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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Birding in Costa Rica Soon? Check Out this Update!

Going birding in Costa Rica soon? I hope so! As per usual, in Costa Rica, there are an impressive number of bird species jam-packed into a small area. For the birder, that means experiencing an avian cornucopia without needing to drive for hours on end, take internal flights, or making other massive travel arrangements.

No planes, trains and autocar shuffling around here! Best of all, it also means that Costa Rica is a basic birding wonderland. If you are headed to Costa Rica, soon, you’ll be enjoying this avian goodness. I hope these updates get you ready and excited about your trip:

Windy Weather

Lately, there’s been a lot of windy weather in Costa Rica. As I write from an urban corner of Heredia, the wind is shaking roof panels and swishing through the palms.

It’s been like this for days, nights too, and in various parts of the country. That hasn’t been fun because as every birder knows, wind isn’t the best of birding conditions. The birds seek shelter, stay low, and don’t sing much. It’ll be tougher to see them but don’t worry, they are still out there!

Even beauties like this Bay-headed Tanager.

To offset wind, make sure to get out there bright and early and focus on sheltered spots. On a side note, if you are in forest and the wind picks up, get out! Don’t hesitate, head out of that forest as quick as you can.

Most tropical forests in Costa Rica are not adapted to windy conditions. Branches break, trees can fall, and you don’t want to be there. It’s not like this is some big danger while birding in Costa Rica but why risk it? Locals don’t in Tambopata, Peru. While I was working and looking for macaw nests in the Peruvian Amazon, on one occasion, the wind picked up and some branches began to fall.

Never mind Jaguars or other animals, windy weather was one of just two times when I saw a local friend become worried. With furrowed brow, he watched the canopy sway back and forth and calmy stated, “yeah, we better get out of here”. We then rushed through the jungle and jumped in the boat to reach the safety of the open river.

The other time he was concerned (but seemed less worried) was when there were big red wasps near a macaw nest. He didn’t have to warn me about them! Those wasps weren’t exactly dainty. These were hefty red creatures that carefully flew in lazy circles near their nest. He said that if they started circling wider and come close, to run like hell.

Luckily, we didn’t have to make our escape but it goes without saying to be careful around wasps in Costa Rica too.

Route 32 to Limon- Mostly Finished!

It’s been a long time coming and it’s not done yet but, yes, most of Route 32 in Costa Rica is good to go! Route 32 is the main highway that connects San Jose to Limon.

The birding oasis of Donde Cope is just off Route 32.

The mountainous part is working although occasional accidents and landslides can still temporarily shut it down. At issue is the lower part of the road. For the past four or so years, there has been major road work to widen the two lane road and turn it into a pleasant four-lane highway.

During the process, driving through and sharing that bizarre maze of construction has been a challenge. At night, it was also a living nightmare replete with frightening drop-off verges, dangerous detours, and surprise car-breaking craters.

Thankfully, it seems that most of that stressful driving is behind us. On a recent trip using 32, we were pleased to find four lanes of quick, easy-going traffic for good portions of the road.

No more massive holes and it was much faster to reach Limon! That’s not to say that the road is finished and there still are some wacky, dangerous road situations (such as obstacles that suddenly close off the left lane) but it has certainly been improved.

For the visiting birder, this means quicker driving times to and from the Limon area. However, I still wouldn’t do it at night and there are still frightening detours that swing you from one side of the road to the other.

Supposedly, the whole thing will be done by the end of 2024. We’ve heard that before so we’ll see but I was definitely liking it a week ago.

Unexpected First Raptors of 2024

Raptors in Costa Rica are around but they are far from abundant. Go to the right places and yes, you can find hawk-eagles but not always! For example, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle or two live near Cinchona. One is occasionally seen flying around there but seeing it is a hit or miss situation.

Heck, you could easily go the whole year without seeing it at Cinchona. The more likely raptor candidates when birding in Costa Rica are birds like Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, wintering Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Common Black-Hawk on the coast.

At least you can expect to see several of those hawks. With that in mind, in addition to those common birds, I’m pleased that 2024 has already given me two hawk-eagles, Hook-billed Kite, and King Vulture.

