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Highlights from a Day of Birding in Costa Rica: Lowlands to the Highlands

Birding in Costa Rica can be a pretty hotel garden with easy-going saltators and chattering flocks of parakeets. It can also be focused birding in lowland rainforests as you search for dancing manakins and hidden woodcreepers.

Oh yeah, and birding in Costa Rica can certainly be watching mixed flocks and fluttering quetzals in cloud forest. Yes, fluttering quetzals. Fancy that!

The male avian deity messengers do their iridescent fluttering while cackling and displaying above the forest. If a big, shining emerald and red velvet bird fluttering and calling in plain sight sounds like too much to handle, it sort of is! The quetzal moves truly are one of your high level, mind-blowing birding experiences.

Recently, I had some of that deep Costa Rica bird flavor. A day of birding from the humid lowlands all the way into highland cloud forest promised an interesting selection of birds. It usually does and the other day was no exception.

This would be a day that went from low areas and up and over the mountains to San Jose. We didn’t have very much time for each birding stop but the activity was tops, we did quite well.

What to expect? Read on to check out some highlights and quips from that fine day of birding in Costa Rica.

Lowland Rainforest 1

The day began in the Caribbean lowlands, way down in the classic birding area known as “Sarapiqui”. Beginning at the edge of La Selva, lots of birds were calling, so much it was almost tough to know where to look first.

Among the guttural dino-sounds of a Green Ibis, yells of kiskakee-type flycatchers and whistling tinamous, I heard a set of soft, tooting whistles. Hello Central American Pygmy-Owl!

I whistled back to it, I hoped the mini-owl would fly in, but alas, it didn’t want to play. However, my calls did bring in Cinnamon Becards, honeycreepers, tanagers, White-ringed Flycatcher, and other small birds.

In the meantime, trogons and jacamars vocalized, Great Green Macaws sounded off, and swifts came flying in. “Good” swifts too. Cloudy mornings in the Sarapiqui area are often reliable for Spot-fronted Swifts. They were present along with small Gray-rumpeds and svelte Lesser Swallow-taileds.

After enjoying some of those cool, waterfall dwelling birds, distant scanning revealed a suspicious pale chook perched right at the top of a wide crown of a big bare tree. Yep, sure enough, female Snowy Cotinga!

She was far off but she was certain. As a reminder that familiar birds from the north have amazing bird encounters during the winter, a beautiful male Baltimore Oriole perched next to her for a moment. If only migrant birds could talk, what stories they could tell!

As a bonus, while leaving, we had nice looks at a Laughing Falcon.

Lowland Rainforest 2

Birding at the edge of La Selva was good but it was just a brief interlude. After picking up morning coffee at the local Musmani bakery, I figured we might as well bird another good spot. There was a lot more to see, might as well bird the area for another two hours and see what happens.

I drove back on the road behind Chilamate. Given that the bridge at the end of the road is still out, the one that leads you back to the main road near Tirimbina, it was surprising to see several cars. Where could they be going? Wasn’t this a birders only road? No, but it seems like it should be.

Back there in the forest, as I had hoped, we found a mixed flock of larger birds that I usually run into there. It typically consists of a bunch of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, woodpeckers, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Rufous Mourner, and other species.

The best of those other species are White-fronted Nunbirds. We enjoyed excellent views of the coral-billed birds while watching the other regulars. A pair of Black-crowned Antshrike also showed, Slaty-breasted Tinamous gave its low call from the forest, and other birds sounded off.

The birding was good and complete with a sweet send off- a shrieking White Hawk soaring low and transluscent. Oh yeah, and as another daily bird bonus, we had two more Snowy Cotingas; distant, shining white spots high in the canopy.

Lunch Highlights

We could have stayed longer in the lowlands. Heck, the avian rich area merits days of birding. But we had places to be, one of those being Cinchona.

The good old Cafe Colibri was a perfect stop for an early lunch accompanied by birds. This classic site wasn’t as active as other days and the birds were very nervous. We didn’t see it but some raptor must have been recently stalking the area. The way the birds were acting, it probably caught something too!

Even so, we still saw most of the usual good stuff. Both barbets, toucanet, tanagers, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and Coppery-headed Emerald. It was still good but since we seemed to have seen everything, we only stayed for an hour.

Cloud Forest Highlights

The next stop for this birdy day was upper cloud forest habitats near Varablanca. Perhaps thanks to cloud cover and recent rain, bird activity was good there too.

Collared Redstart showed, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers perched up, and other cloud forest birds appeared. One of the best was one we didn’t see but heard loud and clear. Bellbird!

There’s a small population of Three-wattled Bellbirds in and near that area, likely a remnant of a much larger population from much more forested times. I hear about reports but, when birding Varablanca, I never seem to catch up with those extra special cotingas. It was nice to finally hear one there, I’m eager to return and see if it’s still around.

The bellbird was a bonus but the prize must go to the quetzals. I see Resplendent Quetzals in that area quite often. However, they move around and are kind of shy. I might find 6 one day and then none on the next visit!

Luckily, the other day, there were at least four quetzals, looked like two males and two females. The major birds were calling, gave some good looks, and the males did their fluttering flight displays a couple of times. Can’t ask for better than that!

That was our last stop and it wasn’t even 2 in the afternoon. The drive back was fog, some rain, and then traffic in the Central Valley. As a bonus, while waiting in a line of cars near the City Mall, we had a flyover Yellow-naped Parrot.

That critically endangered species was a nice end to another fine day of birding in Costa Rica. Check out the eBird trip report. To learn about the sites we visited, search this blog and get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 plus page ebook bird finding guide for Costa Rica and more. I hope you see some fluttering quetzals, and hope to see you here!

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Birding in Costa Rica at Ceiba de Orotina and Tarcoles- Highlights and Tips

This past Sunday, my partner and I did a quick morning trip to the Pacific lowlands. That would mean sites just to the west of the Central Valley, hot places down the continental slope. It’s a pretty easy trip and it’s always tempting because this route promises birds.

You should see this one.

To be honest, that’s par for the course in birdy Costa Rica. However, at Ceiba de Orotina, some of those birds might also be rare and unexpected species for Costa Rica.

Ever since I guided someone in the Ceiba de Orotina area and saw a bunch of Grasshopper Sparrows, I’ve been thinking about that place. We also saw Violet-green Swallows and I’d like to see those again too, see if I can parse out a Tree Swallow, maybe a Cave Swallow. Both are uncommon species for Costa Rica, putting them on your year list is always a sweet bonus.

I’ve wanted to see those sparrows again too. We don’t see a heck of a lot of those cool, flat-headed little birds. It’s nice to get reacquainted with them, bring me back to structured grass at roadside stops in Kansas. Being such a “good year” for feathered Grasshoppers, I’m betting some other sparrows are out there too. A few Larks, Savannahs, and maybe something rarer for Costa Rica.

I had those sparrows on the mind as I packed drinks and snacks for the following morning. Ideally, going to the site would mean getting there before dawn and listening for the raspy coughs of a Northern Potoo and other birds of the night.

However, since such a starting time translates to leaving home at 3 a.m., it tends to be a tough one to manage. Instead, we traded potoos for sleep and got there around 6:30. That was still good! There were still birds a plenty.

After birding the patches of dry forest and open fields for a bit, our next stop on the birding agenda was Tarcoles. The following are some highlights and tips from that morning of birding:

Ceiba de Orotina = Easy Birding and a Good Selection of Birds

This spot consists of a long road that passes through open fields, some agriculture, and a few patches of tropical dry forest. There’s also a seasonal marsh on the road that leads to Cascajal.

