gardens and second growth and very vocal.

Long-tailed Manakin– The intriguing calls of this beautiful bird are frequently heard.

White-collared Manakin– Another common manakin, this one calls and displays from second growth.

Lesser Greenlet– Easy to overlook but common and often heard. A good vocalization to learn.

Green Shrike-Vireo– No, that’s not a titmouse even if it does remind you of one.

Brown Jay– Hear some typically jayish calls? It’s probably this bird.

Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (and other wrens especially Rufous-and-white and Nightingale)- You will hear plenty of wrens, including the friendly song of this bird while birding in cloud forest.

Clay-colored Thrush– The song of this bird may remind you of the American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

Black-faced Solitaire– One of the best songs in the country!

Olive-backed Euphonia– You will probably hear quite a few of these in the lowland and foothill forests of the Caribbean slope.

Yellow-crowned Euphonia– Another commonly heard euphonia.

Rufous-collared Sparrow– This is one of the first species heard at first light in the Central Valley.

Costa Rica birding

Melodious Blackbird– The ringing calls of this common species have become a regular part of the audio backdrop in many places.

Great-tailed Grackle– Another loud and very common urban species.

Collared Redstart– The hurried song of this friendly species is typical of high elevation sites.

Black-thighed Grosbeak– A nice, beautiful song to learn.

Whether because they are common, heard often, or make fantastic sounds, these are the 50 species I recommend learning first. If 50 seems like too many birds to learn, go for 25 or even 20. You will probably hear several from the list when visiting Costa Rica, maybe even on that first exciting morning. If you can find time to learn more, that’s even better. If you can’t learn any, that’s alright too; what’s most important is making it to Costa Rica for birding and enjoying several days of fantastic Costa Rica birds.

There are additional birds not on this list that would also be good to learn, other birds you will certainly hear during a birding tour to Costa Rica. Some are bird species that may be familiar to folks who have birded Arizona or other places in the USA, species like Blue Grosbeak and Inca and White-winged Doves. Others include various hawks, hawk-eagles, warblers, and so many others. It’s always good to study those other species because make no doubt about it, many will be entering your personal birding audiosphere.

Whether you just want to learn a few, the 50 on this list, or listen to the whole shebang of 900 species, a complete birding app for Costa Rica can help. It works because you can:

  • See pictures of the birds while listening to them.
  • Use filters to show birds by family (if you feel like say focusing on antbird vocalizations), region (if you want to study the calls of birds that say only occur in the mountains), or other attributes.
  • Listen to the sounds of 900 species (its nice to have the songs of so many birds at your fingertips).

Not to mention, in a recent update, we also included:

  • 7 more species for a total of 1005 species and subspecies on the app. One of these was a recent addition to the Costa Rica bird list, the others are species that could eventually occur.
  • More images, including birds in flight.
  • Regional endemic search filter and updated list of regional endemics
  • Updated information about behavior and habitats of pelagic birds and other species.
  • Name changes that reflect AOS and eBird checklists
  • Improved range maps

Learn some bird songs to get ready for your birding trip to Costa Rica. The birds are waiting and the birding is always fantastic. I hope to see you here!

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Costa Rica Birds in Waiting, Guanacaste- 7 Species to Look for Not on the List

How many birds are on the Costa Rica list? Although some sources mention somewhere around 870 or so species, the official list of birds for Costa Rica has 923 species. Why the discrepancy? I’m not entirely sure but part of the difference is surely related to bird species having been steadily confirmed and added to the country list.

While most are vagrants, given changes in habitat, distribution, and populations of various species, it’s not out of the question that there could be more of certain vagrants, and that some “new” species could establish breeding populations.

The official list has grown but believe it or not, there’s room for more! In fact, much more than I had expected. After having looked into the most likely additions for Costa Rica, quite a few more species came to mind than I had imagined (and I never even thought about Orinoco Goose but that’s another story). This post is the first in a series discussing birds that may eventually find themselves on the list and is in conjunction with a separate post written by fellow local birder, Diego Ramirez (aka “Mr. Birder”). He wrote a good post about this theme in Spanish, check out, Las Potenciales Nuevas Especies de Aves para Costa Rica.

