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5 Things Learned from Chasing American Avocets in Costa Rica

Recently, there have a few twitchworthy birds in Costa Rica. Lesser Black-backed Gull in Tarcoles- second country record, first chasable bird! American Avocet at Ensenada- a very rare vagrant scything the brine for several days! White-eyed Vireo also at Ensenada- rare vagrant, good bird to see in Costa Rica!

All present for more than one day, tempting for the Costa Rica birder, and all very twitchworthy. This past Thursday, temptation had its way and we found ourselves driving to Ensenada Wildlife Refuge. The plan was to see the avocet, maybe even visit the shorebird hotspot at Punta Morales, and keep tabs on the Tarcoles gull situation.

Ensenada is also a good spot for Spot-breasted Oriole.

At least that was the plan, here’s what happened, here’s what I learned. Even if you don’t chase vagrant migrants in Costa Rica, the following just might help your regular birding in Costa Rica too.

“Twitchworthiness” Doesn’t Guarantee Anything

When you start following the birding way, it doesn’t take long to learn some hard truths. Among those many birding facts of life, we quickly find that birders like to make a weird hissing noise referred to as “pishing”, that warblers look a lot nicer in spring, and that owls verge on being invisible.

It’s pretty nice when they become visible.

We also learn that just because we think we’ll see a particular bird species, noy an ounce of your confidence and faith will make that bird materialize. Beyond field skills, birding is sort of a game of chance. You can use weather, time of day, and other factors to nudge the odds in your direction but nothing’s guaranteed.

But hey, there are upsides to birding chance! You might find something rare! You might see the unexpected and if you pay attention, you’ll always learn a thing or two.

On our avocet chase, I was reminded that even if the bird was seen one day before, it doesn’t have to be there. Twittering flocks of Western Sandpipers were present. Wilson’s Plovers, yellowlegs, stilts, and other expected shorebirds rested and picked in the mud of Ensenada’s brine pools but nope, no neat bird with the extra fine, upturned beak.

We ran into other birding friends, notable our friends from Birding Experiences but even with more eyes looking and checking every pond, the avocet was no more. Well, we thought, at least we can check for the vireo a la white eyes! We knew just where another guide friend had found it, right where to pish and make pygmy-owl sounds. That little thicket dweller was destined for the birding bag.

But, no, the vireo didn’t want to come out either. I can’t blame it, if two-legged beings were making funny noises at me while the tropical sun baked the land, yeah, I would ignore them too.

Noon isn’t the Best Time for Birding on the Pacific Coast

Yeah, a better time to look for those White-eyed Vireos would have been much earlier in the day. You know, when birds are active and calling because it’s a lot more comfortable when it’s not a stifling, windless 90 plus degrees.

So right, why would we go birding in a natural oven at high noon? Our decision was based on upping the birding odds in our favor. On Thursday, noon was high tide and that there is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica. At low tide, most of the sandpipers and plovers forage way out on the mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. They spread out too and many are just too far away to watch.

birding Costa Rica
Distant mud flats at Chomes.

You gotta visit the shorebird spot at high tide, check the salt pools and other places where they congregate. In keeping with the no-guarantee rule for birding, they might not be at the pools you happen to be checking but hey, what are you gonna do? Stay home and not watch birds instead of being lasered by the long vertical hands of Helios?

Not necessarily! However, you could forget that noon birding stuff and stick to pleasant and productive birding efforts in the morning and late afternoon. You don’t have to stay home either. Like, you could find an ice cream shop or enjoy cold drinks in some shaded place until 3 in the afternoon. I mean, that’s sort of what the birds do anyways…

Slow Ride, Take it Easy…

Another benefit of leaving extra early is avoiding the traffic. You won’t be exempt from bumbling trucks and slow blocky vehicles and other oddities but there won’t be as many. It’ll still be better than driving at other times.

I can’t emphasize enough, on roads in Costa Rica, drive real early or give yourself some extra time! It really is slow going, especially on the highway between Puntarenas and somewhere around Limonal. I suppose at least when you drive slow, you have a better chance of spotting some perched raptor or maybe even finding a Northern Potoo. But please remember to leave that bird searching to the passengers. The driver has to constantly watch for pot holes, bad drivers, and other weird stuff.

Late Afternoon Dining in Puntarenas- a Big Yes!

We did not see the twitchworthy birds, and our extra side trip to the Colorado salt pans added on quite a bit of unexpected driving time but at least we visited Puntarenas!

We got there just in time for a late afternoon meal at the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill. Let me tell you, 4 p.m. could be the best time to visit this small seaside city. From our outdoor seating, we had a beautiful view of the gulf of Nicoya, Franklin’s Gulls picked at the shoreline, and other birds flew by.

While scanning the gulf from my seat, I even saw a distant storm-petrel sp.! Wish I would have had more time to scan for seabirds but we were hungry, we needed a real meal. Along those gastronomic lines, the Isla Cocos Bar and Grill delivered. I very much recommend it and not just because they support sustainable fishing. The food was good and the owner also offers boat trips into the Gulf!

Don’t Do Ensenada as a Day Trip

I used to visit Ensenada and Punta Morales as a day trip from the Central Valley. And yeah, you still could but it’ll just be a longer day than it used to be. Birding time has been reduced by traffic and the roadwork situation to the point where it’s hardly worth it to drive back and forth from that area.

I guess you still could if you left the Central Valley at 4 a.m. but even then, it’ll be a lot more fun and relaxing to bird the coast early and stay somewhere in that area for a night or two, maybe even in Puntarenas or at Ensenada Lodge. That way, you can have plenty of time to check shorebird spot, dry forest, and do seawatching and even boat trips from Puntarenas. There will also be plenty of time for mid-day siestas, cool drinks, and breezy tropical ocean views.

Ensenada, Punta Morales, and other shorebird sites also work well as birding stops as you make your way north to Guanacaste.

On Thursday, we dipped on the avocet and vireo, and we didn’t even try for the gull (which has also gone AWOL). However, we of course still saw other birds (a foraging Gull-billed Tern was a highlight), enjoyed a nice seaside meal, and learned a thing or two. It was also nice to end the birding portion of the day by listening to the rumbling gruff voices of duetting Spectacled Owls near Orotina.

There will always be more birds to chase and as I write, there’s certainly many more birds to find. Time to go look for them! Just not at noon…

To learn more about the birding sites mentioned and prepare for your fantastic birding trip to Costa Rica, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 page site guide ebook for Costa Rica with accurate bird lists, tips for identification, finding birds, and more. I hope to see you here!

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October-The Most Exciting Month for Birding in Costa Rica?

Birding in Costa Rica is always good. No, it’s more than good, more like some birding wonderland. 24/7. All the time. Even so, you always hear that the best time to go birding in Costa Rica is January to March.

Yeah, that is the dry season on the Pacific and that’s always good. You can also skip out on some of those northern winter blues but honestly, it doesn’t really matter which month you want to see Costa Rica birds.