It’s all good, it’s all birdy, and you’ll see a lot. However, you want to be there early, well before the tropical sun is unleashed to bake the land. Our Sunday visit was typical. There were some Turquoise-browed Motmots on the wires, Gartered Trogons calling, and a few Double-striped Thick-Knees in the fields.

Thick-knees are odd, fun birds to see.

There were fair numbers of seed-eating birds but, oddly enough, we didn’t see any Grasshopper Sparrows! While scanning one field of tall dry grass, I did see a sparrow fly and disappear into the vegetation but, alas, it did not reappear. That was unfortunate because I thought it may have been a Savannah.

Oh well, we still saw lots of other cool birds. There were lots of Blue Grosbeaks, some tan and shining blue Indigo Buntings, and a few pleasant green female Painted Buntings. At one point, as I whistled like a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (which we also saw), at least a dozen Blue Grosbeaks decorated a small tree!

We also had several nice resident species including one White-necked Puffbird, a few Long-tailed Manakins, Striped Cuckoo, and various other birds.

It’s Always Good for Raptors

Ceiba de Orotina is also a good place for raptors. Pearl Kite can appear along with Crane Hawk and other uncommon species. Although we didn’t see those, we were pleased with Northern Harrier (a good year bird for Costa Rica), Harriss’s Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Merlin, American Kestrel, Gray Hawks, and both caracaras.

Expect the Unexpected

This site is also an excellent place for odd and unexpected species. It’s really worth checking because the site has played host to Aplomado Falcon, King Vulture, and even Burrowing Owl!

On our visit, our best birds may have been a couple of Mourning Doves and two Mangrove Cuckoos. I know, Mourning Doves? While yes, that is sort of laughable, in Costa Rica, they are pretty uncommon and local.

The cuckoos weren’t incredibly surprising (they can winter in open, dry forest habitats), but you can’t really expect them. They were pretty nice to see!

Tarcoles is Hot

After La Ceiba, we were off to Tarcoles, which, like other places in the Pacific lowlands, is ovenish. Get in your birding early because after 9, it’s all about the burn and searching out the ice cream.

Be prepared for 90 degree weather and bring the hydration.

Tarcoles Can Get Busy on the Weekends

On weekends, Tarcoles can get busy. By that, I mean temporary traffic jams on the crocodile bridge, lots of cars, and, most importantly, people frolicking in the Tarcoles creek.

That would be the small river that flows through the southern edge of town. The outlet can attract gulls and other odd birds but not during the prime frolicking times (such as Saturdays and Sundays).

It is a good place for Scarlet Macaws though…

The River Mouth is Pretty Far

Tarcoles is also where a fair-sized river empties into the ocean. It’s the same river that has the crocs and boat tours to see them (and lots of birds too!).

In the past, one could drive to Playa Azul and pretty easily see the river mouth in all of its birdy glory. Sadly, since then, the river mouth has shifted to the north and out of sight.

You can still see it but you really need to take one of those boat tours. If not, you could be death marching it along the beach for at least a kilometer and maybe more. This ain’t no easy beach stroll. I bet the early morning isn’t so bad but after then, it’s a long, way too hot walk with no guarantees on birds.

Want to see the river mouth? Go for the boat.

Drive Back to the Central Valley Before Noon

If you plan on driving back to San Jose and other parts of the Central Valley on Sunday, don’t wait until after lunch. Too many other people do that and when they start the drive back, they can clog up the roads from Jaco all the way to Atenas.

Instead, leave by 11 or noon at the latest. That’ll avoid spending an extra hour in really slow traffic.

Ceiba de Orotina is a good, easy place for a morning of birding. So is a Tarcoles boat ride, especially because you can check out the river mouth. Stay in that area for a few days and you’ll see lots more! Just make sure you get up really early, have plenty to drink, and stay out of the sun.

To learn more about this and hundreds of other birding sites in Costa Rica, support this blog by getting my 900 plus page Costa Rica bird finding guide. The birding in Costa Rica is pretty darn good, I hope to see you here!

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Birding in Costa Rica = High Value Birding

All birding has value. Watching a Downy Woodpecker hitch its way up a backyard oak. Relaxing to the lazy serenades of Cedar Waxwings. It’s all good and it’s all appreciated. Connection with birds is connection with nature, and the experience is priceless.

And yet, most of us see far more woodpeckers than the shadow of a Gyrfalcon. Lots of birds are much easier to see than others, and to see most species, you gotta buy some plane tickets.

Emerald Tanager- yeah, you’ll need a plane ride or some adventurous travel for this beauty.

Species that are rare or very difficult to see also require far more investment than others. DYI a Swainson’s Warbler and you’ll probably be in for some mosquito bites, could end up spending hours before you glimpse one.

In Costa Rica, it’ll probably cost more to see a Black-crowned Antpitta. They don’t sing as much as those canebrake birds, are rarer, and tend to revel in the art of hiding. It can take days to see one, even in places where they are known to occur!

Pittasomas are avian royalty but luckily, Costa Rica has a lot of other birds too. Like literally hundreds. Costa Rica is some high value birding indeed. Here’s why:

More Bird Species in a Small Area

The country really is one giant hotspot. I’m not kidding. I mean I can go for a walk in an urban area plagued with morning traffic and still see Crimson-fronted Parakeets and White-fronted Parrots fly overhead, hear the laughter of a Lineated Woodpecker, and watch Blue-gray Tanagers in the palms.

I might also see a Short-tailed Hawk kite over the neighborhood, smile at a wintering Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and note 30 other bird species. It’s pretty nice and yet compared to the cloud-forest topped mountains visible during my walk, it’s ranks somewhat lower on the ladder of excitement!

Up there, only an hour’s drive away, quetzals call, and Flame-throated Warblers brighten mixed flocks replete with regional endemics. Between here and there, more than a dozen hummingbird species are zipping around, and three different nightingale-thrush species sing.

Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher are up there too.

I head in the other direction, drive on down to the Pacific slope, and hundreds of other birds await. Birds like Scarlet Macaws, Double-striped Thick-Knees standing in open fields, spoonbills and egrets in the estuaries, trogons, motmots, puffbirds, and more (oh my!).

Yeah, the birding in Costa Rica really is crazy like that. The mountains give us literally hundreds of bird species within close range of each other. You don’t have to go far to see them, it’s a heck of a lot of birds for your time and expenditures (when a friend of mine and I have arranged 10 days tours, we have always seen more than 400 species).

A High Number of Endemics

Ok, but let’s say you don’t really care how many species you see. Let’s say you are more interested in the special birds, the ones only or mostly found in this little corner of the world.

Birding in Costa Rica can help you there too. Most of the birds in the mountains only live in Costa Rica and western Panama. There’s even one funny bird known as a Wrenthrush. Wren? Thrush? What?

The friendliest Zeledonia I ever knew.

Yes. Exactly. Wren or thrush or orange-coiffed weirdo, this funny little bird is so unique, it’s got its own little family thing going on! And if you know where to look, where to go birding in Costa Rica, it’s not even rare!

Head down to the Pacific and more endemics await. Throw in a few more on the Caribbean side of the mountains, and a handful of true country endemics, and there’s a lot special, local birds to look for. Maybe something like 90 special Costa Rica target species.