Although the occurrence of any of these species would be an occasion of extreme rarity, for various reasons discussed below, all of them are possible. While none of these can be really expected when birding Costa Rica, I feel like it’s better to know about what might occur, to have that information available, than potentially overlooking a country first because a Long-toed Stint was assumed to just be a funny looking Least Sandpiper, or that the Black-headed Gull was a weird Bonaparte’s with a red bill.

This is also why the latest free update for the Costa Rica Birds field guide app includes 68 species that aren’t on the list but could occur (photos used in this post are screenshots from this latest update to the app). Despite such a high number of potential species, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had left out at least 3additional species. Expect those on the next update! Without further ado, the following are some birds to keep an eye out for when birding in Guanacaste (expect shorebirds in a future post!):

Gadwall

Photo by Tony Leukering.
If you think you see a female Mallard in Costa Rica, take a closer look. Photo by Stanley Jones.

Yep, the good old Gadwall. A familiar, svelte species for many birders of North America and the Palearctic, it has yet to fly south to Costa Rica. Given its large population and strong possibility of migrating with other ducks, I believe this species is one of the strongest contenders for being the next addition to the list. The marshes of Palo Verde and nearby sites, the Sandillal Reservoir, and the catfish ponds of Sardinal would all be good places to check.

Spot-tailed Nightjar

Spot-tailed Nightjar by Hector Bottai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What? Yes and Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean one may have actually seen one in 2003. The Spot-tailed Nightjar is a small nightjar of savannas and other open habitats that has migratory populations in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Where do they go for the winter? No one really knows and it would be very easy for s small, nocturnal bird to go unnoticed during migration, especially if it is silent. Heck, if a few of these inconspicuous nightbirds wintered in Guanacaste, they could also easily go unnoticed.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

No, I’m not making this up, this is one of the names given to a mystery hummingbird known from one old specimen and referred to as, “Amazilia alfaroensis“. Searches have been carried out yet have failed to refind it. Nevertheless, maybe it’s still out there? If you are birding around the Miravalles Volcano or other sites in northern Guanacaste, keep an eye out for any odd-looking Blue-vented Hummingbirds, especially ones that have blue on the crown. Take pictures, if you find one, you will have refound a critically endangered “lost species”.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo provded by Alan Schmierer.

This small woodpecker of open habitats could certainly occur at some point in the Upala area. There are sightings of this species from sites near there, just across the border in Nicaragua. If you think you ehar a Downy Woodpecker in that area, it’s very likely a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Pacific Parakeet

Given the propensity for parakeets to wander, group up with other parakeets, and possible sightings in Nicaragua close to the northwestern border with Costa Rica, this species should be looked for. If I get the chance to bird up that way, I would look for flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets and carefully check them for birds with green fronts. Flowering trees might be a good food source, and in the southern esge of its range, the Pacific Parakeet might be partial to mangroves.

Cassin’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird by GregTheBusker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This one is a long shot but since one was found in Panama, it could certainly occur in Cost Rica as a very rare migrant vagrant. In other parts of its range, this typical kingbird uses a variety of open habitats, often in grasslands with tall trees. With that in mind, a vagrant Cassin’s Kingbird could show up anywhere in Guanacaste and be easily overlooked as a Tropical Kingbird. I would not be at all surprised if a few have made it to Costa Rica now and then.

Altamira Oriole

Photo provided by John C. Sterling.

This beautiful bird is just waiting to be found. It occurs in Nicaragua fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and lives in a variety of scrubby and dry forest habitats. It could also be very easily overlooked as a Streak-backed or Spot-breasted Oriole. Watch for it at flowering trees near the border, look for orioles that have a small patch of gray on the base of a stout bill and no spots on the breast.

Other possible additions could occur in Guanacaste such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and Virginia’s Warbler. It’s a reminder to take a close look and listen at every bird, you really never know what you might find.

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5 Essentials for Birding on Your Own in Costa Rica

Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Think about it because although you might not feel good about traveling to watch quetzals today, in a couple of months, vaccination rates might change your mind.

Quetzals are always a good excuse to travel, even when they try to hide.

