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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Volcan Irazu- Easy High Elevation Birding in Costa Rica

Birding opens the door to an endlessly interesting range of experiences. When you go birding, by definition, the focus is on the birds but since watching birds always involves much more than seeing them, the experience of birding entails far more than birdwatching.

For example, birding can be as mundane as meditating on the goldfinches that come to the feeder out back or as vigorous as making an Olympic grade sprint for a better view of a rare seabird. It can be rocking trips on the rolling blue waters of the open ocean, sharing priceless times with favorite peeps, and exploring new places and countries where you end up eating a Cavy (Guinea Pig) in the Andes.

When you find yourself chewing on that tough rodent meat in Cuzco, you may wonder how on Earth you got there, how on Earth did you end up eating the same species of animal as your eighth grade pet. “Birding” is the simple answer and it will also be the same answer when, after partaking in that meal of rodent, you wonder why you traveled to a place where climbing the stairs makes you feel around 20 or 30 years older. But if you wonder why you are short of breath, your answer won’t exactly be “birding”, it will be “where the heck is the oxygen?” or “high elevation”.

Since birds live almost everywhere, in Costa Rica, we don’t just find birds in the hot, humid rainforests of the lowlands. We also find them at the very tops of the mountains that form the country’s backbone and as one might expect, some of the ones that live way up there, only live way up there. This of course means that if you want to see them (and of course we all do!), you gotta head way up into the mountains.

Mountains, with the slopes of scree, sheer cliffs, ice, and other generally inhospitable facets, aren’t always the easiest of places to visit. I guess it’s why some people feel the need to climb them (a friend of mine does that, I bet he has trudged past vivid blue Grandalas in the Himalayas). In Costa Rica, much to the fortune of birders who would rather not do the climbing thing, we have a nice high mountain (technically a volcano) where you can drive right on up to 11,000 feet! That accessible high elevation birdy spot is Volcan Irazu, here are some expectations and highlights:

Fine High Elevation Birding

Get up above 2,000 meters and roadside birding offers a fine range of montane species. Check out the weirdly wonderful Long-tailed and Black-and-Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, the easily identifiable Black-capped Flycatcher, clown antics of Acorn Woodpeckers, and views of many a Band-tailed Pigeon in flight.

Spot-crowned Woodcreepers and Collared Redstarts sing from the trees, and Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses rustle the leaves with several more highland endemics in tow. Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are the norm and are joined by Talamanca Hummingbird, Lesser Violetear, and Volcano Hummingbird. Keep an eye out for fruiting trees and you might find a quetzal (they are regular up on Irazu), Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges haunt the brush, and the tooting vocalization of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl may give away its position.

Keep on birding and you might even get lucky with one of the toughest widespread birds in the Neotropical region, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. A fair number seem to live on Irazu but they probably escape detection because they tend to be shy and rarely come into the open.

Potato Fields and Forest Patches

Being a volcano, Irazu has rich dark soils that have been used to grow crops for centuries. As you ascend the volcano, you will drive through several fields of soup ingredients; onions, taters, and carrots. These are dotted here and there with remnants of high elevation oak forest, unsurprisingly, the largest patches tend to have the best birding.

Forest patch birding is generally restricted to the roadside but it’s still good, just be careful how you park your car. For the best forest access, see the Nochebuena bit below.

MODOs in Costa Rica

As in Mourning Doves. I know, not exciting but since this North American suburban standby is very localized in Costa Rica, we get a kick out of seeing and hearing so many of them when ascending Irazu. It’s also a reminder that yes, that bird that sounds like a MODO while you watch a Fiery-throated Hummingbird is definitely a Dove a la Mourning.

The Highest of the High Elevation Birds

In Costa Rica, while more species live in the lower, more tropical elevations, there are a few special birds that managed to become adapted to the highest points in the nation. Two of them even became more or less restricted to the brushy treeline habitats that occur on Irazu, Turrialba, and the high Talamancas. This pair of birds of dramatic surroundings are the Volcano Junco and the Timberline Wren.

On Irazu, the wren can occur down to the Nochebuena area but the junco usually requires a drive right on up to the paramo at the edge of the national park. Once you arrive, don’t expect to see them right away. If it’s sunny, it might take especially long for them to appear. However, if you bird that paramo in the cold early morning, you will have good chance of connecting.

The wrens are fairly common but skulky. In keeping with typical wren fashion, they often give a fastidious call. The juncos aren’t as common as one might expect. They seem to occur in low density populations but unlike the wren, they aren’t the least bit shy about singing from the tops of bushes or hopping next to the car.

The Nochebuena Trails and Restaurant

This classic site is a must for any birding visit to Irazu. Even if you don’t feel like walking their trails (some of them uphill and with less oxygen than you are might be used to), it’s still worth visiting the small and friendly diner for a coffee and pecan pie or some other tasty home-cooked cuisine. While eating, you will probably be entertained by views of 4 species of hummingbirds, flyby Acorn Woodpeckers, Flame-colored Tanagers, and other species.

