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Counting Birds at Cangreja, Cano Negro, and Finca Luna Nueva

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of birding. Three annual counts and guiding took me to humid forests of the southern Pacific, cool air and hummingbirds of the mountains, and down the other side of the continental divide to the northern wetlands of Cano Negro.

At some point after the final bird count, I tried summing up all species I had identified by sound or sight and came up with 385 or so birds. A good deal of driving was involved but no owling, nor any attempt to bird binge the entire time. It just goes to show that if a birder stay’s out there and gets to a few different sites, in Costa Rica, the birds just keep on showing.

Some reflections from the past two weeks:

It’s all good on the road to Cano Negro

The sign to the reserve is not obvious but that’s par for the course in Costa Rica. It’s also why Waze is the unofficial driving copilot for every vehicle in Costa Rica. Once you get onto that long entrance road to Cano Negro, enjoy the ride because lately, the bumps and road craters have been minimal. It was a quick, easy drive but don’t go too fast, there are birds to see!

The best area is probably the San Emiliano wetlands area. This site can host many waterbirds including Jabiru, and also has Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, and might even have roadside Yellow-breasted Crakes! Although we dipped on the crake, we enjoyed several other birds including the flycatchers, seedeaters, and Nicaraguan Seed Finches.

It can rain a heck of a lot in Cano Negro

We discovered this in true wet fashion during the count day by way of cold blowing rain! Luckily, it didn’t rain the entire time although it seemed to do so at night. The rain beat down on the roof for hour after hour and so much that I was worried that the entrance road might be flooded. But, fortunately, those wetlands can soak up large amounts of water because the way out hardly looked like it had rained at all.

Despite rain on the count day, we still managed lots of birds, a few of the best being Black-collared Hawk, Nicaraguan Grackles, and American Pygmy-kingfisher.

Cano Negro is more than wetlands 

Although our route took in a few large lagoons, other routes also checked more forested sites with excellent results. One long route had all six kingfisher species, Sungrebe, Snowy Cotingas, two puffbird species, and many other birds. It was nice to be able to watch the two Cano Negro specialties, Gray-headed Dove and Spot-breasted Wren, right in the village. Many other forest species are also possible in and near the village including several woodpeckers, parrots and parakeets, even Bare-crowned Antbird.

We had close looks at Crimson-fronted Parakeets among other birds.

Cangreja is a long, dusty drive 

By nature, the trip to Cangreja is indeed a lengthy, dusty endeavor. Don’t do it at night! It might be foggy and it will be one of those special times when you think of better days as you wonder when the present challenging, worrisome times will end.

But the birding is good on that bumpy road!

Much of that road to Cangreja is good birding. Even the brushy areas not far from Puriscal can be good and further on, there are spots to look for Costa Rican Brush-Finch, and so many other species.

Need Sunbittern? Try rivers near Aguas Zarcas!

This key bird seems to be especially reliable on the river at the Cariblanca reforestation project. I’m sure it also occurs on the other rivers along with Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

Fun, easy birding on Poas

Guiding on Poas has been great as per usual with many regional endemics seen along the road to the national park. I have been hearing Barred Parakeets fly over, and have been seeing Black Guan at eye level, Buffy Tuftedcheek, silky-flycatchers, Wrenthrush, and much more.

The Arenal count was excellent

It always is and 2018 was no exception. Participants found several umbrellabirds in expected quality habitats, antbirds, a lingering Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and more than 360 other species. Our team found more than 160 species while birding Finca Luna Nueva and the Soltis Center. Although it was slow at times, we kept adding birds including Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, King Vulture, Barred Hawk, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Uniform Crake, White-fronted Nunbirds, and much more.

The view from the Soltis Center- a great site for raptors among many other birds.

We also saw this Jumping Viper. Despite the worrisome name, this snake rarely moves unless you try to grab it.

Finca Luna Nueva– birdy as always

During the count, we kept on seeing and hearing more birds at this excellent organic farm/ecolodge. This site truly shows how we should be using the land in sustainable fashion and it shows with the numbers of birds that live there including many migrants. We added species right to the end of the count, our final ones being Uniform Crake and Russet-naped Wood-Rail.

Birding from the tower at Luna Nueva.

The year is quickly running to its end. During 2018’s final stretch, I have more guiding and birding in store. Although I haven’t been doing any sort of Big Year, I have still managed to tick 640 species for 2018 in Costa Rica. Hopefully I’ll add a few more because if I do, they would have to be rare or decidedly uncommon! I hope to see you birding in Costa Rica in 2019.

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News for Birding in Costa Rica, December, 2018

It’s December, in Costa Rica, the month of vacations, the beginning of the dry season, Christmas in the tropics. For us local birders, we wish for holiday gifts that take the form of glittering cotingas, a White-tipped Sicklebill, a lifer or two or three. This December, my potential lifers are far too separate from the realm of possibilities but I don’t mind, I have been blessed, I will be content to watch whatever flies my way during Christmas counts and other birding days.

Come to Costa Rica for a lifer Prong-billed Barbet.

I will see a lot of birds during the following final weeks of 2018, I hope all birders can do the same. In the meantime, these are some news items for birding in Costa Rica:

New Birds for the Costa Rica list

Some web sites still mention 860 or so bird species for Costa Rica. Don’t believe it, the number is much higher and the list continues to grow. At this time of writing, the official bird list for Costa Rica stands at 923 species and now that Couch’s Kingbird and Yellow-billed Tern have been seen (by Ernesto Carman and Chambito respectively), we can add two more! They still need officially confirmation but since one was documented with a diagnostic audio recording, and the other with an excellent photo, they should make it onto the official country list soon.

