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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Seeing Curassows, Guans, and Chachalacas when birding Costa Rica

Before coming to Costa Rica for a birding trip, birders usually wonder what their chances are for seeing certain birds that are particularly rare, colorful, or just look extremely cool. Something particularly rare might be a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, male manakins and Bay-headed Tanagers fit nicely into the colorful category, and Ocellated Antbird comes to mind for looking (and being) extremely cool (although the umbrellabird could also fall into this genre). “Extremely unlikely to see” is reserved for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (although it gets its name from the lack of spots, it is remains un-spotted by just about every birder), while things like Great-tailed Grackle and Tropical Kingbird fit snugly into the “ok, I’m tired of seeing those” category.

The Costa Rican members of the Cracidae family can be placed into the category of “Ooh, I really want to see those birds because although they look kind of like turkeys or colorless turacos, I’m not sure what they are”!

In birding terms, the Cracids are the currasows, guans, and chachalacas. Large, long-tailed birds with dewlaps, they tend to become rare because of another trait shared with turkeys- they taste good. For this reason, they are usually most common in protected areas. Fortunately, Costa Rica has lots of protected forests which makes it pretty easy to see all five Cracids if you know where and how to look for them.

Great Curassow: All curassows look great but this one got the title. Found in most areas of the neotropical region, the many species of curassows are all pretty uncommon outside of protected areas and a few (such as the Wattled, Red-billed, and Blue-billed) are highly endangered due to hunting and habitat loss. Unlike turkeys, the curassows have a very low reproductive rate which makes their populations susceptible to even low levels of hunting. The Great Curassow in Costa Rica has certainly declined for the same reasons as endangered curassow species but is still found in a number of wild and protected areas. Although it ranges in lowland and foothill forests from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador, there are very few places where a birder is guaranteed to see one. Although you might chance across one in wilderness areas, possibly the only place where you are almost certain to see a Great Curassow is at the OTS La Selva station in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica.

This is because they are well protected and have become so accustomed  to people that males and females stroll the grounds without a care in the world. They might look tame, but these are wild birds that just about pose for photos. This close encounter is a far cry from the brief looks one usually gets after spending hours in some hot, humid rainforest. In Costa Rica, Great Curassows can also be seen in other national parks such as Santa Rosa, Rincon de la Vieja, Corcovado, Tortuguero, and others but they are always most reliable at La Selva.

Great Curassows being “great” at La Selva.

Crested Guan: More arboreal than Great Curassows, the Crested Guan is also much easier to see. This brown, turkey like bird with the red dewlap and yapping calls is frequently seen on visits to most protected areas in Costa Rica. They usually aren’t too hard to find because they are so darn noisy. If you hear something calling from the canopy that sounds like a small, yipping dog, you have probably found a Crested Guan.

They are especially numerous in fruiting trees such as those near the administration buildings of La Selva. Unlike the curassow, though, you have a good chance of seeing Crested Guans when birding a wide variety of parks so usually don’t need to visit La Selva to get this bird. I see them on most visits to Braulio Carrillo, Carara, and in almost any areas with enough habitat. Also listen for their wing rattling displays at dawn and dusk.

A Crested Guan hanging out at La Selva.

Black Guan: This is one that you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica because it only occurs here and in western Panama. It’s not that rare in protected areas but is considered to be near threatened by Birdlife International because of threats from hunting and habitat loss in its small range. Although it probably has a fairly small population, since a large area of its montane forest habitat is protected, the Black Guan is doing much better than another regional endemic, the Yellow-billed Cotinga. Although this species often gets missed on birding trips to Costa Rica, I think this is due to its habit of quietly foraging in the vegetation.

Compared to the Crested Guan, the Black Guan hardly vocalizes at all and doesn’t get as alarmed when you walk underneath it. This behavior makes it less noticeable but easy to watch and very photo friendly if you happen to see it. Although I have watched them fly across the highway through Braulio Carrillo National Park, some of the best places for the Black Guan are the cloud forests of the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves, Tapanti National Park (I once saw a dozen in a day on the main road through the park), and forests on Cerro de la Muerte (the Dota area, La Georgina, etc.).

A Black Guan playing peek-a-boo.

Gray-headed Chachalaca: Although it acts and sounds kind of like the one you may have seen in Texas, this is different species. These are fairly common birds found more often outside of protected areas because they prefer second growth.

Because I stuck to birding in forested habitats on my first birding trip to Costa Rica, I missed this species. On my second trip, when I asked a ranger in Braulio Carrillo where to find the Gray-headed Chachalaca, he said, “There are lots in the crappy habitat”. I followed his advice, went to some dense, second growth area along a stream and with a background soundscape of cows mooing from acres of birdless pasture, saw my first Gray-headed Chachalacas!

As is usual with this and other species of Ortalis, I saw a group of a dozen or so that clambered and clucked their way through the low, dense vegetation. When birding in Costa Rica, you might run into this species at any number of humid lowland, second growth sites and is a good bird to watch for around lodges or while driving through this type of habitat. Note that this species is rare at Carara and is mostly found in the more humid forest of the hills above the national park (accessible along the road to Bijagual).

These chachalacas look slanted because I took these pictures from inside a car. We were driving near Arenal, pulled over upon seeing these, and as traffic sped by, managed a few digiscoped images.

Plain Chachalaca: If you saw those chachalacas at feeders in Texas, this is the same species. In Costa Rica, it’s pretty local but regular around Montezuma and other hilly areas with patches of humid forest on the Nicoya Peninsula. In general, it’s easier to see in southern Texas and eastern Mexico than in Costa Rica and has the same habits as the Gray-headed Chachalaca. No pics of this one!

Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What to study for a birding trip to Costa Rica

Costa Rica is an easy place to visit and see a large number of bird species, many of which are spectacular. With airline tickets still pretty cheap from North America (especially from New York), there’s almost no excuse not to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Ever since my first trip here in 1992, I have always told people what I discovered- that Costa Rica is much easier to visit than you think and that you should go! From North America, it’s pretty close, infastructure is better than a lot of places in the region, the country is small enough to conceivably bird in a wide variety of habitats, and although prices have gone up, it can still be done in an affordable manner. The birding is challenging but always exciting and you can start getting prepared by studying either or both of the bird books for Costa Rica. Whether you take a tour or do it on your own, studying the birds beforehand will seriously enhance your trip and leave more time for birding instead of pouring through the book during your time in Costa Rica.

The two bird books for Costa Rica are, “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch, and “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Garrigues and Dean. Whether you get the classic, “old school” Stiles and Skutch, or the updated, modernized Garrigues and Dean, I don’t think you can really go wrong with either one.

Here are some ups and downs about each:

While Stiles and Skutch has more information overall and makes for a great reference book, this also makes it rather large in size for the field. The size of the book is also just big enough to take up a fair amount of packing space. Because of its size, for me, it’s more of a book to keep back at the hotel or at home rather than one for the field. Although some of the illustrations could be improved, overall they are pretty good, are for the most part useful for identification, and the text always makes for good reading. Being several years old, it also needs to be updated. This is especially true for the sort of dynamic factors that every field guide needs to keep up on such as bird distribution and occurrence, classification, and advances in our knowledge of identification.

Garrigues and Dean attempted to correct these disadvantages with their book and I think it has worked out nicely. It is the perfect size for the field without having to seriously reduce the size of the illustrations. They were able to accomplish this by leaving out several of the seabirds that most birders visiting Costa Rica aren’t likely to encounter and in reducing the text to the bare minimum needed for identification (pointing out important field marks with notes on habitat, behavior, and abundance). Instead of having plates with the name of the bird on the opposite page and then a reference to the page with the appropriate text, Garrigues and Dean put all of this right with the bird and include maps! Even though Costa Rica is a pretty small country with fairly well defined life zones, distribution maps still come in handy. I also like the illustrations better in Garrigues and Dean. They are more accurate because of their detail, do not overcrowd the pages, and are just simply nice to look at. To point out one or two things that could be improved, regarding identification of Black and white Hawk-Eagle, the white leading edge to the wing is not mentioned as a field mark (and is an excellent one), nor is anything said about Ocellated Poorwhill possibly being Choco Poorwhill (the vocalization of which differs from that of Ocellated Poorwhil- the only one described in the book). Overall though, the book is great and better for field identification.

That said, although I think you should bring at least one of these books with you to Costa Rica, you don’t really have to bring it into the field (nor should you in my opinion). What? Not bring a book into the steaming jungle or misty cloud forest? Yes, exactly. Leave that book back at the hotel and figure out what you saw during or after dinner. Otherwise, you will miss birds during the time it takes to get the book out of your pack and leafing through the pages until you find the possible contenders. It’s quicker to do this with Garrigues and Dean but I think you will still see more if you take notes on field marks or try to remember what you saw and don’t even think about taking that book out during the hectic frenzy of a mixed flock!

The thing to keep in mind with tropical birding is that there are lots of species that are possible but most of them are naturally rare. Forest species in particular seem to have large territories and might be encountered just once or twice during your trip. Many are also much shyer than temperate zone species, are masters at camouflage and staying hidden to avoid the myriad of predators they face, and often specialize on certain fruits or microhabitats. This all basically means that in the field, you have to be ready and quick at all times with your binoculars because for many species, you might just have one or two chances to see it and when you do, the looks might not be all that long. Studying the field marks from your bird book will aid you in knowing what to look for, especially with the looks one gets while watching a mixed flock.

If you aren’t familiar with what a mixed flock is, imagine wondering where all the birds have been for the past two hours while you have been carefully walking through primary rain forest when all of a sudden, the vegetation all around you seems to be twitching and shaking with birds but most of them still seem to be hidden! As various chirps and chip notes give away their location and others tantalize you with their songs, you manage to get onto a woodcreeper but can’t see its head (which is what you need to see to identify it), aren’t quick enough to focus on some small flycatcher in the canopy, but then get great looks at one, two, no, four different tanagers! Just as you are getting better looks at more of the birds in the flock, they seem to have moved too far into the forest to watch. Left feeling exhilirated and a bit frustrated, at least studying the books paid off in identifying some of the birds and you would have missed a lot if you had tried to look up birds in the book during all of that excitement.

Even with dozens of evenings spent with your Costa Rican bird book before the trip, it will never make up for learning in a field setting because birds just love to show themselves so differently from the way they are illustrated. Here are some examples of the usual looks we get:

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Spectacled Foliage-gleaner

Believe it or not, a Northern Scrub Flycatcher!

A Bright-rumped Atilla (why oh why did it have to turn its head away)

See if you can find the Olive Tanager!

Or how about this Emerald Tanager!

This is where a qualified, knowledgable guide comes in handy although no matter how well a guide can identify birds by sight, he or she still won’t up to par unless they can also identify birds by their vocalizations. Yet another way to prepare for a birding trip to Costa Rica instead of say working or doing the dishes, becoming familiar with bird vocalizations will also enhance your trip. There are a few cds available but I don’t believe that there is a comprehensive country wide dvd or set of cds as of yet. David Ross offers a few cds that cover most areas of the country, and vocalizations can also be listened to at Xeno Canto. Dan Mennil has a website with some dry forest birds, and Doug Von Gausig also has a nice selection of bird species to listen to. I hope to post songs on this blog eventually although it might be a few months before that happens. Keep posted though for that and other surprises that will help you have a better birding trip to Costa Rica.