Easy to See Fancy Birds like Toucans, Macaws, Parrots, Curassows, and More

High value birding also takes the form of fancy birds. Dream birds. Birds you saw in books and thought, “no, that can’t be real, that’s gotta be a mistake”.

Yeah, nope, no mistake, nature is always far more amazing than we imagine, birds included. In Costa Rica, as with most tropical places, dream birds abound.

Pretty dreamy…

Toucans? Not rare! Parrots? Yeah, lots. Macaws? Two species and easy to see! Yes, you still have to know where to go and a good guide always makes the birding easier but in Costa Rica, dream birds are the norm.

Very Easy Birding Access

Another factor that adds value to birding in Costa Rica is the birding access. Yeah, for national parks, you may have to buy tickets in advance and most don’t open until eight but the access is still pretty easy.

Not to mention, there’s lots of excellent roadside birding, private reserves, and other places accessible on good roads. It’s very easy to go birding in Costa Rica, very easy to see well over one hundred species in a day.

Costa Rica is Pretty Close to the USA and Canada

This country isn’t very far either. Fly from Texas and it’s a few hours. Fly direct from New York and it’s only around six hours away! Costa Rica is much closer than you expect and is so much easier to visit than many places in the world.

Common Costa Rica Birds Include Brown Jay, Mottled Owl, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Golden-crowned Warbler…

Currently, lots of birders are seeing these species in Texas. However, they are only seeing them on guided trips at a private ranch, and they are shelling out a lot to do it.

There’s nothing wrong with that. In general, people are free to charge what they want for goods and services, and the people doing the buying decide how they want to spend their money.

Now, that said, one could argue that if they wanted to see those birds in the ABA region, then they also don’t have much of a choice. There’s a point to that but if the birds are on private property, well, what are you gonna do, that’s the deal.

However, if the deal doesn’t seem so great, you might want to consider another one. Like maybe seeing those birds somewhere else. Maybe not worrying about seeing bird species within human-contrived boundaries, but enjoying them in places where they are so common, you could even see them without a guide.

Look for those birds in Costa Rica and you’ll definitely see them. It won’t be hard either. Brown Jays and the other species are very common birds here, so common that although we do like to see them, we don’t exactly prioritize it.

Yes, as with all owls, it’s always good to see a Mottled Owl but since that’s probably our most common owl species, it’s not too hard to find one…

Think Blue Jays, Great Horned Owls, Tricolored Herons, and some common warbler. In Costa Rica birding terms, that’s pretty much what those birds are like.

So, instead of paying a hefty fee to see them in Texas, why not watch flocks of Brown Jays in Costa Rica along with bonus quetzals, 40 species of hummingbirds, dozens of tanagers, and like 300 or 400 other lifers?

Yeah, the trip would cost more and I know it’s not the same thing but I daresay that the value would be hard to beat. Paying a hefty, per person fee to see some nice birds for a day, or paying a similar per day amount to see those same birds, dozens of Red-billed Pigeons, dream birds, hundreds of other species…

Yeah, that might be a better deal.

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Birding in Costa Rica Soon? Check Out this Update!

Going birding in Costa Rica soon? I hope so! As per usual, in Costa Rica, there are an impressive number of bird species jam-packed into a small area. For the birder, that means experiencing an avian cornucopia without needing to drive for hours on end, take internal flights, or making other massive travel arrangements.

No planes, trains and autocar shuffling around here! Best of all, it also means that Costa Rica is a basic birding wonderland. If you are headed to Costa Rica, soon, you’ll be enjoying this avian goodness. I hope these updates get you ready and excited about your trip:

Windy Weather

Lately, there’s been a lot of windy weather in Costa Rica. As I write from an urban corner of Heredia, the wind is shaking roof panels and swishing through the palms.

It’s been like this for days, nights too, and in various parts of the country. That hasn’t been fun because as every birder knows, wind isn’t the best of birding conditions. The birds seek shelter, stay low, and don’t sing much. It’ll be tougher to see them but don’t worry, they are still out there!

Even beauties like this Bay-headed Tanager.

To offset wind, make sure to get out there bright and early and focus on sheltered spots. On a side note, if you are in forest and the wind picks up, get out! Don’t hesitate, head out of that forest as quick as you can.

Most tropical forests in Costa Rica are not adapted to windy conditions. Branches break, trees can fall, and you don’t want to be there. It’s not like this is some big danger while birding in Costa Rica but why risk it? Locals don’t in Tambopata, Peru. While I was working and looking for macaw nests in the Peruvian Amazon, on one occasion, the wind picked up and some branches began to fall.

Never mind Jaguars or other animals, windy weather was one of just two times when I saw a local friend become worried. With furrowed brow, he watched the canopy sway back and forth and calmy stated, “yeah, we better get out of here”. We then rushed through the jungle and jumped in the boat to reach the safety of the open river.

The other time he was concerned (but seemed less worried) was when there were big red wasps near a macaw nest. He didn’t have to warn me about them! Those wasps weren’t exactly dainty. These were hefty red creatures that carefully flew in lazy circles near their nest. He said that if they started circling wider and come close, to run like hell.

Luckily, we didn’t have to make our escape but it goes without saying to be careful around wasps in Costa Rica too.

Route 32 to Limon- Mostly Finished!

It’s been a long time coming and it’s not done yet but, yes, most of Route 32 in Costa Rica is good to go! Route 32 is the main highway that connects San Jose to Limon.

The birding oasis of Donde Cope is just off Route 32.

The mountainous part is working although occasional accidents and landslides can still temporarily shut it down. At issue is the lower part of the road. For the past four or so years, there has been major road work to widen the two lane road and turn it into a pleasant four-lane highway.

During the process, driving through and sharing that bizarre maze of construction has been a challenge. At night, it was also a living nightmare replete with frightening drop-off verges, dangerous detours, and surprise car-breaking craters.

Thankfully, it seems that most of that stressful driving is behind us. On a recent trip using 32, we were pleased to find four lanes of quick, easy-going traffic for good portions of the road.

No more massive holes and it was much faster to reach Limon! That’s not to say that the road is finished and there still are some wacky, dangerous road situations (such as obstacles that suddenly close off the left lane) but it has certainly been improved.

For the visiting birder, this means quicker driving times to and from the Limon area. However, I still wouldn’t do it at night and there are still frightening detours that swing you from one side of the road to the other.

Supposedly, the whole thing will be done by the end of 2024. We’ve heard that before so we’ll see but I was definitely liking it a week ago.

Unexpected First Raptors of 2024

Raptors in Costa Rica are around but they are far from abundant. Go to the right places and yes, you can find hawk-eagles but not always! For example, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle or two live near Cinchona. One is occasionally seen flying around there but seeing it is a hit or miss situation.

Heck, you could easily go the whole year without seeing it at Cinchona. The more likely raptor candidates when birding in Costa Rica are birds like Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, wintering Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Common Black-Hawk on the coast.

At least you can expect to see several of those hawks. With that in mind, in addition to those common birds, I’m pleased that 2024 has already given me two hawk-eagles, Hook-billed Kite, and King Vulture.

We lucked out with a juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle at Quebrada Gonzalez. While we watched a mixed flock, the young eagle freaked the small birds out by loudly calling. It also got our attention! Thankfully, someone in our group spotted the bird, it stayed put, and we enjoyed scoped, talon clutching views.

Black Hawk-Eagle appeared as they usually do; a soaring bird that called and fluttered its wings high above rainforest. We saw that bird by chance during a brief stop near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. We were on our way back from a trip to Bocas del Toro, something I can’t recommend right now, at least for visiting Isla Colon. On that island, there’s a massive construction project going on. It was a bunch of dust, noise, and heat.