I hope you do feel like walking the trails though; it’s a beautiful hike. Take your time, be ready for some mud, and explore for wood-partridges, the pygmy-owl, and many other species. Listen carefully and keep a close eye out for the ground-dove, this is the best place to find it! After the trail passes through the fields, it eventually enters forest with a lot of bamboo. Timberline Wren is present along with nice mixed flocks of expected species as well as chances at the rare Slaty Finch and Peg-billed Finches.

The high elevation birding experience also has its other charms, not the least of which are the fantastic views.

A morning of birding Irazu is a good way to get an easy fix of high elevation birds and makes for a good birding day trip from the San Jose area. If you stay until dark, you can also look for nocturnal species including the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Whether just birding during the day or into the night, be prepared for very cool and rainy weather. If staying for the night, contact the Nochebuena, they also have a cabin that can be rented.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Birding in Costa Rica News, June and July, 2021

Getting ready for a birding trip to Costa Rica? Maybe just dreaming about coming to Costa Rica. Either way, this information is for you, for the birders, future birders, and birding curious folks of the world. This post will be especially useful for people on the edge of coming to Costa Rica.

In any case, I’ll start by saying that even if the following information doesn’t include birds you hope to see nor sites you expect to visit, there are no worries in this birding house. Rest assured that all of those other birds, the dozens of hummingbirds, chipping flocks of tanagers, haunting calls of antbirds and wrens, toucans, and the rest are present in Costa Rica and waiting to be seen.

Exquisites such as the Green Thorntail included.

In other words, the birding is fantastic as usual. As for myself, I’m looking forward to getting out and exploring sites old and new. I sort of always feel that way, am touched by that instinctive curious pull to explore the mossy forest, the places where biodiversity lurks and chirps from the shade, where countless life hides high overhead, in plain sight.

Look and listen close and you will find treasures, especially in biodynamic Costa Rica. Now for some news:

Maroon-chested Ground-Doves

Yes, that’s right, we got the plural going on up in here! A small group of this uber elusive almost wannabe fruit-dove have been showing at one of the best sites for it; the trails of the Museo Volcan. Situated on the upper slopes of Volcan Irazu at the Noche Buena Restaurant, these trails access edge, second growth, and high elevation forest good for a number of uncommon birds. In addition to the ground-doves (which rarely show this well), Slaty Finch, Peg-billed Finch, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and other nice birdies are also possible. Needless to say, a number of lucky local birders have been twitching those doves!

Rains and the July Dry Spell

The rainy season is here and that’s good for the birds and the wet , tropical ecosystems they depend on. In most places, it rains every afternoon. In the mountains, the water falls or mists or soaks for much of the day and night. A few places have been subjected to some flooding but so far, there have been few landslides or other typical occasional effects of the annual rains.

On the bird front, the rains also generate insect hatches that help many species raise broods. That wealth of flying insects can make it much easier to see various swifts. On recent mornings when thousands of recently hatched ants have helicoptered up above the trees, I have been gifted with rare close looks at Chestnut-collared, Black, White-chinned, and Spot-fronted Swifts among the more commonly seen Vaux’s and White-collareds.

As for July, according to the local weather forecast system, the annual mini dry spell is expected although mostly for the Central Valley and Pacific Northwest. It might also be hotter and drier in August than July.

Range Expanding Dry Forest Species

Keep an eye out for lowland and Pacific slope species that have been expanding their ranges into the Central Valley and elsewhere. Recently, such dry forest species as Turquoise-browed Motmot, Common Ground-Dove, and Orange-fronted Parakeet have been spotted at typically wet sites near Cartago. This is unheard of but perhaps not unexpected during the current climate crisis. As far as birding goes, don’t be surprised if you see some birds away from where they would be more expected.

Hotel Quelitales

As this hotspot sees increased birding exploration, its potential continues to be realized. Some of the more interesting and coveted recent sightings have included views of Black-and-white Becard, Sharpbill, Ochre- breasted Antpitta. Many other “good” birds are also possible and the birding at Quelitales is always excellent.

Casa Tangara Dowii

Another fairly new, classic birding hotspot, the headquarters of the Costa Rican Birding Hotspots Route continues to be an excellent easy place to see Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and other nice highland species. Lately, a Chiriqui Quail-Dove has also been showing!

White-cheeked Pintail Surprise!

Apparently, this mega for Costa Rica has not flown the coupe! Recently, it was spotted near Ciudad Neilly, the same region where it was being seen earlier this year. Maybe it has been there since then, hiding somewhere out in the rice fields? Hopefully it will stick around for much longer. Since this birding site (Coto 47) gets flooded now and then during the rainy season, if you visit, access may or may not be possible.

