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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

Twitching Blackpoll Warbler and Cedar Waxwings in Costa Rica

“One birder’s twitch is another birder’s trash.” At least that’s what some members of the birding realm say. In non birding vernacular, that would mean that the bird species yearned for by some are so common as to be ignored by others. Examples include local birders in Ohio rushing outside and letting that screen door bang shut as they race to see a Ruff. Birders from Kansas driving 6 long desperate hours to meet with a seriously lost Spotted Redshank before it keeps on moving. Birders from Toronto skipping on over to Toronto Island to lay eyes on a Variegated Flycatcher (I was one of those lucky birders). All prioritize and move into birding action because those lost birds were brought into twitching range by the same evolutionary dead end wanderlust that could, just as quickly, urge the birds to destinations unknown.

When chasing birds that are common in other places, one of the rather obvious questions that might be asked is, “why not travel to the places where those birds are common?” These days, the answer to just about any question pertaining to travel is obvious (it starts with a C and ends with 9) but during other, easier times, well, it’s always a heck of a lot easier to see a bird near home or in one’s own country than flying to another part of the world. Yes, there are more new birds waaaay over there but…easier said than done. Not to mention, there’s also that country or county or province list thing going on, the urge to collect stuff for a certain area, to maintain and add to a list for some sense of achievement.

Twitches of course don’t just happen in North America, major twitching goes on in Europe especially in the British Isles as well as most other parts of the globe. From the other side of the Atlantic, a twitch might include calling in sick to pilgrimage your way to a Lesser Yellowlegs, or dropping everything for a once in a lifetime meeting with a Gray Catbird (Eurasian soil at least). In Costa Rica, as with every place, we have our own set of “twitch birds” and although rare and local birds are on that list (note the major RVG Cuckoo twitch), most of the wanted species are migrants. In other parts of their range, most are also a dime a dozen.

But it doesn’t matter how common a bird is elsewhere, it only matters how rare that bird is where one happens to be birding. This is why I recently spent precious time driving up a muddy track and walking through tropical pastures to look for…Cedar Waxwings. It’s why we followed that morning jaunt with a drive to a hotel where a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen.

Yes, Cedar Waxwings. They might have been a common bird of parks in western New York, a regular old lazy whispering bird of the northern summer, but in Costa Rica, the sleek crested berry eater is one of the most wanted species on the block. Think of it as our Pine Grosbeak, as an irruptive winter finch that rarely shows, and hardly ever in big numbers. It’s a bird that doesn’t favor Costa Rica, one that occasionally appears at fruiting figs and maybe it’s just me but just to make them a bit harder to find, it doesn’t seem like they call as much in Costa Rica either. But then again, I’ve only seen them here a few times.

They might be common up north but I completely get why local birders strive and drive to see waxwings. It was a while ago some time in the late 70s but I still remember my excitement at seeing my first Cedar Waxwings, can vaguely picture them in the willows by a creek in Pennsylvania. My aunt Chris recalls it too, last time I saw her, she told me she remembered me saying, “Cedar Waxwings!”, being excited about those waxwings by the creek. I sure was, there were a few hundred, they looked amazing, and they were incredible lifers. A golden day for an 8 year old birder.

With that same sense of excitement, Marylen, Samantha, and I went looking for a group of waxwings just a half hour drive from where we live. They had been seen for a few days before then, had been seen the day before but would they still be there? Since they had been feeding on huge figs full of fruit, I figured we had an excellent chance but as with any twitch, who knows? Waxwings are migrants, they could leave at any moment, get too much of an urge to head north, just vanish and leave a twitcher staring into empty trees.

However, as with any twitch, you never know unless you try and if you stay home and someone else sees that bird, you run a big chance of being hit with a big fat sour lemon pie of regret. Since the regret option sucks (and because our chances seemed good), we went for the waxwings. After going to the wrong spot first, thanks to friend and fellow birder Diego Quesada, we got back on track, made our way to the right spot and walked up a muddy track past the songs of White-eared Ground-Sparrows and Rufous-capped Warblers.

Migrants were also around and included the likes of Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Olive-sided Flycatchers. An excellent area of green space, of coffee farms with huge figs, it didn’t take long before a flock of waxwings appeared! They flew into view, lisped a couple of times and quickly dropped out of sight. We couldn’t say we didn’t see them but better views would be a lot nicer. Trudging up and down pastured hills couldn’t refind them but fortunately, just as we were about to leave, we ran into Diego and fellow birding guide, Jheudy Carballo. They had the birds and even had them in the scope!

As you can see, they weren’t exactly perched in full easy view.

