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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

American Bittern Twitch in Costa Rica

Last week I wrote about some of the latest in Costa Rica birding news. As happens, shortly after mentioning avocets, warblers, and chances at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos, another major birdworthy sighting cam to light.

As it turns out, on October 22, local birder and photographer Christian Bonilla found a mega of mega birds for Costa Rica. The American Bittern is not a colorful bird, nor is it endangered or a species difficult to see in its usual cold marsh range. But it most definitely is a major bird for Costa Rica!

You see, we just don’t see American Bitterns in Costa Rica. We see other hefty herons, especially the Bare-throated Tiger-Herons like the bird pictured above. But not American Bitterns.

Sort of like the White-faced Whistling-Duck and Short-eared Owl, the American Bittern is on the official Costa Rica bird list but it’s more of an historic species. It’s a bird from times when the Central Valley was a mosaic of wetlands, moist woodlands, and farmlands.

It’s also important habitat for the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow.

That was some 100 years ago. Since then, the wetlands have been mostly drained and whatever birds wintered in such places have likewise left for other, more suitable places. Given the destruction of wetlands in the Central Valley, I figured that the bittern was one of those species very unlikely to appear in these lands.

I mean, much of its former wintering sites in Costa Rica were destroyed long ago, and the species can just happily winter in other sites much closer to its breeding grounds. Why would any of these hefty herons bother flying all the way to Costa Rica?

At least that’s what I thought. It’s why I merely wrote “Hope to chance upon one in marsh habitat.” in the “How to see this bird” section of its description in the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I suppose that advice for seeing an American Bittern in Costa Ricas still holds true but I would also add, “Watch for this rare wintering species in seasonal freshwater marshes, especially in the highlands.”

Not that birders visit Costa Rica to see American Bitterns but hey, you never know.

However, in 2023, one did fly all the way here. Actually, since there have been a couple other likely sightings during the past 20 years, other adventurous American Bitterns have probably also made the trip. Those birds just weren’t documented like this one was.

This sighting makes me wonder if a bittern or two has always wintered in Costa Rica. I mean, they aren’t exactly obvious, many wetland sites in Costa Rica aren’t very accessible, and we don’t have birders combing every corner of the country.

Although it was found in late October, local birders kept the sighting on the downlow because they were concerned that photographers could drive the bittern away. Fortunately, last week, they changed their minds, the American Bittern location was released and the twitch was on!

On Sunday morning, hoping to avoid any crowds and to have a better chance at seeing the bird, we visited the site bright and early. The spot is a small, seasonal marsh just outside of Paraiso de Cartago, right next to a puddled, dirt road that sees runners, cyclists, and plenty of other passersby.

As we discovered, it’s also a beautiful area of habitat. The small marsh is bordered by scrubby habitat that bounced with Morelet’s Seedeaters, Gray-crowned Yellowthroats, and beautiful little black-backed Lesser Goldfinches.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are pretty common in brushy fields.

Scanning in the back, I saw a thrush-sized black bird with white shoulders flit through my field of view. White-lined Tanager! Off to the left, a suspicious dirt clump morphed into a hunched over Green Heron. White-throated Crakes sizzled from the grass, saltators, and other Northern Jacanas also chattered.

I tell you, it was one heck of a beautiful morning in that fresh Cartago air.

There were also nearby woodlands we did not explore. They could have held some rare warbler, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did but we had another bird to look for. There was that bittern somewhere out there, somehow hiding.

With such a small area, several birders looking for it, and no one seeing it, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were one day too late. Was it going to be like the failed pochard twitch? Could the bird have left? It certainly could have. I mean, it’s a migrant that doesn’t need to stick around, a bird that could just up and leave whenever the heck it wants.

And therein lies the multi-pronged challenge of the twitch. Not only do you need to find the bird, you also have to accept that you just might not see it. You gotta quell the roots of anxiety, go Zen and accept that your Ross’s Gull may have been eaten by a Great Horned Owl (that happened to me once). You don’t have to remove the anxiety but since living stress-free is healthier living, taking that Zen route really is best.

Going Zen birding might also help you see the bird. Forget that no one is seeing it. Instead, think about why no one is seeing the bittern. Let’s see, it hides extremely well, even in bits of habitat, and doesn’t need to move. Think about that as I scan the reeds again, carefully look and hope to see some bit of a bird, some brown piece that doesn’t quite fit.

I scanned and still no dice, not even after double and triple scanning. Hmm, maybe from another angle. For some reason, I walked up an embankment and scanned from a different angle. And there the bird was, obvious as can be!

At least as obvious as a bittern head partially obscured by reeds can be. But seriously, there it was, very much visible way back in that small marsh, at just one angle. Move a few steps to the right and there was only reeds and singing seedeaters. Check from the left and there wasn’t any bittern, a complete forget about it.

Fortunately, though, our American Bittern had not given up on Paraiso de Cartago. We could all see it from that one spot! It wasn’t a full, on stage view of a bird begging for attention but we could focus in on it. There was its pale eye, the coffee brown colors in its plumage, stretching its neck up to look way back at us. Photographers would have preferred different views but seeing it through the reeds somehow seemed more realistic, more in line with the classic bittern experience.

It reminded me of the bitterns I had seen pretending to be cattails in upstate New York, of chunky northern herons that shared space with calling Virginia Rails, Soras, and witchety yellowthroats. This one was sharing space with another yellowthroat species, was stalking frogs in a very different locale but there it was. An American Bittern in Costa Rica. Heerman’s Gull, American Bittern, Lesser Kiskadee, what’s will be next on the twitching list?

Thankfully, lots of local birders have been seeing the bittern these past few days. A good thing too because with its little marsh steadily trying out, who knows how long it will stay? This might be the only American Bittern they see, I hope it does us a favor and stays long enough for everyone to take in that bittern experience.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding News- November, 2023

November is that transition between fall and winter, the time of lead-gray skies, gull flocks and hints of snow. In Niagara, scan the cold waves chopping the lake and you could spot a big white owl flying in from the north. Keep watching the hundreds of ducks on the move, you could see an eider, will likely test the numb level limit of your hands. But the freeze test might be worth it, you could see something truly crazy (like an unbelievable Short-tailed Shearwater apparently!).

The August migrants are long gone from the north but I can tell you where they went. I know where the Baltimore Orioles are living it up, where the Wilson’s Warblers are chipping and the Prothonotary’s are holding sway. We’re seeing plenty in Costa Rica, here’s some other news for November, maybe even for the upcoming high season too:

American Avocet

The avocet has landed! We don’t get very many of these extra elegant birds, not in Costa Rica. One turns up every so often but the event ain’t annual. As with most past sightings, 2023’s avocet appeared on the Pacific Coast. Local birders have been twitching it at one of the better spots for shorebirds; Ensenada Refuge.

I hope it stays long enough for us to see it too. Heck, I hope it stays all winter. If you see one, even if it doesn’t seem all that exciting, please eBird it, local birders will be sending gratitude.

Lost Warblers

Other birds that Costa Rica isn’t known for are Palm Warbler, Prairie Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Recently, all three species have been seen, hopefully they’ stick around too. We don’t get too many of this trio of Caribbean wintering birds, it would be nice to catch up.

In all likelihood, there’s surely more of these and other rare wintering warblers in Costa Rica. The problem is they could be anywhere, a “place” where we just don’t have people birding. One can only pish so much. How to find those birds? All you can do is get out birding, keep birding, be fast on the bino draw, and go with the birding flow.

Corso has Been Good

I’ve had the pleasure of stopping at the Corso Farm on several recent occasions. Each visit has been pretty productive, has yielded several hummingbirds. The best have been Scintillant Hummingbird and Magenta-throated Woodstar. The woodstar comes and goes but the Scintillants are usually present.

Their minute dimensions might keep them hiding from the other hummingbirds but keep watching, they’ll eventually come out.