This area is a good site for Masked Duck. What else is hiding in those tropical wetlands?

The Local Bird Information Keeps Getting Better

I wouldn’t know about the pintail, ground-doves, nor other sightings (such as umbrellabird seen recently at Arenal Observatory Lodge), if it weren’t for local birders heading into the field and reporting their sightings. Many thanks go to them! As the birding community in Costa Rica has grown, more information about bird distribution and sites have become available. The more people interested in birds and nature the better, let’s look forward to having more sites for uncommon species.

What About the Pandemic?

Yes, it’s still happening but in some places, things are certainly looking up. In Costa Rica, a sudden rise in cases happened in May and there are still a fair number of daily cases BUT, it has also been steadily decreasing and some experts believe that we had our peak. Vaccinations in Costa Rica continue to move forward, at the moment, 15% of the country is totally vaccinated. Hopefully, the rate of vaccination will increase especially since we are expected to receive another shipment of vaccines any day now.

In the meantime, mask wearing and other protocols are still in place and it seems that most people and businesses follow them. Visitors must still fill out an official online health form and need to have a certain type of health insurance (even if you have been vaccinated). See more details about those requirements here.

If you are headed to Costa Rica soon, get ready for fantastic, easy birding in beautiful tropical settings. If the trip is later this year or the next, get the Costa Rica Birds field guide app to start studying those birds now, there’s a lot to see!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Orange-breasted Falcon- Does it Still Occur in Costa Rica?

In Costa Rica, we see good numbers of Peregrine Falcons, at least during migration. Hundreds pass through the country as they move thousands of miles to and from breeding and wintering areas. Some stay for the winter in Costa Rica and given their status as a feathered top tier predator of the skies, they might not have too much to worry about other than catching enough birds to eat. Watch a Peregrine on a beach or lowland tropical river in Costa Rica and you might even be tempted to feel that the bird was on vacation.

Chasing and catching sandpipers, swallows, and other avian prey is much more a matter of survival than mere fun and games but what can I say? A healthy adult Peregrine makes the chase look so easy.

We can thank the vast majority of our Peregrine sightings to banning DDT (thank you Rachel Carson!) and years of conservation efforts (here’s to the Peregrine Fund and the many biologists and organizations that helped make this happen). Myself and other birders who were wielding binos in the 70s and 80s recall the days when you hoped to get lucky at the hawk watch by seeing at least one Peregrine over the course of several visits. We reveled in the many falcons that flew past Cape May because so many of us weren’t going to see them elsewhere.

Thanks to science, dedication, and hard work, in Costa Rica, as with many places, we can admire the fast flying power punch of a Peregrine Falcon. Us local birders are grateful for Peregrines but we sure wouldn’t mind seeing another , similar-sized home-grown Falco do its deadly thing. That special bird is the Orange-breasted Falcon (Falco deiroleucus), this is its story in Costa Rica. But first, a little bit about the natural history of this coveted species.

A Rainforest Peregrine or an Oversized Bat Falcon?

Orange-breasted Falcon taken by P E Hart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Maybe a bit of both. Slightly smaller than a Peregrine, the Orange-breasted Falcon seems to occupy a similar bird-eating niche but in humid tropical forests. Historically, it occurred from the rainforests of southern Mexico south through Central America and into South America all the way to northern Argentina. Like the Peregrine, it flies fast to catch pigeons, parakeets, and other birds (some biologists suspect that the Orange-breasted Falcon may even fly faster than the Peregrine!).

Also like the Peregrine, Orange-breasteds often nest on cliffs although they have also been recorded nesting in trees in the Amazon rainforest and other parts of their range.

Physically, this rainforest falcon looks a lot more like the smaller and much more common Bat Falcon, especially Bat Falcon subspecies and individuals that have orange coloration on the neck. This similarity has undoubtedly led to many erroneous reports of Orange-breasted Falcons, Costa Rica included. Good ways to recognize an Orange-breasted Falcon include:

  • White throat bordered by orange on the side of the neck and on the breast (although Bat Falcons can show a similar pattern, there’s not usually as much contrast between the white throat and orange on the neck and breast).
  • Large, heavy looking bill that makes the overall shape of the head a bit more like that of a Collared Forest-falcon (at least compared to the shape of the head of a Bat Falcon).
  • No contrast between the blackish color of the head and the back.
  • Coarse, more wavy, orange and white barring on the breast.
  • Size and shape in flight more like a Peregrine compared to the rather Hobby-like shape of a Bat Falcon.
  • Over-sized, strong feet and talons.

The characteristics can be subtle, especially size of the bird. For the best take on separating these two similar looking falcons, check out this classic article by Steve Howell and Andrew Whittaker published in The Cotinga, the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club.

