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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Where to Go Birding in Costa Rica Upon Arrival?

Planning a birding trip requires a suite of considerations. They take the form of questions like, ” Where do I spend most of my precious birding time? Where do I stay? Who do I go birding with? Do I bring the non-birding family? The non-birding partner, and if so, how can I get in those essential moments of birding AND make them count (!) and will I secretly hate myself or resent my partner because we didn’t bring the car to a screeching halt when that probable lifer Ferruginous Hawk flew over the highway in Colorado, when I didn’t spend more time peering into that bush to see what was making that unfamiliar song in the garrigue of southern France, when I neglected to scream “Stop the car!” when we cruised right on past a flock of lifer Marbled Godwits in Florida?” Obviously, to avoid such mental strain, you just need to take birding vacations with your own fine self or at least with other birders.

I have followed that birding rubric on most occasions and as so, have largely avoided the painful stress of missing birds that could be easily glassed far from home (except the godwits, that actually did happen, I was eighteen, I still remember it, and even though I have seen hundreds since then, it continues to be an uncomfortable memory. One of those semi-painful little regrets because it was damn important to stop for godwits and spoonbills and who knows what else was with them! Ouchness).

I see you now but it doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to see you back then near Fort Meyers, Florida. Will you ever forgive me, oh long-billed shorebird of the northern prairies? Can I forgive myself?

That said, other common concerns may include things like “Do I hire a guide? Do I bring the scope? Do I purchase a full-fledged birding app for Costa Rica or give it a go with Merlin? Will the lodges have coffee in the morning and if not, how do I get some? Maybe I should bring emergency dark chocolate…maybe caffeine bars..”

Extra cacao please, I do believe this helps with the birding…

Of the concerns, one of the most important is where to stay for the first night because this determines where you have that incipient, fantastic, eye-opening lifer introduction. For example, in Costa Rica, you might not want to stay in the middle of San Jose because if you do that, you will subject yourself to unnecessary bird deprivation. The flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets will be nice and the Clay-coloreds will be sort of exciting at first but why go that route when you can stay closer to the airport and put the bins on technicolor, crazy Lesson’s Motmot for goodness sake! Or a Steely-vented Hummingbird, or a Rufous-breasted Wren, even a Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and a real chance at that smart new endemic ground-sparrow thing?

Crazy beautiful bird and it lives in gardens in the Central Valley. My lifer was years ago perched on a picnic table. That was sort of mind-blowing and kind of Alice in Wonderlandish. Like, is that exotic blue and green bird with the red eye and long pendulum tail actually sitting on a picnic table? Pinch pinch, yes it is!

But where does such an intriguing place with motmots and the rest occur? Well guess what? Just outside of Alajuela and that means super close to the aiport! Check out Villa San Ignacio. Formerly known as the Hotel Orquideas, the new Villa offers up the same benefits of proximity to the airport, good service, and birdy habitat along with the additional advantages of new spacious rooms, refurbished grounds, and a downright delicious menu. I was there last weekend for our annual Birding Club of Costa Rica meeting and man was I impressed! The place was so green, replete with big trees, and inviting, I just felt like mindlessly wandering around the gardens for a couple of hours while listening to the ringing songs of Rufous-breasted Wrens, rattles of Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, and the hoots of motmots. How could you not want that experience?

The Hoffamann’s is one of those snazzy zebra-backed Melanerpes. 

Some Villa gardens.

All of those singing birds were there and some. Since the place backs up to a forested riparian zone and patchwork of fields and woodlots, I dare say many other birds are also possible, at least for the Central Valley. AND, since this site is a bit lower in elevation, you can also see dry forest species like the Olive Sparrow, Streaked Flycatcher, and one of those flycatchers with an uncomfortably long name, the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet.  Speaking of said incognito, does it shave or is it just permanently baby-faced? Might as well change its name to Northern Baby-faced Tyrannulet, or Baby-faced Tyrannulet of the North, or, “Nibit” as that would encapsulate both small size and seemingly insignificant nature of the flycatcher that pretends to be a vireo that got Frankensteined with an Owl World Warbler.