The tern was seen at Cano Negro, we are doing a bird count there tomorrow, I hope it makes another appearance!

Birding sites that have closed

I may or may not have mentioned it elsewhere but in any case, Kiri Lodge near Tapanti was sold and may or may not reopen under new ownership. Much worse was the selling of Zamora Estate to “developers”. Although some of the natural aspects of the land might be preserved, I suspect that most will be or already has been destroyed to make way for housing. Not just important green space but some of the final bits of remnant wetlands in the Central Valley. I hope the owners are haunted by the ghosts of herons, especially the cackling of gargoyelish Boat-billeds.

Christmas counts!

As previously mentioned, there be Christmas counts happening these days. Special events in many places, in Costa Rica, we tend to take them to higher levels of birding. This count season has more counts than ever before, so many in fact that a birder can’t do all of them. I participated in my first Cangreja Christmas Count a few days ago, and will be doing the Cano Negro and Arenal counts shortly for a week of fantastic birding times. I wonder how many species I will have identified by next week? I bet I surpass 300.

The cool shirt from the Cangreja Count, my team found more than 130 species, the sole waterbird being Sunbittern.

Night driving in Puriscal- just no 

For the Cangreja count, we had to drive through Puriscal to reach Mastatal, the village at the edge of Cangreja National Park. It’s a long, winding road, several kilometers of it sort of rocky and dotted with occasional pot holes. But, that wasn’t the problem.The nightmare came in the form of pea soup fog, at night, on a road with minimal to zero lighting and very few road markers. Needless to say, this means that one should never, not ever, ever ever drive that road at night. Never mind the fact that some cars zoomed past us, it should in fact be closed during conditions such as the ones experienced by us. During the day, it’s fine, even beautiful and the birding is nice but time your trip well or you might spend a couple hours creeping along with the desperate hope that you will make it through alive as your navigator risks her literal head by sticking it out the window to make sure you don’t drive off a cliff.

Avoid certain supposedly edible snacks….

Oh, and there’s more advice garnered from that gem of a drive. Whatever you do, do not buy any of those packaged empanadas or other would be baked snacks from small supermarkets between Puriscal and Mastatal. That might also hold true in other parts of the country although you won’t find me testing that hypothesis. Whether just confused by fog or thinking that we were in need of emergency rations, we happily shopped for packages of pudding bread, empanadas, and some other sugary thing. Upon opening them, however, it only took one bite to send our contented feelings of accomplishment straight to ashen pools of despair. One lives and learns and makes discoveries. On that day of learning, we found that “budin” can smell and taste like actual garbage, and that styrofoam and/or plastic might be secret ingredients for packaged empanadas and “costillas”. Honestly, just stay away and thank the stars for feeling hungry because that’s better than dining on plastic and savage bits of fermented flour.

Green Guanacaste

This year was a good wet one for Costa Rica, including the tropical dry forest region. Things have been very green and this should help local and wintering bird populations in Guanacaste. With more habitat for waterbirds, perhaps we will have more of those as well. And fewer forest fires would be nice too!

Tis the season for umbrellabirds

Although I wish this meant that they would be common and a given at many a site, alas, the bird is truly endangered. But, it still is the season for this serious mega with the Elvis coiffure. One was recently seen on trails near La Fortuna, others should be at similar elevations where the foothills meet the lowlands on the Caribbean slope. Watch for them wherever forest is found in such situations and rejoice with your choice of organic chocolate and local brews (or coffee, or whatever, just not packaged baked snacks. Only eat those when you feel like punishing yourself).

The Bogarin Trail

Last not not least, The Bogarin Nature Trail on the outskirts of Fortuna will be rocking. Geovanni recently reminded me that December is the best time for birding that oasis. Many birds are at the feeders, there is good birding on the trails, and flowering trees can have Black-crested Coquette, Blue-throated Goldentail, and who knows what other hummingbird species? The entrance fee is $10, whether using camera or sticking to binos, it’s well worth it. There might be a roosting owl. There might even be a Keel-billed Motmot! There will be birds and it will be good.

The least common motmot in Costa Rica from a recent visit to Bogarin.

Coming to Costa Rica? Spaces are still open on excellent guided trips with Lifer Tours. The birding will be fantastic, contact me at   I hope to see you birding in Costa Rica!


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Horizontes- Good Birding in Guanacaste

Known for sun, beaches, and wide open vistas, Guanacaste is a popular tourist destination that encompasses the northwestern region of Costa Rica. Acting as the southern terminus for the tropical dry forest ecosystems of the Middle American Pacific slope,the lay of the land offers an appeasing blend of windswept fields dotted with octopi-like acacias, evergreen riparian zones that act as avian oases, patches of remnant dry forest, and rich wetlands.

The blend of easy birding and good tourism infrastructure makes northwestern Costa Rica an ideal part of the country to mix birding with a family visit. Those factors also make Guanacaste a good choice for local birders and even more so because the region offers high potential in Costa Rica for finding rare migrants. American Pipit has occurred as well as vagrant sparrows, wood-warblers, Aplomado Falcon, and even Gray Kingbird.

A few of the top sites for shorebirds are also in Guanacaste and since the region sees so little coverage for large areas of good habitat, who knows what else might be lurking along a dry creek bed or near some hidden pond? Maybe Costa Rica’s first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher? Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Maybe even a Burrowing Owl? Long shots for sure but they might honestly be out there and the best thing about looking for them is seeing hundreds of other bird species in the process.

This past weekend, while guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I visited Horizontes, one of many sites in Guanacaste that sees little birding coverage. Although we didn’t find any crazy megas, both Robert Dean and I agreed that the site would be perfect for finding rarities during the height of the dry season as wetlands shrink and thus act as oases for birds. Even though we didn’t manage to add Lark Sparrow to our Costa Rica lists (a real mega around here), we were still very pleased with the overall birding at Horizontes and plan on making a return visit.