Since the best birding trips are planned well in advance, looking into information for a birding trip to Costa Rica isn’t just wishful thinking. The time to start planning a trip is now and although these ideas about what to bring to Costa Rica for birding are more for birding on your own, they could also come in handy on any tour:

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

As with visiting any place far from home, a good field guide is worth its weight in gold. You might forget to bring a poncho, you might not be able to shave, in a sudden fit of absent-mindedness, you might even leave the flashlight on the hood of the car or next to the snowmobile. Forget those things and you can still go birding. Leave the field guide on the desk back home and well, I guess you could still go birding but you better go buy a notebook, pencils, and be ready to write some wicked field journals.

There’s nothing wrong with field journals (especially the wicked ones splashed with coffee and filled with illegible notes) but birding is always better when you have some fine reference material. Nowadays, although there are a couple of good books available, I still prefer the good old Garrigues and Dean. Lightweight, easy to use and well done, it’s great for studying before the trip and essential when birding Costa Rica, especially if birding by yourself.

So you can identify endemics like the Yellow-thighed Brushfinch.

Costa Rica Birds App

If you already have a field guide, why use a digital one? That’s a good question but I find that having both a book and a digital field guide is better for any birding trip. It’s fun to look at a book, especially when it has great illustrations and it’s also fun to interact with an app and check out photos of birds in flight, more postures, and so on.

Although you could go with the free Merlin app, it’s nice but it does have its limitations. With the full version of the Costa Rica Birds app, you can also:

  • Study bird sounds for more than 900 species while looking at various images.
  • See images for 926 species on the Costa Rica bird list, even rare species, and information and range maps for a few more.
  • See more accurate range maps.
  • See more up to date information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.
  • Personalize the app with target lists, check birds seen, make notes, etc.
  • Play with the filter to see birds grouped by region, family, and more to use it as a study tool before the trip and make identification easier during the trip to Costa Rica.
  • See 68 additional species not yet recorded in Costa Rica but possible.

These and other features make this app just as useful as a reference guide as it is in the field. To be honest, I will mention that I helped create and still work on this app but since I am a serious birder and want other birders to have the same sort of birding tool that I would like to have, you can bet that it’s going to have as much useful and accurate information as possible. The main downside is that it is currently only available for IOS devices. I would love to find a solution for that, if you know any Android coding birders, please let me know.

A Costa Rica Site Guide

For any trip, you obviously need to know where to go for the best birding. If this is a DIY birding trip, a site guide is imperative. Yes, you could plan the trip just using eBird but although that does show where various sites are and can give an idea of abundance, it won’t provide the types of on the ground details found in site guides. Not to mention, for eBird in Costa Rica, hotspots and other sites tend to be biased for sites visited on tours, and overlooked errors in identification on lists can give false ideas about what is truly present. I would still use eBird for some trip planning but the trip will be much better planned when done in conjunction with other information.

Although changes happen quickly, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica is still mostly up to date and useful for planning a trip (and will likely be updated soon!). It covers all parts of the country, gives ideas for itineraries, and also has insider information for finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica. Designed for birders doing Costa Rica on their own, it also has plenty of useful information for folks on tours. Not mention, every purchase supports this blog platform as a source of information for birding in Costa Rica.

A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella

Don’t forget to bring these items! A flashlight (torch) is handy for more than just searching for night birds. It also comes in handy when the lights go out and when you need to check the ground while walking at night (necessary).

A small umbrella is easy to carry and keeps you and your stuff dry. Along with packets of desiccant in plastic ziplock bags, it’s always good to have.

A Mobile Device with Waze

Or at least something with GPS. Google maps will also work but a heck of a lot of locals use Waze. If driving on your own, forget about a paper map, forget about looking for road signs (because they aren’t there and some might be wrong). Stick with Waze or something similar, you will need it!!

You could still visit Costa Rica now (some people are doing just that!) but if you would rather have a vaccine before making the trip, the time to plan the trip is still now. Start learning about the birds waiting for you in Costa Rica today because the departure date will be here before you know it. Get ready for some exciting birding, try to keep it Zen, I hope to see you here!

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Costa Rica birding app

Updating the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide App

While out birding or guiding, I usually have a camera on hand. Having
become part of the modern day birding kit, that would be expected. But, the funny thing is, I don’t take that many pictures of birds. I guess I would but I already have more than enough images of hundreds of species, especially the common, easy to shoot ones like flycatchers, toucans, and Short-tailed Hawks.