Frankensteins come in many forms.

Whether you feel like pondering over the dull appearance of the Nibit or not, Villa San Ignacio is a very good contender for being the ideal place to start and stop a birding trip to Costa Rica. I plan on using it for tours and yes, it does indeed have the endemic ground-sparrow thingy! Want to stay there? Send me an email at [email protected]  Want some guiding from there to explore highland birding a short drive up the mountain?- [email protected]

The ground-sparrow thingy- reminiscent of a clown except not scary.

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Exciting Birding in Northern Costa Rica at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to finally get the chance to bird Laguna del Lagarto during three days of guiding. I emphasize “finally” because I had wondered how the birding was up there near the Nicaraguan border ever since my first trip to Costa Rica in the early 90s. It was so far off the beaten track, though, that I just never made it up that way despite always hearing promising accolades about the place.

So, when we were at long last on our way to Laguna del Lagarto, we drove up and over the mountains through the town of Zarcero with uplifted and excited hearts. Our hopes were boosted by their checklist and the fact that so much of the surrounding area was still heavily forested. Much more so in fact than Sarapiqui or any other part of the Caribbean lowlands. This certainly explains why Laguna has recorded such tough to see bird species in Costa Rica as Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, Red-throated Caracara, and Tawny-faced Quail. None of these were guaranteed by any means but we knew that just being in the area would improve our chances. Heck, we even had a remote chance at Crested and Harpy Eagles. Given the amount of unbirded habitat near Laguna del Lagarto and the fact that a friend of mine had seen Harpy Eagle up that way in 1998, it isn’t entirely out of the question to hit the jackpot with those mega-raptors on a visit to Laguna del Lagarto and surrounding areas.

Heading into the Caribbean foothill town of Ciudad Quesada (aka San Carlos), constant rain and heavy skies threatened to put a damper on our excitement. It didn’t faze us too much, though, because we were familiar with the long term downpours of the Caribbean Slope. I sure hoped that it would give us a break, however, and much to our delight, the falling water diminished to occasional, inconsequential drips just as we headed north from Pital.

Pital is the last bastion of asphalt as you make your way to the lodge but the gravel is actually pretty nice all the way to the village near Laguna known as Boca Tapada. It’s not as smooth going as a tarred road but it also had fewer potholes than the heavily traveled byway that leads to Arenal National Park. If one drove straight to the lodge from San Jose, I estimate a trip of just 4 hours or less. Birders, though, are going to take much longer because once you get 15 or so kilometers past Pital,the birding is pretty good!

Roadside marshes should be checked for rails, Pinnated Bittern, and other aquatic species, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch could show up (we didn’t see it but it certainly occurs), forest patches somewhat near the road should be scanned and scoped for toucans, parrots, and (most of all) raptors, and areas with old second growth should be checked out for a wide variety of species.

With brief stops in such habitats, we probably recorded 60-70 species, highlights being Gray-headed Kite, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Pied Puffbird, Olive-throated Parakeet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and White-lined Tanager. Mind you, this was mid-morning and although the overcast conditions were ideal for bird activity, I would love to see how many species I could record along that road during more productive early morning hours. It’s not ideal habitat but there is enough extensive forest within scoping distance to make it pretty exciting.

The birdiest stretch of the road is arguably the area between Boca Tapada and the lodge. At this point, productive second growth and primary forest are found on both sides and a large number of species are possible, the nunbird included. It’s worth birding even though it’s just two kilometers more to the lodge. Laguna del Lagarto has a sign but even if they didn’t, you wouldn’t miss the “v-shaped” lagoon at the entrance. No matter when you walk or drive by that lagoon, it should always be checked for Agami Heron. Although this splendiferous wader is often seen by visitors to Laguna who take a canoe out onto the muddy waters, we got ours on our last day by scanning the shaded shore right from the entrance gate to the lodge. I suspected that I had the bird because I saw a suspicious-looking gray shape in the shadows of some overhanging vegetation but it wasn’t until the heron thrust its rapier of a bill into the water that I knew for a fact that I was looking at an Agami Heron. It’s incredible how stealthy and still this species can be so it pays to very carefully scan the shores of their preferred haunts- streams, pools, and muddy lagoons in lowland forest.