Head to Costa Rica in January and it’ll be awesome. Bring those binos to Tiquicia (local name for Costa Rica) in June and it’ll still be awesome. Come to this lovely land of hummingbirds, trogons, and tanagers any other month and you’ll still see a lot.

Cinnamon Hummingbird- one of the common hummingbirds waiting for you.

Yeah, in some places it rains more than other places but that’s always the case, even in the dry season. To see those birds, you just work with the precipitation any which way you can.

Now if you ask local Costa Rica birders about the best month for birding, you’ll probably get a bunch of different responses. The winter months could be a common answer, it’s when we can see wintering birds. The raptophiles among us might mention March or April but if you ask me, I’ll say that the best birding month in Costa Rica is any month.

However, if I had to pick the most exciting month, well, for me, that would be October. Halloween month is sort of like our May. It’s when migration hits full swing, it’s when we welcome birds back to these tropical shores.

There’s the common and expected birds like Baltimore Orioles, various warblers, Western Sandpipers, and other common species. I saw some of those this very morning, right here in the neighborhood.

Baltimore-Oriole
Baltimore Oriole- one of our appreciated wintering species.

Those birds are good, watching a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in the same fig tree as Baltimores, Yellow Warblers, and a bunch of local birds was a sweet gift. However, some birds are more exciting simply because we don’t see them so often. October might be our best month for those choice birds.

As with all places where birds are funneled into the local viewing frame, on any given day in October, we might find one of those mega, unexpected species. These are the birds that result in white knuckle driving, leaning forward with anxiety, hoping to reach the mega in time.

October in Costa Rica is major birding, everywhere and at all times. It’s just getting started and yet we’ve already had some tantalizing sightings, some sweet birding experiences. Some of those birds were from late September but maybe they’ll be signs of things to come. Check it out:

Mega Migrants

It’s either a good year for migrants or we just got more birders in the field. Either way, the twitchworthy birds are turning up. You’ll laugh if you live in Pennsylvania but a bunch of us dropped everything and ran to see a Chipping Sparrow. Even better, this ultra rare bird for Costa Rica was sighted at Calle Viquez- a hotspot pretty close to home!

Marilen and I checked it out a day after the bird was found but so far, no dice. The small sparrow of northern pine-dotted parks was either a one day wonder or has yet to be refound. Hopefully, we’ll find it again.

Other, similarly local megas were Lark Sparrows in Sarapiqui and the Osa, and a Yellow-headed Blackbird near Cartago! These two didn’t stay around all that long but at least a bunch of birders got to see the Lark Sparrow.

It makes you wonder what else is out there? Some adventurous Clay-colored Sparrow down the road? Maybe a Nashville Warbler? A hidden Connecticut? Only way to know is to get out there and look!

Wonderful Warblers, Thousands of Swallows, and More

In more expected birding news, I have been enjoying daily movement of migrating swallows. Every morning, dozens of Cliffs, Banks, and Barns fly just over the roofs. If I could watch all day, I’m sure I’d see hundreds, maybe even thousands more.

They might seem like normal birds, and they are, but when you think of where they came from and where they are going, each and every swallow is a living sign of the incredible.

Warblers are also back in town. Not all of them yet but a good number of those much loved little birds. On Sunday morning, we figured we’d try out luck at the Rio Loro Park. This small park near Cartago can be good for migrants, and it’s also a nice place to walk. No luck with cuckoos or a Veery but we did alright with the Parulids.

While enjoying views of BOPish Long-tailed Manakins, had our first Golden-wingeds of the season along with small numbers of Wilson’s, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Black-and-white, Mourning, Canada, and Tennessee Warblers. We also had Northern Waterthrushes and close, appreciated views of at least two Worm-eating Warblers.

Wilsons Warbler- the most common highland bird in Costa Rica from October to March.

Having grown up just out of reach of “Wormers”, I always love seeing them. Pretty uncommon but regular wintering birds in Costa Rica, the ones from Sunday were my year birds.

Possible Highest Ever Count of Least Terns in Costa Rica

On Sunday, we began the month with some warblers at Rio Loro. However, on Saturday., we ended September with morning birding at Puntarenas. It’s a good time to be at that birding hotspot and Saturday morning certainly delivered.

On the way there, we picked up year Surfbirds at Caldera. At Puntarenas itself, we scored with another bird, in far larger numbers than I had ever imagined.

birding Costa Rica
A Surfbird from another day in Costa Rica.

Least Terns usually pass through Costa Rica in late August and September, mostly on the Pacific coast. If you don’t see them then, you might have to wait until the following year. As luck would have it, as soon as we arrived at the lighthouse in Puntarenas, there went a small group of Least Terns zipping by.

I figured they might be the only ones we would see. Maybe a few more but not that many. I mean, that’s how it usually goes with that tiny tern in Costa Rica. But then I start seeing more flying way out there in the Gulf of Nicoya; tiny, fast wing beating terns, all with a smart black patch in their wings.

I get to scanning the birds on a distant sand bar and there’s a good scattering of egrets and shorebirds. Too far away to identify most of them, I envy the clam diggers and fishermen who are nearly within arm’s reach of those birds.

I keep scanning and notice a big group of terns on a sand bar. Really big group. Maybe a clam digger gets too close and suddenly, they take flight. And I can hardly believe my eyes. Every last one of them was a Least Tern! They were far but at 40 X, were still close enough to note that they were the same size as Least Terns foraging near them. They bank, I can see the black primaries, and I figure I better start counting.

To make sure, I had to count them twice. It just didn’t seem possible but yeah, 250 was the total number of Least Terns flying past and on the sand bar. Since that didn’t take the previous groups of Least Terns into account, I bet there at least 300 of them out there.

It was unheard of number for Costa Rica but that’s how many there were. For whatever reason, some big number of Least Terns were gathered in the Gulf of Nicoya on Saturday morning, September 30th. By 9 a.m., all of them had left. I wonder where they went, if they would cross over to the Caribbean in Panama? Or, maybe winter in the deltas of northwestern Colombia?

To top off the excitement at Puntarenas, we scored with a distant Sabine’s Gull, and saw a small group of Common Terns. It would have been a good day to take the ferry!

Snowy Plover and Bobolink in Tarcoles

That same day, we also visited Jaco and swung by Tarcoles. The tide was high and we didn’t see anything but oh we sure missed some good birds! That same day, a mega Snowy Plover was found! Granted, the only way we could have seen it was if we had hiked out to the river mouth but that bird was present when we visited, just beyond the scrubby mangroves, just out of sight.

A bunch of local birders saw it the following day and today, and one of them also found a Bobolink! This cool blackbird is a rare one in Costa Rica. I’m sure we get more than we realize but still in low numbers, likely scattered in several places.

Ruff in Guanacaste

Topping off the recent rare birds was a Ruff seen near Filadelfia in Guanacaste. It was seen near Buff-breasted Sandpipers and some other nice birds. It’s a good reminder that rare birds are out there, you keep looking and you’ll find them.

October birding in Costa Rica is indeed exciting. There’s lots more to come too including large numbers of thrushes, Bay-breasted Warblers, raptors, and so much more!