Horizontes is a large habitat restoration project just south of Santa Rosa National Park and based on the numbers of birds we saw, it seems to be working. These are some suggestions and remarks from birding there:

Several Key dry forest species are present, check out my eBird lists from my visit.
Although much of the forest is in varying degrees of second growth, there are some larger, older trees in a riparian zone and we had a very good assortment of dry forest species including uncommon species. Some of the highlights included-
Thicket Tinamou– common! Although in keeping with tinamou decorum, still tricky to see.
Double-striped Thick-Knee– we had a few.
Plain Chachalaca– we heard a few of this very uncommon species for Costa Rica.
Elegant Trogon– we heard a few.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper– we had a couple.
Northern Potoo– we did not see one but they are regular at this site, with a bit more time to work with I am sure we would have found one.
Western Tanager, White-lored Gnatcatcher and many other regular Guanacaste species were very common.

Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite– we saw a covey near the main buildings.
Yellow-naped Parrot– we had regular sightings of this endangered species.
Myiarchus flycatchers– these were especially common, in fact, along with the gnatcatcher, some of the most common birds heard and seen throughout the day. Great-crested were very common and an example of the important role reforestation projects can play to provide habitat for this and other boreal migrants.
Brown-crested and Nutting’s were also seen quite often.



Mangrove Cuckoo– we had beautiful looks at a couple of these cool birds.

Western Kingbird– an uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.

Bird the main roads
Although birding a trail or two is worth the effort, we had our best birding right along the main tracks through the reserve.

A White-necked Puffbird was nice as were close looks at a female Hook-billed Kite.

Check the lagoon especially during the dry season
We had fewer birds than hoped but still managed nice looks at Painted Bunting and an uncommon for Costa Rica Magnolia Warbler. Once the surrounding area dries out, this site would be a good one to check for much rarer species.

Stay there to save money or just visit as a day trip
The accommodations at Horizontes are basic but fine and clean and include rooms with bunk beds and fans (standard for a field station). The food was local fare and it was delicious!
However, it’s also just as easy to visit as a day trip from Liberia, Playa Hermosa, or other nearby beaches. The road in was also driveable even with a regular car (albeit with careful driving).

Keep an eye out for rare birds
Since few people bird at Horizontes and the site has potential for turning up rare species, it’s good to keep this in mind and be ready to take pictures of any unusual birds. We were told about a strange bird that has occurred there that sounded like it might be some owl species and maybe even a Great Horned (a real mega for Costa Rica).
However, despite visiting the site where it has showed both during the day and at night, we didn’t find anything different. I want to check again though…

Check other nearby sites for more species
Given the proximity of rice fields and other wetlands to Horizontes, it’s worth venturing outside the station to bird other sites. On an afternoon visit to the rice fields at Las Trancas, we did very well with excellent looks at Spotted Rails, Harriss’s Hawks, Northern Harrier, and many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Hello rail!

Horizontes is easily visited as a day trip, all a birder has to do is drive in and pay the national park entrance fee. Meals and overnight stays would need to be arranged in advance but that should be easily done by contacting the station manager.

The best time to visit is during the dry season, note that some of the roads may be impassable during the wet season. Although Santa Rosa has better forest habitat, what we liked about Horizontes was the feeling that we were birding in an area with little coverage and high potential. If visiting Horizontes, please post your results to eBird and mention them in the comments for this post. Good birding in Costa Rica!

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Recent Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica along the Via Endemica

Road maps for Costa Rica refer to it as Route 126 but that’s only on paper or in pixels. As with most byways in Costa Rica, the signs that tell you which route is which are as scarce as cotingas. This is why us locals refer to Route 126 as “the road between Varablanca and San Miguel”, “the road that goes by the Peace Waterfall”, or similar descriptors. Confusing! Well hell yes! BUT, nowadays, we got Waze! That, Google Maps and other navigational apps help keep all of us birding drivers on track in Costa Rica.

Although you won’t find any apps referring to Route 126 as the “Via Endemica“, they really should. I mean where else in Costa Rica can one so readily find so many regional and actual endemic bird species (and isn’t that one of the big important things in life)?

Last week, I was on that good birding road again while guiding restoration ecologist and local birder Jeff Tingle. As one might expect from birding the Via Endemica, whether good photos and/or good sightings, we had several highlights:

Zeledon’s Antbird

This shady species is fairly common in the Socorro area but it can go unheard and unseen all too often. On that day, we heard a few and had one very cooperative friendly male. Thankfully, this cool bird with the blue eye shadow just said no to skulking and went all in with the birding program.

Becards and foliage-gleaners

What do these two types of birds have in common? Not much aside from being Neotropical avian standards but the other day we did well with a pair each of uncommon becard and foliage-gleaner species. On the becard side of the coin, the cute little Barred Becard treated us well at a couple of stops, both male and female showing very well. Then, much to my surprise, we saw a rare for Costa Rica Black-and-white Becard next to the road near Cinchona! I have never seen the bird there before, I hope it’s a sign of the forest coming back and habitat improving.

Regarding foliage-gleaners, we did well with two uncommon species. The Scaly-throated showed in the same flock as the rare becard and then again in a more usual spot for it, the forest above the Albergue Socorro. The other Furnarid was a Streak-breasted Treehunter that, like birding magic, appeared right in front of us near Varablanca.

Hunting trees!

