Who doesn’t love owls? Philosophically, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the dichotomy represented by these wild and wonderful birds. Soft, quiet, and cute yet completely lethal, owls are the straight up bird bomb. Visually appealing, they have big gazing eyes, some have fake costume accessory horns, and yet, these special birds avoid the birding red carpet.
The living leaf known as the Pacific Screech-Owl.
Thanks to their nocturnal nature, owls tend to not be seen as often as tanagers and other birds of the day. Finding one requires careful and patient checking of branches, maintaining a search image for odd dark shapes, and looking for them when they are active.
This holds true for Costa Rica just as owl watching does in so many other places. Several owl species live in Costa Rica and they can be seen with the right knowledge and attitude but they aren’t the only nocturnal birds on this tropical block. Just like the summertime north, we also have nighthawks (mostly Lessers but also the bat-like Short-tailed), and other nightjars but unlike birding in the temperate zone where so many warblers flit and vireos sing, we also have potoos.
Owls are cool and cute but potoos are in a weird category all on their own. Like owls, they also have big eyes but those peepers are more like the staring orbs of an alien kind, or perhaps a puppet come to life. Their big hidden gapes on large round heads make them resemble real life muppets and their vocalizations are the stuff of birding dreams (or nightmares).
The first time you see a potoo, don’t be surprised if you exclaim, “Well, that looks like an owl” because they do sort of look like the Strigid stars we know and love. Look closer though and you’ll probably realize that no, this odd clump of feathers might look soft but it ain’t no owl. More a muppet, more a fake feathered branch, more a pseudo-owl.
In Costa Rica, we are fortunate to have three fantastic species of potoos that sally into the dark tropical night. These are the pseudo-owls of Costa Rica:
The first time I came to Costa Rica, I had seen potoos in the book of that time, The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. I figured I wouldn’t have much chance to see them, sort of left them on the birding back burner and I was right. I did not see them, had no idea how to see a potoo nor what any sounded like. I was surely near all three, if I had known where and how to look for them, I probably would have seen a pseudo-owl on that first trip.
On subsequent trips, local guides told me that the Great Potoo was more common that you think, that they heard it quite often around La Selva. Assuming such a large and wild looking bird to be rare, I found those statements hard to believe but they were right. In Costa Rica, the Great Potoo is not that rare. Bird the right places and it’s not that hard to see.
The size and pale color of the Great Potoo makes it easier to see than the other two species. Go birding in and near rainforest in the Caribbean lowlands, check those odd pale lumps on trees, and you might find one. Listen and look for them at night and you might see one too.
The Great Potoo occurs in many places but some of the better sites are the Cano Negro area, Tortuguero, Sarapiqui, and forests near Limon.
Despite the “common” part of the name, this bird is not all that common. You won’t go birding in Costa Rica and run into a bunch, you won’t casually find them on every birding trip. It’s not rare but you do have to look for it in the right places.
The Common Potoo in Costa Rica is fairly widespread but, in general, this muppet seems to be more common along rivers and in mangroves on the Pacific slope from Carara south to Panama. The Sierpe River is especially good for it but other good sites include San Vito and the General Valley, and Cano Negro. You can also find it in other places on the Caribbean slope, especially in open and semi-open areas.
Historically, this cool bird probably lived in the Central Valley. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case any longer but maybe a few still occur here and there in less accessible, under-birded pockets of habitat?
In the meantime, you are better off looking for Northern Potoos in the dry forest habitats of Guanacaste. Some good sites include riparian zones around Liberia, Rincon de la Vieja, Barra Honda, Ensenada, and the mangroves at Punta Morales and Mata de Limon.
As with other potoos, watch for an odd shape on a branch, listen for them at night, and watch for them perched on the tip of a stick or other perch, especially near streetlamps next to good habitat.
On the complicated side of things, if you do see a Northern Potoo from Cerro Lodge to Ensenada, you should hear it call to clinch the ID. In that area, Common Potoos have also been heard and (gasp), based on vocalizations of some birds in northern Costa Rica, I can’t help but wonder if some hybridization could be happening.
Going birding in Costa Rica? Don’t be fooled, potoos are out there! They aren’t super common and live in low density populations but we do have three species. Go to the right places, put in the time, and you might see them. In the meantime, learn more about where and how to see these pseudo-owls and all the birds of Costa Rica with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Plan that birding trip to Costa Rica, study bird vocalizations and mark target species on the Costa Rica Birds field guide app and get ready for major tropical birding. I hope to see you here!