I suppose I’ll end by noting that several Upland Sandpipers have been seen in Guanacaste and at the airport. What will be next? Is a pipit or wagtail too much to ask for? Ha ha, probably but on a rare October birding day in Costa Rica, it seems like anything is possible.

FAQs

When is the best time to go birding in Costa Rica?

The best time to go birding in Costa Rica is any time of the year. However, most people prefer the drier months of January to March.

Can you still see a lot while birding Costa Rica on your own?

You can always still see a lot while birding Costa Rica on your own. However, as with any destination, you’ll always see more with an experienced local guide. My bird finding guide for Costa Rica will also help.

Which Costa Rica Birds can I see?

With a country list of 930 plus species, you can see so many Costa Rica birds, there are too many to mention. 400 plus species on a serious two week trip is likely. Toucans, macaws, parrots, tanagers, several hummingbirds, and more are even possible on shorter trips.

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5 Study Essentials for a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

Going birding in Costa Rica? Awesome! Epic! Boss! Or, as various overdressed, bespectacled folks used to say, “Splendid!”. I for one, certainly recommend birding in Costa Rica wholeheartedly and completely. While you are here, get up early, focus on birds, and the trip will be a memorable blast.

Orange-collared Manakin

But study for it? What? Wasn’t that like something we did when we were taking classes? Going to school and so on? I mean, in some circles, studying for a vacation could be interpreted as an odd form of torture. After all, isn’t a vacation all about relaxation accompanied by sunsets, cold drinks, and not worrying about responsibilities? Like, if you were gonna study, it would be about margarita flavors, picking the best beach sandals, and where to get a yoga massage or something.

However, that would be for ye olde regular vacation. The birding trip does not fall into such a sun-drenched, easy-going category. When we do birding trips, birding vacations if you will, we go with a different set of goals. The focus of the trip is birds, seeing them, probably taking pictures of them, experiencing them.

It’s a very specific type of trip, a special type of travel, one always better when you study for it.

So you can marvel over birds like this Red-lored Parrot.

Sure, yeah, you could go birding in Costa Rica without laying a finger on a field guide. You could bring those binos to this here birdable land without having looked at any birding apps for Costa Rica. Sure, you could do all that but check it out- birding in Costa Rica ain’t no joke.

We’re talking about hundreds of bird species. Up in birdy here, there’s literally centuries of possible lifers. Trust me, it’s not gonna be like home, not even like the slightest whit call of a Least Flycatcher.

Used to seeing what, 40, maybe 70 species on a really good day? Do some all day birding in Costa Rica and those numbers are nothing. Around here, the bird factory keeps on a rolling. We’re talking well over a hundred species in a day, regularly, in more than one region (even days with 150 plus species). Yeah, it’s some birding gone crazy in Costa Rica alright.

Costa Rica is a place worth getting ready for. It’s worth it to study before any birding trip but in Costa Rica, it’s not just worth it, it’s pretty much requisite. At least a necessity if you want to see more birds, if you want to make the most of your trip, if you want to have some of the best birding in your life.

If you come to Costa Rica for birding, you want all of the above so all I can say is start studying now, start studying as soon as you can. Taking a tour or not, your trip will still be ten times better if you train that mind, get yourself ready for some major birding.

There’s a lot you could study, here’s five main things I recommend:

Learn 50 Bird Vocalizations

What? I know, sounds daunting. I mean, right, you’re still trying to figure out those dang warbler songs at home and now you gotta learn a few more? Right, easy to Hall and Oates the situation with a, “No can do”. But trust me, you can, oh yes you can.

You’ll be surprised at how well you can learn some of those new bird songs. Go for ten at first, then kick it up to twenty, and shoot for fifty. Yes, you have to give yourself some time but you can do it! Try learning one a day before your trip, pick a bird and focus on it while waiting in line, or making dinner, or when your significant other insists on watching some show that gives you the cringes.

Put that smile on your face by listening to the barking song of a Barred Antshrike. Check out the whistles of a Chestnut-backed Antbird and learn how the Laughing Falcon got its name.

Getting ready to laugh.

But where to learn them? Xeno-Canto has more than enough bird songs to browse but, for more a more versatile, customized experience, I suggest using the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. That way, you can use the filter to pick and show common birds for each region. Listen to the Olive-backed Euphonia and other birds from the Caribbean lowlands. Move on to common highland birds like the Mountain Elaenia, and then change the filter to the South Pacific and study Black-hooded Antshrike.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to listen to megas like the Resplendent Quetzal, Three-wattled Bellbird, and the macaws. You sure want to be ready for those ones!

Study Woodcreeper Heads

That might sound grim. It might seem odd. But honest to goodness, that is really what you need to study for woodcreeper identification. Don’t worry about those eye-catching reddish wings and tail. They all got those. Instead, focus on beak shapes and head patterns. That’s the ticket to woodcreeper identification, that’s what you need to look at to ID them in the field.

birding Costa Rica

On a side note, for woodcreepers, expect big birds with large beaks. Know that they might not give the best of views either. These guys aren’t exactly treecreepers.

Learn Birds by Region

See which places you will be visiting in Costa Rica and study accordingly. For example, if you won’t be birding in the dry forests of Guanacaste, you don’t have to worry about Elegant Trogons and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers.

However, if you are headed to the Sarapiqui lowlands, yeah, you should look into the three trogons, two main motmots, White-ringed Flycatcher, and other birds that live there.

Once again, the easiest way to study birds by region is with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Filter for region and you’ll see the birds possible at Sarapiqui, or Monteverde, or wherever else you might be birding. With the app, you can also get more detailed and study birds in certain habitats, forest strata, and more.

Study the Hummingbirds

There’s lots of birds to study so yeah, why not study the hummingbirds? I could just as well say to pick any avian family to study but, in Costa Rica, you’ll have chances at dozens of hummingbird species. They also look nice and are much easier to identify than the small ones up north.

However, instead of solely focusing on identification, I suggest also learning where they live and something about their behaviors. Which are forest birds? Which are more likely in second growth? Which hummingbirds only live in southern Costa Rica? You’ll find answers to these and most other questions about the birds of Costa Rica in “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Basically, I wrote this book to help answer questions spurred by my first trip to Costa Rica, and to prepare fellow birders for their trips to Costa Rica.

Learn About the Bird Families in Costa Rica

Before your trip, I also suggest learning about some of the bird families in Costa Rica. Some of them won’t be anything like birds from home! They won’t just look different, they will also act different and will most definitely throw you for a birding loop.

I’m talking about birds like tinamous, hawk-eagles, antbirds, manakins, puffbirds, and other Neotropical birds. Knowing more about these bird families will help you see more of them. That knowledge will also give you better appreciation for them, get you psyched for your trip, and just might turn your birding trip into a deeper, truly fantastic learning experience.

Tinamous are beings from odd birding dreams made real.

There are more things you could study for a birding trip to Costa Rica but you can’t go wrong by starting with these five suggestions. There’s nothing wrong with learning about margarita flavors either but, I would do that after the birding trip.