Mixed flocks

Also known as “bird waves”, “multi-species flocks”, and in some birding circles, “bird pandemonium”, this is when a bunch of birds suddenly appear, often foraging like mad and leaving shortly thereafter. It’s the bird version of dine and dash, a real feathered ambush of the senses, and the larger the flock the more likely a birder is to lose all sense of decorum. We didn’t have anything that curassow crazy on the Via Endemica, but we did do well with consistent mixed flocks and life was good. Ruddy Treerunners, Collared Redstarts, Flame-throated Warblers, Yellow-winged Vireos and other species at high elevations, and a mostly different set of birds at lower elevations.

Black-cheeked Warbler was one of the high elevation mixed flock participants. 

The endemic ground-sparrow (s)

The icing on the cake of the Via Endemica is the presence of the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. I think we should actually  it the C G Sparrow (or maybe even Calvin Gucci?) as a reflection of its cool demeanor. As with any famous character, it’s not common by any means nor easy to see but if a birder checks the right cafetales and sites, he or she may connect and even get paparazzi with this fancy towhee. The bird has been treating me well at the Villas San Ignacio. It’s sort of impossible to pinpoint where it can be seen at the hotel but it is present. We had good views of a couple of this fine G Sparrow last week. The same goes for the other snazzy G Sparrow in Cost Rica- ye olde White-eared. We also had a couple at Villas San Ignacio.

I’m sure there are more highlights I could tell but the best are the ones a birders makes for him or herself. Check out the Via Endemica in Costa Rica and tell us what you see in the comments.

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Arenal Christmas Bird Count- An Exciting Birding Event

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”. Christmas! Navidad! The festive season makes those brief December days and long dark nights somehow easier to handle. Or, maybe it’s just that we aren’t two months into the winter season and really tired of looking at gray skies, dirty sidewalk snow, and birdless bare branches. But that stuff is for the northern realms, not for warm and tropical Costa Rica. Around here, in December, we only need worry about how many birds we can find during our annual Christmas Counts!

Yes, this really is the most wonderful time of the year for many of us local birders and it has everything to do with our “conteos de aves”. I know that the annual count is special for many a birder in many places but seriously, here in Costa Rica, we tend to kick it up a notch. Not just a day to get together and count birds, our counts tend to me more like events that bring dozens of birders together whether they are official registered Audubon counts or not.

The Arenal event is one such count. Although it’s not officially registered as an Audubon count circle, we carry out the count in similar fashion and use it to gather data and promote birding in the Arenal area. It actually starts well before the count date with the count organizers contacting hotels and agencies that might be interested in sponsoring the count, registering counters, seeing where various people can stay, and then seeing which person will lead which route along with assigning people to each route. Oh yeah and then there is the catering but I’ll get to that later.

The routes for the Arenal count cover everywhere from the La Fortuna surroundings to the Hanging Bridges, Sky Trek, the Observatory Lodge, Arenal Lake, and even a rafting count on the Penas Blancas River. Basically, fantastic birding everywhere and with every route recording well over 100 species. Sound enticing? It sure is and is why this count sees more than 70 people participating each year.

Participants from 2014.

The first year of the count, 2013, actually had the highest participation with 95 birders in the field. Last year, 71 people were counting birds, probably less than other years because of other counts taking place at the same time. However, even with less participants, we still had 338 species for the count circle, around average. That said, our highest total was 377 species in 2016 and with the right combination of weather and participation, we could certainly record even more.

Regarding species, this one is also exciting because it’s one of the few counts in Costa Rica that finds birds like Uniform Crake, Lanceolated Monklet, Song Wren, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Bare-crowned Antbird on the same day!

Last year, our group got the monklet although it can turn up on at least three or four routes.

Once everything is ready, people confirmed for the annual Arenal count get together in La Fortuna for a meeting held the night before the count. This has taken place at hotels, in a gymnasium, and even at the local market and is vital for socializing with other counters, going over the routes, and seeing a presentation that talks about the official count species and research being carried out in the Arenal count circle. This is accompanied by coffee and cookies as counters try on tee-shirts that show the official count species on the front and logos of count sponsors on the back. It’s always a cool, unique shirt and it ends up acting as valuable marketing for the hotels and travel agencies that support the bird count because believe me, those count shirts get around! I have worn more than one of mine on trips outside of Costa Rica as well as within the country and since the shirts are unique, people do notice and even ask about them.

Over the years, the Arenal count has gotten support from 6 public institutions and 30 private enterprises, I wonder who the lucky sponsors will be this year?

After the pre-count meeting, birders meet up with their respective count leaders to figure out if they should start counting in the middle of the night or wait until dawn. Personally, I prefer to start around 3:30 at beautiful Finca Luna Nueva, the route I usually do. Then, everyone heads off to their respective places for lodging to hopefully get some sleep before count day. On count day itself, the birding is often an exciting blend of fast and furious avian action between bouts of pouring rain.

Last year gave us a break with the weather and because of it, we managed several owls along with a wonderful sunny day of birding.

Counters usually finish up around 4 or 5 and then head to the count dinner. This is typically a catered affair where we are served that Costa Rican staple rice with chicken, refried beans, and some potato chips along with a bit of salad. It’s good birding food and seems to work perfectly after a long, fantastic deal in the field. Some count sponsors are also present and can have tables with optics, brochures, and works of art. Eventually, once it seems as if all are present, we go through the bird list, mentioning each species and each count group raising a hand if they identified the bird mentioned. Stories and locations for rare birds are shared, and another birding event in Costa Rica comes to an end.

These words could never portray the true excitement of this count, a day when we give ourselves over to birding in an excellent area for birding. However, if you can imagine seeing more than 150 species of birds, one species coming after another, trees of toucans, flocks of Red-billed Pigeons, antbirds whistling from the dark understory of rainforest, Red-lored Parrots filling the air with sound as three species of parakeets zip by in screeching flight, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle calling above a tall jade canopy, and sharing this and more with friends, loving partners, and like-minded people, if you can imagine that, this is what the Arenal count is like. It’s happening this year on December 8th, it’s gonna be good!