After getting our fill of scoped waxwings in Costa Rica, we triumphantly returned to the car (because how else do you return to a vehicle after a successful twitch?), made our way to the house and got right back in the vehicle for the drive to bird number dos- le Blackpoll Warbler.

This second twitch of the day was about as easy as you can get (and is just how we like it!). We entered the Buena Vista Hotel, the receptionist welcomed us and upon seeing our binocs, pointed us to the trails where the bird was being seen. Thanks to directions from Diego, we made our way to the spot, and thanks to a local birder who was watching it, saw the bird with seconds.

In typical warbler fashion, the male Blackpoll didn’t exactly sit still. Getting ready to migrate, it didn’t have any time to rest. It might have come from Alaska, might have lived in Quebec. Both places are pretty far, both require a lot of flying fuel. It was getting those resources for its personal, perilous flight from a fruiting fig, eating insects, maybe even even some fruit.

The good thing is that it was fueling up right in front of us, was favoring this one fig tree only a bit above eye level. Even better, it was an adult male in breeding plumage. Since we rarely get Blackpolls in Costa Rica, the views, the experience, was a rare treat. It’s one of those birds that probably winter here and there in Costa Rica, that pass through on occasion but in numbers small enough to seriously limit chances of finding them and so when one is found, you might just want to go see it.

A successful twitch is always a good day, success with a double twitch that includes good looks at the target birds is fantastic. I wonder what the next twitch in Costa Rica will be? A Gray Gull would be pretty nice…

As with every twitch, they wouldn’t happen without birders finding and sharing the gen. Many thanks go to local birder Alex Molinas Arias for the waxwings and Diego and Jheudy of Birding Experiences for helping us see them, and to the author of The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues, for finding that Blackpoll!

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

Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.

Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.

They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.

Its why Nicaraguan Grackles are reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.

Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.

Medio Queso, a fantastic wetland site in northern Costa Rica and a good place to go when you wonder where to go birding in Costa Rica.

Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.

Pretty Similar

Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.

If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.

Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.

Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.

What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?

In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.

If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.

It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!

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Birding Costa Rica

Why Now Might be a Good Time to go Birding in Costa Rica

In normal years, times just a year ago and before then, this would be the high season. There would be a good number of people birding in Costa Rica, quite a few birders visiting for their first quetzal, to watch toucans in the treetops, and soak up the spectacle of tropical birds.

We do have some birders here now but as with every place, out of country visitors are the exception. I don’t blame anyone, I wouldn’t be traveling either because why take the chance? Why not wait for a vaccination and travel then? However, given the safety of airline ventilation systems, protection from double masks, and follow careful protocols, now might actually be a great time to visit Costa Rica.

And see birds like a Violet Sabrewing.

I know, right, are you crazy? But hear me out, this is why right now really is a good time to go birding in Costa Rica, at least for the following reasons:

Air travel is pretty safe

Despite the worries of sharing an enclosed space on a plane, modern ventilation and air filtration systems keep the air very clean. With everyone on board also wearing a mask, the risk of transmission should be pretty low. I would be more worried about the airports but even there, if everyone is masked and you are careful, chances of catching someone should be minimized.

Health protocols in Costa Rica

But what about Costa Rica, what about mask wearing? Well, although you may have seen some places requiring masks and others not so much, in Costa Rica, health protocol are very much enforced. Mask wearing is required for most or all enclosed places, and from what I have seen, hotels have been especially careful about social distancing in their restaurants, mask wearing, hand washing, and so on. Supermarkets and other places also count and limit the number of people in the store. They have to because if they get caught breaking protocols, they get shut down.

You of course still have to and should be careful but it certainly helps when most people you interact with are seem to be doing the same.

Plane ticket prices

Get this, there are some pretty cheap flights to Costa Rica! Especially if you are coming from the USA. I have never seen them so cheap (like $300 or even less for round trip from NYC) and there are of course obvious reasons for that but it’s still worth mentioning it.

You still need to buy certain health insurance and then get the pcr test in Costa Rica before returning home but those might be worth it if you can fly at half the normal price.

Plenty of space in hotels and plenty of space for birding

With fewer people, there is lots of rooms at every hotel and lodge and more than enough elbow room for birding too.

You might see a Yellow-eared Toucanet.

High quality birding

Not to mention, as always, the birding in Costa Rica is a top notch world experience replete with Resplendent Quetzals, dozens of glittering hummingbirds, mixed flocks, and so much more.