That way, you can make drinks to celebrate a successful, fulfilling birding trip to Costa Rica. When you get done celebrating, then you can start studying for your next trip to Costa Rica. You’ll need to, there’s a lot of birds around here.

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Casual Birding in Costa Rica- What Can You See?

Birding in Costa Rica! If you are into birds, into watching them, you know why that phrase ends in exclamation. If not, take some high level excitement, spray it with major dream essence, and wrap it up with soul satisfaction. Now imagine savoring that ultra dimensional sandwich and you get an inkling of birding in Costa Rica.

At least that’s how it is for birders, us folks who deeply dig finding, watching, photographing, and/or communing with birds in other ways. No matter how often you go birding in Costa Rica, the excitement is always there but the first trip to southern Central America, now that some ten-fold excitement!

Here in this bastion of biodiversity, birding is like being a kid in a candy store. Like opening up them presents or being 11 and going to the roller rink with best friends and possible crushes. Ok, you had to have grown up in the 70s-80s for the roller rink but you might get what I mean.

Imagine a close encounter with this jaw dropper!

There’s a lot of birds in Costa Rica and that’s one heck of an understatement. With so much to look for, so many birds to look at, it would seem that you gotta bird Costa Rica serious. That would be birding with high-focused concentration, birding with quick bino action, and keeping it cool in the face of a mighty mixed flock.

But no, you don’t have to bird Costa Rica serious! You can function as such, oh I do recommend it, but as with every destination, you bird the way you bird. If you are happy with garden birding, cool drink in hand, sure, that works in Costa Rica. If you want to go ultra casual with the birding endeavors, casual works too.

To be honest, you’ll see fewer birds but you know what? You’ll still see a lot! I sort of tested that presumption earlier today when, instead of heading out the door at dawn (or before then), I had a leisurely breakfast and didn’t leave until 9:45 a.m.!

I know, say what? Might that be a waste of time? Not if you are into casual birding! To be truly casual, maybe we should have done our birding from beach chairs while listening to Long Hot Summer by the Style Council.

Margarita sipping would have been required along with a toast to the late great Jimmy Buffett (RIP).

Today, we didn’t go that far, didn’t even go birding in chinos and penny loafers but we still did our birding in Costa Rica a la casual. And it was good.

Check it out.

Cloud Forest Mixed Flocks

Our casual birding day took us to one of the closest, easiest birding areas; the mountains above the Central Valley. This area is pretty awesome and has an easy recipe. Drive 45 minutes and you can reach honest to goodness cloud forest. That’s about it and what would be tropical highland forest replete with bromeliads, mist, and lots of cool birds.

Shortly after getting into the habitat, right away, we coincided with a mixed flock. A pair of Yellow-thighed Brushfinches moved into view, towhees that act like tanagers, pumping their tails and showing off their natural yellow pom-loms.

They were hanging with a couple of rude-sounding Ruddy Treerunners, a bunch of Common Chlorospingus, softly calling, emerald green Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and a few other birds.

A closer look at the crown and bill of Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

But we were casual birding, we had a stream to saunter over to, rushing water to gaze at, fresh air to inhale, and leaf rustling to listen to. Even so, the birds followed us, passed through our field of vision. A couple Spangle-cheeked Tanagers insisted by perching on ferns, right out in the open and at close range. Others flew through and so we watched them, casually yet assuredly.

Olive-sided Flycatchers are Back in The House

As we moved along that quiet mountain road, I saw a hefty songbird making a beeline to perch on top of a snag. There’s not many birds that fly like the one I saw. Not back up north, nor in Costa Rica. Today’s first Olive-sided Flycatcher was just like the first one I saw so many years ago at the edge of a boggy lake in Algonquin Provincial Park.

Dark sides, big crested head, and sitting there right on top. Further on, we saw another, and then two more all doing that same Olive-sided Flycatcher move of flying in a long direct line and then going straight back to the same high perch. Only this time, it’s at the edge of cloud forest, fueling up to fly a bit further, move to bigger equatorial mountains.

The Flutes of Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrushes and Burbling of Barbets

It can be quiet when you go casual birding in Costa Rica. This is on account of not birding when our feathered friends prefer to sing. Oh well, you have to accept the silence of the mid-day, dwell in it and appreciate the quiet. Up there, it’s all good, I mean, the quiet is in good surroundings of ruffled green mountains and mist-touched backgrounds.

Eventually, the birds do sing and call, especially cloud forest specialties like Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes and Prong-billed Barbets. The thrush sings classic, flutey phrases in hidden shaded spots while the barbet makes a long, yodeling vocalization, usually as a duet.

We heard those and some other birds as we casual birded in the Costa Rican mountains. With a bit more time on that cloud forest road, I’m sure we would have heard a lot more but by then, it was noon, it was time to look for lunch.

Toucanets, Red-headed Barbets, and Big Purple Hummingbirds at Cinchona

Our lunch stop was a classic birding spot in Costa Rica, a special place most birders eventually visit. It’s the perfect place to do some casual birding because, check this out; the birds are right there in front of you, while you sit, while you drink your cappuccino.

The places in called “Mirador de Catarata San Fernando” at Cinchona and it must be one of the most ideal places on earth to watch birds with ease while taking in beautiful tropical surroundings and ambiance. Today, as with most Sundays, our visit was accompanied by bunches of people coming and going. Some had kids who excitedly pointed at the hummingbirds while adults attempted selfies with toucanets and hidden waterfalls.

It was a good day for Northern Emerald Toucanets. Two or more of these surreal green birds were in constant view as we casually enjoyed our mid day repast. Barbets came in too, the burbling ones from the cloud forest road and a fancy female Red-headed Barbet.

We did not see any of the migrant Cerulean Warblers that other local birders have been espying but a female Blackburnian Warbler was cool! As she fluttered and checked the leaves, we also had the chance to ponder over the vivid purple plumage of big Violet Sabrewings, the subtle beauty of a Brown Violetear, and the natural lights on a Green-crowned Brilliant.

After leaving Cinchona, we did some casual checking of roadside habitats for migrant warblers. No Cerulean but the Halloween colors of a male American Redstart were welcome, as were euphonias, Bay-headed Tanagers, and a few other species to finish off the day.

Before leaving the cafe, the waiter told us that just 20 minutes before we arrived, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle had flown in and perched in full view. In Costa Rica, you never know what casual birding will bring but you can bet you’ll see a lot.

To learn more about these birding sites and where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 plus page ebook designed to enhance every birding trip to Costa Rica.

To get you in the right frame of mind for happy birding in Costa Rica, I leave you with this obscure track from the 80s. Casual birding or not, I hope to see you here!

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The Northern Wetlands with the Costa Rica Birding Club

Wetlands happen wherever the water flows, meets, and finds itself. Tiny drips, unobtrusive ditches, laughing streams, and expansive lakes; wetlands take various forms. When the water overflows and extends itself to form lagoons and marshes in Costa Rica and other tropical places, we have rich and dynamic habitats brimming with life. In Costa Rica, there are three principal, large, flat areas that collect rain to create tropical lagoons and a myriad of marsh habitats.