I still bring the camera, though, but more for shots of birds in flight, rarities, and just in case probability takes an unlikely right turn in my direction to bring me good shots of Tawny-faced Gnatwren or other deviously difficult birds to photograph. I don’t take such pictures to expand my portfolio, I release the shutter with the hope of adding more images to the birding apps I work on. They have to be quality images and since the Costa Rica Field Guides app now shows images for more than 900 species, there aren’t too many more that I can get pictures of anyways.

However, there’s always that chance that I will suddenly have that skulking gnatwren or Tawny-crowned Greenlet paused and in good light, or get good shots of some of the swifts. However unlikely those scenarios may be, as with winning a lottery, they are still possible and the more I encounter those birds, as per the laws of probability, the more likely such photographic chances will present themselves.

But, fortunately for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, I am far from the only person contributing images. In addition to the hundreds of excellent photos contributed by Randall Ortega Chaves (one of the co-founders of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app), several people have helped us with images of a host of other difficult species. Many of the images are actually birds common elsewhere but a challenge to find and photograph in Costa Rica, birds like Great Shearwater, White Tern, and Northern Pintail. Although a birder might not be looking for those species in Costa Rica, or be likely to see them, we include those and every species on the official list for the country because that’s what a complete field guide should do. With that in mind, contributed are greatly appreciated and is why contributors are listed on the app, the app website, and, if desired, promoted on the app Facebook page.

Since the creation of the app, we have also routinely provided free updates with more images, vocalizations, and other information. Recently, we did another one, these are some of the new images:

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, many thanks to Pete Morris at Birdquest for being so generous with this and so many other excellent images including the Uniform Crake pictured below.

Seth Beaudrault gave us a few very nice images of Barred Hawk and Scaled Antpitta, as with the birds above, both are species already shown on the app but there’s nothing like having more quality images of really cool birds.

Many thanks also goes to Jean Bonilla, a guide in the Monteverde area who made it possible to finally show the Black-breasted Wood-Quail on the app. This is the excellent picture he took and contributed:

In going through my photos from the previous year, I also found some images to include. They aren’t pictures of birds in perfect views but that’s actually why I put them on the app. The birding days are grand when all the birds show themselves in perfect light. However, since such days are also as rare as sightings of the RVG Cuckoo, I think it’s important for a field guide to also picture birds as they are often seen; in substandard light and in odd positions.

Birds like this Nutting’s Flycatcher,

this view of Western Kingbird,

and this White-necked Puffbird.

The app also now shows more images of ducks and a few other birds in flight and additional images of Rough-legged Tyrannulet and other uncommon species. We are just a few short images away from picturing every species on the list, if you would like to help us out, please contact me at information@birdingcraft.com These are the final birds we are looking for!-

  • Mangrove Rail
  • Ocellated Crake
  • Paint-billed Crake
  • Violaceous Quail-Dove
  • Cocos Cuckoo
  • Cocos Flycatcher
  • Cocos Finch
  • Short-tailed Nighthawk
  • Great Swallow-tailed Swift
  • White-chinned Swift
  • Red-fronted Parrotlet
  • Black-headed Antthrush
  • Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
  • Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
  • Tawny-crowned Greenlet
  • Tawny-faced Gnatwren
  • Lined Seedeater,
  • Sulphur-rumped Tanager

As always, I hope to see you birding somewhere in Costa Rica!

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Why It’s Important to Study Before a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:

Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.

Ocellated Antbird

Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.

Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.

You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.

What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).

Keel-billed Motmot

Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.

Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.

Some stuff to study:

Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:

-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.

Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.

Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:

– Any other books by Alexander Skutch.

– Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.

-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.

– Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.

eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.

Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:

– A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.

How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app Introduction

A Tropical Screech Owl Visits the Neighborhood

I have this Polish friend by the name of Eva who loves owls. She is also into Hoopoes but owls are what she likes the most. It’s easy to see why Eva and lots of other non-birders would take the time to see an owl but not even give a second glance at say a Connecticut Warbler (not that this one allows looks anyways) or a Black-capped Vireo. With their fluffy plumage, big, staring eyes, and horn-like tufts, they hardly look like birds. We know that they are indeed avian but they seem to be in a special, cool class of their own.