The following birds are Bat Falcons.

Always Rare in Costa Rica

Unlike the Peregrine and Bat Falcon, the Orange-breasted seems to have always been local and rare and especially so in Costa Rica. For Costa Rica, there are no records documented with photo or specimen, and in The Birds of Costa Rica : Distribution and Ecology by Slud, he only mentions two old records along with a pair of his own sightings. Given the difficulty in separating it from the Bat Falcon, and the lack of detailed information about separating them at that time, it’s worth mentioning the possibility of misidentification. At the same time, since a lot more habitat was present when those reports took place, they can’t be entirely discounted either.

In Costa Rica and elsewhere, for unknown reasons, in modern times at least, it seems to be absent from many areas with what one would guess is suitable habitat. Although the species was assumed to occur in various remote parts of Central America, searches carried out during a Peregrine Fun study only found a few birds in eastern Panama and several in the known population of Belize and adjacent Guatemala.

The methods used during their searches included aerial surveys of possible nesting sites on cliffs as well as surveys from the ground. Not finding birds doesn’t mean that they aren’t somewhere out there in other parts of Central America but I daresay it does mean that, if still extant, the species must be pretty rare.

Modern Sightings in Costa Rica?

There have never been any validated sightings of this species from Costa Rica, nor are there any possible sightings reported in eBird. However, there is an intriguing publication of a possible sighting of Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica from 1990. The authors mention seeing what they took to be an Orange-breasted Falcon perched in a snag near Las Brisas de Pacuarito, a site in the Caribbean lowlands just north of Barbilla National Park. Their description of a medium sized falcon with a white throat and orange on the breast and sides of the neck is certainly intriguing. It’s a shame that bird photography wasn’t as easy then as nowadays but isn’t that always the case.

Can It Still Occur in Costa Rica? If so, Where to Look?

This is of course assuming that it even occurred in Costa Rica at all but given the amount of rainforest that cloaked much of the country, I would bet on it. However, it probably occurred in small numbers, perhaps limited by nesting sites and other factors. In modern times, given the total lack of records in Costa Rica since at least 1990, it doesn’t seem likely that the bird still occurs as a breeding species. If it did, I think we would at least see a juvenile now and then looking for territory. Also, if the Orange-breasted Falcon still hunted in Costa Rica, given the growing number of birders roaming the country, it seems like someone would eventually see one.

Based on that information and the closest population perhaps occurring in central Panama, it doesn’t sound like we can expect seeing this super cool falcon in Costa Rica anytime soon. However, I don’t think that means that we shouldn’t still look for it, that we shouldn’t be careful about checking Bat Falcons. I think we should because of the following:

  • If a few still occur in the somewhat underbirded forests of the Caribbean slope of the Panamanian Talamancas, they could disperse into Costa Rica.
  • The areas where that could happen, the foothills of Talamancas near the border with Panama, see very little birding coverage and have extensive primary forests, much of which is difficult to access.
  • There are other remote and underbirded areas also worth checking including Barbilla National Park, parts of Hitoy Cerere, and even remote parts of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
The Talamancas near Yorkin.

I suppose it also goes without saying that if a young bird or even an adult does manage to make its way to Costa Rica, we will never know its there unless birders are out there looking in the places where they could turn up. Since the birding in Costa Rica is always exciting, it’s always worth birding those remote, underbirded sites. I mean, you’re going to see a lot of cool birds anyways and will probably find something rare even if you don’t happen to hit the mega birding Orange-breasted Falcon powerball.

If you do bird some of those remote sites, please eBird the results and share your best sightings in the comments. I promise to do the same.

Want to know where to go birding in Costa Rica while supporting this blog? Learn about birding sites in Costa Rica and how to look for and identify birds in Costa Rica with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. I hope to see you here in Costa Rica!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

4 Months Birding in Costa Rica, 540 Species

In the times of our pandemic, official and personal restrictions have placed a certain degree of boundaries on birding. The view through the window has become a prime channel for bird observation. Backyard birds have been watched far more than at other times, not necessarily because we don’t want to watch the neighborhood woodpeckers, finches or caroling thrushes but because they end up being the only birds we have access to.

It’s nice to have access to this bird.

At least that’s how it’s been for myself and I suspect much the same for many other birders.

In other times, we would have spent more time further afield, travelled to more places, perhaps birded much more with other people. Such a higher frequency of birding options generally results in a higher year list and indeed, in a non-pandemic 2021, I would have probably identified more bird species by this point. However, thanks to occasional guiding in strategic sites, and going birding in Costa Rica when I can, so far, I find my year list surprisingly higher than I had imagined.