These places are (1) the Tempisque River Basin, a big floodplain that includes Palo Verde National Park, rice growing areas, and some wildlife refuges, (2) the human-made but very important wetlands south of Ciudad Neily, and (2), the wetlands in northern Costa Rica associated with Lake Nicaragua. These latter marshes are some of the most extensive wetlands in Costa Rica; slow meandering waterways and flooded areas that harbor a fantastic wealth of birds and wildlife.

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This past weekend, Maryllen and I visited those northern wetlands with a group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica. These were some of the highlights and observations from those memorable days.

Medio Queso Delivers

Medio Queso is a tributary of the San Juan River that flows through and feeds a large freshwater marsh near Los Chiles. The name translates to “half cheese” but when you take a boat ride there with Chambita, you get the full cheese wheel and some!

Boat trips at this site are typically wonderful. During our afternoon on the river, we had views of several Pinnated Bitterns (arguably the best site for this local species in Costa Rica), lovely Least Bitterns, Fork-tailed Flycatchers, a Yellow-breasted Crake bringing food to hidden young, Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kites, Limpkins, and more.

Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters were fairly common, we inspected the pink tones on the big bill of a Nicaraguan Seed-Finch at close range, saw a distant Jabiru feeding in the marsh, and had our fill of Nicaraguan Grackles.

It’s hard to beat all of these birding highlights and more on a leisurely boat ride through a tropical marsh.

Cano Negro can be Really Hot in April

The following day, we did another boat ride with Chambita in Cano Negro. Low water levels limited access to some spots but we still saw a lot. The only problem was the heat. I suppose because of the time of year, and because the low water levels kept the boat floating below the breeze, we were feeling those temperatures. It was a bit of a challenge to try and stay cool enough to function, and that was without moving a muscle.

This was somewhat surprising because, on other occasions, I have worn a light jacket during boat trips at Cano Negro. In any case, we still saw good numbers of birds, especially where they were concentrated in shallow lagoons.

We had close looks at a Sungrebe, saw another Black-collared Hawk, and watched two dozen Jabirus lord over dozens of Great Egrets and other waterbirds feasting on fish trapped in the shallow, diminishing waters.

There be Good Birding in Los Chiles

Los Chiles isn’t the best place to go birding in Costa Rica but, there is some habitat, mostly down at the river. As birds move from one area to the next, you might see more than you expect. Our unexpected bird was a Dickcissel that flew in to promptly land in a bush, right in front of us. The other side of the same bush hosted an American Pygmy Kigfisher, and we saw another Sungrebe on the other side of the river!

Mind you, while watching these and other birds, there were a few people fishing, one person loudly imitating Howler Monkeys, and a few others drinking beers while seated at grungy picnic tables at 7 in the morning.

None of this activity distracted the birds, nor us from seeing them including two other specialties of Cano Negro; the Gray-headed Dove, and the Spot-breasted Wren. Flocks of Barn, Bank, and Cliff Swallows also flew from south to north, Amazon, Ringed, and Green Kingfishers rattled and entertained, a pair of Green Ibis flew over, and parrot and parakeets were always in view.

Los Chiles is Not a Destination for Gourmands (or Foodies)

There might be more birds in Los Chiles than you think but the restaurant scene is another story. The few options have the same menus typically found at most small, average restaurants in Costa Rica, and wait times can be a while. The first night, we ate at Heliconias and I enjoyed the ceviche. The waiter was also good and attentive. Best of all, he set up and turned on a large fan to make us feel like we were sitting in a breeze.

Gaspar’s had the advantage of an actual, natural breeze blowing through the open air, second story dining and drinking area. This was very good. The pleasant feelings generated by brushes of air in hot lowland weather alleviated the sonic assault made by some of the worst music ever created, at just enough volume to make you cringe. Ok, so who knows if it was the worst, after all, there is the horrendous stuff played on the ferry from Paquera to Punatarenas but I daresay the sonic bombardment was memorable, and not in the best of ways.

The food at Gaspar’s was surely better than the music selection (it had to be because if it were worse, we would have self-combusted at the first bite) but I wouldn’t say it was wonderful. Or, it might be Ok and that I’m just not super keen on extra fried food or burnt stuff. To be honest, I’m probably exaggerating there, I mean I did see some of the other plates and they didn’t look that bad. If you stay in Cano Negro, I wholeheartedly vouch for the excellent cuisine and service (and lodging) at Hotel de Campo but when staying in Los Chiles, keep the expectations on the down low.

C and C Cabins in Los Chiles Gets a Thumbs Up

Not looking for anything fancy, our group stayed at CyC Hotel in Los Chiles. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I left the place with a smile and a big thumbs up! It was cheap yet the rooms were fine, clean, quiet, had hot water, and air conditioning. There is also a secure parking lot, and the couple who own the place were very accommodating. We requested early coffee and they made it for us, no problem. We had breakfast there and it was also good. The guy was always smiling, accommodating, and, told us that he used to say hello to an owl (suspected potoo) that visited the place nightly for several years (sadly, it hasn’t been present for some time).

His partner was also just as accommodating, told me about the night bird that visited them and how she hopes it comes back, and was rocking some cool gold bling. If you are looking for a low-price option for a stay in Los Chiles, these are good people to support. Another friendly place we have used on other trips that I also recommend is Felicia’s Cabins. Other options also exist in Los Chiles but I haven’t stayed at them.

Night Birds at Cano Negro

Speaking of nocturnal avian visitors, the general area around Los Chiles and Cano Negro is pretty good for the birds of the night. Since we had already had Great Potoo and Pacific Screech-Owls on day roosts during a long, hot day of birding, we didn’t look too much more on the 20 kilometer plus drive from Cano Negro to Los Chiles. However, we still ended up seeing a family of young Barn Owls screeching into the dark, tropical night.

With more time, you can find Striped Owl (and other owl species), and maybe even locate the rare Ocellated Poorwill.

It’s a Long and Bumpy Drive to Cano Negro

The road to Cano Negro has always been a challenge. Lately, it seems even less fun. Expect a very bumpy road marked by an abundant diversity of holes and indentations (maybe sort of like driving on the moon?). The road texture makes for a long and uncomfortable drive but if you rent the right vehicle, well then, I suppose it’s not as much of an issue. Not to mention, you can and should watch for birds en-route in any case.

The birding club trip to the northern wetlands was fun and productive as the birding typically is in that area. If you plan on going, I hope this blog helps. If looking to stay in Cano Negro for birding, I suggest Hotel de Campo for the birdy grounds, home-made, authentic Italian pasta, and more. Get psyched for your trip by checking out my eBird trip report, and please support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a complete birding site guide for Costa Rica, and tool for planning birding trips to Costa Rica. I hope to see you here, until then, I wish you some sweet May birding!

Most images in this post were taken by Heather Fabro Angell.