Owls are pretty much eternally cool and it’s a shame that we can’t see a few every day of the week. The problem with owls is that they mostly come out at night, hide out during the day, and usually have low density populations. In Costa Rica, most species are fairly common and even live in unexpected places (like that pair of Spectacled Owls in the middle of San Jose) but they are still a pain to see. They just hide too well and one of the most accomplished of hiders is the Tropical Screech Owl.

A pair of Spectacled Owls from Pocosol. This awesome species lives in a lot of places.

It’s not rare, it can live in parks, and it doesn’t screech. Regarding screeching, are there any screech owls that actually screech? Barn Owls screech but screech owls give hooting calls and even horse whinnies but they sure don’t screech! I bet one did when it was “collected” but instead of realizing that even rabbits screech when faced with imminent death, the 18th century collector thought, “Well now, this fine specimen of an owl has thus given a screechy vocalization. I shall name it a Screech Owl!” Meanwhile, the Mahicans, Tuscarora, and other automatic birder native peoples silently chuckled because they knew that the small owls of the eastern woodlands whinnied, gave trebled calls, and hid in plain sight but weren’t really known for their screeches.

BUT, back to the Tropical Screech. This fine little bird is indeed fairly common in the Central Valley but you would never know it. Perhaps because it has to deal with larger owls, it doesn’t call so much, loathes the day, and does its best to stay out of sight. I hear one call now and then from nearby shade coffee farms but hardly ever see one (and I am always on the lookout for a roosting owl). To give an idea of how much of a birding pain this little bird can be, my friend Susan has heard them now and then near her house too but she hadn’t seen one until recently. On that fine day, she noticed that the neighborhood grackles were cackling up a storm and went to check out what they were up to.

How would you like to be harrassed by this crazy bird?

Instead of finding a cat torturing a baby bird, she saw a Tropical Screech Owl! She called me, I said that I couldn’t make it because of work but to please call back if the birds stayed. Thirty minutes later, I open an email with owl photos and a short message saying that the grackles had gone. That did it. Next thing I knew, I had packed my digiscoping stuff into the car and was on my way. Twenty minutes of frustrating driving behind a slow clueless car later (yes, he gets the clueless award because he passed a bus on a blind turn), I arrived at Susan’s. She showed me the birds and said, “But look what else is there!”.

A baby Tropical Screech Owl!

A bit of adjustment and we had better looks.

Yes! A pair of Tropical Screech and a fuzzy baby as a bonus!

The parents were also present.

Another look. Note the dark edge of the facial shield. Pacific Screech can also show up in the eastern Central Valley but has more pale brown uniform plumage and little dark edging to the facial shield.

Now where were these birds on our Big Day? We tried for them literally right in the same area. They probably should have been called “Hermit Owls” or “Pain Owls” instead of “Screech Owls”.

To see the Tropical Screech Owl in Costa Rica, look for roosting birds in the big bamboo bunches in the Bougainvillea Hotel gardens (if you stay there and look for ages in the bamboo), or you might try spotlighting for them at any hotel in the Central Valley with a big garden. Another good site for them is Talari Lodge (this is where I made the recording for this species that is on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app), and other sites in the Valle del General.

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

“2014” Expectations and Hopes for Birding in Costa Rica

We are now officially in what a fair portion of humans on the planet refer to as “2014”. Yep, 14 years after the milenium and if you haven’t been to Costa Rica yet for birding, what are you waiting for? The birding is great, the weather is great, and there’s a quetzal with your name on it!

Does this quetzal have your name on it?

So, whether you are on your way to Costa Rica or are itching to plan a trip, here are ten things to expect in 2014:

1. A smooth ride between Varablanca and Cinchona: Finally, the road is paved! Ever since 2009, this fine birding route was wacked up pretty bad by the Cinchona earthquake. It has been slowly paved ever since and the last stretch was finally completed a month ago. I’m looking forward to checking it out because I have had a lot of fine birding on this road and am sure that it holds a few hidden surprises here and there. It’s also kind of close to home and is on our Big Day route so that helps too.

The view from the Cinchona- Varablanca area.