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There is an Agami Heron somewhere in this image at the most reliable lodge to see it in Costa Rica- Laguna del Lagarto.

You could probably get the Agami from the lodge itself if you keep scanning for it as several of the rooms overlook the lagoon where we saw it. Speaking of the lodge, I was especially impressed with the excellent service and management provided by the manager, Alfaro. He took time out of his day to assure that each guest was getting the most out of his or her stay and kept us updated on where the Agami Heron had been sighted as well as other signature species such as Great Green Macaw. He also invited us to his “bird garden”- his very bird friendly backyard. We didn’t get the chance to visit it but from the photos of honeycreepers and tanagers that were taken at his garden, it should be a must see for any birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto with a camera.

birding Costa Rica

Rooms were comfortable and clean, the food average to good, and the feeders spectacular!

The feeders a Laguna del Lagarto consisted of a large bunch of bananas or plantains that are somehow placed on a platform twenty feet above the ground. BUT, since the dining area of the lodge is built on top of a hill, the birds that come to the feeder are seen at eye level! You almost feel as if you are sharing lunch with the toucans, parrots, oropendolas, and tanagers that visit the feeder because you can easily watch them sans binoculars while you eat.

birding Costa Rica

A head-on view of a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

birding Costa Rica

Keel-billed Toucans are incredibly colorful when seen at close range.

birding Costa Rica

Collared Aracaris also partook in the feeder food but weren’t as common as their bigger bethren.

birding Costa Rica

Montezuma Oropendolas also came close enough to allow detailed studies of their clown-like faces.

The best of the larger birds, however, were Brown-hooded Parrots. There aren’t many places where you can see these guys at a feeder!

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Smaller species showed up once the larger birds left. Passerini’s Tanagers were of course very common.

birding Costa Rica

Black-cheeked Woodpeckers were also present

birding Costa Rica

as were Buff-throated Saltators among a few other common species.

birding Costa Rica

It was also worth it to scan forest canopy visible from the restaurant and some of the rooms. We had looks at Great Green Macaw and more than one perched King Vulture in this way.

Kind of distant for a photo but there’s no mistaking a white vulture with black flight feathers  for anything other than a King.

birding Costa Rica

Laguna del Lagarto lodge also has trails through beautiful lowland rainforest. This type of habitat has become pretty hard to access on the Carbbean Slope so we were looking forward to spending quality birding time beneath the tall canopy. Most people experience it at La Selva but edge effects (and an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) have eliminated a number of understory bird species at that classic birding site. It was a shock, therefore, to see that a fair portion of Laguna’s forest looked as if it had been selectively logged! Apparently in 2010, a rare tornado had torn through parts of their forest and knocked over several, massive, old growth trees. It was a sad sight as we walked along muddy trails through open forest and I wondered why that tornado had to touch down at such a rare, complex, sensitive habitat instead of twirling around in some dusty, overgrazed pasture. There are still trails through intact forest at Laguna del Lagarto but I wonder if or to what extent the tornado affected bird populations. A local guide told us that canopy birds were easier to see but it looked as if understory species were less common and monkeys had certainly declined. Fortunately, the forest grows up pretty quick in the humid, rain-soaked lowlands so it will come back eventually.

During our three days at Laguna, our experiences in the forest echoed the sentiments of the guide. Canopy flocks were of regular occurrence but there were very few understory flocks and I heard very few understory species during our time there (even if you don’t run into mixed flocks of understory insectivores, you still usually detect them by sound), I have to believe that they are still around because the forest at Laguna is connected to a much larger forest block.  I suspect, though, that they aren’t as common as they were in the past. Perhaps birds such as antwrens, spadebills, antvireos, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet will increase in abundance as the forest grows up. I certainly hope so but in the meantime, to see them at Laguna del Lagarto, you may need to focus on trails through more intact parts of the forest.