After a couple of recent trips to Tortuguero, I am at the edge of 550 species for 2021, here are a few observations about my ongoing year list:

Some Rare and Challenging Species

A fair number of rare and tough species for Costa Rica have found their way onto the list including ducks like Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, Sungrebe, Reddish Egret, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-chinned Swift, Ochraceous Pewee, Tody Motmot, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. The rarest birds have probably been Ruff and Violet-green Swallow, favorite sightings are many and include from shore Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers and such migrants as Cooper’s Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Scarlet Tanager.

Still Missing Quite a Few Common Species

It’s interesting to note that I have yet to hear or see Long-tailed Tyrant, Rufous Motmot, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Royal Flycatcher, and various other bird species hard to miss during visits to Carara National Park and the Caribbean lowlands. With that in mind, I guess the absence of those species from my year list makes sense as I have yet to visit Carara in 2021 and haven’t done much birding in places where these birds are common.

Costa Rica is a True Hotspot for Birding and Biodiversity

A bird list of nearly 550 species from a very limited number of trips (and missing several common species) is a reminder of the incredible birding possible in this small country. In Costa Rica, you don’t need to go far to see a lot and many sites with quality habitat are easily accessible. Know where to go in birding in Costa Rica, stay focused, and you can see literally hundreds of species.

A Fair Chance at Breaking 700

Given the species on my year list and it not even being the end of April, if I can still go birding at the same rate, I should break 700 by the end of the year. Not if strict restrictions suddenly take place and keep me at home for 90% of the time but if I can at least manage key trips to the right places, 700 is in reach. If I can keep up the rate of new birds, I might not even need to visit Durika for Ocellated Crake.

No matter where I end up going birding, or what sort of restrictions take place, I will still be doing a lot more from home. That’s alright, there are birds to see out back but to be honest, after today, I do wonder how many will still be seen. This morning, on the other side of the wall, a crew of guys with saws were diligently cutting back vegetation from the wall. We suppose that’s what the purpose was, to cut back from the wall, perhaps to fulfill some regulation. The terrible part of it was cutting a couple of fairly large trees along with smaller trees that would have played important, precious roles in reforesting an area in desperate need of green space.

Those same trees would have also played some role in carbon sequestration at a time when we damn well need as many trees as possible, need to let trees grow big and old and magnificent. The larger trees were used by many migrant and resident species, the flowering vines on them were constantly visited by butterflies, Blue-vented Hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, orioles, even wintering Painted Buntings. I even saw Cerulean Warblers on a few occasions, I saw Golden-winged Warblers there as well. It was where the Merlin perched on a few special mornings, it was where an Olive-sided Flycatcher sallied for insects just last week.

It wasn’t a huge amount of habitat but given the number of birds I saw there (every single morning) and the scant bit of reforestation taking place, I dare say that even that bit of habitat was important. I apologize for going somewhat off topic at the end of this post but when they cut those trees down, knowing what used them, what lived there, it was like losing a vital patch of locally woven life that interconnects the Amazon, Andes, and places to the north. It was seeing important and rare potential, decades, maybe a couple centuries of carbon sequestration being needlessly eliminated. And for what? Too close to the wall. Those trees, you know, they might cause trouble.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica lowlands

2021 Birding in Tortuguero National Park- 6 Updates

Tortuguero National Park protects a fairly large area of mature lowland rainforest mostly accessed by canals. This winning combination of water and forest opens the door for a nice suite of tropical birds adapted to tropical forested rivers and lagoons (think Sungrebe, Agami Heron, and small kingfishers). Add a good variety of lowland rainforest species that can be watched from the easy-going comfort of a boat and outside chances at large raptors and rare migrants, and Tortuguero becomes a quality Costa Rican birding destination.

Sungrebe

Despite the easy-going, enjoyable birding, Tortuguero National Park doesn’t find itself on the regular birding circuit. Yes, birders do visit and custom birding tours include Tortuguero but since the park requires a fair detour from other sites, it tends to be left as a trip for birders to do on their own. Luckily, thanks to cooperation and organized efforts by folks from Tortuguero, this site is very much sited as a trip that can be easily organized and done all on your own even during a pandemic. See these 6 updates to see what’s in store for a Tortuguero trip in 2021:

A Good Road to La Pavona

La Pavona is where most of the boats depart for Tortuguero. This waypoint basically consists of a good-sized open-air restaurant, lots of secure parking, and a point on the river where the boats leave from. In the past, at least half of the road there was a rocky, slow ride. Not any more! A couple years ago, the road was paved all the way to La Pavona to make for a quick and easy drive.

A Very Productive Forest Patch on the Way to La Pavona

With the drive to La Pavona being quicker than in the past, it can be tempting to head straight to the parking area. However, a few kilometers before Pavona, there is a patch of mature forest that merits a stop. On a recent trip, a quick stop produced an excellent variety of lowland species. Shortly after exiting the car, I had Chestnut-colored and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, White-necked and Pied Puffbirds, toucans, Laughing Falcon, White-winged Flycatcher, Plain-colored Tanager, and more.