2. Great bird photography at the Nature Pavilion along with a big sit done at that site: This rather new birding site in Sarapiqui continues to be one of the best places for bird photography in the country and keeps getting better as the owners plant more trees on their property. I plan on doing a big sit on their deck to see how many species show up. Not sure when I will do it but I can’t wait!

This Collared Aracari was at the Nature Pavilion.

3. An Ochraceous Pewee: It’s about time for me to actually see this uncommon, high-elevation endemic. I have heard them a couple of times but have yet to see one! I keep putting it off because a day trip up to Cerro de la Muerte is kind of a long one for me. The bird is way overdue though so I need to start planning a trip now.

4. A major Big Day: For those whom I have guided, it’s no surprise that I plan on breaking the Big Day world record. A lot of factors need to fall into place but it can be done in Costa Rica and I hope this year is the one. Like Eric B and Rakim, I’m thinking of a master plan and with better preparations and scouting, it just might happen.

A scene from last year's Big Day.

5. Lots of hummingbirds: You have to bird with your eyes closed to not see lots of hummingbirds when birding Costa Rica. Those little glittering sprites are pretty easy to see in many parts of the country, and especially so at a variety of sites with feeders and flowering bushes that are planted to attract them.

The local variety of the Magnificent Hummingbird is pretty common at high elevations.

6. Want antbirds? Go to the right sites!: If you want to see more antbirds, bird more often in quality forest. The Pacific slope species are regular in places like Carara National Park and the Osa Peninsula, but the best sites for Caribbean slope species seem to be the Arenal- Monteverde forest complex (especially at sites around Arenal, at and near Pocosol Research Station, and Lands in Love), and the northern forests (Laguna del Lagarto and nearby).

7. More raptors: Who doesn’t want to see more raptors? I hear about the apparent scarcity of raptors from birders than any other bird related commentary and they are right, raptors are rather scarce in Costa Rica. It has to do with them being at the top of the food chain, competing with other raptor species, many needing large areas of quality forest, and way too much edge habitat. This is why one sees more Gray and Roadside Hawks, and caracaras than other species. However, look long enough and in the right places and things like hawk-eagles, Gray-headed Kite, and other rainforest raptors eventually show.

8. Lots of antswarms!: Ok, so this is every neotropical birder’s wish but that’s what I’m hoping for. Best chances are places with high quality forest (hmm, seems to be a theme there…). For those who are unaware, the beauty of a bunch of hungry Eciton burchellii ants is that they attract all sorts of birds. In addition to those cool little antbirds, you can also get woodcreepers, tinamous, forest-falcons, foliage-gleaners, antpittas, ground cuckoos, and who knows what else coming in to the swarm.

9. Using the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app: The newest version has more than 575 species and is now available for Android in addition to being available in the iTunes store. We should be able to push the number of species above 600 in 2014.

Costa Rican Brush-Finch-one of the species on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. This image was taken by Linda Scott.

10. A book on birding in Costa Rica: I’m working on it…

Hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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

A Few More Differences Between Tropical Birding in Costa Rica and Temperate Zone Birding Back Home

Birding in the tropical zone is not the same as watching birds in the temperate zone. However, the huge and tantalizing array of interesting birds that will never be seen near a North American or European home comes with a price: a lot of them are just tough to see! Unlike the easy-going spring or early summer birding in the coniferous and broad-leafed forests of the north, you can come on down to Costa Rica, stalk along a trail through rainforest where 300 species have been recorded, and actually see three or four birds over the course of an hour. When that happens, you can’t help but wonder, “Where the hell are the birds?”, especially because you are hearing so many of them.

I’ve blogged about these differences in the past but here are a few more things to keep in mind before heading to Costa Rica for a birding trip:

  • Waterfowl: As in the paucity of ducks and total absence of geese and swans. Unlike the duck-filled marches and lakes of higher latitudes, we have just three species of commonly occurring web-footed quackers. That trio of Anseriformes are the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, the Muscovy Duck, and the Blue-winged Teal. While several other species of northern ducks can and do turn up, they aren’t very common and are the exception. To give an idea of why Costa Rica is not the place to visit for watching waterfowl, us local birders are stoked if such rarities as Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, or Northern Shoveler make an appearance. So, don’t worry about looking for ducks when birding Costa Rica (not that many visiting birders do anyways).