Local birders are taking selfies with a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

Even better, right now, local birders have been getting close look at super cooperative Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos (!). A few days ago, a few were spotted at an Army Ant swarm at the Pocosol Station in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Luckily, this ground-cuckoo family has stayed around to continue foraging at the swarm and several local birders have enjoyed some super rare moments with this rare and unpredictable species.

It’s a bird that’s always out there and at various sites but the main word here is “unpredictable”. That and “sneaky”. Based on years of looking for them, reading about them, hearing about reports, and my limited experiences seeing and listening them, I think I’m correct is saying that they are somewhat like cats. If ground-cuckoo don’t want to be seen, you aren’t going to see it! After seeing a ground-cuckoo quickly move through the understory without moving a single leaf, I figured that likely happens much more than we realize.

It seems that they can be a bit more tame in a family setting, and perhaps just because the juvenile is so much less experienced. In any case, there are some being seen at Pocosol, I wonder how long they will stay? On another note, two very experienced birders also recently saw this mega species at Rincon de la Vieja. Their account gives an idea of the challenges and strategies that can be used to find and see one.

If you go visit Costa Rica for birding these days, I’m not sure if the ground-cuckoos at Pocosol will still be around but it wouldn’t hurt to try. There are plenty of other birds to watch there too and in so many other parts of this beautiful, warm, tropical nation.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley

Beginning 2021 with Backyard Birding in Costa Rica

It was sometime post midnight when I heard the call of a pauraque. Common in many places but only when the places have enough green space with a healthy supply of insects. The local matrix of cement, somewhat poisoned coffee farms and second growth make this bird decidedly uncommon up in this neighborhood.

Nevertheless, a few persist and that call in the night marked my first bird of 2021. Common Pauraque being first on the year list was in line with it typically being the first bird on Big Days. I’ll take it! Subsequent days have brought more birds including a hundred plus species during a day of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. In general though, my 2021 birds of Costa Rica have been “backyard” birds. “Backyard” because we really don’t have one but birding from the balcony looks onto a perfect scene for these parts; a bird oasis riparian zone.

That line of trees and bushes is a fine way to begin any day in Costa Rica, at least if you have to sling the bins in an urban zone. Lately, with windy, sunny weather keeping the local birds quiet and sheltering in the vegetation, you also have to get out there early. It’s worth it, a fine variety of species can show and they change from day to day.

Yesterday morning was one of the better days. For whatever reason, the birds were more active and showing in some bare branches out back. They paraded through one by one and even the skulking Barred Antshrikes and Carolinish Cabanis’s Wrens made brief appearances.

As I scanned the treeline out back, Brown Jays and a Gray Hawk called in the background, Red-billed Pigeons made display flights and a few White-winged Doves zipped through sky space (I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks).

A pair of Ringed Kingfishers gave their steady, grackle-like smacking call as they flew over the urban creek and as usual, I wondered how they manage to persist in this mostly urban area. Equally interesting was the group of 7 Giant Cowbirds that undulated out from a nearby cattle farm. Where do they go for the day? How far do they travel?

I scanned the swallows but so far, no rare Violet-greens (it’s a good year for them in Costa Rica), only the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows. A few Vaux’s Swifts joined them and a screaming flock of 70 plus Crimson-fronted Parakeets demanded attention.

I also saw a few distant White-fronted Parrots, yes, they range into the Central Valley along with similarly named but quite different White-crowned Parrots. Down in the bushes, I was pleased to see a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!

Where did they spend the summer? Could they have warbled from the forest patches of Niagara County? Called from the beautiful woods of Pennsylvania? The same could have been wondered about the 6 Baltimore Orioles that moved through, one bright adult male, the remaining birds females.

As if on cue, other migrants also appeared; a Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo that could have shared woods with the grosbeaks and orioles. More borealy-inclined Tennessee Warblers came through and a pair of Blue Grosbeaks perched in view. The Blue Grosbeaks aren’t migrants but the next bird was, a multicolored male Painted Bunting! That one is possible here in the winter but not as expected as in lower elevations.

Always a pleasure to check out the colors on that beautiful little bird, it reminded me of first learning about it from some sort of cards or maybe a cereal box as a kid. I still recall standing in the kitchen in the house on Augustus Place sometime 1977 and seeing a picture of that bunting. Knowing about that bird was incredible then and it’s still marvelous to look at one so many years later.

A bird from a year ago at Raptor Ridge.

Down in the bushes, the local Rufous-capped Warblers and White-eared Ground-Sparrows called and Grayish Saltators appeared. A Squirrel Cuckoo swooped into view, Common Tody-Flycatchers vocalized out back and as usual, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees tried to take the spotlight. Finish the morning activity off with a few Blue-gray Tanagers and nervous Clay-colored Thrushes and that was a typical wrap for a brief morning of birding in Costa Rica.