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at Pocosol…

This mega is always at that site but will you see it? Of course that is the constant and most important birding question. Recently, one was seen with a youngster, right next to the station! I think that’s a pretty good sign they’ll be around.

If you visit, give yourself enough time to find those ants. They’ll be lots of other birds to look at too! Check out my birding site guide for Costa Rica to learn more about this fantastic site and hundreds of other key places to go birding in Costa Rica.

Lots of Rain this Month- Be Prepared

Last but not least, there’s been a lot of rain going on. That’s expected for November but it’s still worth mentioning. You see, these rains can cause landslides and they always generate local flooding.

They’ll probably be gone in a month but if birding Costa Rica in the meantime, keep an eye on weather conditions, limit time on Route 32, and be extra careful around Parrita, Ciudad Neily, and most areas on the Pacific Coast.

I suppose that’s about it for now. I could also mention that there’s awesome tanager flocks, calling antbirds, soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and more but as newsworthy as they sound, when birding in Costa Rica, those and hundreds of other birds are wonderfully regular. Get ready for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, I hope to see you here!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

Birding in Costa Rica Off the Beaten Track- Observations from Gandoca

Costa Rica is not a vast country. We don’t have endless landscapes that leap past the horizon and yet, there’s still much to discover. The humid tropical forests are packed with dense vegetation, looped with life. Hidden wetlands beckon and lurk from valleys, and even old overlooked fields could hide a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo.

Lesser Ground Cuckoos are fairly common but skulky.

What else shelters in “the weeds”?

As with every coast, seawatching is an open window to tantalizing opportunities. What will fly by today? What might wander in from distant marine realms, however small the possibility? Costa Rica’s dual shores provide two such chances at lottery birding redemption.

Even in the same old birding places, there’s always more to see. Bird some of the richer spots and you could get lifers on every one of a dozen visits (no kidding, you just gotta know where to go birding in Costa Rica). You could also stick to the popular birding circuit and connect with literally hundreds of species.

You can’t go wrong but, for the more adventurous, additional birding corners await exploration. These are places off the beaten track, too far from other sites to fit into tours or just too plain far. For a country the size of West Virginia, as one might surmise, such less visited sites tend to be close to Panama or Nicaragua.

Last weekend, we visited one of those far off places. It’s a spot I have wanted to check for some time but have always ended up birding similar sites that were just a little bit closer. That place is Gandoca and it’s pretty much right at the end of the road.

Gandoca is a tiny settlement just on the other side of the Gandoca-Manzanillo Reserve. Go there and you’re almost in Panama. Heck, on the way there, you can see forested hills in Panama that probably host Harpy Eagle. No such mega massive eagle welcomed us in Gandoca but we still had some fun and exciting birding. Check out the eBird trip report and some observations and suggestions based on this past trip:

The Road in to Gandoca is Bumpy and Not very Birdy

The highway is wonderful. Really. No holes, quick, easy-going, that’s not what you usually find in Costa Rica! However, once you turn off the highway, you’ll be in for several kilometers of classic, rocky road bumpiness.

It’s not too bad but just saying, it’s good to be prepared. The birding on the way in isn’t so great either. Yes, it’s Ok but at least half the road passes through banana farms, tree farms, and some pasture. We rode in at night with hopes of uncommon nightjars but nope, only Common Pauraques, at least on that night.

The Best Habitat is near Gandoca and the Colibri Ecolodge

The title says it all. The best habitats are the forests closer to Gandoca and the Colibri Ecolodge (Colibri Cabinas). Although they weren’t primary forest, they were still old enough to host a fair number of forest birds. I bet they could also host a surprise or two.

Black-striped Woodcreeper was present along with several Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers.

Rufescent Tiger-Heron! Uniform Crake! Hermits in Abundance!

I suppose these were our “best birds”. The tiger-heron was hanging out in a backyard ditch at the Colibri. Amazingly, we almost missed it! Luckily, we ran into Richard Garrigues (author of the Birds of Costa Rica) and some of his family. Richard told us about the tiger-heron and a few seconds later, we were all admiring this uncommon Costa Rica bird at close range.

The crake wasn’t surprising, this species is actually quite common in Costa Rica. However, you don’t get to see those mammal wannabes all that much. On our final morning, while admiring a caiman in a roadside pool, a juvenile Uniform Crake came scooting out of the forest and let us watch it pick at the edge of the water. We were pleased that the caiman didn’t turn around and try for a crake sandwich.

As for the hermits, they were just nice and common. It’s always nice to constantly hear and see Long-billed Hermits in action but the birding gets better when all four possible species appear.

birding in Costa Rica

Serious Migration

We truly lucked out on Saturday. On Friday night, there must have been a huge wave of migration. In the morning, invisible, buzzing Dickcissels passed overhead while small flocks of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Swainson’s Thrushes foraged in the trees.

The foliage was also full of Bay-breasted Warblers, and wood-pewees and a few Empids sallied from the forest edge. An Olive-sided Flycatcher topped a snag, and Eastern Kingbirds flew into view.

No cuckoos seen nor other rare birds but it was still marvelous.

Not to mention, the migrants busied fruiting figs with trogons, Crested Guans, chachalacas, tanagers, and other local birds. Stuff was busy, it was deep chocolate goodness.

Plain-colored Tanagers were there too.

Check for New Birds for Costa Rica

One other thing I highly recommend while visiting Gandoca is looking for new birds for Costa Rica. I’m ashamed to admit I did not carry out this honorable task as much as I should have. However, in the future, I would suggest seriously looking for Pacific Antwren, White-tailed Trogon, Blue Cotinga, Cocoi Heron, Cattle Tyrant, Carib Grackle, and Rufous-breasted Hermit.

I daresay any of these birds are possible in that area (perhaps more along the main highway) and is why I included them on the Costa Rica Birding App as “not seen” birds. The hermit in particular could be easily overlooked. I mean it looks extremely similar to a Bronzy Hermit, you’ll need photos that show the undertail coverts and the face.

Bird Other, Nearby, Little Birded Sites

Bird Gandoca for sure but if you can, it’s also worth dedicating time to birding other sites in the area. Those would be places like the Paradise Road, sites near Bribri, Manzanillo, and the RECOPE road to name a few.

Visit Gandoca and you gotta be ready to drive for a good ways. Make sure your car is charged and don’t expect many stores in the area but you will find peace. You’ll also see a lot of birds, maybe something mega.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Lessons Learned on October Global Big Day, Costa Rica, 2023

October 14, 2023 was a random day for the non-birding part of humanity. For the rest of us, this date was one of the big ones; a special time when birding takes center stage. Thanks to eBird, October 14th was the perfect excuse to put birds at the forefront, lend them more importance than traffic jams and mall walks or milking cows.

That doesn’t mean you had to ignore such pleasantries or duties or otherwise. It just means that while you bumped along in that oil-infused taxi, while you worked or carried out the farm chores, you could still pay attention to birds and participate. Give them avians their due by remembering what you identified and uploading to eBird.

Of course there were other, more appropriate ways to celebrate October Big Day, the main one being all out birding. No chores, nothing else on the table, just you and the birds along with thousands of other like-minded people doing the same bird-focused thing.

During our collective watching of birds, what did we manifest? Alas, no Eskimo Curlew or other extinct species but us birders all around the world still managed to identify thousands of bird species. In Costa Rica, we played our part and tallied 718.

Thanks to better knowledge about finding birds in Costa Rica, our October GBD results included all the quail-doves, all the wood-quails, and some. I was surprised not to see any pelagics on the list but oh well, I guess no one made it offshore. Perhaps the waves were too high? In any case, 718 birds sans pelagics is a grand total, one worthy of self congratulation accompanied with fine cold beer.

buff-fronted-quail-do
Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- one of the quail-doves seen.

As I had mentioned in a previous post, Marilen and I also participated. Things didn’t go as planned as I had hoped but it was still good, we still saw a good number of birds. This is some of what I learned from October 14th, 2023.

