How many birds in Costa Rica can be seen in a day? The answer depends on how you go birding just as much as where you go birding. Make a focused bird run through different avian-rich habitats in different habitats and well over 100 species are probable. Go the relaxed route at one or two sites and you might not have as much but you’ll still see a lot, and might connect with a few true blue rarities.
However, no matter how you do your birding thing, days with multiple owls are far and few between. I’ve done all sorts of birding in Costa Rica as well as a bunch of other places but owls are always the exception. They hide incredibly well, most don’t become active until it gets dark and even then, they ghost around the woods and fields on silent, moth-like wings. No wonder we hardly ever see them! One would think owls are rare, birds that you just don’t see, just can’t see.
Truth is, owls in most places are more common than expected, they just require a different way of birding, or, in depth local knowledge. That’s how we saw so many owls on the annual Buffalo Ornithological Society owl field trip. That special, memorable day was the exception, the day when you knew you had a good chance of seeing not one or two owls but a bunch and it was all because of invaluable local knowledge.
The owl trip was an all day winter event, a time when several of us would carpool to a meeting point with Glen Coady or other Canadian birders who would then graciously bring us to several sites in and near Toronto, Ontario. There were groups of Short-eared Owls coursing over snow-covered fields, a Northern Hawk Owl or two in suburban neighborhoods, Snowy Owls, and stacks of Long-eared Owls in a waterfront park. A closer, fine toothed check of the same park might turn up a Northern Saw-whet or maybe even a Boreal Owl (!).
Eastern Screech Owls would be scoped and revealed hiding in big, craggy trees, we might get lucky and see a Great Gray Owl, and we would usually round out the day with views of Barred and a Great Horned Owl or two.
Yeah, that many owls! An incredible day indeed and one that would have been impossible without the help of expert local birders who had put in countless hours to find those birds. I’ll always be grateful to those Canadian birders, other B.O.S. birders, and my father for taking me on those memorable, magical trips.
Although laying eyes on 8 to 10 owl species in one day of birding in Costa Rica is unlikely, the same sort of local knowledge can still turn up an owl or two just about every day of your trip. Play your birding cards right and you might even see several. This past March 2nd, I had one of these rare and special days.
It started with a visit to one of more reliable places to see an owl or two; Cope’s place at Union de Guapiles. Cope often know where the owls are hanging out but as with all things birding, you just really never know if they are gonna be there! Luckily, on March 2nd, the two hoped for species were present on roosts that Cope knew of. We still had to look for a bit, still had to check a few roosts, but yes (!), ended up with great looks at Crested Owl,
followed by Spectacled Owl.
While looking for other birds, Cope had mentioned that the night before, he had also heard a Central American Pygmy-Owl calling repeatedly from a nearby site. Would we like to look for that uncommonly seen species? Oh, I think so! Shortly after arrival, while scoping Masked Tityras and other lowland species, it didn’t take long for the teensy tiny owl to start tooting and a minute later, we were looking at one. Even better, it was calling from a nest!
We got more than our fill of the bird looking at us from its nesting hole as well as views of its mate before moving on to a stake out for another nocturnal specialty, the Great Potoo. Sure enough, the large, pseudo owl was present and with that sighting, we had four nocturnal species for the morning.
After lunch at the Hacienda La Isla (very much recommended, and for birds too), we made our way back to the Hotel Bougainvillea and birded the rest of the afternoon there. Wind and sun put a damper on birding activity but it didn’t stop us from seeing a known but well hidden Mottled Owl (!). Not long after, we saw our 5th owl species for the day when a pair of Ferruginous Pygmy-owls perched in the open.
That finished off yet another memorable day of birding in Costa Rica. Now, if we had known where Black-and-White Owl was hiding at Hacienda La Isla, and knew of a spot for roosting Tropical Screech-Owl, we would have had an impressive 7 owl species (!). Oh well, those will have to wait for another day.