Many more birds are possible, I’m surely forgetting some from yesterday. It will be interesting to see what the coming days bring in 2021.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app

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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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app planning birding trip Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica Where to Watch Birds in Costa Rica and How to See Them Book

5 Essentials for Birding on Your Own in Costa Rica

Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Think about it because although you might not feel good about traveling to watch quetzals today, in a couple of months, vaccination rates might change your mind.

Quetzals are always a good excuse to travel, even when they try to hide.

Since the best birding trips are planned well in advance, looking into information for a birding trip to Costa Rica isn’t just wishful thinking. The time to start planning a trip is now and although these ideas about what to bring to Costa Rica for birding are more for birding on your own, they could also come in handy on any tour:

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

As with visiting any place far from home, a good field guide is worth its weight in gold. You might forget to bring a poncho, you might not be able to shave, in a sudden fit of absent-mindedness, you might even leave the flashlight on the hood of the car or next to the snowmobile. Forget those things and you can still go birding. Leave the field guide on the desk back home and well, I guess you could still go birding but you better go buy a notebook, pencils, and be ready to write some wicked field journals.

There’s nothing wrong with field journals (especially the wicked ones splashed with coffee and filled with illegible notes) but birding is always better when you have some fine reference material. Nowadays, although there are a couple of good books available, I still prefer the good old Garrigues and Dean. Lightweight, easy to use and well done, it’s great for studying before the trip and essential when birding Costa Rica, especially if birding by yourself.

So you can identify endemics like the Yellow-thighed Brushfinch.

Costa Rica Birds App

If you already have a field guide, why use a digital one? That’s a good question but I find that having both a book and a digital field guide is better for any birding trip. It’s fun to look at a book, especially when it has great illustrations and it’s also fun to interact with an app and check out photos of birds in flight, more postures, and so on.

Although you could go with the free Merlin app, it’s nice but it does have its limitations. With the full version of the Costa Rica Birds app, you can also:

  • Study bird sounds for more than 900 species while looking at various images.
  • See images for 926 species on the Costa Rica bird list, even rare species, and information and range maps for a few more.
  • See more accurate range maps.
  • See more up to date information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.
  • Personalize the app with target lists, check birds seen, make notes, etc.
  • Play with the filter to see birds grouped by region, family, and more to use it as a study tool before the trip and make identification easier during the trip to Costa Rica.
  • See 68 additional species not yet recorded in Costa Rica but possible.

These and other features make this app just as useful as a reference guide as it is in the field. To be honest, I will mention that I helped create and still work on this app but since I am a serious birder and want other birders to have the same sort of birding tool that I would like to have, you can bet that it’s going to have as much useful and accurate information as possible. The main downside is that it is currently only available for IOS devices. I would love to find a solution for that, if you know any Android coding birders, please let me know.

A Costa Rica Site Guide

For any trip, you obviously need to know where to go for the best birding. If this is a DIY birding trip, a site guide is imperative. Yes, you could plan the trip just using eBird but although that does show where various sites are and can give an idea of abundance, it won’t provide the types of on the ground details found in site guides. Not to mention, for eBird in Costa Rica, hotspots and other sites tend to be biased for sites visited on tours, and overlooked errors in identification on lists can give false ideas about what is truly present. I would still use eBird for some trip planning but the trip will be much better planned when done in conjunction with other information.

Although changes happen quickly, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica is still mostly up to date and useful for planning a trip (and will likely be updated soon!). It covers all parts of the country, gives ideas for itineraries, and also has insider information for finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica. Designed for birders doing Costa Rica on their own, it also has plenty of useful information for folks on tours. Not mention, every purchase supports this blog platform as a source of information for birding in Costa Rica.

A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella

Don’t forget to bring these items! A flashlight (torch) is handy for more than just searching for night birds. It also comes in handy when the lights go out and when you need to check the ground while walking at night (necessary).

A small umbrella is easy to carry and keeps you and your stuff dry. Along with packets of desiccant in plastic ziplock bags, it’s always good to have.

A Mobile Device with Waze

Or at least something with GPS. Google maps will also work but a heck of a lot of locals use Waze. If driving on your own, forget about a paper map, forget about looking for road signs (because they aren’t there and some might be wrong). Stick with Waze or something similar, you will need it!!