Keep owl silhouettes on your mind

My outrageous Big Day strategy needed an early start. Well, I’m not sure if midnight is early but since that’s when you can start counting birds, I suppose we can refer to it as such. That early hour found us driving through the open areas of Ceiba de Orotina.

I stopped and listened every so often. No night migrants, no nothing but eventually a Common Pauraque. On Big Days, that road bird of the night is usually our species numero uno.

Moving along, I tried to keep an eye on the surroundings, hoped to spot an owl or something out of place. That idea worked when I noticed a distinct shadowy little shape standing on a post. Oh a Burrowing Owl would have been amazing but we were still happy with point blank views of a Pacific Screech-Owl.

That looking for owl silhouettes also came through with Striped Owl near Jaco. In classic Striped Owl fashion, it was perched on a roadside cable and gave us fantastic views.

Reconsider night driving

Our passage through the dark of quiet Orotina was fleeting. More time would have brought us several other birds but we had another, more vital place to be. Our destination required an hour and a half drive but it would be worth it. The site was our big shorebird break, our tern hattrick destined to reward us with waterbirds.

Getting there was not for the faint of heart. Nor for folks with cataracts or anything less than nerves of steel. Taking the Zen approach, I’m proud to say I managed to move us along without giving myself early arthritis. That would have been generated by gripping the steering wheel with hydraulic prowess.

You see, the road to Guanacaste is being worked on. At the moment, one big section is a rather narrow two lane road that looks more like a forgotten alley to limbo. At least during the dark of the night. And with very little to no illumination, oh yeah, it’s necessary night lights dark!

But what about the road lines? If they had been present, yes, they would have been a wonderful help. But in Costa Rica, such lane paint and reflective little things that keep you from sailing into a ditch are often absent. Especially on roads being worked on.

We traveled at a steady pace. Some other less concerned fools passed several cars at once or blinded everyone with bright lights. At least it didn’t rain. That came several hours after we had left the area. Thank goodness too because part of the “highway” became a lake, and another section suffered a landslide.

Suffice to say, if you can avoid driving in Costa Rica at night, by all means, avoid it!

Flooded roosting areas for shorebirds means no shorebirds

Night driving from Puntarenas to Punta Morales was not the dreamiest of trips but it had to be done. I wanted those roosting birds! Except that after we had bumped down that rocky little road to sandpiper salvation, all was quiet.

Oh snap! It couldn’t be! But nope, my ears weren’t fibbing. Instead of being greeted by calling Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, and Western Sandpipers, I heard a single flyover Royal Tern. Yes, that was a bird too and we took it but it wasn’t quite what we had hoped.

What Punta Morales should look like.

Upon checking the salt pans, we saw that yes indeed, they were as full as monsoon swimming pools. Not a single shorebird in one of the best shorebird spots in Costa Rica. I couldn’t blame them, little webbed footers and mud probers would have drowned.

As consolation, we picked up both night-herons and a bunch of Wood Storks but we left there ASAP. It was back to the night road to the other side of limbo; that would be Caldera and then on to Jaco.

Owls don’t always call when and where they did on other days

We made it to the much better lit road next to the Caldera mangroves and gave them a quick check. I was hoping to relive finding a Northern Potoo. We spotlighted some and stared at suitable branches but nope, “only” a couple more Pacific Screech Owls.

We got to Jaco around 3:45. That would be just in time to listen for more night birds, things like Double-striped Thick-Knees, whistling-ducks, and maybe a few other birds.

The thick-knee did indeed comply, one Purple Gallinule called to connect us with success, and yes, whistling-ducks flew over! Heading in on the Teleferico Road, we also quickly heard Tropical Screech-Owls and saw that aforementioned Striped Owl.

Things were going to plan but then….they weren’t. The other owls we usually heard at that site just weren’t calling. I did my best to coax them; barked like a Mottled Owl, wailed in true Black and white Owl fashion, even played calls of impossible to imitate Crested and Spectacled Owls.

Nope. They didn’t want to call on October 14th. That’s alright, we could still get them on the other side of the mountains, way over there at the exhausted end of the day.

Dawn chorus in October?

With dawn approaching, we drove up the Teleferico Road to some intact-looking areas of forest. With luck, maybe an owl would still call? After all, on other occasions, I have heard all of our wanted owl species during the dawn’s early light.

However, the main reason I went up there was to start the dawn chorus. The plan was to begin there and slowly bird/listen our way out to open areas, ticking everything en route!

That would have worked if the birds had called. Some did, birds like Riverside Wren and Gray-headed Tanager, but most did not. We needed more forest birds, the woodcreepers and so many others that can easily make it onto your list with their early morning calls.

birding Costa Rica
We only heard Gray-headed Tanager but that was enough to count it.

Except they didn’t. Maybe October is a bad time for them to vocalize? Maybe some of those birds just aren’t there anymore? Sadly, between rare forest habitat being degraded by climate change and destroyed for development (especially along that road), fewer birds is a real possibility.

Nor hearing enough, I headed to the more open areas. But nope, even there, almost nothing sang. Not even Black-hooded Antshrike and other species I know are present. We did eventually hear and see several other species but to approach any sort of record, we still needed more.

But hey, maybe we would get them in Carara?

BE VERY CAREFUL WHEN BUYING TICKETS FOR CARARA NATIONAL PARK

Except that we didn’t go in Carara.

Yeah, sadly, the national park system has succeeded in raising their levels of bureaucracy to even higher levels of ridiculousness. Not long ago, one could go to Carara, purchase a ticket at the gate, and go in to the park. You know, like how you normally do in most places?

Then, during Covid, entrance tickets could only by bought with a card. Nope, you only have cash? Sorry, you can’t walk these trails! However, you could still buy tickets right then and there, no problem.

Recently, for some unknown yet surely amazing reason, the national park system included Carara in the parks that require buying tickets online, in advance.

The system is cumbersome and doesn’t always work. I suppose yes, then, they know who exactly walks on those short trails and they already have their entrance fees. But what if the system doesn’t work? Well, then you are out of luck.

We tried to buy tickets the night before. However, each time I tried to get tickets, their system said something about there being an error. I tried a few more times, same thing.

I figured well, what are you gonna do, maybe we would try tomorrow? And then I noticed the email from my bank indicating that yes, my transactions actually did go through and that it was for Carara National Park.

So, on October Big Day, 2023, we arrived to Carara and went to the entrance booth. We explained what had happened, we showed them the receipt indicating that we had bought tickets not once but more than once and that SINAC had accepted the transaction.

But nope, they said, “I don’t know what to tell you but the system doesn’t have problems, it should have sent you one of these reservation codes.” I will mention that they did their best to find us in their system but no, even though they could literally see that SINAC had taken our money for entrance fees to enter that specific park, no, they just didn’t know what to tell us. There couldn’t be any problem with their system, we should have gotten that code. The fact that they could see the receipt to enter that park on that day didn’t compute. There was no way, we had to have the code.

Otherwise, you just can’t walk in on those trails. God forbid. Now we could have gone and bought tickets again but after they had basically forced me to give them a donation, I wasn’t too eager to do that again. I mean, if it didn’t work another time, even if I had made the purchase right in front of their faces and did not receive a code, I would have made another donation and they still wouldn’t have let us in.

I’m not sure if I ever will try again because sadly, if their system can take your money like that, what other problems might it have? It’s a sad situation but if you plan on going to any national park in Costa Rica that requires advance purchase of tickets, be very careful!

If you go through the cumbersome process and buy the ticket but don’t get a reservation confirmation, DO NOT TRY AGAIN. Accept that they have stolen your money and make other plans. The thing is if you try to buy it again, they will probably take your money every time you purchase tickets and you still won’t be able to enter the park.

Another option is doing a tour with a local company. That way, they take the risk. In all honesty, it probably doesn’t happen all that often but then again, one of the local guides did tell me that he had heard of that happening more than once.