The kite and King Vulture were also seen during a brief stop on our drive to the border, somewhat near Limon.

As a bonus, the only owl I’ve seen in 2024 is one of the more challenging owl species in Costa Rica. During a morning on Poas, we had great looks at a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl! As the bird called, we were also treated to a host of hummingbirds, Black and yellow Silky-Flycatchers, chlorophonias, and other small birds that mobbed it.

A Crested Eagle was Seen…

This happened some weeks ago so it’s already old news. However, it’s worth mentioning because any sighting of this big, rare raptor is important birding news!

While birding in a forested area of Guacimo, uphill from Guapiles, a local birder lucked out with excellent views of an adult Crested Eagle. It even had prey; a partially consumed opossum species!

This sighting is momentous because it may point to a small population living in the Caribbean foothills. There have been occasional sightings of Crested Eagles from and near the Caribbean foothills for many years. Last year, one was also photographed near Pozo Azul!

However, we have no idea how many occur in Costa Rica, nor where they really live. Maybe some reside in the dense and inaccessible forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park? In any case, one was seen near Guacimo, a spot not that far from Centro Manu. Keep your birding fingers crossed!

Cinchona Update

Cinchona (aka the “Hummingbird Cafe” or the “Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando) is good as always. The usual birds have been visiting the feeders although there do seem to be fewer hummingbirds than in the past.

Recent highlights include Black Guan and Yellow-winged Tanager. Buff-fronted Quail-Dove is also still present. On a recent visit, one was even rescued from the kitchen!

The restaurant also seems to have improved administration and if you visit and don’t order something, they are charging $3. I think they should charge photographers an hourly fee whether they dine there or not but so far, it’s just $3 or a cup of coffee.

As always, I could mention more but these are the latest birdworthy items and notes that come to mind. Whether preparing for a birding trip to Costa Rica soon or at some later point, I hope this information helps. I also hope you have a birdy day and to see you here!

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2024- Starting Another Year of Birding in Costa Rica

It’s early January, a good time to be birding in Costa Rica! At times, windy weather can be a challenge but when the gusts calm down, the kiskadees are calling, and parakeets are flying overhead.

Birding in Costa Rica
Crimson-fronted Parakeets are pretty common.

Oh, and there isn’t any freezing weather either. None of that breaking ice off the windshield or other regular January morning chores I used to do in WNY. Here in the tropics, it’s all sun and warmth.

The birds know it too; it’s why Baltimore Orioles, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and other migrants are calling and chipping from the mango trees. They share their temporary tropical space with Social Flycatchers, tanagers, Green-breasted Mangos, and literally hundreds of other bird species.

As with other places, us local birders in Costa Rica are eager to start the year with birds. January 1st is a new year list, another annual journey that could ascend to 600, maybe even 700 species. Our 2024 journey (my partner and me) began with some birding on the 1st but it was quite nearly a false start.

Too much wind had chased all of the birds into cover. On a short, afternoon stroll, we were lucky to find the few birds that we did. To make up for it, we went birding the following morning. Read on to hear about our year birds and how I’ve been getting a couple other things ready for the high season.

Year Birds so Far

To make a true start for 2024 birding, we went on a nearby jaunt to check a couple of reservoirs and see what else we could find. Stops in key open habitats, those reservoirs, and patches of dry forest turned up a nice suite of birds.

Highlights included an American Kestrel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Painted Bunting, and rafts of Lesser Scaup. A good start for another year of birding! Check out the trip report.

Images that stick with me are the small falcon battling the wind, it’s barred tail pumping up and down as it perched at the edge of an open field.

The Grasshopper Sparrow was a sharp tick note, dry as the low scrub it was perched in. This small waif of the weeds is an uncommon bird in Costa Rica. We were quite pleased to lay eyes on it, I wondered where it had spent its windswept summer? Distant fields in Kansas? The Dakotas?

Painted Bunting was actually expected. This beauty is a regular wintering bird in the dry habitats of Costa Rica. On Raptor Ridge, it’s as common as House Sparrows! This picture is from that wonderful and welcoming spot.

painted-bunting

It was also nice to see so many scaups, diving ducks that remind me of the waterfowl rafts I used to watch on the Niagara River. More speciose in the icy north but waaaay more cold too.

Expectations for Birding Braulio Carillo National Park

Soon, we’ll be birding at one of my all-time favorite spots. I was birding Quebrada Gonzalez long before any ranger station was present, when the trail was muddy and ended with a slippery descent.

Since those days, this birding hotspot has changed a fair bit. The trails have gravel and rangers are always present. However, you can’t go in during prime birding time and several species aren’t as common as they used to be.

It’s still good though, still just as exciting to visit as it was in 1992 (well, maybe it was a lot more exciting on that first visit!). What will we see? Impossible to say, this tropical forest is too complex to guess but we should see something good, I always do.

I can mention possibilities. Those would be birds like Ornate hawk-Eagle calling above the forest, Dull-mantled Antbird singing from the stream, peaceful notes of Black-headed Nightingale-thrush coming from the humid understory.

Hopefully, there’ll be the tanager flocks, always a chance of a Central American Sharpbill or some other rare bird. The best would be army ants, if that happens, we could see a Black-crowned Antpitta, even see a Rufous-vented ground-Cuckoo.

There could even be a Bushmaster. Well, there are but you rarely see them. Hardly ever although I did see one in 2018.

The Golden-winged Warbler is the ABA Bird of 2024!

It finally happened, one of the coolest little wood warblers was chosen to be the ABA bird of the year! So what does this have to do with Costa Rica?

Well, if you are headed to Costa Rica, you can expect to see this beautiful little bird. Here in Costa Rica, Golden-winged Warblers are much easier to see than in other parts of their range. During the winter months, seeing one or more in a day of birding is typical.

Yes, seriously! Go to the right places and you can expect the Golden-winged experience, even in parts of the Central Valley. See a group of warblers or other mixed flocks in the lowlands? How about a group of birds in middle elevations? Or even old second growth with lots of hanging dead leaves?

There should be a Golden-winged Warbler or two. Since they forage by inspecting dead leaves, their predator watching abilities are limited. It’s why you won’t see them away from mixed flocks. That dead leaf habit is also why they frequent older second growth with lots of vines and hanging dead stuff.

If you think you see a chickadee in Costa Rica, that was a Golden-winged Warbler! By the way, it’s Ok to feel like you saw a chickadee in Costa Rica. Golden-winged Warblers are very likely mimicking chickadees.

Editing my Bird Finding Book for Costa Rica

Lately, I have been editing my Costa Rica bird finding ebook. It was in greater need of edits than I had expected and I also took the chance to update the book’s Costa Rica bird list.

I’m also including links to eBird hotspots and a few other things to help readers maximize their Costa Rica birding experience. It’s not ready yet but I’m almost done, this third version will be available soon!

As a caveat, if you bought the second version and want the updated third version, please let me know. When it’s ready I’ll send it to you free of charge.

If you haven’t gotten this Costa Rica birding companion ebook, check it out. Please consider buying it to support this blog while getting the most up to date birding site guide for Costa Rica.

Cattle Tyrant and Other Updates for the Costa Rica Birding App

With the high season at hand, we also need to update the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Cattle Tyrant wasn’t just seen in Texas, in late 2023, we also had our country first!