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4 Good Reasons to Start Planning a Birding Trip to Costa Rica Now

Plan a birding trip to Costa Rica now? Isn’t it still the high season? Why start thinking about visiting Costa Rica for birding now when you probably won’t visit Costa Rica until 2024? Valid concerns but just as its worth listening to the tremulous dawn song of a tinamou, it might also be worth it to hear me out.

The Great Tinamou has a mystical, whistled song. You’ll probably hear it and might see one while birding in Costa Rica.

The High Season Gets Busy and Booked Far in Advance

First and foremost, even though 2024 is a long ways off, in terms of hotel reservations, the next high season is just around the corner. I know, it’s crazy but that’s how reservations roll for popular global destinations like Costa Rica. In 2022, Costa Rica registered well over 2 million tourists. I bet this year even more flew to these beautiful shores and next year, the numbers will go up.

A Crowned Woodnymph from Rancho Naturalista, one of the most popular, classic birding sites in Costa Rica.

A lot of birders will be visiting on tours, some on their own, and many will want to stay at various birding hotspots. There’s only so much space and you can bet that a lot of rooms are already being blocked and booked by agencies and tour companies, even into 2025. Based on years of experience, if you want to do your own birding trip and are set on staying at the popular spots, I suggest picking dates ASAP and making those reservations now.

There’s a Heck of a Lot of Birds- More Time Studying Translates to a Better Birding Trip

Another major advantage of starting to plan a trip to Costa Rica today is giving yourself plenty of time to study for what’s in store. No, seriously, birding in Costa Rica won’t be anything like birding at your local refuge. For example, as I write, I know for a fact that there are at least 500 bird species (and probably more) living within two hour’s drive from my home.

speckled tanager

Check out the tanagers in Costa Rica to get psyched about your trip!

Yes, that many, including trogons, Resplendent Quetzals in nearby mountains, flocks of glittering tanagers, dozens of hummingbirds, and lots more. Trust me, with such a big avian treasure trove waiting to be seen, it will be worth your while to study for birding in this major birdy place, the more the better. When I say “studying”, although that could mean trying to learn field marks for hundreds of bird species, it could also just be reading the must have “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Garrigues and Dean, and checking out images and sounds for common species on a complete birding app for Costa Rica.

Costa Rica- a Small Country with the Birding Options of a Continent

Costa Rica might also be a small place but don’t be fooled. This country is a complex place where the driving is naturally slow (it’s mountainous), and there are several hundred bird species, many of which only live at certain elevations and in certain regions.

If you had all the time in the world, yes, you could stay for a couple months and try and see everything but since most of us vacation for a couple of weeks, we have to figure out exactly where we want to go. Costa Rica has more options than you think. There is tropical dry forest where Turquoise-browed Motmots perch on fence posts, rainforests replete with tinamous, antbirds, and woodcreepers, and high mountains beckon with the calls and views of a bunch of endemics shared with western Panama. Then there are other endemics restricted to southern Costa Rica, specialties of the northern marshes, the seriously underbirded, fantastic birding south of Limon, and more…

The Fiery-throated Hummingbird- one of those cool montane endemics.

There’s a lot to consider, I suggest picking out some favorite target birds and working the trip around that (contact me, I’m here to help). My 900 plus page bird finding book for Costa Rica will also help you get an idea of possible birding routes in Costa Rica, and what to expect at popular places as well as the better birding sites located off the regular beaten track.

You Just Might Want to Visit Costa Rica Sooner than 2024

Who says you have to wait until the high season to go birding in Costa Rica? This place is off the cuff for birds all year long and the ones you want to see the most might even be easier during the so-called “off season”. Yep, although you’ll see lots of birds any month of the year, I believe that the best birding in Costa Rica might be from April to July. This is when a lot of birds are breeding and the cloudy weather also boosts bird activity.

Yes, it will rain more but guess what? If I had to choose between birding with occasional rain, and birding in Costa Rica in dry and sunny weather, I would choose that cloudy day every single time. The birds are way more active on cloudy days with occasional rain, and in the high season, the Caribbean slope sees a lot of rain anyways.

buff-fronted-quail-do

You might have better chances at the Buff-fronted Quail-Dove.

Other benefits of visiting Costa Rica during the next few months are probable lower prices for accommodation, more ample options for reservations, and still seeing lots of birds.

If you are hoping to visit Costa Rica next year or sooner, start planning now. You’ll have a better trip experiencing the avian delights in one of the top birding hotspots on the planet.

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One Day Birding in Costa Rica = 5 Owl Species Plus Potoo

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.

You might see a lancebill.

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.

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5 Insider Tips for High Season Birding in Costa Rica, 2023

It’s been a long, rainy season. In Costa Rica, the wet season is never short and always presents some challenges to birding but this year was especially torrential. Taking into account the extent of global warming induced flooding that took place in various places across the globe, perhaps Costa Rica having an extra wet rainy season isn’t the least bit surprising.

Some places in Costa Rica have also experienced flooding and tragically, a fair number of people lost houses, businesses have been affected, and the flowing water made its mark on several roadways. The good news is that the wet season seems to be nearly over. Lately in Heredia, I’m seeing more sunny days and much less rain. Things are looking up and by the time the high season kicks off, I would expect most roads to be in good shape (although with occasional heavy traffic on routes 32 and 27 and the usual congestion in the Central Valley).

Speaking of the high season for birding in Costa Rica, it’s just around the corner! Before we know it, dozens of birders will be bringing their binos to Costa Rica and I’m psyched; I wish every birder could come birding here, at least once in their lives. If you are visiting Costa Rica for birding soon, planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, or thinking about visiting in 2023, these insider tips may be of help:

Umbrellabirds are Back at Centro Manu

Centro Manu is one of the newer hotspots for birding in Costa Rica. Last year, local guide Kenneth found that it was a reliable place to see one of the most wanted species in Costa Rica; the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. This year, the birds are back! Although we don’t know how many of the big-headed, crow-black cotingas are present at Manu, based on the frequency of sightings, this spot seems to be a very important area for this endangered species.

The elevation, quality, and location of the lowland-foothill rainforests at Manu are ideal for umbrellabirds from June to February (when they migrate to lower elevations after breeding). Visit this easily accessible site in December and January and you have a fair chance of finding umbrellabird (and other great birds!), especially if you contract Kenneth for guiding. However, it’s best to make reservations first. Contact them at the Centro Manu Facebook page.

Reservations Needed: Cope, Nectar and Pollen

It’s worth mentioning that two other excellent hotspots near Manu also require reservations. To visit Cope in the high season, you will likely need to make reservations in advance; the bird oasis and rainforest experience offered by this highly talented local artist and naturalist are popular and world class.

Nectar and Pollen is also a wonderful place to visit. Expect exciting foothill birding replete with hummingbirds, tanagers, raptors, and more. However, since Miguel, the local guide responsible for creating this special place, doesn’t live there, you need to contact him in advance.

eBird Won’t Have All the Answers

eBird has revolutionized birding, it’s wonderful in many ways and I love using the app and encourage people to do the same. However, you really shouldn’t use it as the only resource for planning a trip to Costa Rica. Definitely check it out and look at recent sightings in Costa Rica but when making decisions, keep these factors in mind:

-Unequal coverage. Since most tours visit the same set of places, these sites have higher bird lists than other places. Don’t get me wrong,these are good sites to go birding but they aren’t the only sites to see a lot of birds. Several places are visited more often because they are more accessible and suitable for group tours.