A fruiting tree was also bringing in a lot including various migrants. There was probably 20 Red-eyed Vireos (or more), several Scarlet Tanagers, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, an Eastern Kingbird or two, and other birds. This forest is easy to recognize because (sadly) it’s the only mature forest right next to the road.

Organized Parking and Boat Service from La Pavona

Once you get to Pavona, the parking area is well organized (at least it was the other day). A parking lot attendant sold me the parking ticket before I got out of the car, and I was able to buy my boat tickets from the driver of our private, pre-arranged boat (your hotel can probably do this). Boat tickets can also be purchased in the restaurant along with small meals and drinks. The boat ride itself was an hour and a half ride that featured a couple of crocodiles and some birds. Speaking of birds, keep the binos ready because the boat travels through good wild forest, rare birds are certainly possible!

Quality Boat Trips Inside the National Park

Although there is good migrant birding around the village and forest birds outside of the village, for the best birding, boat trips in the national park are needed. Most hotels can arrange trips and most are quite experienced but if you want a good birding trip, make sure to ask for a good birding guide. Our birding club trips always do well with the boat trips by staying at Casa Marbella Bed and Breakfast and doing trips with them. The owner, Daryl Loth, has lived and guided in Tortuguero for many years and knows where the birds are.

Although you never know what will show up, as with any boat trip, they are pretty good for Sungrebe, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, parrots perched and in flight, kingfishers, raptors, and much more.

Online Reservations are Required!

These days, and perhaps for good, you simply cannot enter the national park by just showing up to pay for tickets. I know, like..what? Yes, that’s right, there is no way to buy tickets upon entrance. This was done to further limit contact between the park guards and people and perhaps better control the number of people entering the park during the pandemic. That said, buying tickets online is easy enough.

You have to go to this site, make an account, choose the national park (for Tortuguero boat trips from the village, this will be Tortuguero National Park- Cuatro Esquinas), and then follow the process. This includes choosing the time, date, and number of people. You will also have to put in your name and passport number (or cedula if a resident of Costa Rica), pay with credit card (no American Express) and make sure to get that done in less than 10 minutes. If not, you will have to start the process over. Make sure to get your conformation, this will be shown to the park guard, probably by your boat driver or guide (he or she will take a picture of that confirmation).

Macaws in the Village, Always Lots of Other Birds

Great Green Macaws still visit the village and are often seen on boat trips. With this species having been recently declared “Critically Endangered), Costa Rica has become an especially important place to see it, probably the easiest place to see this spectacular bird anywhere in its range.

If looking for interesting migrants, check the village! White-crowned Pigeon has been showing in December and could perhaps occur at other times and who know what else might fly in? It doesn’t hurt to scan from the beach either, interesting waterbirds can fly past. For resident species, try the trail into the national park and watch from the boats. A healthy number of typical lowland species are possible, there will be a lot to see!

Although I prefer to go birding in Tortuguero during migration, the quality habitats will be good for resident birds any time of the year. You will probably run into some rain (March, April, and September tend to be drier) but when the rain stops, the birding can be fantastic. I hope to travel back there soon and find that elusive Crested Eagle.

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Strategic Birding in Costa Rica at Rincon de La Vieja- Rinconcito Lodge

Rincon de la Vieja is one of the more interesting places to go birding in Costa Rica. An active volcano that also acts as a 34,000 acre (13759 hectares) national park with tropical forest transitioning between dry, wet, and middle elevations…how could it not be great birding?

Maintained trails in the park provide access to chances at an entertaining array of species associated with a fine ecotone of habitats including such uncommon and rare birds as Violaceous and Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, Black-eared Wood-Quail, King Vulture and other raptors, Tody Motmot, and even one of the grail birds of the Neotropical region, the one and only Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

By nature of their very being, the visiting birder can’t always expect to see the rare ones, but toucans, White-fronted Parrots, Gray-headed Tanagers, Thicket Tinamous, and plenty of other species will still keep you smiling, especially when you can access key habitats in and outside the park. Accessing those different habitats is essential for seeing a healthy selection of bird species and no focal point is better for doing that than Rinconcito Lodge.

White-fronted Parrot

A small, cozy hotel situated just outside of the national park, these are the reasons why Rinconcito is located in the best spot for birding several habitats:

Access To Two Different Park Entrances

The lodge is right on a good road that leads to two different park entrances; Las Pailas and Santa Maria. The Las Pailas area has trails that access moist forest with a wealth of species. Whether birding, hiking, or both, this part of Rincon de la Vieja delivers. Santa Maria also offers similar excellent birding and hiking with better chances at Caribbean slope species like the uncommon Yellow-eared Toucanet, antbirds, and other species.