We lucked out with a juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle at Quebrada Gonzalez. While we watched a mixed flock, the young eagle freaked the small birds out by loudly calling. It also got our attention! Thankfully, someone in our group spotted the bird, it stayed put, and we enjoyed scoped, talon clutching views.

Black Hawk-Eagle appeared as they usually do; a soaring bird that called and fluttered its wings high above rainforest. We saw that bird by chance during a brief stop near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. We were on our way back from a trip to Bocas del Toro, something I can’t recommend right now, at least for visiting Isla Colon. On that island, there’s a massive construction project going on. It was a bunch of dust, noise, and heat.

The kite and King Vulture were also seen during a brief stop on our drive to the border, somewhat near Limon.

As a bonus, the only owl I’ve seen in 2024 is one of the more challenging owl species in Costa Rica. During a morning on Poas, we had great looks at a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl! As the bird called, we were also treated to a host of hummingbirds, Black and yellow Silky-Flycatchers, chlorophonias, and other small birds that mobbed it.

A Crested Eagle was Seen…

This happened some weeks ago so it’s already old news. However, it’s worth mentioning because any sighting of this big, rare raptor is important birding news!

While birding in a forested area of Guacimo, uphill from Guapiles, a local birder lucked out with excellent views of an adult Crested Eagle. It even had prey; a partially consumed opossum species!

This sighting is momentous because it may point to a small population living in the Caribbean foothills. There have been occasional sightings of Crested Eagles from and near the Caribbean foothills for many years. Last year, one was also photographed near Pozo Azul!

However, we have no idea how many occur in Costa Rica, nor where they really live. Maybe some reside in the dense and inaccessible forests of Braulio Carrillo National Park? In any case, one was seen near Guacimo, a spot not that far from Centro Manu. Keep your birding fingers crossed!

Cinchona Update

Cinchona (aka the “Hummingbird Cafe” or the “Mirador de Catarata de San Fernando) is good as always. The usual birds have been visiting the feeders although there do seem to be fewer hummingbirds than in the past.

Recent highlights include Black Guan and Yellow-winged Tanager. Buff-fronted Quail-Dove is also still present. On a recent visit, one was even rescued from the kitchen!

The restaurant also seems to have improved administration and if you visit and don’t order something, they are charging $3. I think they should charge photographers an hourly fee whether they dine there or not but so far, it’s just $3 or a cup of coffee.

As always, I could mention more but these are the latest birdworthy items and notes that come to mind. Whether preparing for a birding trip to Costa Rica soon or at some later point, I hope this information helps. I also hope you have a birdy day and to see you here!

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2024- Starting Another Year of Birding in Costa Rica

It’s early January, a good time to be birding in Costa Rica! At times, windy weather can be a challenge but when the gusts calm down, the kiskadees are calling, and parakeets are flying overhead.

Birding in Costa Rica
Crimson-fronted Parakeets are pretty common.

Oh, and there isn’t any freezing weather either. None of that breaking ice off the windshield or other regular January morning chores I used to do in WNY. Here in the tropics, it’s all sun and warmth.

The birds know it too; it’s why Baltimore Orioles, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and other migrants are calling and chipping from the mango trees. They share their temporary tropical space with Social Flycatchers, tanagers, Green-breasted Mangos, and literally hundreds of other bird species.

As with other places, us local birders in Costa Rica are eager to start the year with birds. January 1st is a new year list, another annual journey that could ascend to 600, maybe even 700 species. Our 2024 journey (my partner and me) began with some birding on the 1st but it was quite nearly a false start.

Too much wind had chased all of the birds into cover. On a short, afternoon stroll, we were lucky to find the few birds that we did. To make up for it, we went birding the following morning. Read on to hear about our year birds and how I’ve been getting a couple other things ready for the high season.

Year Birds so Far

To make a true start for 2024 birding, we went on a nearby jaunt to check a couple of reservoirs and see what else we could find. Stops in key open habitats, those reservoirs, and patches of dry forest turned up a nice suite of birds.

Highlights included an American Kestrel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Painted Bunting, and rafts of Lesser Scaup. A good start for another year of birding! Check out the trip report.

Images that stick with me are the small falcon battling the wind, it’s barred tail pumping up and down as it perched at the edge of an open field.