It’s a shame but there are other options than visiting Carara. I’m going to see if I can set something up for a site or two near there that have the same birds along with actual common sense.

Be flexible but know when to quit

After not being able to enter Carara for ridiculousness, we decided to head up the road that goes to Bijagual. There’s always the chance that we could get many of the same birds from Carara.

We did see a White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and some other birds but no, it was very quiet. Far too quiet to approach the goal required for hitting a Big Day record. Who know’s maybe Carara would have been quiet too?

With that in mind, we aborted the full Big Day attempt. On the bright side, the pressure was off and we wouldn’t have to worry about time. We casually made our way over to Tarcoles, watched some shorebirds, and made the drive back uphill and home.

Lots of people birding is a recipe for rarity finding

Whenever more birders are in the field, more rarities are found! October 14th in Costa Rica was no exception. Thanks to other local birders, we have the option of trying to twitch rare migrant Palm Warbler, and two Prairie Warblers.

I’m sure there’s other stuff to look for too, I’ll have to check and see.

Inspiration to check the dawn chorus in other areas

This past October Big Day experience also encourages me to visit a few sites for the dawn chorus. Instead of Jaco and Carara, what can I find on the roads from the Macaw Lodge area to Tarcoles? There’s a lot of possibilities, I’m looking forward to finding out!

What about the dawn chorus at key sites in the Caribbean lowlands? I’m curious about that too. Will I find a Great Jacamar, Tawny-faced Quail? Only one way to find out.

This past October Big Day might not have gone as well as I had hoped but we still saw a lot of birds. Any morning with 150 species is a good one!

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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birders Prepare for October Global Big Day

The Big Day is happening soon. We’ll dress for the occasion, strive for a Zen birding mindset, and brew an ample supply of coffee. On a deeper level, some of us have already been studying up on nocturnal flight calls, pondering over the brief modulated calls of Wood Thrushes and the slightly clearer and upward inflected whispers of Scarlet Tanagers.

You know, just in case they happen to call in the pre-dawn while we’re cupping our ears to the night sky because on Saturday, the detection of each and every bird is coveted, warranted, and necessary. Soon, more than any other day, every bird identification will count and the quicker you “get” them the sooner you “got” them.

Hopefully, we’ll get a Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.

No, October 14th isn’t some anniversary or other noted event. Well, at least not for the non-birding world. It’s something much more monumental. On Saturday, we collectively mark and celebrate eBird’s 2023 October Big Day and check it out, up here in Costa Rica, we are ready to rock the birding house.

This is some of what birders in Costa Rica have been up to.

Local Birding Teams

In Guanacaste, Team Northwest will be scouring windswept fields, and checking rice fields for Spotted Rails and Paint-billed Crakes. They’ll be birding forests in Rincon de al Vieja and other sites, finding rare migrants, and checking off the dry forest birds.

Chambita and others will be counting birds in the Cano Negro area, and other teams yet to be announced are surely getting ready to show what they can find.

If past Big Days are any indication, the owner and guides of birding lodge Hotel Quelitales will do their best to show how incredibly diverse their corner of Costa Rica is.

The many women birders that make up the Jacanas Team will also be birding in various parts of the country, and hundreds of other local birders will participate too.

Team Tyto

This local team will also be in the field. Comprised of moi and my partner Marilen Palacios, all I can say is that we will be counting birds somewhere in Costa Rica. This is one of the few October Big Days when I won’t be working and I plan on taking full advantage of it! We have a rough plan but we’ll see how it goes, see what we find. It’s gonna be good, it always is when you let yourself get carried away with the birding flow in Costa Rica.

eBird Sightings and Whatsapp Groups

In preparation for October 14th, we have been checking the local sightings, seeing who should target which species. However, even more so, local birders are in constant touch with Whatsapp groups. This instant access to bird gen is light years ahead of how it used to be!

I mean, even if I can’t go chase a Black-throated Blue Warbler or Chipping Sparrow (I know but this is Costa Rica), at least I know where they were found.

I know where to find Great Potoos, I hope one turns up on October 14.

Due to lack of high coverage and misidentifications, eBird in Costa Rica isn’t perfect but it can still provide some good ideas for your Big Day plan. I know I’ve been checking it out and making plans!

Food and Drink Shopping

Yes, this is part of the Big Day birding equation, a very important part of it. October Big Day isn’t just about seeing birds, about focusing on birds and listening for the quiet sputter of a high-flying Upland Sandpiper. This day is also a celebration, a time to mark the collective enjoyment of bird observation.

Yeah, that’s what it is but not quite either. The deal is more like “bird merging”, feathered nature connection, or maybe exploring the sacred link between us, each other, and the marvelous beauty of life and ecosystems on Earth.

A day like this merits more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Make or get your favorite food! When you check out the chocolate aisle, do yourself a favor and get the good stuff. Buy appropriate beverages to accompany this day of focused birding, get enough of everything you like to keep you in the field, to maintain your focus on the birds.

Don’t forget to buy celebratory drinks too, or at least schedule a visit to the best spot to end your October Big Day.

Brushing Up

As in studying. Yeah, it all depends on how you want to watch birds but I believe that the more you prepare yourself for birding, the better it will be. Whether you just check out some pictures of raptors in flight or attempt to tune the senses to nocturnal flight calls, studying birds will help you celebrate October Big Day.

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl Costa Rica bird app
I’ll use the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app to brush up on the calls of Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (one can always hope…) and hundreds of other birds in Costa Rica.

And, if your Big Day goal is going above and beyond with bird identification, you better do some last-minute studying. Recheck those jaeger field marks (as subtle and confusing as they may be), think about odd possibilities like Common Ringed Plover, and look into little known flight calls. Keep it in mind, you just might need that extra bit of neural stuff!

Yes, October 14th is almost here and yet, with horrible and heart-wrenching situations happening in so many places, it’s easy to wonder how we can possibly celebrate anything?

Especially when the worst of situations affect people we know and care about along with so many others whom we would love to know. Bird celebration suddenly seems trivial. However, birding can still act as a mental refuge, and what better way to focus on peace and communion that birding together in so many places, all at the same time.

As I listen for Gray-cheeked Thrushes in the night sky (just one will work!), call for quetzals on Poas, and scan rainforest canopy for cotingas, I’ll be thinking about all the birders who won’t be able enjoy birds as much on October 14th. I’ll be thinking of birding friends, acquaintances, and their families, and striving for calmer, better days when we can meet again and enjoy birds together.

Take care, watch birds on October 14th, and make to treat yourself to the good chocolate.

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October-The Most Exciting Month for Birding in Costa Rica?

Birding in Costa Rica is always good. No, it’s more than good, more like some birding wonderland. 24/7. All the time. Even so, you always hear that the best time to go birding in Costa Rica is January to March.

Yeah, that is the dry season on the Pacific and that’s always good. You can also skip out on some of those northern winter blues but honestly, it doesn’t really matter which month you want to see Costa Rica birds.

Head to Costa Rica in January and it’ll be awesome. Bring those binos to Tiquicia (local name for Costa Rica) in June and it’ll still be awesome. Come to this lovely land of hummingbirds, trogons, and tanagers any other month and you’ll still see a lot.

Cinnamon Hummingbird- one of the common hummingbirds waiting for you.

Yeah, in some places it rains more than other places but that’s always the case, even in the dry season. To see those birds, you just work with the precipitation any which way you can.

Now if you ask local Costa Rica birders about the best month for birding, you’ll probably get a bunch of different responses. The winter months could be a common answer, it’s when we can see wintering birds. The raptophiles among us might mention March or April but if you ask me, I’ll say that the best birding month in Costa Rica is any month.

However, if I had to pick the most exciting month, well, for me, that would be October. Halloween month is sort of like our May. It’s when migration hits full swing, it’s when we welcome birds back to these tropical shores.

There’s the common and expected birds like Baltimore Orioles, various warblers, Western Sandpipers, and other common species. I saw some of those this very morning, right here in the neighborhood.