Some stats from previous Arenal counts:

2013: 342 species, 95 participants

2014: 332 species, 90 participants

2015: 322 species, 80 participants

2016: 377 species, 74 participants

2017: 338 species, 71 participants

Birding Costa Rica

Early November Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, November is a low season for birding. So few birders visit, some might even call it a “non season” for birding. But the visiting birder deficit belies how good the birding can be. In November, us local birders thrive on sightings of cuckoos, thrushes, and other migrants including hundreds of shorebirds. Although it can rain, it’s not usually for the entire day and the cloudy weather keeps the birds moving. Although very few birders visit this birdy country during the month of lead gray skies; the ones who do take a chance on Tiquicia in November enjoy a welcome blend of elbow room and wonderful birding.

I was reminded of those benefits during recent guiding followed by an additional morning of easy-going birding. These were a few highlights of mine and other birders in Costa Rica from the past week:

Three Days, 300 Plus Bird Species 

It was actually three and a half days but the count was still well over 300. My client is accustomed to watching a lot of birds and also understands better than anyone how hard it can be to see them (Yve Nagy Morrell put in the time and effort needed to get the highest total of bird species in the ABA region during her Big Year in 2017- quite the accomplishment!). That said, we saw so many birds (including several seriously choice species!), the birdless moments were minimal.

There are too many highlights from those three days of avian excitement to mention, some that come to mind are good looks at Hook-billed Kite, Snowcap, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Spectacled and Black-and-white Owls a la Cope, King Vulture, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo to name a few.

Scarlet Macaws in the village of Tarcoles were also nice. This was one of around 90 species found around Tarcoles during a couple of hours that same afternoon! 

Roosting Owls

Thanks to Cope, we had wonderful looks at Crested and Spectacled Owls. A couple days later, thanks to the Bogarin brothers at the Bogarin Nature Trail, I had fantastic looks at another Spectacled Owl!

Cope’s Crested Owl 

Spectacled Owl from Bogarin

Quail-dove bonanza

I admit that might be pushing the description a bit but three species of quail-doves on three days of birding in Costa Rica is seriously, unusually good. The Buff-fronted at Cinchona made an appearance, Olive-backed walked across the trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, and we also had a beautiful surprise Ruddy stroll into view at the same site.

Keel-billed Motmot at the Bogarin Nature Trail

After my birdy days with Yve, the Bogarin Trail had Mary and I looking at an extremely cooperative Keel-billed Motmot. Although few migrant species appeared in our fields of view, we heard one Uniform Crake and enjoyed point blank looks at species visiting the feeder.

The usual Russet-naped Wood-Rail was also in the house at Bogarin.

More data on Unspotted Saw-whet Owls

As if the birds above weren’t enough, Ernesto Carman and crew have been tracking Unspotted Saw-whets in the high mountains and gathering valuable data about this rare, little known species! Now I know why it can take a while to find one during a night of cold, high mountain birding.

Return of the Rufous-crested Coquette

A Rufous-crested Coquette has once again made an appearance at Rancho Naturalista. Attesting to the welcoming, gracious character of this excellent birding lodge, the owners have invited any and all local Costa Rican birders to visit and see the coquette. They just ask for a donation to help with buying materials for bird education and workshops. I hope the mega stays long enough to see it this year!

If the past few days are any indication, November is a good time to visit Costa Rica for birding. There will probably be some rain to contend with but when it stops, the birds can come fast and furious! Coming to Costa Rica? I know some excellent tours available for good prices, contact me at to learn more!

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Recent Birding in the Southern Caribbean Lowlands of Costa Rica

Each year, I hope to accomplish certain birding trips in Costa Rica. No matter where or when, up in here, although the birding is always worth it, certain situations are still an annual “must”. Even though urban birding can include binocular time with Rufous-capped Warblers, Lesson’s Motmot and the rare Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, as long as the habitat isn’t destroyed to make way for housing, said experience is still available all year long. Parrots, parakeets, raptors and dozens of other tropical species do the morning flyby at Cerro Lodge but that’s also pretty much every month of the calendar. The same goes for mixed flocks of tanagers, antbird action, and so many other target experiences with resident birds.

A birder might even share breakfast time with toucans.

However, as with birding in the northern latitudes, we also have times and places that merit optic attention, one of the main venues being the Caribbean Coast during October. Anywhere on the coast and even in much of the adjacent lowlands is good but one of the best areas seems to be the southern corner of Costa Rica. Visit sites south of Limon during October and you place yourself in the path of literally millions of birds.

No exaggeration. It’s as simple as that because a fair percentage of the Chimney Swifts, Barn Swallows, Bank Swallows, and Cliff Swallows that breed up north fly through in October along with large numbers of Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Eastern Kingbirds, eastern Wood-Pewees, and so on. Add a River of Raptors to the mix and lesser numbers of passerines, shorebirds, and herons and there’s never a dull moment. Thus, I yearn to bird places like Punta Uva and Manzanillo in October and am grateful that once again, I was able to guide for a few days down that way this fall migration season.

A kingbird on vacation.

I wish I was still there now because I know the birding will be fantastic for at least another week. Every day, thousands of birds. But, at least I got the opportunity to experience some of that and, as mentioned, I am grateful. These were some of the happenings:


When I think of the past few days, visions of flycatchers come to mind. Lots of dun colored birds sallying from posts, most of them Eastern Wood-Pewees. They might not be splashed with the rainbow but seeing dozens of pewees foraging in tropical locales is always impressive. I also get a kick out of hearing them say their name. It generates a juxtaposition of memories; some with a backdrop of lowland rainforest, others with the breeze swishing the foliage of June Oaks and Maples on Goat Island.