    Truly wild Muscovy Ducks shows up here and there when birding Costa Rica.
  • Challenging Mixed Flocks: If you get a joyous Passerine kick when watching chickadee-led flocks of warblers, get ready for larger, more complex, and heart pounding groups of birds that race through the high canopy and dim understory of tropical forests! Dreamy mixed flocks are a typical aspect of birding in tropical habitats but yes, here comes another catch- they don’t come easy! In other words, the understory antwrens, antvireos, flycatchers, and such move through the lower levels of the forest in seriously stealthy mode. They are quiet, take their time, and don’t exactly stand out from the various dull shades of rainforest green. Meanwhile, up there in the 40 meter high canopy, tanagers, woodcreepers, and other species rush through the foliage like a starving, hyperactive horde. It’s common to see only a few birds well, to get looks at pieces of various species as they forage in bromeliads and other vegetated cubby holes, and miss most of the birds in the flock. However, do not despair! Follow those flocks until you can position yourself where they will pass by at eye level or in good light and you might eventually get looks at all of the birds in the flock and find that crazy Sharpbill or rarely seen Gray-headed Piprites.

    Do some stealthy birding and you might see a female Streak-crowned Antvireo.

    Hopefully, your looks at the avian ADHD Tawny-faced Gnatwren will be better than this image.
  • Poor views: See Challenging Mixed Flocks above! Away from mixed flocks, you will run into frustrating moments when birds are hidden by leaves, epiphytes, and other proliferations of vegetative matter. You will hear but not see many a bird. Birds will also be back-lit and thus turned into silhouettes even after you have contorted your neck in ways that resemble novel vogue dancing or yoga positions. Instead of being frustrated, just use that fine Brooklyn Zenish adage of “Forget about it” (in an accent from Far Rockaway or Bensonhurst of course) and re-position yourself on higher ground or another part of the trail to blaze the corneas with properly colored and detailed birds. Once that happens, you can once again exclaim “Forget about it!!”, but this time as a victory cry.

    Rufous-browed Tyrannulet- Forget about it!!
  • Study some vocalizations: If you can learn at least some of the songs and calls for most of Costa Rica’s birds, that would be ideal. However, since learning the songs of 600 plus species a few months before a trip is rather daunting for the majority of flocks (except Felonious Jive because that birding genius already has innate knowledge of all bird calls), you might want to pick out a 100 or so of the most common species and focus on those. That will ready your ears to help detect the uncommon or rare birds if and when they do show up, and will enrich your Costa Rican birding experience. The Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app can help in this and other regards in preparing for your trip.
  • Tough understory things: While the temperate zone has its fair share of understory  birds, believe me when I say that the birds up there are absolute rookies when it comes to staying hidden on or near the forest floor! Tinamous, quail-doves, wood-quails, antpittas, antthrushes, leaftossers, and ground-cuckoos can’t help but laugh with disdain at the  Ovenbird and grouse as they make amateur attempts to avoid being detected. They do, however, give much respect to that master creeper known as the Connecticut Warbler. A post about looking for tinamous will give you some tips on seeing them although your chances will be highest if you hire an experienced local guide.

    The Zeledonia is one of those pro Costa Rican skulkers. This individual was the happy, extremely rare exception!

As you might infer from this post, birding in Costa Rica might not be as easy as watching birds near home BUT it will be very rewarding when you keep seeing new species every day of your trip!

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Press Release for the Second Version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide App

Birding Field Guides releases Second Version of Birdwatching app for Costa Rica

For Immediate Release: August 20, 2013

The first birding app for Costa Rica is a digital field guide replete with photos, sounds, text, and range maps for more than 500 bird species.

San Jose, Costa Rica – The second version of the Costa Rica Birds-Field Guide app became available in the iTunes Store in July, 2013. This is the second version of the only app and digital field guide completely focused on bird species of Costa Rica.