Baltimore-Oriole
Baltimore Oriole- one of our appreciated wintering species.

Those birds are good, watching a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in the same fig tree as Baltimores, Yellow Warblers, and a bunch of local birds was a sweet gift. However, some birds are more exciting simply because we don’t see them so often. October might be our best month for those choice birds.

As with all places where birds are funneled into the local viewing frame, on any given day in October, we might find one of those mega, unexpected species. These are the birds that result in white knuckle driving, leaning forward with anxiety, hoping to reach the mega in time.

October in Costa Rica is major birding, everywhere and at all times. It’s just getting started and yet we’ve already had some tantalizing sightings, some sweet birding experiences. Some of those birds were from late September but maybe they’ll be signs of things to come. Check it out:

Mega Migrants

It’s either a good year for migrants or we just got more birders in the field. Either way, the twitchworthy birds are turning up. You’ll laugh if you live in Pennsylvania but a bunch of us dropped everything and ran to see a Chipping Sparrow. Even better, this ultra rare bird for Costa Rica was sighted at Calle Viquez- a hotspot pretty close to home!

Marilen and I checked it out a day after the bird was found but so far, no dice. The small sparrow of northern pine-dotted parks was either a one day wonder or has yet to be refound. Hopefully, we’ll find it again.

Other, similarly local megas were Lark Sparrows in Sarapiqui and the Osa, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird near Cartago! These two didn’t stay around all that long but at least a bunch of birders got to see the Lark Sparrow.

It makes you wonder what else is out there? Some adventurous Clay-colored Sparrow down the road? Maybe a Nashville Warbler? A hidden Connecticut? Only way to know is to get out there and look!

Wonderful Warblers, Thousands of Swallows, and More

In more expected birding news, I have been enjoying daily movement of migrating swallows. Every morning, dozens of Cliffs, Banks, and Barns fly just over the roofs. If I could watch all day, I’m sure I’d see hundreds, maybe even thousands more.

They might seem like normal birds, and they are, but when you think of where they came from and where they are going, each and every swallow is a living sign of the incredible.

Warblers are also back in town. Not all of them yet but a good number of those much loved little birds. On Sunday morning, we figured we’d try out luck at the Rio Loro Park. This small park near Cartago can be good for migrants, and it’s also a nice place to walk. No luck with cuckoos or a Veery but we did alright with the Parulids.

While enjoying views of BOPish Long-tailed Manakins, had our first Golden-wingeds of the season along with small numbers of Wilson’s, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Black-and-white, Mourning, Canada, and Tennessee Warblers. We also had Northern Waterthrushes and close, appreciated views of at least two Worm-eating Warblers.

Wilsons Warbler- the most common highland bird in Costa Rica from October to March.

Having grown up just out of reach of “Wormers”, I always love seeing them. Pretty uncommon but regular wintering birds in Costa Rica, the ones from Sunday were my year birds.

Possible Highest Ever Count of Least Terns in Costa Rica

On Sunday, we began the month with some warblers at Rio Loro. However, on Saturday., we ended September with morning birding at Puntarenas. It’s a good time to be at that birding hotspot and Saturday morning certainly delivered.

On the way there, we picked up year Surfbirds at Caldera. At Puntarenas itself, we scored with another bird, in far larger numbers than I had ever imagined.

birding Costa Rica
A Surfbird from another day in Costa Rica.

Least Terns usually pass through Costa Rica in late August and September, mostly on the Pacific coast. If you don’t see them then, you might have to wait until the following year. As luck would have it, as soon as we arrived at the lighthouse in Puntarenas, there went a small group of Least Terns zipping by.

I figured they might be the only ones we would see. Maybe a few more but not that many. I mean, that’s how it usually goes with that tiny tern in Costa Rica. But then I start seeing more flying way out there in the Gulf of Nicoya; tiny, fast wing beating terns, all with a smart black patch in their wings.

I get to scanning the birds on a distant sand bar and there’s a good scattering of egrets and shorebirds. Too far away to identify most of them, I envy the clam diggers and fishermen who are nearly within arm’s reach of those birds.

I keep scanning and notice a big group of terns on a sand bar. Really big group. Maybe a clam digger gets too close and suddenly, they take flight. And I can hardly believe my eyes. Every last one of them was a Least Tern! They were far but at 40 X, were still close enough to note that they were the same size as Least Terns foraging near them. They bank, I can see the black primaries, and I figure I better start counting.

To make sure, I had to count them twice. It just didn’t seem possible but yeah, 250 was the total number of Least Terns flying past and on the sand bar. Since that didn’t take the previous groups of Least Terns into account, I bet there at least 300 of them out there.

It was unheard of number for Costa Rica but that’s how many there were. For whatever reason, some big number of Least Terns were gathered in the Gulf of Nicoya on Saturday morning, September 30th. By 9 a.m., all of them had left. I wonder where they went, if they would cross over to the Caribbean in Panama? Or, maybe winter in the deltas of northwestern Colombia?

To top off the excitement at Puntarenas, we scored with a distant Sabine’s Gull, and saw a small group of Common Terns. It would have been a good day to take the ferry!

Snowy Plover and Bobolink in Tarcoles

That same day, we also visited Jaco and swung by Tarcoles. The tide was high and we didn’t see anything but oh we sure missed some good birds! That same day, a mega Snowy Plover was found! Granted, the only way we could have seen it was if we had hiked out to the river mouth but that bird was present when we visited, just beyond the scrubby mangroves, just out of sight.

A bunch of local birders saw it the following day and today, and one of them also found a Bobolink! This cool blackbird is a rare one in Costa Rica. I’m sure we get more than we realize but still in low numbers, likely scattered in several places.

Ruff in Guanacaste

Topping off the recent rare birds was a Ruff seen near Filadelfia in Guanacaste. It was seen near Buff-breasted Sandpipers and some other nice birds. It’s a good reminder that rare birds are out there, you keep looking and you’ll find them.

October birding in Costa Rica is indeed exciting. There’s lots more to come too including large numbers of thrushes, Bay-breasted Warblers, raptors, and so much more!

I suppose I’ll end by noting that several Upland Sandpipers have been seen in Guanacaste and at the airport. What will be next? Is a pipit or wagtail too much to ask for? Ha ha, probably but on a rare October birding day in Costa Rica, it seems like anything is possible.

FAQs

When is the best time to go birding in Costa Rica?

The best time to go birding in Costa Rica is any time of the year. However, most people prefer the drier months of January to March.

Can you still see a lot while birding Costa Rica on your own?

You can always still see a lot while birding Costa Rica on your own. However, as with any destination, you’ll always see more with an experienced local guide. My bird finding guide for Costa Rica will also help.

Which Costa Rica Birds can I see?

With a country list of 930 plus species, you can see so many Costa Rica birds, there are too many to mention. 400 plus species on a serious two week trip is likely. Toucans, macaws, parrots, tanagers, several hummingbirds, and more are even possible on shorter trips.

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5 Study Essentials for a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

Going birding in Costa Rica? Awesome! Epic! Boss! Or, as various overdressed, bespectacled folks used to say, “Splendid!”. I for one, certainly recommend birding in Costa Rica wholeheartedly and completely. While you are here, get up early, focus on birds, and the trip will be a memorable blast.

Orange-collared Manakin

But study for it? What? Wasn’t that like something we did when we were taking classes? Going to school and so on? I mean, in some circles, studying for a vacation could be interpreted as an odd form of torture. After all, isn’t a vacation all about relaxation accompanied by sunsets, cold drinks, and not worrying about responsibilities? Like, if you were gonna study, it would be about margarita flavors, picking the best beach sandals, and where to get a yoga massage or something.

However, that would be for ye olde regular vacation. The birding trip does not fall into such a sun-drenched, easy-going category. When we do birding trips, birding vacations if you will, we go with a different set of goals. The focus of the trip is birds, seeing them, probably taking pictures of them, experiencing them.