Other flycatchers were also in evidence. A few Olive-sideds, fair numbers of Traill’s nearly skulking in tall, wet grass. Eastern Kingbirds flying in to perch in the canopy and plenty of local flycatchers too. Birders up north might be surprised to hear that one of our best birds was Least Flycatcher because although it might be de-facto in the northeast, most winter in Mexico. Only a few make it to Costa Rica, the southern Caribbean being one of the best areas to add it to a Costa Rica year or country list. I was very pleased to see one!

Gray-capped Flycatcher was one of many local flycatcher species, at least a dozen other resident flycatchers were also heard or seen. 

A couple of choice seabirds!

Offshore storms were churning up the ocean during our entire stay and were likely responsible for two excellent finds, Brown Noddy and Herring Gull. A cursory check of the water turned up the noddy foraging quite close to shore near Manzanillo. I have heard of others seeing this species in the area now and then, I guess my time had finally come. Although it was a bit far off, scope views showed the graceful antics of the chocolate brown, long-tailed tern.

As for the gull, a mundane bird elsewhere is not necessarily common in Costa Rica. A Herring is a rare visitor this far south, an excellent find! Wheeling over a storm born wave, it popped into view at an estuary during our drive back home. The adventurous first year bird quickly moved further south and was also seen by other birders shortly after in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Barely record shots of the gull. I like the waves.

Rained out

Although October can be sunny on the southern Caribbean slope, it can also be wet as a sponge. We had a bit of both and were pretty much rained on from Saturday afternoon into Sunday morning. As one might imagine, this minimized bird activity quite a bit, even vociferous residents were taking a time out. That said, we still managed to see some birds fly over, others here and there.

We spent quality time with Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and

Canebrake Wren

Sunday excitement

The final morning of the trip was rained out but the after breakfast birding sort of made up for it. A stop at the Puerto Vargas entrance to Cahuita National Park finally turned up the migrants as a few dozen birds feasted on small fruits. Most were Red-eyed Vireos along with several Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, a few Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and a few other birds. The best came when one of the new club members asked about/mentioned the different bird on the wire. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the bird in question turned out to be a Yellow-billed Cuckoo perched on a roadside cable! After it flew off, another Yellow-billed swooped past it.

With the elation of migrants under our belts, we continued north, stopping at the estuary where we saw the aforementioned gull. But that wasn’t the only thing espied. During that short hour, we watched a constant stream of swallows and Chimney Swifts fly overhead, got bins onto ten or so migrating Peregrines, and tried to focus on five or so boreal bullets (Merlins!). On the shore, we were also treated to several waders and even a couple of Blue-winged Teal. Our eBird list from that fine hour of birding.

Excellent eats

Thanks to this being a popular area for tourism and, apparently, chefs, there are several options for delicious dining. For honest focaccia, pizza rossa, and other Italian pastry bread and delights, check out the DiGustibus bakery.

There are too many good restaurants to mention so I will just talk about the pair where our group enjoyed dinner. Bamboocha had very good service and nice Italian and Caribbean dishes for good prices, whereas Lydia’s in Puerto Viejo served up tasty authentic Caribbean meals with friendly, good and efficient service.

We also had nice, filling breakfasts at the Casita Azul, enjoying birds in the garden and beach scenery at the same time.

Warm hospitality at Olguita’s Place

We stayed at Olguita’s Place, a small set of locally owned cabinas. The friendly owners took care of our needs, are interested in birds and may have a birding trail set up when you visit. Cabins aren’t luxurious but are available for a great price, are fine, and our’s was actually outfitted with fans, a fridge, and a gas stove. Birding on the grounds is good for various edge species, plenty of good forest birding is situated within walking distance, and a beach with good snorkeling is just up the driveway. I enjoyed staying at this peaceful friendly spot and look forward to another visit.

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Birding in Costa Rica on Global Big Day, October 6

October weather in Costa Rica is tricky. Although hurricanes don’t plow their way through the country, the long humid fingers of such weather systems can give Costa Rica a very wet and lasting caress. Last week, we were touched by the heralds of a tropical system churning its way through part of the Caribbean, and as expected, the wet winds brought more than enough rain. Unlike “typical” tropical storms that take pace in the afternoon, rain generated by unstable systems in the Caribbean and Pacific can belt Costa Rica with constant sheets of falling water at all hours. This past week, the water fell for three straight days, most of it soaking the grounds and rushing the rivers of the Pacific Slope.

Given that rain and counting birds is a no-win combination, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one anxious about dawn chorus for GBD, October 6th. The forecast was a gamble even up to the last minute and when I drove over the mountains the evening of the 5th, the situation was far from promising. Wind and rain danced a vicious jig on the high slopes of Barva Volcano and landslides seemed likely. Since a fair chance of rain was also forecast for the Pacific slope the morning of the global collective bird count, at the last moment, I opted for dawn chorus on the Caribbean side. Dawn chorus refers to the vocalizations of birds during the early morning, it can consist of a few species or many and is an absolute make it or break it situation on a Big Day. Do it right and you can add dozens of species, maybe even a hundred in an hour. Start in the wrong place or with rain and the Big Day totals will take a fatal hit.

This is a picture of the Peace Waterfall overflowing with muddy flood waters from the afternoon of October 5th.