This species was already included on the app as an expected bird for the country, now we can include as a seen bird! At the same time, I may add a few additional expected species for Costa Rica and make a couple other minor edits.

This birding app for Costa Rica will still have images for well over 900 species and vocalizations for 870 species. Although it’s still only available for IOS devices, we are working on making this customizable digital field guide available for Android devices too.

Are you headed to Costa Rica for birding? I hope so because check it out, the birding is fantastic as always. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

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Highlights from Birding Costa Rica, 2023

Birding in Costa Rica in 2023 was 12 months of tanagers, quetzals, puffbirds, and more. Always much more.

Living and birding in a nation jam-packed with biodiversity promises good birding, pretty much all the time. To define “good birding”, I would say it’s having a fair chance of watching a healthy variety of birds with little effort. If you are headed to Costa Rica soon, consider yourself lucky because when you are birding in Costa Rica, good birding is the norm.

For me, this past year was stamped with a number of birding highlights including the following. I hope they give you an idea of local birding delights, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and expectations for this special tropical place.

American Bittern

This rare winter for Costa Rica was a major highlight for local birders. In Costa Rica, we have two main bitterns and three pseudo-bitterns. The two main ones, Least and Pinnated are local and only regular in a few spots. The psuedo-bittern tiger-herons aren’t that tough but since they aren’t really bitterns, I guess we have to leave them in their own vicious heron category anyways.

A juvenile Fasciated Tiger-Heron from Quebrada Gonzalez.

The other bittern possible in Costa Rica is the American Bittern, that water pumping bird of northern marshes. With only a few documented sightings, it’s not exactly regular. This winter, one came on down and picked a small marsh right next to a public road.

Ideal!

Even better, the bird stayed long enough for most local birders to see it! It’s so nice when a twitchable bird stays twitchable for more than a month. A shame the avocet didn’t follow suit but an American Bittern is pretty good compensation for birding in Costa Rica.

Owls

No matter when or where, every owl is a birding highlight. This year, I saw all regular owls except the “Puntarenas Screech-Owl” and that tiny bird of cold mountain nights, the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. That’s no surprise, I mean I’m not even sure if I even tried for it. Maybe just once. I might still go for it before the year ends although it is kind of cold and desolate up there on Irazu and the high Talamancas.

black-and-white-owl

The other owls were cool though! The last ones Marilen and I saw were a pair of roosting Black-and-white Owls at the Bogarin Trail. They should still be there, ask about them at the entrance.

All 6 Motmots

Motmots are such cool birds. Long weird tails, some jade green, splash of turquoise, these birds are exotic! In Costa Rica, we can also see four of them pretty easily. Those nice birds would be the Lesson’s, Turquoise-browed, Rufous, and Broad-billed.

The other two are a bit more on the tricky side of birding. However, if you know where they live, you can see the Tody Motmot and Keel-billed Motmot too. We got our year Keel-billed at the Bogarin trail just before we saw the owls.

Bare-necked Umbrellabirds

This year, I did alright with the big, rare, crow-like cotinga. I only saw two of them but even seeing one is special as sponge candy. The first was a female spotted by my friend Alec Humann right from the deck of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The second was a young male that swooped into view on the road to Manuel Brenes.

Major birds! Right now, there should be a few at those sites, Centro Manu, and lowland rainforests like La Selva and Tirimbina.

Major Winter Birds

This year has been pretty exciting for winter birding in Costa Rica. In addition to the afore-mentioned American Bittern, local birders have also found a couple Lincoln’s Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, American Avocet, American White Pelican, and some other rare species for Costa Rica. One of those choice birds was Costa Rica’s first documented Greater Scaup!

Rarest of all was a Short-eared Owl that showed up at a house in Cartago. As far as megas in Costa Rica go, this would be a triple threat mega, a Steller’s Sea Eagle level mega! Other than this adventurous bird, no Short-eared Owls have been documented in Costa Rica for like more than a century.

It also happened to fly away from that house, there’s a chance it’s wintering in some fields near there… The many pastures and sedge fields of Cartago would seem to be good habitat for it. Hopefully, this star owl has survived and is doing well (and will be found by local birders).

Interestingly enough, both the bittern and the owl can winter in similar habitats. Maybe a few other odd birds are out there. Would a Swamp Sparrow be too much to ask for?

Puntarenas Seabirding

I tell you, the birding is exciting at Puntarenas. At least for me, the seawatching is. Scan back and forth and something eventually flies into view, unexpected and pelagic birds that fly close enough to identify.

This past year, us and other local birders were treated to views of local mega Heerman’s Gull, and rare Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. One fine day, we also scoped a Sabine’s Gull beating the warm humid air with its patterned wings.

Other highlights included Pacific Golden-Plover (maybe the same bird as the previous year?), more than 200 Least Terns, and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. Oh, there was also those mega Peruvian Boobies and Sooty Shearwater too! I wonder what’s on those waters right now?

New Birds for Costa Rica

Really, there’s too many highlights to mention. However, I have to note new birds documented for Costa Rica in 2023. These are Dark-billed Cuckoo and Lesser Kiskadee near Ciudad Neily, a crazy Common Pochard at Lago Angostura, and an anticipated Cattle Tyrant currently being seen at la Gamba!

The year is coming to an end but it’s not over yet! There’s always more birds to see and with the interesting migrants that have occurred, who knows what will show up next? Happy holidays, I hope to meet you while birding in Costa Rica in 2024!

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Costa Rica Birds- Endemic, Near Endemic, and Other Target Species

Costa Rica birds include everything from majestic macaws to surreal Snowcaps and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. These and hundreds of other bird species exist in the diverse habitats of Costa Rica but the ones you see the most will be the common species.

Common birds are fancy too- check out this Lesson’s Motmot!

By definition, common birds like Blue-gray Tanagers, saltators, and kiskadee-type flycatchers are the familiar ones. There’s nothing wrong with seeing those birds, watching them is good for the soul too and if it’s your first trip to the tropics, they’ll be in that precious lifer category.

However, we can also see widely distributed birds in other places, some of them even in southern Texas, many on hundreds of hotel grounds in a myriad of places. It’s not that such birds aren’t special (they are) but if you can only see certain birds in any given place, those are the ones to target.

Even if you say, “As long as I see birds, I don’t care which ones I see”, you really still should go after those target birds. Who knows, maybe at some future time, you’ll wish you would have seen that Coppery-headed Emerald in Costa Rica. Maybe you’ll wish you would have spent more time looking for Wrenthrush than focusing on yet another flitting flowerpiercer?

It’s sort of like visiting Rome without seeing the Trevi Fountain, going to New York without visiting the Bronx Zoo or eating a serious slice of pizza (the main reasons for visiting NYC of course). It should go without saying. when birding in Costa Rica, “make efforts to see those endemics”. After all, you can’t see them anywhere else.

However, I’ll take it one step further and say that not only should you focus on country and regional endemics, you should also watch for the future endemics.

Those would be the birds that might be split, the cryptic taxa with a good chance of “attaining” species level status. The “new” Howell and Dyer field guide does a fair job of bringing a lot of those cases to light. In the Costa Rica Field Guide app, I have also tried to bring attention to such birds (although I need to edit the text for several more), and lists of endemics and possible future splits are also included in “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” (although I have to edit that too!). Some of these taxa are also mentioned or hinted at in eBird but not all of them.

In any case, I figured it would be useful to have a list of country and regional endemics, as well as good candidate birds for those categories. I hope these lists help!