A Road To the Wet and Wild Caribbean Slope

For additional exciting Caribbean slope birding including chances at everything from rare raptors to Lovely Cotinga, take the road to Colonia Blanca and then on to Colonia Libertad. Rough enough to require four wheel drive, birders who enjoy exploration will love the rainforests along this route! The area hasn’t seen much birding but has a lot of potential. Surveys in the 90s by Daniel S. Cooper found all 3 species of hawk-eagle, and the mega rare Gray-headed Piprites among other species.

Watch for the weird and wonderful Sunbittern on streams.

The birding is great along much of this road, just be prepared for rain, good mixed flocks, and overall excellent birding.

30 minutes to Oak Savannah Habitats

The western flanks of the volcano host interesting, wind-blown oak savannahs. Although they aren’t the easiest places to bird on account of frequent windy conditions, this unique habitat could have some interesting avian surprises. It would be best visited in the early morning to look for Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows along with an outside chance of finding Rock Wren.

A Bit Further To Wetlands and Other Dry Forest Sites

Although there are plenty of dry forest species at and near the lodge, additional dry forest sites such as Santa Rosa National park and Horizontes are anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half drive from the lodge. The same goes for the open field and wetland hotspots of Las Trancas and the Sardinal Catfish Ponds.

Birding at Rinconcito

But what if you don’t feel like driving anywhere? If you would rather go for an easy-going blend of birding, pool time, and drinks, Rinconcito delivers for that too! Orange-fronted Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, magpie-jays, and other birds are on and near the grounds of the hotel while trails can host Sunbittern and even Tody Motmot.

At Rincon de la Vieja, the windy weather of the continental divide can be a challenge but the birding is always good and there’s no spot more strategic than Rinconcito Lodge.

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When to Watch Birds in Costa Rica

One of the most common questions about watching birds in Costa Rica is when to watch them. The short and most honest answer is “whenever you can”. Honestly, the birds are here, the resident ones all year long and most can be seen just as well during the winter months as during July and August. Most, but not all…

“When to watch birds in Costa Rica” depends on what you would like to see the most.

If you wouldn’t mind checking out the avian moves of summer birds from the north, bird from November to March and you will get your fill of Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers. Want to add some exciting shorebird migration to the Costa Rica birding mix? Check out shorebird hotspots in April, May, and from September to November.

Who doesn’t love a shorebird hotspot?

Want to listen to Yellow-green Vireos, a few other summer migrants and resident species?

Take a birding trip to Costa Rica in May or June. If resident birds are your main cup of tea, then you really could visit any time of the year and do well. For much of the rainy season, high bird activity in cloudy weather tends to make up for birding time paused by precipitation. Bird in the winter months and it will be sunnier in many places but wind and sun can also put temporary dampers on bird activity.

Any and every time of year is great for birding in Costa Rica but what about some of the tougher targets?

What about the cotingas, the ground-cuckoos, the birds in the book and on the app that seem mythical, the dream birds. In general, it will always be good for those birds too, you just need to know where to look for them. Take the umbrellabird for example, it can be seen any time of year but is far more likely in lower elevation and foothill forests during the winter months, and more likely in middle elevation cloud forest from March to July.

The bellbird is especially seasonal and certainly easier in Monteverde and other breeding sites from March to July. At other times of the year, look for it in the Pacific lowlands although it can also show elsewhere (check eBird!). As for other cotingas, although the Lovely can migrate to lower elevations from August to February, they are possible in pretty much the same areas any time of year.

Regarding certain crakes and other birds that act like them (hello senor Masked Duck), once again, know the right places and you can find them.

BUT, water levels in summer and fall do make them much easier. I assume there are pockets of wetlands that host Masked Duck, Spotted Rail, and Paint-billed Crake during the dry season but who knows how much those species move around? I mean, once the rice fields are harvested, they have to go somewhere.

A Yellow-breasted Crake sneaks off into a patch of marsh grass.

I suspect they retreat to remnant wetlands but I bet some also head further afield. Given the natural born wanderlust of those birds, they could go anywhere. As for the global wandering nature of birders, whether you feel the need to explore some corner of Angola while listening to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, or would rather bird closer to home, I can say that anytime is a good time to be birding in Costa Rica. The birds are here, the birding is always great, and no matter when you visit, it’s much easier to bird in Costa Rica than you might think.

But quetzals, when is the best time to see quetzals in Costa Rica?

Although they breed in February and March, bird the right habitat and know where to go and you can see them any time of the year.

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Costa Rica Birds in Waiting, Guanacaste- 7 Species to Look for Not on the List

How many birds are on the Costa Rica list? Although some sources mention somewhere around 870 or so species, the official list of birds for Costa Rica has 923 species. Why the discrepancy? I’m not entirely sure but part of the difference is surely related to bird species having been steadily confirmed and added to the country list.