This past Saturday, thinking that the habitat at La Selva would be just as or even more productive than another site I had chosen as a starting point, I made a last minute change to greet the dawn on the entrance road to this classic birding site. Some of the situations and highlights from a day given over to the birds:

The dawn

Early morning is always a beautiful, promising part of the day, on October 6th, we were greeted by the calls of motmots, Green Ibis, and a few other birds. But…not a whole lot else. Our dawn chorus was a bit quiet and I couldn’t help but wonder if time of year had something to do with it because various birds I have seen and heard on numerous other occasions at spots we visited didn’t make themselves known on October 6th. We still heard and saw several species, though, including one of our key, best birds of the day, Snowy Cotinga!

Expected Great Green Macaws were also very nice.

Tigre Fields deliver some birds

I wasn’t sure how well this site would work since much of it has been drained and it’s nothing like it used to be. Nevertheless, wet puddles on open ground worked to give us Southern Lapwing, both yellowlegs, Blue-winged Teal and a few other species we did not see in other spots.

Dave n Daves and raptors

This stop was made to pick up a few hummingbirds (we did) and hopefully get Gray-headed Chachalaca and a few other species (we did not). However, stopping there still worked out and not only because we saw those hummingbirds. We also saw raptors as they road the first thermals up into the blue. The best of those was a striking adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle right in front of Dave and Dave’s, the second best probably a Zone-tailed Hawk deftly spotted soaring above a kettle of vultures.

The birding and bird photography at this special site are always great. Lately, both oropendolas and three toucan species have been showing up! 

All is quiet at Virgen del Socorro

Good baseball playing weather is good for dawn birding but by 8:30, our avian friends take a sudden, multi-species break. And so it was for us in the Socorro area. At least the scenery was nice and we still picked up some, but we also failed to luck out with a big mixed flock. At least Blackburnian Warblers were in abundance and we did add some other birds. On a side note, I also discovered that the road in Virgen del Socorro had been “fixed” by dumping loose gravel along the length of it. This did not work out well for my small car, for the time being, it looks like visiting this site might only be possible with a four wheel drive vehicle.

Common birds on strike?

Not all of them but a higher number of common species than expected. The two that take the prize for unexplained absence would have to be House Sparrow and Red-billed Pigeon. I mean normally, I can’t go without seeing these two even when I’m not birding. Somehow, someway, I managed to not see them on October 6. But, we did see a cotinga! And that should really count for ten birds.

Behind schedule!

Waiting for a few more birds and visiting the Tigre Fields put us a bit behind schedule. Fortunately, shaving time off sunny sites at Socorro got us back on board with the original birding times. We even had time for a near unprecedented stop in Alajuela for a bathroom and coffee/Red Bull break (or the other way around)!

Cloud forest

Higher up, a stop in the San Rafael area gave up several species, our best probably being Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher that called on one gracious occasion. Nearby hummingbird feeders gave us expected species plus a sweet female Magenta-throated Woodstar.

We also saw Red-faced Spinetail.

The Dry Pacific

Back on schedule, I figured we had time to check for dry forest species on Cerro Lodge road. This worked out with some additional species being added like Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Turquoise-browed Motmot, a couple hummingbirds, and a few other birds.

Shorebird bust

After Cerro Lodge, we headed to Tarcoles. Mangroves didn’t give up as many species as I would have liked (and don’t seem to be as productive compared to a few years ago or more) but it’s always nice to be surrounded by Prothonotary warblers. We then enthusiastically drove to the beach and quickly saw that no, we wouldn’t get as many birds there as we had hoped either! The recent rains had changed the river mouth, unfortunately NOT placing it in easy view. We still managed to add some birds but not nearly as many as we had hoped, likely because most of the sand bars at the mouth of the river were not visible.


Despite a dearth of coastal species, the Carara area still provided a good chance of augmenting out list with birds missed during the morning as well as regional endemics. Since the park was already closed (it’s only open during the non-birdiest part of the day anyways), we birded the road to the Pura Vida gardens. Although it was quieter than usual, we still did well and got several regional endemics along with a good bunch of other birds right up to five p.m. Some of those final daylight species were Costa Rican Swift, Bat Falcon, Crested Guan, and a White-whiskered Puffbird that perched over the road. I thanked each of those birds!

Carara is a good site for the muppet-like puffbird.

Night and the final tally

A gas station visit was warranted and since we could combine that with a night visit to rice fields outside of Jaco, off we went, driving 20 minutes to get there. Serendipity struck en route when a Short-tailed Nighthawk drifted over the road at sunset. After the gas station stop, the rice fields then gave us thick-knee and Boat-billed Heron but no owls. We could have found some by staying longer but we were tired and decided to end the GBD. The final tally turned up 236 species, the second highest for Costa Rica and probably one of the highest in the world. Next time, we’ll see more but this October Global Big Day was still fantastic.

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Choice Birds in Costa Rica from Late August

The latter part of August saw me guiding on the other side of the mountains. Although there are some birds in the Central Valley, and I often start a day of guiding by looking for some of them, more occur where the wet forests are. That would be on the upper parts and other sides of the mountains that are visible to the north. Fortunately, those cloud forests and tropical rain forests are close enough for day trips and with more than 400 bird species possible, you can bet that we see a lot.

Some of the choice bird species seen lately while guiding day trips from the Central Valley:

Lattice-tailed Trogon

This uncommon and localized regional endemic was seen during a morning of birding at Quebrada Gonzalez. Fortunately, a male was calling and didn’t stop until we saw it. Fortunately because at first, the bird wasn’t visible. The problem with Lattice-taileds is that they are often high up in trees blanketed with bromeliads. Imagine warbler necking it up into a bunch of bushes silhouetted against a blank, cloudy sky and that pretty much describes the situation. If the bird chooses a perch behind aerial hedges at every angle, seeing it is hopeless. Well, at least until it moves.

After it moved. We got much better looks than this image. 