Some of the highlights of our stay at Laguna del Lagarto were:

Helping out with the annual Christmas Count (run by the Rainforest Biodiversity Group– the organization that created and promotes the Costa Rican Bird Route) while birding with David and Alfredo Segura. David is a young Tico birder, Alfredo his non-birding father. They make a great team and sharing much of Laguna’s birdlife with them was a memorable experience. Maybe I will interview them some day for the blog.

Agami Heron- Laguna is certainly the most reliable and accesible site for this species in Costa Rica.

Semiplumbeous Hawk– A scoped, calling individual deep inside the forest was a major highlight of the trip.

Great Green Macaw– This lodge and surroundings have long been known as a regular site for this endangered species. We saw maybe 7 individuals and had them on each of three days.

Brown-hooded Parrots at the feeders.

Mottled Owl seen at dawn on the road in front of the lodge. Black and white was also seen around the cabins by others and we heard but did not see Central American Pygmy-Owl.

Common Potoo– We didn’t see it but we did hear it and that earns it a position on my year list!

Pied Puffbird– We saw several of this cool, little bird.

White-fronted Nunbird– One of main targets fell on our last day at the forest edge in the back part of the garden and even allowed me to take its picture.

birding Costa Rica

Thrushlike Schiffornis– We heard one of this deep forest species.

Brown-capped Tyrannulet– We had a few of these tiny, canopy flycatchers but they were always tough to see because of their size (or lack of).

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant– A common bird at Laguna del Lagarto and not to difficult to see with patience.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher– We had a few inside the forest with canopy flocks but they were very difficult to see well.

Slate-colored Grosbeak– Three birds seen together and one heard.

After leaving the lodge, we drove further up the road that follows the San Carlos River and although we saw little on a sunny afternoon, the whole area looks very promising. The road signed to the San Juan Biological Reserve in particular looked fantastic as it passed through intact, primary lowland rainforest but I am honestly concerned about the safety of birding it because you are in the middle of nowhere and close to the river that marks the border with Nicaragua (which may or may not be used by drug traffickers). That might sound paranoid but since a large amount of drugs are believed to pass through Costa Rica and the tendency for rural areas in the country to be quite lawless, it’s probably best to avoid birding along that road for the time being.

birding Costa Rica

Fantastic road for birding but I don’t know how safe it is. I am sure it’s safe most of the time but it would be best to ask locals about it before birding there.

I would head back to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge or other lodges in the area in a second however, as they are safe, harbor some of the best lowland forests on the Caribbean Slope, and they probably hold some nice, feathered surprises too.

Below is a list of bird species we recorded from Pital to Laguna del Lagarto for the dates of January 7th, 8th, and 9th.