It’s a very specific type of trip, a special type of travel, one always better when you study for it.

So you can marvel over birds like this Red-lored Parrot.

Sure, yeah, you could go birding in Costa Rica without laying a finger on a field guide. You could bring those binos to this here birdable land without having looked at any birding apps for Costa Rica. Sure, you could do all that but check it out- birding in Costa Rica ain’t no joke.

We’re talking about hundreds of bird species. Up in birdy here, there’s literally centuries of possible lifers. Trust me, it’s not gonna be like home, not even like the slightest whit call of a Least Flycatcher.

Used to seeing what, 40, maybe 70 species on a really good day? Do some all day birding in Costa Rica and those numbers are nothing. Around here, the bird factory keeps on a rolling. We’re talking well over a hundred species in a day, regularly, in more than one region (even days with 150 plus species). Yeah, it’s some birding gone crazy in Costa Rica alright.

Costa Rica is a place worth getting ready for. It’s worth it to study before any birding trip but in Costa Rica, it’s not just worth it, it’s pretty much requisite. At least a necessity if you want to see more birds, if you want to make the most of your trip, if you want to have some of the best birding in your life.

If you come to Costa Rica for birding, you want all of the above so all I can say is start studying now, start studying as soon as you can. Taking a tour or not, your trip will still be ten times better if you train that mind, get yourself ready for some major birding.

There’s a lot you could study, here’s five main things I recommend:

Learn 50 Bird Vocalizations

What? I know, sounds daunting. I mean, right, you’re still trying to figure out those dang warbler songs at home and now you gotta learn a few more? Right, easy to Hall and Oates the situation with a, “No can do”. But trust me, you can, oh yes you can.

You’ll be surprised at how well you can learn some of those new bird songs. Go for ten at first, then kick it up to twenty, and shoot for fifty. Yes, you have to give yourself some time but you can do it! Try learning one a day before your trip, pick a bird and focus on it while waiting in line, or making dinner, or when your significant other insists on watching some show that gives you the cringes.

Put that smile on your face by listening to the barking song of a Barred Antshrike. Check out the whistles of a Chestnut-backed Antbird and learn how the Laughing Falcon got its name.

Getting ready to laugh.

But where to learn them? Xeno-Canto has more than enough bird songs to browse but, for more a more versatile, customized experience, I suggest using the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. That way, you can use the filter to pick and show common birds for each region. Listen to the Olive-backed Euphonia and other birds from the Caribbean lowlands. Move on to common highland birds like the Mountain Elaenia, and then change the filter to the South Pacific and study Black-hooded Antshrike.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to listen to megas like the Resplendent Quetzal, Three-wattled Bellbird, and the macaws. You sure want to be ready for those ones!

Study Woodcreeper Heads

That might sound grim. It might seem odd. But honest to goodness, that is really what you need to study for woodcreeper identification. Don’t worry about those eye-catching reddish wings and tail. They all got those. Instead, focus on beak shapes and head patterns. That’s the ticket to woodcreeper identification, that’s what you need to look at to ID them in the field.

birding Costa Rica

On a side note, for woodcreepers, expect big birds with large beaks. Know that they might not give the best of views either. These guys aren’t exactly treecreepers.

Learn Birds by Region

See which places you will be visiting in Costa Rica and study accordingly. For example, if you won’t be birding in the dry forests of Guanacaste, you don’t have to worry about Elegant Trogons and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers.

However, if you are headed to the Sarapiqui lowlands, yeah, you should look into the three trogons, two main motmots, White-ringed Flycatcher, and other birds that live there.

Once again, the easiest way to study birds by region is with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Filter for region and you’ll see the birds possible at Sarapiqui, or Monteverde, or wherever else you might be birding. With the app, you can also get more detailed and study birds in certain habitats, forest strata, and more.

Study the Hummingbirds

There’s lots of birds to study so yeah, why not study the hummingbirds? I could just as well say to pick any avian family to study but, in Costa Rica, you’ll have chances at dozens of hummingbird species. They also look nice and are much easier to identify than the small ones up north.

However, instead of solely focusing on identification, I suggest also learning where they live and something about their behaviors. Which are forest birds? Which are more likely in second growth? Which hummingbirds only live in southern Costa Rica? You’ll find answers to these and most other questions about the birds of Costa Rica in “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Basically, I wrote this book to help answer questions spurred by my first trip to Costa Rica, and to prepare fellow birders for their trips to Costa Rica.

Learn About the Bird Families in Costa Rica

Before your trip, I also suggest learning about some of the bird families in Costa Rica. Some of them won’t be anything like birds from home! They won’t just look different, they will also act different and will most definitely throw you for a birding loop.

I’m talking about birds like tinamous, hawk-eagles, antbirds, manakins, puffbirds, and other Neotropical birds. Knowing more about these bird families will help you see more of them. That knowledge will also give you better appreciation for them, get you psyched for your trip, and just might turn your birding trip into a deeper, truly fantastic learning experience.

Tinamous are beings from odd birding dreams made real.

There are more things you could study for a birding trip to Costa Rica but you can’t go wrong by starting with these five suggestions. There’s nothing wrong with learning about margarita flavors either but, I would do that after the birding trip.

That way, you can make drinks to celebrate a successful, fulfilling birding trip to Costa Rica. When you get done celebrating, then you can start studying for your next trip to Costa Rica. You’ll need to, there’s a lot of birds around here.

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5 Days Birding Costa Rica- Highlights and Insider Tips

Birding Costa Rica comes with lots of benefits. Mostly, they happen in the form of multiple birds no matter where you go! Much of that birding grace stems from Costa Rica providing easy access to quality birding habitats. Follow that classic good birding recipe in Costa Rica and you’ll get your birding dish, each and every day.

I’m reminded of this birding truth every time I head into the proverbial field. Some days, the field means a walk to a thread thin, neighborhood riparian zone. Other days, it’s a short trip to cloud forest with quetzals, the one and only Wrenthrush, and lots more.

Wrenthrush.

However, the best reminders of Costa Rica’s adherence to the classic birding recipe are when I guide or bird for multiple days in different spots. This past week I was doing that in a few very different places; focusing on targets, peering into crowns of massive rainforest trees, exploring tropical wetlands, always listening for hints of hidden birds and avian surprise.

The following are some highlights and tips from these recent days of birding in Costa Rica:

Irazu Birding and The Nochebuena

The best way to see Timberline Wrens and Volcano Junco on Irazu are by getting up there nice and early. It’s cool up there at 11,000 feet, especially at 7 a.m. However, the extra fresh breeze is worth it. Later in the day, those birds hide, they often take longer to see.

We also birded the trails at the Nochebuena. You gotta be in some fair shape to walk them; there’s less oxygen up there and you’ll feel it! Take your time and do the walk though, it’s worth it. The birding is very good and reliable for the mega Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. We had at least three along with good views of Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, quetzal and various other high elevation species.

It’s also worth it have lunch at their small, cozy restaurant.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

This cool little endemic can be tricky but go to the right places at the right time and you’ll see it. Yeah, you could try those Walmart woods in a pinch but there are better places. One of them is the Calle Viquez area and the road that goes by the Finca Rosa Blanca.

However, no matter where you try for them, make sure to do some of that classic early birding. You have a much better chance of seeing the ground-sparrow at like 6 in the morning than later in the day.

Buff-fronted Quail-Dove and Other Birds at and Near Cinchona

Emerald Toucanet striking a photogenic pose.

The quail-dove is still visiting the ground below the feeders at Cinchona. That would be the Hummingbird Cafe or the Mirador Catarata San Fernando. It’s sneaky as always but if you keep up a careful watch below the feeders, it should eventually show.

Cinchona has also been having the usual nice parade of birds however, now, there’s yet another cool option. If you can speak Spanish, and don’t mind hiking to see birds, ask the cafe owner Jorge (or whomever else seems to be in charge) if you can walk up to the area behind the barnyard stuff (you’ll see what I mean).

