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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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Costa Rica Birds to Know- The 10 Most Common Raptors

“What is that, an eagle? It’s huge!” This or a similar version in any number of languages is a common phrase heard by birders from Tennessee to Thailand. It makes sense, our primate instincts just won’t allow us to forget about the honest threat that big raptors posed to our little ones way back before the height of the Anthropocene. Not to mention, big raptors are easy to notice, especially when they take flight and tend to look bigger than their actual size.

That thing about perspective tricking us into concluding that big birds are a lot bigger than they really are is one of the first things a birder learns, especially when binoculars reveal that that the massive “eagle” was actually a Turkey Vulture or a healthy Red-tailed Hawk. Until you learn and accept that perception of size is deceptive, you can bet that you are fooling yourself.

Rest assured, Tommy Shaw wasn’t talking about birding when he wrote this song but whether you listen to Styx while birding or not, being aware of the size/perception illusion is partly why we as birders know that condors and giant eagles aren’t really roaming the countryside (although we sure wish they were, we know it’s just some Grand Illusion). Depending on the part of the northern hemisphere where one wields the bins, Red-taileds, Common Buzzards, and Black Kites also remind us of how frequent big birds of prey can be.

In many places, it doesn’t take more than a drive down any country road to start seeing raptors perched here and there on posts, or to notice the silhouette of a raptor flying high overhead. In Costa Rica, that flying raptor is usually one or both common vulture species (Turkey and Black). Since these scavengers are such a regular part of the avian landscape and probably the first birds seen upon exiting the plane, I’m going to leave them off the following list. The birds I will mention are the 10 additional raptor species (non-owls) most commonly seen in Costa Rica. Go birding in Costa Rica and you will find that they aren’t as frequent as roadside raptors in some other parts of the world but you can probably still bet on seeing them.

White-tailed Kite

Locally known as the “bailarin” (dancer), this rodent catcher often hovers in place above grassy fields. Like most raptors in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly abundant but because there is plenty of habitat for it and because it isn’t shy about hovering in plain sight, get ready to see it.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Another bird easily seen because of aerial behaviors that make it wonderfully obvious. It occurs year round in parts of southern Costa Rica and is a wet season visitor in other parts of the country. Enjoy the elegance in hilly and mountainous areas with humid forest.

Gray Hawk

In many parts of Costa Rica, including the Central Valley, this is our buzzard, our Red-tail, our common kite species. Based on how often one hears and sees this “Mexican Goshawk”, this edge bird does quite well in the patchwork of habitats created by human endeavors.

Roadside Hawk

True to its name, this smallish hawk is a regular feature of roadside cables, telephone posts, and trees. In hot lowland areas, it can be more common than the Gray Hawk. Like the Gray Hawk, it also frequently calls and soars.

Short-tailed Hawk

Another of the most common hawks in Costa Rica, keep an eye on the skies and you might see this species every day of your birding trip. It often takes to the air with groups of Black Vultures, possibly flying with them to reach its aerial hunting grounds as unobtrusive as it can manage. Once up there, it soars and hovers in plain sight until it can fall like a rock onto some unsuspecting bird or lizard. Even better, it also comes in two cool color phases!

Common Black-Hawk

This cool and chunky raptor lives up to the “common” in its name but only on the coast. Watch for it soaring or perched near any coastal habitat but especially areas with coastal forest, including mangroves. This expert crab catcher can also hang out right on the beach.

Crested Caracara

A big bird that flaps around here and there as it searches for carrion and small and easy prey. Deforested lands and drier weather have made this large falcon a common sight even in the Central Valley. Its shape and foraging behavior sort of remind me of the Common Raven.

Yellow-headed Caracara

Another flappy, screechy falcon that thrives on carrion and small, easy prey. This bird is especially common in the Pacific lowlands where it sometimes perches on cattle so it can pick off their ticks or just be up to its own odd caracara devices.

Red-tailed Hawk

Although this bulky Buteo is not as abundant as birds up north and is restricted to the highlands, it soars a lot and is common enough to make it onto this list. As a bonus, resident birds look quite different from the birds of the north.

Broad-winged Hawk

Only in the winter and on migration but worth a mention because during those seasons, this small hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors in Costa Rica. It makes Costa Rica a great place to study the subtleties and traits of Broad-winged Hawks.

These species are the most commonly seen raptors of Costa Rica but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a few more. On account of them being regularly seen in appropriate habitats, honorable mentions must go to Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk (since literally thousands migrate through Costa Rica), Gray-lined Hawk (replaces the Gray Hawk south of Dominical), Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey.

And that’s not all! Quite a few other sharp taloned birds also live in Costa Rica including hawk-eagles, the wily Crane Hawk, the striking White Hawk, and others. To learn more about identifying raptors and sites to see them in Costa Rica, check out this Costa Rica bird finding book. Use the Costa Rica Birds app to study vocalizations and images, and make target lists, and get ready for some truly fantastic birding. As always, I hope to see you here.