Great Tinamou- a few heard and two seen
Little Tinamou- one heard
Neotropic Cormorant- one on San carlos River
Great Blue Heron- one at laguna
Great Egret- one along road
Snowy Egret- one on river
Little Blue Heron- one along road
Cattle Egret- several along road
Agami Heron- one seen along edge of lagoon, athers also saw from canoe
Green Ibis
Black Vulture- several
Turkey Vulture-several
King Vulture- 3-4 each day from lodge
Muscovy Duck- 2 along road
Osprey- one along road
Roadside Hawk- one along road
Broadwinged Hawk- one along road
Gray-headed Kite- one along road
Laughing Falcon- several along road and near lodge
Collared Forest-Falcon- 2 heard near lodge
Crested Caracara- a one along road
Semiplumbeous Hawk- 2 in forest
Gray Hawk- one along road
Crested Guan- a few in forest
Great Currasow- 1 heard, others saw a few at lodge
White-throated Crake- several heard along road
Gray-breasted Crake- one heard along road
Gray-necked Wood-Rail- one seen compost
Purple Gallinule- a few seen along road
Red-billed Pigeon- several along road
Short-billed Pigeon- several at lodge
Gray-chested Dove- a few at lodge
White-tiped Dove- one along road
Ruddy Ground-Dove- several along road
Olive-throated Parakeet- several
Orange-chinned Parakeet- just a few
Great Green Macaw- 6-7 at lodge
White-crowned Parrot- several
Brown-hooded Parrot-several at lodge and feeders
Red-lored Parrot-a few near lodge
Mealy Parrot- several at lodge
Groove-billed Ani- several along road
Mottled Owl- one seen
Central American Pygmy-Owl- a few heard at lodge
Common Pauraque- one along road
Common Potoo- one heard near lodge
Gray-rumped Swift- many
Long-billed Hermit- a few at lodge
Stripe-throated Hermit- a few at lodge
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird- a few along road
Purple-crowned Fairy- one in forest
Violet-headed Hummingbird- one in garden
Violet-crowned Woodnymph- a few in forest
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- several
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- a few
Slaty-tailed Trogon- several heard in forest
Black-throated Trogon- one seen in forest
Broad-billed Motmot- a few heard
Ringed Kingfisher- a few near lodge
Green Kingfisher- a few on lagoons
Pied Puffbird- several in area
White-fronted Nunbird- 2 in back of garden
Collared Aracari- several in area
Keel-billed Toucan- several in area
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- several in area
Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several
Smoky-brown Woodpecker- one along road
Lineated Woodpecker- a few along road
Pale-billed Woodpecker- a few in forest
Cinnamon Woodpecker- 2 heard near lodge
Slaty Spinetail- several heard along road
Plain-brown Woodcreeper- one heard
Cocoa Woodcreeper- a few heard
Streak-headed Woodcreeper- several
Black-striped Woodcreeper- several
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- several
Northern Barred Woodcreeper- a few heard
Barred Antshrike- one heard along road
Western Slaty Antshrike- a few in forest
Dot-winged Antwren- a few near lodge
Chestnut-backd Antbird- a few in forest
Black-faced Anttthrush- several heard
Thicket Antpitta- one heard along road
Brown-capped Tyrannulet- several heard and a few seen at lodge
Yellow Tyrannulet- a few along road
Paltry Tyrannulet- several
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant- several
Common Tody-Flycatcher- a few heard
Yellow-olive Flycatcher- one heard at lodge
Yellow-margined Flycatcher- a few heard and seen in forest
Tropical Pewee- one heard along road
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- several
Long-tailed Tyrant- a few along road
Rufous Mourner- one seen near lodge
Dusky-capped Flycatcher- a few heard
Great-crested Flycatcher- a few
Great Kiskadee- a few along road and at lodge
Boat-billed Flycatcher- two at lodge
Social Flycatcher- a few along road
White-ringed Flycatcher- one heard near lodge
TK- several
Thrushlike Schiffornis- one heard in forest
Red-capped Manakin- a few in forest
White-collared Manakin- a few along road
Black-crowned Tityra- one near lodge
Cinnamon Becard- several
Tawny-crowned Greenlet- a few heard in forest
Lesser Greenlet- many
Bay Wren- several heard
House Wren- several on road
White-breasted Wood-Wren- several in forest
Tropical Gnatcatcher- a few
Wood Thrush- several in forest
Clay-colored Robin- a few
Yellow Warbler- a few
Chestnut-sided Warbler- many
Hooded Warbler- one in forest
Northern Waterthrush- one at lagoon
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- one near Boca Tapada
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one heard at river
Bananaquit- several
White-shouldered Tanager- several in forest
Tawny-crested Tanager- a few in forest
White-lined Tanager- one along road
Summer Tanager- several
Red-throated Ant-Tanager- one heard at lodge
Passerini’s Tanager- several
Blue-gray Tanager-several
Palm Tanager- several
Golden-hooded Tanager- several
Olive-backed Euphonia- several
Green Honeycreeper- a few
Shining Honeycreeper- several
Red-legged Honeycreeper- a few at lodge
Blue Dacnis- a few in forest
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- one along road
Blue-black Grasquite- many
Variable Seedeeater- many along road
White-collared Seedeater- several along road
Thick-billed Seed-Finch- a few along road
Yelow-faced Grasquit- a few along road
Buff-throated Saltator- several
Black-headed Saltator- two along road
Slate-colored Grosbeak- three near lodge and one heard in forest
Orange-billed Sparrow- a few heard in forest
Black-faced Grosbeak- a few along road
Blue-black Grosbeak- several
Melodious Blackbird- a few along road
Red-winged Blackbird- a few along road
Bronzed Cowbird- a few along road
Baltimore Oriole- several
Scarlet-rumped Cacique- several in forest
Chestnut-headed Oropendola- a few in forest
Montezuma Oropendola- many
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