The Grasshopper Sparrow was a sharp tick note, dry as the low scrub it was perched in. This small waif of the weeds is an uncommon bird in Costa Rica. We were quite pleased to lay eyes on it, I wondered where it had spent its windswept summer? Distant fields in Kansas? The Dakotas?

Painted Bunting was actually expected. This beauty is a regular wintering bird in the dry habitats of Costa Rica. On Raptor Ridge, it’s as common as House Sparrows! This picture is from that wonderful and welcoming spot.

painted-bunting

It was also nice to see so many scaups, diving ducks that remind me of the waterfowl rafts I used to watch on the Niagara River. More speciose in the icy north but waaaay more cold too.

Expectations for Birding Braulio Carillo National Park

Soon, we’ll be birding at one of my all-time favorite spots. I was birding Quebrada Gonzalez long before any ranger station was present, when the trail was muddy and ended with a slippery descent.

Since those days, this birding hotspot has changed a fair bit. The trails have gravel and rangers are always present. However, you can’t go in during prime birding time and several species aren’t as common as they used to be.

It’s still good though, still just as exciting to visit as it was in 1992 (well, maybe it was a lot more exciting on that first visit!). What will we see? Impossible to say, this tropical forest is too complex to guess but we should see something good, I always do.

I can mention possibilities. Those would be birds like Ornate hawk-Eagle calling above the forest, Dull-mantled Antbird singing from the stream, peaceful notes of Black-headed Nightingale-thrush coming from the humid understory.

Hopefully, there’ll be the tanager flocks, always a chance of a Central American Sharpbill or some other rare bird. The best would be army ants, if that happens, we could see a Black-crowned Antpitta, even see a Rufous-vented ground-Cuckoo.

There could even be a Bushmaster. Well, there are but you rarely see them. Hardly ever although I did see one in 2018.

The Golden-winged Warbler is the ABA Bird of 2024!

It finally happened, one of the coolest little wood warblers was chosen to be the ABA bird of the year! So what does this have to do with Costa Rica?

Well, if you are headed to Costa Rica, you can expect to see this beautiful little bird. Here in Costa Rica, Golden-winged Warblers are much easier to see than in other parts of their range. During the winter months, seeing one or more in a day of birding is typical.

Yes, seriously! Go to the right places and you can expect the Golden-winged experience, even in parts of the Central Valley. See a group of warblers or other mixed flocks in the lowlands? How about a group of birds in middle elevations? Or even old second growth with lots of hanging dead leaves?

There should be a Golden-winged Warbler or two. Since they forage by inspecting dead leaves, their predator watching abilities are limited. It’s why you won’t see them away from mixed flocks. That dead leaf habit is also why they frequent older second growth with lots of vines and hanging dead stuff.

If you think you see a chickadee in Costa Rica, that was a Golden-winged Warbler! By the way, it’s Ok to feel like you saw a chickadee in Costa Rica. Golden-winged Warblers are very likely mimicking chickadees.

Editing my Bird Finding Book for Costa Rica

Lately, I have been editing my Costa Rica bird finding ebook. It was in greater need of edits than I had expected and I also took the chance to update the book’s Costa Rica bird list.

I’m also including links to eBird hotspots and a few other things to help readers maximize their Costa Rica birding experience. It’s not ready yet but I’m almost done, this third version will be available soon!

As a caveat, if you bought the second version and want the updated third version, please let me know. When it’s ready I’ll send it to you free of charge.

If you haven’t gotten this Costa Rica birding companion ebook, check it out. Please consider buying it to support this blog while getting the most up to date birding site guide for Costa Rica.

Cattle Tyrant and Other Updates for the Costa Rica Birding App

With the high season at hand, we also need to update the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Cattle Tyrant wasn’t just seen in Texas, in late 2023, we also had our country first!

This species was already included on the app as an expected bird for the country, now we can include as a seen bird! At the same time, I may add a few additional expected species for Costa Rica and make a couple other minor edits.

This birding app for Costa Rica will still have images for well over 900 species and vocalizations for 870 species. Although it’s still only available for IOS devices, we are working on making this customizable digital field guide available for Android devices too.