You could still visit Costa Rica now (some people are doing just that!) but if you would rather have a vaccine before making the trip, the time to plan the trip is still now. Start learning about the birds waiting for you in Costa Rica today because the departure date will be here before you know it. Get ready for some exciting birding, try to keep it Zen, I hope to see you here!

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Finding Birds Costa Rica 2021

Finding birds in Costa Rica is pretty easy. Look outside and there they are; Red-billed Pigeons powering past, Great Kiskadees yelling from a tree, Palm Tanagers perched in, you guessed it, a tall palm. Look around and there’s lots more; a screeching flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets (!), a Yellow-headed Caracara flapping overhead, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, caroling from a guava.

In Costa Rica, Crimson-fronted Parakeets are often seen in cities.

Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a Lovely Cotinga (I mean it is lovely, what are you gonna do…).

We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what we each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also why I first visited Cost Rica in 1992 and why so many birders eventually make their way to this birdy place.

At the moment, few birders are visiting Costa Rica but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.

One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more become available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Costa Rica because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Costa Rica birds in 2021:

Learn about Habitats

One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Costa Rica is just like seeing more birds everywhere, planet Earth. To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Costa Rica, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:

  • Lowland rainforest– Lowland areas on the Caribbean slope and south of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (where the Crocodile Bridge is) on the Pacific slope.
  • Middle elevation rainforest and cloud forest– Many areas between 800 and 1,700 meters.
  • High elevation rainforest– Above 1,700 meters.
  • Tropical dry forest– On the Pacific slope north of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles including much of the Central Valley.
  • Wetlands– Large wetland complexes such as the Cano Negro/Los Chiles area, Palo Verde National Park and other parts of the Tempisque River floodplain, and the Coto 47/Las Pangas area near Ciudad Neily. Of course, other smaller areas of marsh exist and are important for many birds.

On the micro-scale, it also means knowing where micro-habitats occur:

  • Foothill rainforest– Rainforest from 500 to 800 meters.
  • Paramo– Treeline and tree-less habitats above 3,000 meters.
  • Mangrove forest– Mangroves that grow in estuarine habitats, mostly on the Pacific slope.
  • Different types of edge habitats– Various birds occur in different stages of second growth and open areas.
  • Lagoons and forested swamps– These occur in various parts of the Caribbean lowlands, and locally in the Osa Peninsula.

Try to get an idea of where those habitats are found and start learning about the suites of birds found in each habitat. Allocate birding time in each habitat and you will see an excellent variety of birds. If you have target species, research where those birds occur, think about how easy or tough they are to see, and have high hopes, or take the Zen approach and accept that you might not see a Slaty Finch.

Information and search options for major habitats will be on the next free update of the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.

Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare

Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might to see so and so species. To give an idea of abundance, Clay-colored Thrush would be a “1”, maybe even “-1”, White Hawk might be a “5”, Sharpbill a “7”, and Speckled Mourner a “10” or “10 plus” (or “only in your dreams”).

Make Reservations for Cope

A visit to Cope’s bird oasis and fantastic experience is recommended. But, because Cope likes to provide a high quality experience, as with many a gourmet experience, you need to make a reservation. I can help arrange that, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Don’t Expect to See Everything

Heck, that goes for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it Zen and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that many a bird species in Costa Rica is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.

Consider Hiring a Local Guide

And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Costa Rica such as cotingas or Ocellated Antbird, or even the coveted bizarre Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Costa Rica, although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at uber rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.

Go Birding in the Summer

Yes, as in the months of June, July, and August. This is an excellent time of the year for birding in Costa Rica. As long as you don’t mind missing out on wintering species, you will see a lot and maybe even more than during the dry season. No, I don’t think it will rain too much either but I do know that consistent cloudy conditions will boost bird activity.

These tips are probably similar to ones I have mentioned in other posts about finding Costa Rica birds and other places but heck, they still hold true and 2021 won’t be any different. Need help planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Want to see a few hundred lifers and have exciting birding every single day? Whether you could go for some happy avian madness or more relaxed birding while staying at a beautiful, relaxing “home base”, I would love to help.

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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

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Roadside Birding in Costa Rica- Many Possibilities, Always Fantastic

We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.

A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.

On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.

Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.

Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.

Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.

A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.

With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.

The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.

When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!

With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.

Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.

With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.

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Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.

I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.

In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:

The Perils of Plane Travel

For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?

According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.

As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.

Entering the Country

As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.

Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!

The web site for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington D.C. has this to say about the health insurance policy:

“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:

  • Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
  • Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
  • Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”

Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.

What’s Open?

Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.

Restrictions?

Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.

The Birding

As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!

The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.

I hope to see you soon!