List of Bird Species Endemic to Costa Rica

8 country endemics, three of which are restricted to Cocos Island.

The Mangrove Hummingbird and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager may have been recently seen in Panama, very close to the border. Also, Guanacaste Hummingbird is a mystery species awaiting rediscovery.

Cocos Cuckoo (Cocos Island)
Coppery-headed Emerald
Mangrove Hummingbird
Cocos Flycatcher (Cocos Island)
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow
Cocos Finch (Cocos Island)
Guanacaste Hummingbird (also known as Alfaro’s Hummingbird and only known from one specimen)

List of Bird Species Only Found in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (as well as the border area of the Darien in Colombia).


These are 110 bird species and likely species that only occur in the countries listed above. Many are easier to see in Costa Rica because the habitats in which they occur tend to be more accessible.

Black Guan
Black-breasted Wood-Quail
Black-eared Wood-Quail
Chiriquí Quail-Dove
Purplish-backed Quail-Dove
Buff-fronted Quail-Dove
Middle American Screech-Owl (birds that live in northwestern Costa Rica)
Dusky Nightjar
Costa Rican Swift
Veraguan Mango
White-crested Coquette
Talamanca Hummingbird
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
White-bellied Mountain-gem
Purple-throated Mountain-gem
White-throated Mountain-gem
Magenta-throated Woodstar
Volcano Hummingbird (three distinct subspecies in Costa Rica, perhaps there are two or three species involved?)

birding Costa Rica

Scintillant Hummingbird
Garden Emerald
Snowcap
White-tailed Emerald
Black-bellied Hummingbird
Blue-vented Hummingbird
Blue-tailed Hummingbird
Charming Hummingbird
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird
Bare-shanked Screech-Owl
Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl
“Puntarenas” Screech-Owl- the undescribed Megascops that lives in southern Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama.


Baird’s Trogon
Collared Trogon (Orange-bellied Trogon)
Lattice-tailed Trogon
Northern Black-throated Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Fiery-billed Aracari
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Sulfur-winged Parakeet
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Red-fronted Parrotlet
Orange-collared Manakin
Velvety Manakin
Turquoise Cotinga
Yellow-billed Cotinga
Snowy Cotinga
Bare-necked Umbrellabird
Three-wattled Bellbird
Gray-headed Piprites
Olive-streaked Flycatcher
Tawny-chested Flycatcher
Dark Pewee
Ochraceous Pewee
Black-capped Flycatcher
Black-hooded Antshrike
Streak-crowned Antvireo
Dull-mantled Antbird
Streak-chested Antpitta (it is very likely that two species are involved- one from Honduras to the Carribean slope of Costa Rica and Panama, and another that ranges from southern Costa Rica to western Ecuador).

Thicket Antpitta (it is very likely that at least two species are involved- one in Costa Rica and western Panama, and another that ranges from the Darien to western Ecuador)


Black-headed Antthrush (it is very likely that at least two species are involved- one in Costa Rica and western Panama, and another that ranges from the Darien to western Ecuador)

Black-crowned Antpitta
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper (it is very likely that the taxon in Costa Rica and Panama are a valid species)

Ruddy Treerunner
Buffy Tuftedcheek
Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner
Streak-breasted Treehunter
Yellow-winged Vireo
Silvery-throated Jay
Azure-hooded Jay (studies have shown it probably be split soon)
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher
Black-throated Wren
Riverside Wren
Stripe-breasted Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Timberline Wren
Isthmus Wren
Canebrake Wren
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush (studies have shown it probably be split soon)

Sooty Robin
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Spot-crowned Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Flame-throated Warbler
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus
Volcano Junco
Sooty-faced Finch
Yellow-thighed Brushfinch
Large-footed Finch
Costa Rican Brushfinch
Wrenthrush
Nicaraguan Grackle
Collared Redstart
Black-cheeked Warbler
Costa Rican Warbler
Black-thighed Grosbeak
Carmiol’s Tanager
Blue-and-gold Tanager
Black-and-yellow Tanager
White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Sulphur-rumped Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Nicaraguan Seed-Finch
Peg-billed Finch
Slaty Flowerpiercer

Isolated Subspecies that Live in Costa Rica and Panama that may or may not be separate species

These are various bird species with isolated populations in Costa Rica and Panama. Studies could end up splitting some. Always good to see in any case!

Highland Tinamou
Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge
Marbled Wood-Quail
Spotted Wood-Quail
Band-tailed Pigeon
Middle American Screech-Owl (birds that live in northwestern Costa Rica)
Hairy Woodpecker
Resplendent Quetzal
Northern Emerald Toucanet
White-crowned Manakin
Sharpbill
Mountain Elaenia (birds in Central America sound different from birds in South America)
Nutting’s Flycatcher
Black-crowned Antpitta (the subspecies that occurs in Costa Rica and western Panama looks and sounds a bit different from birds in central-west Panama)
Ochre-breasted Antpitta


Gray-throated Leaftosser
Black-banded Woodcreeper
Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Streaked Xenops
Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner
Brown-throated Parakeet
Rosy Thrush-Tanager
White-eared Ground-Sparrow
Green Shrike-Vireo (different subspecies on each side of the mountains)
Scaly-breasted Wren
Black-bellied Wren
Bay Wren
White-breasted Wood-Wren
Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (the taxon from southern Costa Rica and western Panama)
Olive-crowned (Chiriqui) Yellowthroat
Ashy-throated Chlorospingus
Orange-billed Sparrow (subspecies on each side of the mountains sing quite differently)
Cherries´s (Scarlet-rumped) Tanager
Variable Seedeater

To make the birding in Costa Rica even more exciting, some species in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica are distinct subspecies that may end up warranting species status too!

Those include subspecies of Silvery-throated Tapaculo, Fiery-throated Hummingbird*, Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, and other birds. It seems like the more we look, the more biodiverse our planet is.

So, there’s a nice list of birds to think about when you go birding in Costa Rica! Seem overwhelming? You won’t be alone. With well over 900 species to keep in mind, birdwatching in Costa Rica is naturally mindboggling.

Even so, it’s always good to know about endemics, and birds to look for. While looking for these, you’ll also see lots more. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

Learn about the best places to see these birds in my bird finding guide for Costa Rica. To learn about itineraries that can target these birds, contact me at [email protected].

*Thanks to local birder Tyler Wenzel for reminding me about that.

Here’s a downloadable PDF version of these lists:

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Highlights from Two Days of Birding in Costa Rica

What can you see in two days of birding in Costa Rica? Like anywhere, experience is a function of location. In the birding way of things, we also need to factor in weather, time, and local birding knowledge. Beyond that, what we see depends on how those birds want to roll.

In Costa Rica, how the birds roll is where a mixed flock happens to move (will it cross your path?), if birds feed within your field of view, and if the skulkers opt to come out and play.

During the past seven days, I was birding in the Poas and Cinchona area one day and at sites near San Ramon the next. There was some overlap but we saw a good bunch of birds. No surprise there, it happens when you visit quality habitats in Costa Rica.

In addition to sharing birds with a wonderful bunch of people, these were some of the other highlights.

Wrenthrush

Wren what? Thrush? Wren? What’s going on with that funny little bird! Wrenthrush is certainly unique but personally, I prefer using the one and only name for its genus, “Zeledonia”.

Wrenthrush.

It’s a snappy sounding name, a one of a kind word for a one of a kind bird. It really is one of a kind too, I mean, has its own familia and everything. Yeah, what used to be an aberrant warbler is the only member of a bird family endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.