-Errors. Many lists for hotspots include birds that were obviously seen elsewhere. There’s also a fair amount of misidentification. Both of these factors result in inflated and incorrect lists for various sites.

-Lists that only show what is identified leave out lots of other birds. That’s not the case for every observer but when we take into account the high number of first time birders in Costa Rica, yes, a good deal of species go unrecorded. This means that just because certain shy or ID challenging bird species don’t show on site lists doesn’t mean they aren’t present.

This also all means that us local eBird reviewers got a lot of work to do. In the meantime, while it is worth using eBird and checking data for sites and bird sightings, just remember that it’s not the final word on where to go birding in Costa Rica; habitat is always the most important factor.

Less Visited Sites Could be Better

Birds are where the habitat is. While you will see lots of cool birds at the most popular sites (and places such as Rancho Naturalista and Laguna Lagarto and others are truly fantastic), there are plenty of additional places with excellent birding. A side benefit of birding at such lesser known sites is having them to yourself.

You might get lucky and have a young Ornate Hawk-Eagle check you out.

New Entrance Fees for Bogarin Trail and Arenal Observatory Lodge

The Bogarin Trail has come a long way from the days when it was a hotspot only known to local birders in the Fortuna area. The trails are well maintained, some of the forest has grown, interesting species like Tiny Hawk and Ornate Hawk-Eagle have made appearances and Keel-billed Motmot occurs.

The birding is wonderful and the place has become a popular destination for tours that look for sloths and other rainforest wildlife. In concordance with its popularity, the Bogarin Trail now charges a $15 entrance fee and is open 7-4. In addition, from what I understand, birding tour groups have to make reservations in advance with a time slot for entrance and prepayment.

The Observatory Lodge has also realized the value of day visits to their trails and facilities. The entrance fee for this site has also increased, now costs $15 per person, and is open 7-9.

As far as birding news goes, expect fantastic birding at classic sites, new places, and anywhere with good habitat. These days, with so much access to sites for more or less everything, it can hard to figure out where to spend your time! Rest assured, it’s gonna be good. I hope this information helps with your trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica including sample itineraries and lesser known sites with “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”-a 900 page ebook that covers everything from how to find tropical birds to identification tips, and a complete site guide to the places you’ve heard of lots more that you haven’t. As always, I hope to see you here in Costa Rica!

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Harpy Eagle Seen in Costa Rica, July 21, 2022

The official list of the Bird of Costa Rica boasts more than 900 species. That much biodiversity in a place the size as West Virginia or Denmark makes for a heck of a lot of birds to see. Go birding in Costa Rica and you’ll see a lot of them too, probably watch trogons, motmots, tanagers and maybe three dozen hummingbirds. However, one of the birds you aren’t so likely to see is one of the birds we all want to see the most. That special, evasive bird is the Harpy Eagle.

Rainforest habitat in Boca Tapada, Costa Rica, a place where Harpy Eagle still occurs in Costa Rica.

A bird true to its name, the Harpy is a taloned monster, an apex predator of the rainforest. Reaching a length of three feet, the bird is literally larger than life. Pairs of this magnificent eagle of eagles use extensive areas of forest replete with monkeys sloths, and other prey items. It’s one of the top birds of the world but sadly, the Harpy is not an easy bird to see. Unlike many other raptors, this eagle rarely soars. Similar to forest Accipiters, forest-falcons, and cats, it uses stealth to catch prey, lurking under cover until it sees its chance to quickly fly and use massive claws to snatch animals by surprise. Factor in a large territory and it’s no wonder the Harpy is tough to see, even in rainforest that supports healthy populations of the eagle.

The Harpy is a recurring topic of conversation among local birders because very few have seen one in Costa Rica, we don’t know if any breeding pairs still occur, and, every birder who has not seen a Harpy must see one. Honestly, like the Resplendent Quetzal, the Harpy is a bird species every birder deserves to eventually witness. I wish there were funds and special programs developed with this goal in mind, to help birders experience the Harpy Eagle, help them make a pilgrimage to meet this life goal.

At the moment, birders do the Harpy trip to eastern Panama or the Amazon. They are taken to known nesting sites because that situation is by far the most reliable way to see this stealthy canopy predator. If we knew of a Harpy nest in Costa Rica, oh that would be major game changer. It would be aboost for tourism, it would help all of us local birders finally lay eyes on this elusive bird in this birdy nation. Until then, all we can do is keep looking for them in the right places. On July 21st, 2022, the right place ended up being a section of road in northern Costa Rica.

On that fateful day, a group of tourists happened to make local headlines when they chanced upon an adult Harpy Eagle while driving along the main road between Mirador de Pizote and Boca Tapada. It’s a road I have traveled several times, the main road that goes to Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque Lodge, and other birding spots in that area. The sighting was a welcome surprise but I’m not surprised it happened where it did. It’s exactly where one would expect to see a Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica.

This part of northern Costa Rica has large areas of intact primary forest connected to larger areas of forest in the Indio-Maiz Reserve of Nicaragua. Based on the amount of habitat and sightings of Harpy in Indio-Maiz, Harpy Eagles should be present in the forests near Boca Tapada; if not a pair or two, then at least occasional wandering individuals. But if that’s the case, then why aren’t we seeing them?

The answer to that question gets back to the fact that Harpy Eagles are very difficult to detect, even in places that harbor healthy populations. Factor in birding coverage being rather limited and Harpy sightings become even less likely. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note that more people are visiting the Boca Tapada area, especially Mirador de Pizote, the site closest to where the Harpy was seen. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that more eyes in the field resulted in a Harpy being noticed. The sighting also occured on one of the few spots where forest comes right up to both sides of the road. It looked like a good place for a Harpy to cross the road, a good place for it to sneak through the trees.

Thanks to the local guide who reported the bird, the sighting was made known right away and that same day, several local birders raced there to see if it could be refound. Some of the those same birders also took a boat trip on the Rio San Carlos the following morning. These efforts were worth a try and I’m glad they made the attempt but I wasn’t surprised they did not see the bird. I was rooting for them and hoping they would see it and there were several very experienced guides and birders on board but seeing a Harpy Eagle requires a good deal of luck. Having extensively birded in forests where the Harpy occurs in “good numbers” and knowing how incredibly infrequently myself and other guides saw them, away from a nest, I know all too well how unreliable that bird can be.

A Harpy passes through an area but then where does it go? The bird likely moved to another part of its territory to look for prey. Or, it kept moving around in search of a mate, or, it was somewhere nearby but hidden inside the forest. We’ll never know where that special bird went but the sighting was nevertheless monumental. It shows that, without a doubt, in 2022, Harpy Eagle still occurs in Costa Rica and, it was seen where it was expected.