While most are vagrants, given changes in habitat, distribution, and populations of various species, it’s not out of the question that there could be more of certain vagrants, and that some “new” species could establish breeding populations.

The official list has grown but believe it or not, there’s room for more! In fact, much more than I had expected. After having looked into the most likely additions for Costa Rica, quite a few more species came to mind than I had imagined (and I never even thought about Orinoco Goose but that’s another story). This post is the first in a series discussing birds that may eventually find themselves on the list and is in conjunction with a separate post written by fellow local birder, Diego Ramirez (aka “Mr. Birder”). He wrote a good post about this theme in Spanish, check out, Las Potenciales Nuevas Especies de Aves para Costa Rica.

Although the occurrence of any of these species would be an occasion of extreme rarity, for various reasons discussed below, all of them are possible. While none of these can be really expected when birding Costa Rica, I feel like it’s better to know about what might occur, to have that information available, than potentially overlooking a country first because a Long-toed Stint was assumed to just be a funny looking Least Sandpiper, or that the Black-headed Gull was a weird Bonaparte’s with a red bill.

This is also why the latest free update for the Costa Rica Birds field guide app includes 68 species that aren’t on the list but could occur (photos used in this post are screenshots from this latest update to the app). Despite such a high number of potential species, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had left out at least 3additional species. Expect those on the next update! Without further ado, the following are some birds to keep an eye out for when birding in Guanacaste (expect shorebirds in a future post!):

Gadwall

Photo by Tony Leukering.
If you think you see a female Mallard in Costa Rica, take a closer look. Photo by Stanley Jones.

Yep, the good old Gadwall. A familiar, svelte species for many birders of North America and the Palearctic, it has yet to fly south to Costa Rica. Given its large population and strong possibility of migrating with other ducks, I believe this species is one of the strongest contenders for being the next addition to the list. The marshes of Palo Verde and nearby sites, the Sandillal Reservoir, and the catfish ponds of Sardinal would all be good places to check.

Spot-tailed Nightjar

Spot-tailed Nightjar by Hector Bottai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What? Yes and Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean one may have actually seen one in 2003. The Spot-tailed Nightjar is a small nightjar of savannas and other open habitats that has migratory populations in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Where do they go for the winter? No one really knows and it would be very easy for s small, nocturnal bird to go unnoticed during migration, especially if it is silent. Heck, if a few of these inconspicuous nightbirds wintered in Guanacaste, they could also easily go unnoticed.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

No, I’m not making this up, this is one of the names given to a mystery hummingbird known from one old specimen and referred to as, “Amazilia alfaroensis“. Searches have been carried out yet have failed to refind it. Nevertheless, maybe it’s still out there? If you are birding around the Miravalles Volcano or other sites in northern Guanacaste, keep an eye out for any odd-looking Blue-vented Hummingbirds, especially ones that have blue on the crown. Take pictures, if you find one, you will have refound a critically endangered “lost species”.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo provded by Alan Schmierer.

This small woodpecker of open habitats could certainly occur at some point in the Upala area. There are sightings of this species from sites near there, just across the border in Nicaragua. If you think you ehar a Downy Woodpecker in that area, it’s very likely a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Pacific Parakeet

Given the propensity for parakeets to wander, group up with other parakeets, and possible sightings in Nicaragua close to the northwestern border with Costa Rica, this species should be looked for. If I get the chance to bird up that way, I would look for flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets and carefully check them for birds with green fronts. Flowering trees might be a good food source, and in the southern esge of its range, the Pacific Parakeet might be partial to mangroves.

Cassin’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird by GregTheBusker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This one is a long shot but since one was found in Panama, it could certainly occur in Cost Rica as a very rare migrant vagrant. In other parts of its range, this typical kingbird uses a variety of open habitats, often in grasslands with tall trees. With that in mind, a vagrant Cassin’s Kingbird could show up anywhere in Guanacaste and be easily overlooked as a Tropical Kingbird. I would not be at all surprised if a few have made it to Costa Rica now and then.

Altamira Oriole

Photo provided by John C. Sterling.

This beautiful bird is just waiting to be found. It occurs in Nicaragua fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and lives in a variety of scrubby and dry forest habitats. It could also be very easily overlooked as a Streak-backed or Spot-breasted Oriole. Watch for it at flowering trees near the border, look for orioles that have a small patch of gray on the base of a stout bill and no spots on the breast.

Other possible additions could occur in Guanacaste such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and Virginia’s Warbler. It’s a reminder to take a close look and listen at every bird, you really never know what you might find.

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Where to Kick Off a Costa Rica Birding Trip- Insider Tips

The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.

It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.

Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:

Close to the Airport

For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.

Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.

Further from the Airport?

Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.

Some Place with Green Space

There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.

Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…

Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat

A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.

Start and End the Trip at the Same Place

If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.

With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com