The abandoned town of Cinchona is up there along with lots of good birds. Take the main road that goes uphill and to the left. It eventually reaches forest. There aren’t many trails but recent birding turned up uncommon species like Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, and Black-banded Woodcreeper!

Sarapiqui- Always Good

As always, the lowland rainforest habitats in Sarapiqui make for easy, productive birding. While birding from a couple choice roads, we had White-fronted Nunbirds, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, Black-striped Woodcreeper, King Vulture, Blue Dacnis, and other lowland species.

White-fronted Nunbirds- uncommon in Costa Rica, always fantastic!

Cano Negro

It’s far out there and the roads in are not fun ones to drive but there’s always lots of birds at Cano Negro. Highlights during our morning boat ride with Chambita tours included several American Pygmy-Kingfishers, the tough Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, two Sungrebes, Bare-crowned Antbird, Black-collared Hawks, and others!

The night birding also tends to be good at Cano Negro and our jaunt into the dark was no exception. During a quick drive on the main road towards Los Chiles, we had close looks at Great Potoos, Pacific Screech-Owl, and Striped Owl.

Heliconias Bridges Trail

It was nice to visit this classic site again. Over the years, I’ve seen it change and transform from a small and little known site to a fantastic birding site that offers good accommodation and a well-maintained trail.

Our main reason for visiting is called Tody Motmot but we also had several additional possible targets. The trails cost $14 and go through excellent humid forest. They are fairly well maintained and also include a few, long, hanging bridges.

During our visit, we lucked out with the Tody Motmot, seeing a pair on the main trail, and then two more pairs on the lower heliconias trail! The other top bird was another one easier to see here than many other sites; the Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Before our birding was curtailed by rain, we also had some other species but nothing crazy.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

However, the birds are in there, bird these trails slowly and carefully and you’ll see a lot! After birding them, if you enjoy craft beer, visit the nearby Blue River Brewery. This great and friendly little spot also has good views of nearby forest. With luck, you could scope a Lovely Cotinga and see a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle while enjoying your beer!

I hope this info. helps with your birding trips to Costa Rica. Check out the trip report. To learn about more sites and support this blog, get my bird finding guide to Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

Use it to plan your trip and if you have any questions, just send me an email. I hope to see you here!

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Casual Birding in Costa Rica- What Can You See?

Birding in Costa Rica! If you are into birds, into watching them, you know why that phrase ends in exclamation. If not, take some high level excitement, spray it with major dream essence, and wrap it up with soul satisfaction. Now imagine savoring that ultra dimensional sandwich and you get an inkling of birding in Costa Rica.

At least that’s how it is for birders, us folks who deeply dig finding, watching, photographing, and/or communing with birds in other ways. No matter how often you go birding in Costa Rica, the excitement is always there but the first trip to southern Central America, now that some ten-fold excitement!

Here in this bastion of biodiversity, birding is like being a kid in a candy store. Like opening up them presents or being 11 and going to the roller rink with best friends and possible crushes. Ok, you had to have grown up in the 70s-80s for the roller rink but you might get what I mean.

Imagine a close encounter with this jaw dropper!

There’s a lot of birds in Costa Rica and that’s one heck of an understatement. With so much to look for, so many birds to look at, it would seem that you gotta bird Costa Rica serious. That would be birding with high-focused concentration, birding with quick bino action, and keeping it cool in the face of a mighty mixed flock.

But no, you don’t have to bird Costa Rica serious! You can function as such, oh I do recommend it, but as with every destination, you bird the way you bird. If you are happy with garden birding, cool drink in hand, sure, that works in Costa Rica. If you want to go ultra casual with the birding endeavors, casual works too.

To be honest, you’ll see fewer birds but you know what? You’ll still see a lot! I sort of tested that presumption earlier today when, instead of heading out the door at dawn (or before then), I had a leisurely breakfast and didn’t leave until 9:45 a.m.!

I know, say what? Might that be a waste of time? Not if you are into casual birding! To be truly casual, maybe we should have done our birding from beach chairs while listening to Long Hot Summer by the Style Council.

Margarita sipping would have been required along with a toast to the late great Jimmy Buffett (RIP).

Today, we didn’t go that far, didn’t even go birding in chinos and penny loafers but we still did our birding in Costa Rica a la casual. And it was good.

Check it out.

Cloud Forest Mixed Flocks

Our casual birding day took us to one of the closest, easiest birding areas; the mountains above the Central Valley. This area is pretty awesome and has an easy recipe. Drive 45 minutes and you can reach honest to goodness cloud forest. That’s about it and what would be tropical highland forest replete with bromeliads, mist, and lots of cool birds.

Shortly after getting into the habitat, right away, we coincided with a mixed flock. A pair of Yellow-thighed Brushfinches moved into view, towhees that act like tanagers, pumping their tails and showing off their natural yellow pom-loms.

They were hanging with a couple of rude-sounding Ruddy Treerunners, a bunch of Common Chlorospingus, softly calling, emerald green Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and a few other birds.

A closer look at the crown and bill of Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

But we were casual birding, we had a stream to saunter over to, rushing water to gaze at, fresh air to inhale, and leaf rustling to listen to. Even so, the birds followed us, passed through our field of vision. A couple Spangle-cheeked Tanagers insisted by perching on ferns, right out in the open and at close range. Others flew through and so we watched them, casually yet assuredly.

Olive-sided Flycatchers are Back in The House

As we moved along that quiet mountain road, I saw a hefty songbird making a beeline to perch on top of a snag. There’s not many birds that fly like the one I saw. Not back up north, nor in Costa Rica. Today’s first Olive-sided Flycatcher was just like the first one I saw so many years ago at the edge of a boggy lake in Algonquin Provincial Park.

Dark sides, big crested head, and sitting there right on top. Further on, we saw another, and then two more all doing that same Olive-sided Flycatcher move of flying in a long direct line and then going straight back to the same high perch. Only this time, it’s at the edge of cloud forest, fueling up to fly a bit further, move to bigger equatorial mountains.

The Flutes of Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrushes and Burbling of Barbets

It can be quiet when you go casual birding in Costa Rica. This is on account of not birding when our feathered friends prefer to sing. Oh well, you have to accept the silence of the mid-day, dwell in it and appreciate the quiet. Up there, it’s all good, I mean, the quiet is in good surroundings of ruffled green mountains and mist-touched backgrounds.

Eventually, the birds do sing and call, especially cloud forest specialties like Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes and Prong-billed Barbets. The thrush sings classic, flutey phrases in hidden shaded spots while the barbet makes a long, yodeling vocalization, usually as a duet.

We heard those and some other birds as we casual birded in the Costa Rican mountains. With a bit more time on that cloud forest road, I’m sure we would have heard a lot more but by then, it was noon, it was time to look for lunch.

Toucanets, Red-headed Barbets, and Big Purple Hummingbirds at Cinchona

Our lunch stop was a classic birding spot in Costa Rica, a special place most birders eventually visit. It’s the perfect place to do some casual birding because, check this out; the birds are right there in front of you, while you sit, while you drink your cappuccino.

The places in called “Mirador de Catarata San Fernando” at Cinchona and it must be one of the most ideal places on earth to watch birds with ease while taking in beautiful tropical surroundings and ambiance. Today, as with most Sundays, our visit was accompanied by bunches of people coming and going. Some had kids who excitedly pointed at the hummingbirds while adults attempted selfies with toucanets and hidden waterfalls.

It was a good day for Northern Emerald Toucanets. Two or more of these surreal green birds were in constant view as we casually enjoyed our mid day repast. Barbets came in too, the burbling ones from the cloud forest road and a fancy female Red-headed Barbet.

We did not see any of the migrant Cerulean Warblers that other local birders have been espying but a female Blackburnian Warbler was cool! As she fluttered and checked the leaves, we also had the chance to ponder over the vivid purple plumage of big Violet Sabrewings, the subtle beauty of a Brown Violetear, and the natural lights on a Green-crowned Brilliant.