And we had perfect looks at one on the road to Poas.

the bird’s not rare, I often hear them along that road and many other suitable spots but whether they let you see them or not, yeah, that’s another birding story.

Luckily, we had wonderful close looks at the orange-crowned, stub-tailed bird known as the Wrenthrush. I look forward to subsequent trips to wet highland forest where I can experience more of this special little bird.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow near San Ramon

The skulky ways and scattered populations of the endemic ground-sparrow can present challenges to seeing one. You’ll do best if you look for them early, like 6 a.m. In common with all local birds, you also need to look for them in the right places.

One such place is a site just outside of San Ramon. In my Costa Rica bird finding book, this site is known as 4.1 a UCR Campus San Ramon. In looking at what I wrote, I think I need to edit it and say that you can see a surprising number of bird species on the dirt road along the southern edge of the campus.

This dirt road is also a great spot to find the ground-sparrow but in testament to its skills at hiding, we only saw one and it took some effort to see it. We eventually got great looks but it wasn’t easy!

This spot was also bouncing with other birds. Long-tailed Manakin, several wren species, various wintering warblers, a couple woodcreepers, and more, the birds kept us busy!

White Hawk at Close Range

After our successful date with the ground-sparrow, we checked some roadside cloud forest along the road that passes through the Reserva Valle de Los Quetzales. I was hoping we would see a quetzal but nope, instead, the birding was fairly subdued.

We still managed excellent close views of a White Hawk and saw some middle elevation species like Collared Trogon, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and a Bunch of Other Mini Dazzlers

Between birding around Poas and sites near San Ramon, we had a good bunch of hummingbirds, 17 species in total. This included wonderful, detailed views of Coppery-headed Emerald, a svelte male Black-bellied Hummingbird, and miniscule Scintillant Hummingbirds among other species.

As usual, on Poas, the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds entertained while Volcano Hummingbirds did their bee-like thing. Crowned Woodnymphs also dazzled at the Cocora, and we took in the bright beauty of a Purple-crowned Fairy near Varablanca.

Cinchona

Speaking of hummingbirds, this classic spot delivered several species including Violet Sabrewing, the aforementioned Black-bellied, Coppery-headed Emeralds, and some other species.

Black-bellied Hummingbird

It was also good for the other usual suspects along with a hungry Black Guan and occasional looks at Buff-fronted Quail-Dove down below. Northern Emerald Toucanet ghosted but maybe it will be there next time? Consolation happened with both barbet species, Crimson-collared Tanager, and other sweet birds in beautiful surroundings.

Despite poor weather on Poas and Cinchona, and windy, sunny weather near San Ramon, we still identified 150 species. Check out the eBird trip report. Two days birding is always good in Costa Rica, just about anywhere you bring the binos. Headed to Costa Rica soon? Practice using those bins and get ready for some major bird action!

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5 Things Learned from Chasing American Avocets in Costa Rica

Recently, there have a few twitchworthy birds in Costa Rica. Lesser Black-backed Gull in Tarcoles- second country record, first chasable bird! American Avocet at Ensenada- a very rare vagrant scything the brine for several days! White-eyed Vireo also at Ensenada- rare vagrant, good bird to see in Costa Rica!

All present for more than one day, tempting for the Costa Rica birder, and all very twitchworthy. This past Thursday, temptation had its way and we found ourselves driving to Ensenada Wildlife Refuge. The plan was to see the avocet, maybe even visit the shorebird hotspot at Punta Morales, and keep tabs on the Tarcoles gull situation.

Ensenada is also a good spot for Spot-breasted Oriole.

At least that was the plan, here’s what happened, here’s what I learned. Even if you don’t chase vagrant migrants in Costa Rica, the following just might help your regular birding in Costa Rica too.

“Twitchworthiness” Doesn’t Guarantee Anything

When you start following the birding way, it doesn’t take long to learn some hard truths. Among those many birding facts of life, we quickly find that birders like to make a weird hissing noise referred to as “pishing”, that warblers look a lot nicer in spring, and that owls verge on being invisible.

It’s pretty nice when they become visible.

We also learn that just because we think we’ll see a particular bird species, noy an ounce of your confidence and faith will make that bird materialize. Beyond field skills, birding is sort of a game of chance. You can use weather, time of day, and other factors to nudge the odds in your direction but nothing’s guaranteed.

But hey, there are upsides to birding chance! You might find something rare! You might see the unexpected and if you pay attention, you’ll always learn a thing or two.

On our avocet chase, I was reminded that even if the bird was seen one day before, it doesn’t have to be there. Twittering flocks of Western Sandpipers were present. Wilson’s Plovers, yellowlegs, stilts, and other expected shorebirds rested and picked in the mud of Ensenada’s brine pools but nope, no neat bird with the extra fine, upturned beak.

We ran into other birding friends, notable our friends from Birding Experiences but even with more eyes looking and checking every pond, the avocet was no more. Well, we thought, at least we can check for the vireo a la white eyes! We knew just where another guide friend had found it, right where to pish and make pygmy-owl sounds. That little thicket dweller was destined for the birding bag.

But, no, the vireo didn’t want to come out either. I can’t blame it, if two-legged beings were making funny noises at me while the tropical sun baked the land, yeah, I would ignore them too.

Noon isn’t the Best Time for Birding on the Pacific Coast

Yeah, a better time to look for those White-eyed Vireos would have been much earlier in the day. You know, when birds are active and calling because it’s a lot more comfortable when it’s not a stifling, windless 90 plus degrees.

So right, why would we go birding in a natural oven at high noon? Our decision was based on upping the birding odds in our favor. On Thursday, noon was high tide and that there is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica. At low tide, most of the sandpipers and plovers forage way out on the mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. They spread out too and many are just too far away to watch.

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Distant mud flats at Chomes.

You gotta visit the shorebird spot at high tide, check the salt pools and other places where they congregate. In keeping with the no-guarantee rule for birding, they might not be at the pools you happen to be checking but hey, what are you gonna do? Stay home and not watch birds instead of being lasered by the long vertical hands of Helios?

Not necessarily! However, you could forget that noon birding stuff and stick to pleasant and productive birding efforts in the morning and late afternoon. You don’t have to stay home either. Like, you could find an ice cream shop or enjoy cold drinks in some shaded place until 3 in the afternoon. I mean, that’s sort of what the birds do anyways…

Slow Ride, Take it Easy…

Another benefit of leaving extra early is avoiding the traffic. You won’t be exempt from bumbling trucks and slow blocky vehicles and other oddities but there won’t be as many. It’ll still be better than driving at other times.

I can’t emphasize enough, on roads in Costa Rica, drive real early or give yourself some extra time! It really is slow going, especially on the highway between Puntarenas and somewhere around Limonal. I suppose at least when you drive slow, you have a better chance of spotting some perched raptor or maybe even finding a Northern Potoo. But please remember to leave that bird searching to the passengers. The driver has to constantly watch for pot holes, bad drivers, and other weird stuff.

Late Afternoon Dining in Puntarenas- a Big Yes!

We did not see the twitchworthy birds, and our extra side trip to the Colorado salt pans added on quite a bit of unexpected driving time but at least we visited Puntarenas!

We got there just in time for a late afternoon meal at the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill. Let me tell you, 4 p.m. could be the best time to visit this small seaside city. From our outdoor seating, we had a beautiful view of the gulf of Nicoya, Franklin’s Gulls picked at the shoreline, and other birds flew by.