Are you headed to Costa Rica for birding? I hope so because check it out, the birding is fantastic as always. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

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Recommendations for Birding Costa Rica- December, 2023

Will you be birding Costa Rica soon? Need some recommendations? Here’s my take on birding Costa Rica in the final month of the year. These suggestions probably work for every December. In any case, I hope they help with your upcoming trip.

Expect Rain in the Mountains and on the Caribbean Slope

“It’s raining again…”

It’ll will be raining…but it won’t be that bad. Well, at least not on the Pacific slope! Yeah, in December, the dry season does kick into gear but not everywhere in Costa Rica. This country might be small but it sits at a major junction, one called the continental divide.

Put your pishing skills to the test at Walmart Woods and you’ll be urban birding on the Pacific slope. Go anywhere south of the mountains and it’s the same- all that water is headed to oceans where Nazca Boobies dive and Black Storm-Petrels nighthawk their way over the waves.

Bird the Pacific and the rains should be trailing off or stopping altogether.

Go to the other side of the mountains, anywhere north of the volcanoes and tectonic lift and you’ll be joining currents that flow to the Caribbean. The Atlantic Ocean that is, waters where Great Shearwaters shear and Black-capped Petrels arc and wheel. And oh how we hope to see those lost birds in Costa Rica!

Over on the Caribbean slope, it’s generally wetter and there is no historic, actual dry season. In fact, it usually rains more in December but don’t fret! If you are bringing binos to Arenal, La Selva, or any other site on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope, the birding will still be good. In fact, when the rain stops, it can be downright fantastic.

What about the mountains? What about folks headed to Paraiso Quetzal, Savegre, and other montane birding sites in Costa Rica? Yeah, bring a rainjacket or poncho and/or waterproof stuff. It’s more hit or miss in December but once again, when the rain stops, the birds come out. They like it more than the hot, beating sun.

Don’t Rely on eBird Too Much- Birds are Where the Habitat Is

Tawny-faced Quails are very difficult birds to see. In Costa Rica, they occur in hilly lowland and adjacent foothill rainforest in the northern part of the country.

eBird is such a font of knowledge. Where would we be without it? It is very useful, and for those of us OG phone bird alert, pager, and listserv folks, I daresay the platform is still revolutionary.

However. In Costa Rica, it’s not really the final say on birding. That’s because:

  1. Most coverage occurs at the same sites and main birding circuits.
  2. Most lists do not show all the birds that were seen or heard (because a high percentage of people using eBird in Costa Rica don’t know all of the bird vocalizations).
  3. And most lists probably have errors that can be tough to filter out.

This doesn’t mean that eBird is useless. By no mean! In Costa Rica, it’s a great resource for birding. It just means that you should always remember that birds are not restricted to hotspots or sightings on eBird. They occur in their appropriate habitats.

Umbrellabirds at Centro Manu and Other Lowland Forest Sites

It’s that time of year again! Centro Manu continues to be one of the better sites for Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Even so, this endangered bird is not common there. You may need to walk the trails for some hours and really look for them. BUT, you’ll have a very good chance of seeing this mega, especially if you hire the on-site guide Kenneth. As a bonus, he might also know of roosting sites for owls and potoos.

He sometimes has Crested Owl on the premises.

As for other lowland forest sites, yes, umbrellabirds should be there too. The best places are Veragua, the Rainforest Aerial Tram, and Pocosol but they can also occur at Quebrada Gonzalez, the San Luis Canopy, the road to Manuel Brenes, Nectar and Pollen, La Selva, Tirimbina, Arenal, and any site where primary lowland and foothill forest is connected to highland forest.

Those weird big cotingas are just tough to chance upon.

Look for Rare Birds- You’ll See the Common Ones Too!

While looking for White-fronted Nunbirds, you should also find plenty of other nice bird species.

The best birding isn’t in hotel gardens. Ok, so that all depends on what one mean by “best birding” but in this case, I mean birding that gives you the best chances at the most bird species. As with all places on Earth, that means visiting the largest areas of intact habitat. In Costa Rica, that usually translates to mature, intact forest.

Naturally, such places also coincide with the best sites for rare birds. Focus on those rare species and you’ll see the common ones too. You’ll also see plenty of uncommon bird species. Just make sure to spend some time at the edge of the forest and scanning the canopy before walking beneath the trees.