This sighting is the best of incentives to go birding in the Boca Tapada area, even more incentive to educate local folks about Harpy Eagles and reforest. It might not have been sighted later that same day nor the next but when it comes to Harpy Eagles, that means nothing. A Harpy is a tough bird to see, unless you go birding in places where they could occur, you’ll never see one anyways. The good thing about birding in the places where they do live is that there are hundreds of other cool birds to see too.

A couple days after the sighting, my partner Marilen and I spent a couple of nights in Boca Tapada. We knew we had little chance of refinding that Harpy but it was still good to try, still good to scan the canopy and keep looking. Not to mention, any day birding in lowland rainforest with Green Ibis, Pied Puffbird, Cinnamon Woodpecker, and dozens of other cool birds is always a good time.

For our brief sojourn, we stayed at Las Iguanitas, a small and fiendly place right in the village of Boca Tapada. That worked for us, if you don’t might basic yet friendly lodging for a good price, it’ll work for you too. It was also fun speaking with the owner. He does tours in the area and had some interesting things to say about Harpy Eagle, most of all, possible additional sightings in less accessible spots. He also showed us a Black-and-white Owl that visits the lodge nightly, major points for that!

black-and-white-owl Costa Rica
Black-and-white Owl from another spot in Costa Rica.

Additional choices for accommodation include Mirador de Pizote (a nice little place that caters to photographers), Maquenque Lodge (more upscale, good for families and small groups), Pedacito de Cielo (nice little place, also caters to photographers), and the lodge I have always visited, Laguna del Lagarto (oldest ecolodge in the area, good for groups, photographers, and has trails in excellent habitat).

Birding around Boca Tapada has always been exciting, now, even more so! I can’t wait to get back for more raptor searches. With that in mind, it’s important to mention that a Harpy isn’t limited to the one spot where it was seen. It has a huge range, it could potentially occur along any road or trail with good forest around Boca Tapada. I hope you visit the area too, maybe I’ll see you there.

For more information about Harpy Eagles and finding birds in Costa Rica, please support this blog and get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

First Birding Trip to Costa Rica- Where to Go?

Birding in Costa Rica has been on your mind since the early 90s. A visit to Costa Rica has been in the mental works and you figured that some fine day, you would take that trip. You almost did in 2003 but then you saw that amazing deal to visit Jamaica. Streamertails and island birds that inspired Bob Marley took precedence and you have no regrets (!) but, it wasn’t Costa Rica. On that other occasion, you went a bit further with trip planning but then your faithful birding friends convinced you to go to Arizona instead. Once again, no regrets! That was a fun trip highlighted by hummingbirds, desert blooms, and roadrunners but you aren’t getting any younger and there be hundreds of beautiful birds in the tropical forests of southern Central America…

speckled tanager
Eye candy birds like Speckled Tanager.

Spurred by photos of quetzals and toucans on Facebook, hearing the rest of the birding community rave about visiting Costa Rica, or just realizing that it’s now or never, the time has definitely arrived for that inagural Costa Rica birding experience. Now you just have to figure out where to go. Should be easy enough, the country is pretty small, the best places to go should be pretty straightforward, right?

Not exactly. Costa Rica might be a small nation but it’s big on a few things that complicate trip planning. These factors are biodiversity, mountains, and birding sites. Mega biodiversity gives Costa Rica a bird list of 900 plus species. Whoah! Yeah, that’s a lot to work with, even after taking vagrants and pelagic birds into account. You gotta take mountains into consideration too because driving up and over them, winding your way through the naturally broken and uplifted land plays a big role with driving times.

You might also want to visit mountains because that’s where quetzals are, that’s where the biggest percentage of endemic species occur. Then there are the birding sites in Costa Rica. As with any birding trip, we need know about the best sites, about where to go to see more birds, or photograph more birds, or see certain species, or if the site has a certain degree of comfort we are looking for, or if we don’t mind hiking on steep forest trails, or if we would rather spend more to soak in hot springs after a morning of easy-going birding.

So where do we go?

To effectively entertain that complex answer, you need to start with some questions of your own.

How Do I want to Experience Birds in Costa Rica?

There are many ways to bird. For some, birding is sitting back and taking pictures of whatever species happen to visit feeders or fruiting trees. Other people enjoy a blend of easy, casual birding, good food, good company, and a dance lesson or two. Some birders would rather focus on birds 24/7 and eBird their way to a big old satisfying list.

Ornate Hawk Eagle
A list with nice birds like Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

This may sound controverisal, but all of the above is birding. For this reason, the best places to go on a birding trip to Costa Rica depend on how you want to experience our friends of the feathered kind. There’s a lot of options with some more suited to photography, othes better for individuals or smaller groups, and others for more adventurous birders.

How Much Time do I Have?

Once you know how you want to watch birds in Costa Rica, you can move on to the question of time. If the trip is less than a week, I would visit two sites at the very most. Staying for a week? You could visit three or four sites, or even just stay at one place. Once again, it all depends on how you want to watch birds. Have two or more weeks to work with? That opens the door to many more birding possibilities.

No matter how much time you have, keep in mind that in general, very diverse sites like the Sarapiqui area, Rancho Naturalista, or the Carara area merit at least two to three nights. You could also, easily stay at such sites for a week and still see new birds every single day (seriously!).

Zeledon's Antbird
Skulky species like the Zeledon’s Antbird might require a bit more birding time.

In the highlands, although you could stay longer and still have lots of fun, two nights will probably suffice. The same goes for dry forest habitats in Guanacaste. If you just wanted to stay in the Central Valley and do day trips, that can also work for such places as the Carara area, San Ramon area, Braulio Carrillo and nearby (as in Cope’s and Centro Manu), Poas, Irazu, and more sites.

How Much do I Want to See?

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker
You might really want to see a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker.

Perhaps the most vital question of all because you can’t see certain birds unless you visit the places where they occur. That’s right, Costa Rica might have a huge list but that’s because some birds only live in the high elevations, others in middle elevations, some in the lowlands on one side of the mountains, others on the other side, and so on.

If you want to see as much as possible, then you have to spend at least two or more days in each main bio-region. If you are fine with seeing a bunch of cool birds and don’t really mind which ones you espy, then you could stay at one or two places just about anywhere, Costa Rica.

In general, I would suggest spending at least two nights in the highlands, three nights in the Caribbean lowlands, and at least two (maybe three) nights on the Pacific slope, probably in the Carara area. Do that and you will get a pretty good taste of Costa Rica birds, not to mention, it would be a shame to NOT see a Resplendent Quetzal, even more so if the birds in Costa Rica and Panama end up being split from the birds in northern Central America (there’s a fair chance that will happen!).

But where to go? Which places to stay? I have mentioned so few places because, without first knowing how you want to bird Costa Rica, nor your budget, there are honestly too many really good sites to choose from (and they aren’t all on eBird either). A thorough birding site guide for Costa Rica will provide the right answers. In the meantime, I might also have an idea for an itinerary or two. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Until then, happy birding, I hope to see you here!