While scanning the gulf from my seat, I even saw a distant storm-petrel sp.! Wish I would have had more time to scan for seabirds but we were hungry, we needed a real meal. Along those gastronomic lines, the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill delivered. I very much recommend it and not just because they support sustainable fishing. The food was good and the owner also offers boat trips into the Gulf!

Don’t Do Ensenada as a Day Trip

I used to visit Ensenada and Punta Morales as a day trip from the Central Valley. And yeah, you still could but it’ll just be a longer day than it used to be. Birding time has been reduced by traffic and the roadwork situation to the point where it’s hardly worth it to drive back and forth from that area.

I guess you still could if you left the Central Valley at 4 a.m. but even then, it’ll be a lot more fun and relaxing to bird the coast early and stay somewhere in that area for a night or two, maybe even in Puntarenas or at Ensenada Lodge. That way, you can have plenty of time to check shorebird spot, dry forest, and do seawatching and even boat trips from Puntarenas. There will also be plenty of time for mid-day siestas, cool drinks, and breezy tropical ocean views.

Ensenada, Punta Morales, and other shorebird sites also work well as birding stops as you make your way north to Guanacaste.

On Thursday, we dipped on the avocet and vireo, and we didn’t even try for the gull (which has also gone AWOL). However, we of course still saw other birds (a foraging Gull-billed Tern was a highlight), enjoyed a nice seaside meal, and learned a thing or two. It was also nice to end the birding portion of the day by listening to the rumbling gruff voices of duetting Spectacled Owls near Orotina.

There will always be more birds to chase and as I write, there’s certainly many more birds to find. Time to go look for them! Just not at noon…

To learn more about the birding sites mentioned and prepare for your fantastic birding trip to Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 page site guide ebook for Costa Rica with accurate bird lists, tips for identification, finding birds, and more. I hope to see you here!

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Recommendations for Birding Costa Rica- December, 2023

Will you be birding Costa Rica soon? Need some recommendations? Here’s my take on birding Costa Rica in the final month of the year. These suggestions probably work for every December. In any case, I hope they help with your upcoming trip.

Expect Rain in the Mountains and on the Caribbean Slope

“It’s raining again…”

It’ll will be raining…but it won’t be that bad. Well, at least not on the Pacific slope! Yeah, in December, the dry season does kick into gear but not everywhere in Costa Rica. This country might be small but it sits at a major junction, one called the continental divide.

Put your pishing skills to the test at Walmart Woods and you’ll be urban birding on the Pacific slope. Go anywhere south of the mountains and it’s the same- all that water is headed to oceans where Nazca Boobies dive and Black Storm-Petrels nighthawk their way over the waves.

Bird the Pacific and the rains should be trailing off or stopping altogether.

Go to the other side of the mountains, anywhere north of the volcanoes and tectonic lift and you’ll be joining currents that flow to the Caribbean. The Atlantic Ocean that is, waters where Great Shearwaters shear and Black-capped Petrels arc and wheel. And oh how we hope to see those lost birds in Costa Rica!

Over on the Caribbean slope, it’s generally wetter and there is no historic, actual dry season. In fact, it usually rains more in December but don’t fret! If you are bringing binos to Arenal, La Selva, or any other site on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, the birding will still be good. In fact, when the rain stops, it can be downright fantastic.

What about the mountains? What about folks headed to Paraiso Quetzal, Savegre, and other montane birding sites in Costa Rica? Yeah, bring a rainjacket or poncho and/or waterproof stuff. It’s more hit or miss in December but once again, when the rain stops, the birds come out. They like it more than the hot, beating sun.

Don’t Rely on eBird Too Much- Birds are Where the Habitat Is

Tawny-faced Quails are very difficult birds to see. In Costa Rica, they occur in hilly lowland and adjacent foothill rainforest in the northern part of the country.

eBird is such a font of knowledge. Where would we be without it? It is very useful, and for those of us OG phone bird alert, pager, and listserv folks, I daresay the platform is still revolutionary.

However. In Costa Rica, it’s not really the final say on birding. That’s because:

  1. Most coverage occurs at the same sites and main birding circuits.
  2. Most lists do not show all the birds that were seen or heard (because a high percentage of people using eBird in Costa Rica don’t know all of the bird vocalizations).
  3. And most lists probably have errors that can be tough to filter out.

This doesn’t mean that eBird is useless. By no mean! In Costa Rica, it’s a great resource for birding. It just means that you should always remember that birds are not restricted to hotspots or sightings on eBird. They occur in their appropriate habitats.

Umbrellabirds at Centro Manu and Other Lowland Forest Sites

It’s that time of year again! Centro Manu continues to be one of the better sites for Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Even so, this endangered bird is not common there. You may need to walk the trails for some hours and really look for them. BUT, you’ll have a very good chance of seeing this mega, especially if you hire the on-site guide Kenneth. As a bonus, he might also know of roosting sites for owls and potoos.

He sometimes has Crested Owl on the premises.

As for other lowland forest sites, yes, umbrellabirds should be there too. The best places are Veragua, the Rainforest Aerial Tram, and Pocosol but they can also occur at Quebrada Gonzalez, the San Luis Canopy, the road to Manuel Brenes, Nectar and Pollen, La Selva, Tirimbina, Arenal, and any site where primary lowland and foothill forest is connected to highland forest.

Those weird big cotingas are just tough to chance upon.

Look for Rare Birds- You’ll See the Common Ones Too!

While looking for White-fronted Nunbirds, you should also find plenty of other nice bird species.

The best birding isn’t in hotel gardens. Ok, so that all depends on what one mean by “best birding” but in this case, I mean birding that gives you the best chances at the most bird species. As with all places on Earth, that means visiting the largest areas of intact habitat. In Costa Rica, that usually translates to mature, intact forest.

Naturally, such places also coincide with the best sites for rare birds. Focus on those rare species and you’ll see the common ones too. You’ll also see plenty of uncommon bird species. Just make sure to spend some time at the edge of the forest and scanning the canopy before walking beneath the trees.

Want to see leaftossers? I know, say what? But seriously, leaftossers, foliage-gleaners, more manakins, and many other birds. You’ll need to leave the tanagers in the garden and visit quality forest habitats.

Avoid Driving Rush Hour in the Central Valley

As a final note, I’ll just mention, no, urge you to avoid driving in the Central Valley during rush hour. The Central Valley is basically San Jose and all its urban connections. There are major traffic jams on a daily basis, perhaps exacerbated by roadwork, always by daily fender benders.

Drive in it and you’ll be missing out on hours of birding time (in addition to testing your stress levels). Avoid it by NOT driving Monday through Friday in the Central Valley at these times:

5:45 am-8:30 am

4:00 pm-6:30 pm

It can also get gridlocked on Saturdays! Sundays, though, Sundays are fun driving days except when ascending Route 27. On Sunday afternoons, the weekday rush hour traffic gets transferred there by the many folks coming back from the beaches.

If you must drive in and out of the Central Valley, leave early, even by 5, and stay out all day. Instead of wasting time in traffic, dine out and then go owling somewhere. That’ll be way more fun!

I’m sure I could day more but these suggestions will help for now. For more Costa Rica birding information, search this very blog and support it by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It’s also a great way to prepare for your birding trip- it has up to date information about most birding sites in Costa Rica along with tips for seeing and identifying everything.

I hope to see you here! Happy Thanksgiving and happy birding!