The Bosque del Rio Tigre Christmas Count

The Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge has become known for being one of the better birding lodges in Costa Rica (and many say it is the best). It has received such accolades from guests who are on birding trips to Costa Rica for a number of reasons, among them such factoids as:

  • Bosque del Rio Tigre is located in one of the wildest, most biologically intense areas of the country- the forests of the Osa Peninsula. The forests of the Osa are thought to be older than other rainforests in southern Costa Rica because higher numbers of plant and animal species occur there compared to other forests on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific Slope. A higher degree of endemism and rainfall in the Osa also supports the idea that this biological wonderland acted as a sanctuary or natural refuge for organisms adapted to wetter habitats when the overall climate of the region was drier. What this means for the visiting birder is days with 100 or more bird species, large mixed flocks, and lots of animals of the non-bird variety.
  • The lowland rain forests of Costa Rica’s “big toe” are the heart of a small endemic bird area that reaches its northern limits at Carara National Park and its southern limits near David in westernmost Panama. Birding in the soul of this endemic bird area at places like Bosque del Rio Tigre means views of one of Costa Rica’s few endemic bird species, the Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, and a better chance than many other places for seeing target birds like the White-crested Coquette, endangered species such as Yellow-billed Cotinga and Mangrove Hummingbird, Baird’s Trogon, Turquoise Cotinga, Black-hooded Antshrike, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Beryl-crowned Hummingbird, and Fiery-billed Aracari.
  • Forests at Bosque del Rio Tigre are connected to that crown jewel of Costa Rican national parks known as Corcovado. Scarlet Macaws, large raptors, Great Currasows, and everything else associated with an intact lowland rainforest ecosystem are possible. Although you can’t expect to see a Harpy Eagle, the Osa is one the only places in Costa Rica where you still have a chance at glimpsing one.
  • The owners (Liz and Abraham Gallo) know where the birds are. They take guests to stake-outs of sexy species like White-tipped Sicklebill, Uniform Crake (who doesn’t want to see a crake in a uniform?), Yellow-billed Cotinga, and White-crested Coquette. The normally invisible Little Tinamou is also frequently seen as they come to the back of the kitchen area.
  • Speaking of the kitchen, the food is truly wonderful and has gotten just as much applause as the birding.

Bosque del Rio Tigre is certainly a top notch area for birding in Costa Rica but the real purpose of this post is to spread the word about their upcoming Christmas Count. A few have been held around the lodge in the past but Liz and Abraham are trying to make this an annual event to help promote conservation in and collect bird data for the Osa. This should come as no surprise as they have been involved with local conservation efforts since they opened and have become working hard at gathering data about and spurring efforts to study and conserve the Yellow-billed Cotinga.

And here is why I am announcing this on my blog: Participants are needed for the count!

It will take place on the 17th of December and counters can spend two nights at Costa Rica’s best birding lodge for discount prices. I’m not sure of the exact price but to find out and also learn more about the count, email the owners of Bosque del Rio Tigre. Family duties make it tough for me to get down to the Osa, but I sure hope to be on one of the 2010 counting teams!