Want to see leaftossers? I know, say what? But seriously, leaftossers, foliage-gleaners, more manakins, and many other birds. You’ll need to leave the tanagers in the garden and visit quality forest habitats.

Avoid Driving Rush Hour in the Central Valley

As a final note, I’ll just mention, no, urge you to avoid driving in the Central Valley during rush hour. The Central Valley is basically San Jose and all its urban connections. There are major traffic jams on a daily basis, perhaps exacerbated by roadwork, always by daily fender benders.

Drive in it and you’ll be missing out on hours of birding time (in addition to testing your stress levels). Avoid it by NOT driving Monday through Friday in the Central Valley at these times:

5:45 am-8:30 am

4:00 pm-6:30 pm

It can also get gridlocked on Saturdays! Sundays, though, Sundays are fun driving days except when ascending Route 27. On Sunday afternoons, the weekday rush hour traffic gets transferred there by the many folks coming back from the beaches.

If you must drive in and out of the Central Valley, leave early, even by 5, and stay out all day. Instead of wasting time in traffic, dine out and then go owling somewhere. That’ll be way more fun!

I’m sure I could day more but these suggestions will help for now. For more Costa Rica birding information, search this very blog and support it by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It’s also a great way to prepare for your birding trip- it has up to date information about most birding sites in Costa Rica along with tips for seeing and identifying everything.

I hope to see you here! Happy Thanksgiving and happy birding!

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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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Birding Trip to Costa Rica-5 Honest Expectations

Birding trips to Costa Rica are exciting, eye-opening birding events. The first trip dazzles with a colorful and fantastic barrage of species and most are lifers. Visit a different part of the country and the second trip will be just as exciting as the first. You should also catch up on some of those unseen species from the first trip, maybe a Royal Flycatcher,

maybe a tinamou or a White-bellied Mountain-gem.

White-bellied Mountain-Gem

Subsequent trips can be equally exciting, even when visiting some of the same bird rich sites. The complex nature of tropical birding promises novel experiences and is invariably accompanied by chances of seeing rare species and better views of uncommon birds. Whether stepping onto Costa Rican soil for the first time or the tenth birding trip to Costa Rica, the experience will also be accompanied by expectations, some more valid than others.

As with every birding destination, in Costa Rica, changes can happen to habitats and other aspects of the local birding scene. The following are five honest expectations from the perspective of an insider. I hope they help your birding trip.

Clay-colored Thrush is Abundant, Pale-vented Thrush..Not So Much

Yes, you can expect to see a lot of Clay-colored Thrushes. The national bird, the “Yiguirro” is numerous and present in most edge and garden habitats. It’s less expected in dry areas, inside the forest, and in the highest of elevations but it can show up in all sorts of places. Its ubiquitous nature makes it a good bird to know. See a brown, thrush-sized bird flit to a branch and move its tail after landing? You’ll see a lot of those, most will be Clay-colored Thrushes.

Does this mean the similar looking Pale-vented Thrush is just as common? No, it does not. That shy species only occurs in foothill and lower middle elevation rainforest and can be quite uncommon.

eBird Sightings for Costa Rica- Not the Final Word

In Costa Rica, eBird is a great tool. It can show where some rare birds have been seen and give some ideas on where to go birding. However, naturally, the handy app only shows data where people have submitted eBird lists.

This is good to keep in mind if you see quality habitat but aren’t sure if the site is worth birding because no one submitted any eBird lists. Always remember- appropriate habitats determine where birds occur, not where people have gone birding.

Speaking of birding in Costa Rica, it’s also worth mentioning that even when bird species are reported in eBird, that doesn’t mean you will see them. Yes, that sort of goes without saying but honestly, many species are naturally rare and/or refuse to play the birding game. It can take a good deal of time to see such anti-social birds, even when birding with an experienced guide. Not to mention, some of those sightings in eBird are errors and quite a number of species are left off of lists because the observer couldn’t identify their vocalizations or didn’t get an adequate view as dozens of birds flash-mobbed their way through the rainforest in mixed flock madness.