Thankfully, the male trogon kept on calling until it flew to a branch that was clearly visible along with the yellow bill and pale eye of the trogon (two of the diagnostic field marks to separate it from the Slaty-tailed Trogon).

Streak-chested Antpitta

While we were looking for the trogon, a Streak-chested Antpitta beckoned with haunting whistles. Much to our great fortune, this bird too, eventually showed and gave us fantastic looks!

A fairly recent addition to the foothill rainforests of Quebrada Gonzalez, it’s nice to have a somewhat reliable site for the Caribbean slope form of this bird. Most folks see it at Carara National Park but given the different song that could indicate an eventual split, it’s worth seeing this little puffball on both sides of the mountains.

Resplendent Quetzals

Quetzals live on the slopes of Poas but they aren’t as frequent as sites with more extensive areas of forest. The owner of the Volcan Restaurant told me that he used to see more of these fantastic dream birds up to around ten years ago. The species is still present but seeing one is always a hit or miss endeavor. Last week, we hit the jackpot when six were present at a fruiting tree! Most were juvenile males or females although one adult male was also present, and another one was calling further up the road.

Seeing this mega always makes for a spectacular day of birding in Costa Rica.

A female R. Quetzal in the mist. 

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Connecting with this uncommon and possibly endangered skulker can be another hit or miss birding situation. That said, I have been seeing this handsome pseudo-sparrow species on every outing. The views can be brief but we do get definitive looks at the small endemic towhee.

Coppery-headed Emerald and 15 other hummingbird species

Coppery-headed Emerald

It’s always a treat to watch various hummingbirds do their sped up thing.

Green-crowned Brilliant

Green Thorntail

Buff-fronted Quail-Dove

One of the most appreciated sightings was that of a juvenile Buff-fronted Quail-Dove that has been hanging out at the Cinchona hummingbird cafe for some months now. Also known as the Soda Mirador Catarata San Fernando, this classic Costa Rica birding site is a wonderful spot to sit back and be surrounded by birds while enjoying a coffee and tasty rural fare. Last week, the juvenile quail-dove bucked typical skulking behavior to jump up onto the feeder for walk away views and a memorable end to an already memorable day of birding.

These were some of the choice species seen but not the only ones. Bat Falcon, Hook-billed Kite, King Vulture, tanagers, toucans, and many other species were also nice and all around an hour’s drive from the San Jose area. See information on where and how to find these and other birds with the 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

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Fine Birding on the Slopes of Poas

In Costa Rica, Poas looms to the north of the airport. A big mound of a mountain, the roomy crater hidden in the clouds. It can be seen from the window of a plane, the turquoise, unwelcome water in the big hole briefly glistening in the sun. The rocky crater is framed in textured green, for folks on the plane, a distant, unreal broccoli carpet. There’s no indication of the true nature of that forest way down below, nor the other rivulets and waves of tropical forest that reach down the northern slopes of the volcano. The riot of life going on down there, Pumas and Ocelots doing their stealth dance beneath the wet canopy. Bright and sunny Collared Redstarts singing from the bamboo understory, bush-tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches rummaging through the bushes and trees.

Bright and beautiful, one of many highland species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Quetzals are there too, whistling and cackling from the misty forests. But, as with any scene from a plane, it’s just a distant natural portrait, the only soundscape one of humming motors and occasional requests for coffee, the hiss of sugary carbonated drinks poured over ice in a plastic cup. We only truly experience the forest on Poas and anywhere else with boots on the ground, can only get lost in the quick variety of mixed flocks, fluttering of quetzals, and the air scything ability of swifts by walking with those trees.

On Poas, it’s easy to walk near the oaks and wild avocados. The road up there is a good, quick hour or 45 minute ride from the San Jose area and after the village of Poasito, the birding improves. The national park itself has also been good for birding but ever since eruptions put access on hiatus, I’m not sure if the same trails are accessible. It has just re-opened though, I hope to assess the birding situation at some point. In the meantime, I can attest to the quality of roadside birding on the road up to the national park as well as along Route 126 (the Via Endemica), a recent day of guiding was no exception. Some of the good stuff:

Resplendent Quetzal

The sacred bird is up there on Poas, according to locals, not as common as it used to be but it’s still there. I was surprised to see one after another flutter between trees until I had counted six including the male pictured above!

Fasciated Tiger-Heron

Not in the high parts of the mountain but present along a roadside stream much lower down. The heron of rocky Neotropical streams posed nicely for us as it blended into the dark gray river stones.



Brown Violetear

Talamanca Hummingbird

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Coppery-headed Emerald

From Fiery-throated in the high parts to glittering Crowned Woodnymphs past Cinchona, hummingbirds are a welcome mainstay on Poas. Including a Steel-vented near Alajuela, we had fifteen species.

Northern Emerald Toucanet

Visit the Soda Mirador de Catarata (aka Cafe Colibri, aka the Hummingbird Cafe) to spend quality time with this exotic beauty.

Buffy Tuftedcheek

Not so common but this bromeliad bird us indeed present along the higher parts of the road. If you see a silhouette of one, this image shows what to expect.


Not rare but skulky and always cool to see four or even five species in a day, most at different elevations. We had good looks at four and without too much trouble. This is a juvenile Slaty-backed N.-Thrush that was visiting the Cafe Colibri.

Black-thighed Grosbeak

A few were singing and showed nicely.

These were some of the one hundred plus species we saw on the slopes of Poas the other day, each stop adding more birds to the list. Many more were still possible and some calling birds remained unseen but any day spent birding is a good one. A day with more than a hundred species is even better especially when the birder can walk within reach of old, mossy trees frequented by quetzals, treerunners, and other cool birds with fantastic names.