After leaving Cinchona, we did some casual checking of roadside habitats for migrant warblers. No Cerulean but the Halloween colors of a male American Redstart were welcome, as were euphonias, Bay-headed Tanagers, and a few other species to finish off the day.

Before leaving the cafe, the waiter told us that just 20 minutes before we arrived, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle had flown in and perched in full view. In Costa Rica, you never know what casual birding will bring but you can bet you’ll see a lot.

To learn more about these birding sites and where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 plus page ebook designed to enhance every birding trip to Costa Rica.

To get you in the right frame of mind for happy birding in Costa Rica, I leave you with this obscure track from the 80s. Casual birding or not, I hope to see you here!

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5 Key Strategies for Your Best Birding Trip to Costa Rica

What does it take to have the best birding trip to Costa Rica? The birding trip that surpasses your goals?

Make no doubt about it, the birds of Costa Rica are calling- literally and figuratively. This morning, in my residential neighborhood, I heard the laugh of a Lineated Woodpecker. There were Rufous-collared Sparrows bringing some morning cheer and groups of excited Crimson-fronted Parakeets screeching overhead.

Looking to the north, I can see green mountains topped with clouds. There’s different bird voices up there and they might be too far to hear but as I gaze into the distant living jade, I still know what’s calling.

Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes sing like Hermit Thrushes from the top parts of Poas Volcano.

birding Costa Rica

Their voices are joined by the odd cascading calls of Large-footed Finches (think big, weird, olive-colored towhees), the chips of Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses, and even the high-pitched calls of the unique Wrenthrush.

You will also hear the soft mournful calls of Golden-browed Chlorophonias.

There are dozens of other birds up there, even more on the way to the mountains, and hundreds of species on the other side. All are calling, beckoning birders to come see them.

At least that’s the way I see it. I hear them and my perpetual hope is that birders everywhere can hear those birds too, can come and witness this treasure of biodiversity, this natural gift.

It’s also why I hope that when you do go birding in Costa Rica, you have the best birding trip to Costa Rica. To make that happen, consider these five suggestions. Whether birding Costa Rica a tour or on your own, stick to these tips and you can’t go wrong.

Decide how you want go birding in Costa Rica and know what that means

These days, birding isn’t just looking at birds. There is strict bird photography, adventurous full on focused birdwatching, relaxed birding combined with beach visits, you name it. It’s still birding but before you take a birding trip anywhere, you need to decide what sort of birding you want to do and arrange your trip accordingly.

For example, if bird photography in Costa Rica is your thing, you won’t want to spend a lot of time in low light situations. You’ll be on the road to surpassing expectations if you focus on the very best sites for bird photography. This means that you’ll probably sacrifice seeing some other species but you’ll get great shots of lots of other birds.

If you want to see as many birds as possible and are willing to work to make that happen, true full monty birding requires early starts, long days, and maybe some visits to sites off the beaten track. This is giving yourself over to the birds and although that means no coffee tours or beach time, it could also translate to 400 species and some of the best birding days of your life.

Relaxed birding in Costa Rica? Sure! Most people actually do this type of birding and it just means watching birds at a less frenzied pace. Maybe birding with some pool time, maybe some time on a beach, and perhaps doing a few other things. You’ll still see a lot but know that you probably won’t see various shy birds or other species that require focused birding ay key sites.

Go birding with friends

I like to bird on my own too but let’s face it, the best birding is shared with like-minded people whom you enjoy spending time with. Yeah, you gotta pick the right travel companions but there’s nothing like experiencing the unreal nature of a Three-wattled Bellbird and the magnificent madness of a Resplendent Quetzal with birding pals.

Your local birding club will work too!

Hire an experienced local guide

No matter where you go, the birding trip will be much better if you hire a good, local guide. Even one or two days of guiding can help you see dozens more birds, and maybe even owls and rare species.

However, to make this work, you can’t just hire any old guide. Sure, a number of guides will help you see some new birds and will be alright but you’ll have a better chance of surpassing expectations if you find a birding guide with lots of experience, who truly knows where every bird is, what it takes to see them, and how to identify them in an instant.

Your guide should be able to recognize every elaenia species in Costa Rica.

If you go the birding tour route, do your research and see which company has the best local guides.

On your own? Research where to go

If you do the trip on your own instead of taking a tour, research that trip far in advance. Do that and you’ll find the places best for you and your birding needs with as little in-country travel as possible.

But where to find the best birding information for Costa Rica?

Checking out other trip itineraries and eBird hotspots are good places to start. Keep in mind, though, that they aren’t the final word. I can promise there are dozens of other fantastic sites for birding in Costa Rica that are not visited on tours. Such sites don’t work with the tour route or just with the logistics of a group. However, they can be perfect for birding on your own.

However, many of these sites don’t stand out on eBird either. This is because, in Costa Rica, a high percentage of eBirding takes place at the same places commonly visited on birding tours, and there isn’t nearly as much coverage as in the USA and Canada.

So how can a birder know about other good, possible birding sites? Satellite maps. As with everywhere, in Costa Rica, the birds are where the habitat is. Check maps and it won’t take long to find the largest areas of forest.

You have to factor in accommodation and access but at least you will know where a lot of the best birding sites are.

Sites with a better chance at seeing Yellow-eared Toucanet for example.

But what about suggestions on social media sites? While you will get plenty of answers on where to go birding, from what I have seen, the majority of answers come from people who simply enjoyed their time in Costa Rica, are selling something, or are submitted by local casual birders. In other words, there’ll be lots of suggestions but few answers from the real experts.

Think of someone asking where to go birding in your region and a dozen people answer how they had wonderful times at local parks seeing common birds. They are giving answers based on their experiences but what do they really know about birding in your region? Probably very little. This doesn’t mean their experiences aren’t valid and that they didn’t have a good time, but maybe they didn’t visit places where owls roost, nor the best places for certain species.

You’ll get the best answers from expert local guides or from other, more detailed information (my 900 page birding site guide for Costa Rica will probably help).

Accompany early morning coffee with the dawn chorus

One of the simple joys in life is sipping high quality Costa Rican coffee while listening to the dawn chorus, especially in tropical habitats. I was going to start that sentence with “For the birding crowd” but then I realized that this is a simple joy suited for everybody.

Well, as long as you like coffee but seriously, sipping fantastic coffee as the rainforest comes to life? Hard to beat my friends, hard to beat.

Bonus Tip- Study Your Field Guide (learn some sounds too!)

As with birding in any new place, even if you go with the best birding guide, your trip will always be better if you study beforehand. Take time to see which birds to expect, and which ones you want to see the most. Learn about their habits, habitats, and what to expect. It’s also worth learning some of their songs.

The Boat-billed Flycatcher’s song is a good one to learn.

Maybe not all 930 plus species (yes, that many, sites that say 800 species either don’t know what they are talking about or need a serious update) but learning vocalizations for 50 or even 20 common birds can enhance your trip.

At the moment, there are a couple must have field guide books. They are “The Birds of Costa Rica- A Field Guide” by Garrigues and Dean, and “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Dyer and Howell. Both are good for any birding trip to Costa Rica.

The best digital field guide is the Costa Rica Birds app. Yes, Merlin is free but this app has:

  • All species on the Costa Rica list and various expected species that could occur including all pelagic birds.
  • Sounds for most species on the app.
  • Tips for identifying and seeing each bird.
  • Filters to show birds by region, habitat, and more.
  • It can be personalized to show target species, birds that you see, and more.
  • At this time, it’s only available for IOS.

I could always say more but at least the tips mentioned above will help you set up your best birding trip to Costa Rica. If you need help arranging a trip or guiding for yourself or for a group, I’m happy to help! Contact me at [email protected]

As always, I hope to see you here while watching some White-fronted Parrots or marveling over a roosting Great Potoo.