Since the 1990s, Costa Rica has been an important destination for ecotourists, especially those who enjoy birdwatching. As birding has increased in popularity as a hobby, increasing numbers of birders have made their way to Costa Rica. This small Central American country appeals to birdwatchers and ecotourists on account of its stable, democratic government, and protected areas that host hundreds of bird species, including such exotic stunners as toucans, macaws, parrots, the fantastic Resplendent Quetzal, and over 50 species of hummingbirds.

This second version of the Costa Rica Birds-Field Guide app has been updated with information and images for more than 520 species of birds that occur in Costa Rica and vocalizations for more than 320 species. Other new features include a full checklist of Costa Rican birds that can be edited and emailed, and improved search options. The new “Which Bird is it?” function lets app users take pictures and make recordings of birds that are then automatically sent to the people at Birding Field Guides for identification.

Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, expects that the new features and additional species will make it easier for tourists and residents of Costa Rica to identify and learn about the many birds that are seen and heard while visiting this biodiverse country.

He said, “The updates in this second version were designed to provide the visitor to Costa Rica with more information about the country’s bird species as well as make it easier to identify and learn about them. We plan to continue updating the app with images, information, and vocalizations of additional species before the end of 2013”.

The app is currently available for version 4.3 or higher iPod Touch and iPhone devices.

About Birding Field Guides

Birding Field Guides was started in 2012 and develops birding and nature-related apps and products for digital devices. For more information, please visit http://birdingfieldguides.com.

To learn more about this product, please contact

Patrick O’Donnell, Media Relations

Casa 30e, Condominio Colonial

Santa Barbara, Costa Rica

Office: (506) 8318-3329

information@birdingcraft.com

###

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app Introduction preparing for your trip

New and Improved Birding App for Costa Rica Now Available

Earlier this year, the first birding app for Costa Rica was released and since I played a principal role in its development, I am going to talk about the new, updated second version. Version one of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app featured images, range maps, and information for more than 400 species, vocalizations for nearly 300 of those birds, and an easy means of searching for those species among other features. Since then, we have worked out a few minor bugs and in addition to the features already present on the app, added the following features:

  • More species for a total of 528: We realize that this doesn’t include all of the birds on the Costa Rica list but we have attempted to include more of the species that are commonly seen, regional endemics, and quite a few uncommon birds. We figured it was better to make this app available now to help people learn about and identify birds in Costa Rica sooner rather than wait for images of Thicket Antpitta, Nightingale Wren, Tawny-faced Quail, and other tough birds to see and photograph (although we hope to put those and others on the app eventually). Some of the new birds we did include in this recent major update were species such as

Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant

Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant vocalization

Mangrove Vireo

Mangrove Vireo vocalization

Pinnated Bittern

and

Olive-crowned Yellowthroat

Olive-crowned Yellowthroat song

  • Vocalizations for more than 320 species: This includes more sounds for commonly heard species such as all of the trogons, various wrens, antbirds, parrots, and many other species. We will eventually be adding sounds for all species on the app in subsequent updates.

A few more samples of vocalizations: Scrub Greenlet, Slate-colored Seedeater, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Collared Forest-Falcon

  • Image with text: Upon touching the text icon, a small thumb image of the species is shown so you can see the bird while reading about its field marks, habitat, description, and see what notes you have taken on the bird.
  • Search by group or family: Although you can display the species on the app by group (tinamous, antbirds (typical), cotingas, etc.), if you would rather see the families listed in taxonomic order, we included that feature too. The search filter can also be used to quickly search for groups listed in alphabetic or taxonomic order and this can bring you to the hoped for species in a matter of seconds.
  • Checklist: We added the latest full checklist of birds that have been identified in Costa Rica. Birds can be marked off as seen, heard, male, female, and immature and this list can be emailed once your device goes online.
  • Which Bird is It?: Not sure what that strange greenish bird is or if the sound you heard was a Rufous-tailed Jacamar or a Lanceolated Monklet? This feature lets you use your device to take a picture of a bird as well as record its sound. Those images and sounds are then automatically emailed to us once your device goes online. We will respond with the correct identification (as long as the picture or sound was made in Costa Rica).

Whether birding Costa Rica or just visiting Costa Rica to experience this beautiful country, this Costa Rica birding app can act as a study guide before a trip, and will help in identifying many of Costa Rica’s avian sights and sounds.

If you already bought the first version of this app, update to the new and improved second version for free!