In brief, it is good to check out eBird for Costa Rica, but it’s not the final word on where to go and what’s been seen.

Raptors are Infrequent (But be Ready for Them!)

If you have read this blog on previous occasions, you are likely already familiar with the infrequent raptor concept. Same goes if you have already been birding in Costa Rica. We got this amazing raptor list and yet, we don’t see tons of raptors. That’s just the way it is but it doesn’t mean you won’t see them. I know, like, say what? In the classic words of Arnold Drummond, “What you talking about Willis?” (RIP Gary Coleman, one of the coolest 80s kids).

But yes, really, if you bird in the right places and keep looking, you will probably see a bunch of raptors in Costa Rica. It won’t be like birding at home, you’ll have to look for them in the right way or bird with a good guide but those hawk-eagles can happen. Don’t stop looking, you can easily miss them.

Quail-doves, Tinamous, Wood-Quails, Antpittas, and Leaftossers- Quiet and Patience Please

All of these birds look really cool, look like species from our collective birding dreams. Sadly, their shy nature can keep them in those special, imaginary places. They can come into your birding life but you have to look for them in the right places and in the right way. In general, that birding way is the way of patience, habitat knowledge, and quiet footsteps. Mosquitoes buzzing? Resist the temptation to massively slap and destroy them; quail-doves and their terrestrial skulking friends aren’t into loud sudden noises. Instead, let repellent do the work.

Feel the urge to tell a joke, talk about dinner plans or just can’t keep your mouth shut? Before you venture onto that shaded trail, before you move into the realms of the shy forest birds, remind yourself that these birds don’t go for small talk. These birds don’t want to hear a thing. This walk might be your only chance to glimpse a Purplish-backed Quail-dove. Move in silence, you’ll be surprised at what scurries across the path.

Purplish-backed Quail Dove on the trail at Pocosol.

As luck would have it, such ninja-inspired trail stalking goes hand in hand with another major tinamou watching factor- patience. For effective birding in tropical forest, patience is far more than a virture. To see more birds, especially the shy ones, staying patient is a necessity. While birding in rainforest, don’t worry if no birds seem to be present, don’t fret that you aren’t seeing birds. Oh you can bet some are nearby, be patient and don’t let down your guard. Keep looking and ye shall eventually find.

Poor Lighting, Birds in Flight, and Bits and Pieces

None of the above will be surprising for folks who have done plenty of birding. When you bird in Costa Rica, you’ll also see a good number of silhouettes, of small birds waaay up there in the canopy, others zipping in and out of views or only showing a tail, or other small bit revealed through a green mosaic of tropical vegetation.

To further challenge your birding skills, there will also be birds in flight, parrots not showing enough colors, unfamiliar raptors shapes teasing over a distant forested ridge. These are all part of the birding game, winning requires patience and persistence.

I could talk about other things to expect when birding in Costa Rica but will end this post by mentioning the most important expectation of all; that of seeing a heck of a lot of birds. Watch birds in Costa Rica and it’s going to happen. Three days of birding can yield 300 species. A week or ten days can have 400 plus species of birds. Go birding at a slower pace and you’ll still see a lot, still see toucans, parrots, macaws, and more. Make a target list from nearly 1000 species on the Costa Rica birding app and get ready for the trip. Costa Rica is a pretty birdy place.

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Thoughts and Tips to See Tiny Hawk When Birding Costa Rica

An impressive number of raptor species occur in Costa Rica. Check the official Costa Rica bird list, count the hawks, eagles, kites, Osprey, and falcons and we hit a respectable 57 species (that doesn’t even include our sharp taloned friends of the night, the owls!). Such a tantalizing total puts Costa Rica on the bucket list of many a raptophile but the high numbers come with a catch. In general, raptors aren’t so common, they aren’t as easy to see as some other places.

semiplumbeous-hawk
To see a Semiplumbeous Hawk, you might need to work a bit.

After a few days of birding, this apparent scarcity of raptors is noticed by most visiting birders. They wonder why, compared to the number of hawks seen in fields and wooded habitats back home, they see so few raptors? Drive through the countryside and there seem to be far fewer hawks than similar drives in France or Ontario. They start to wonder, with so many raptors on the list, where are they?

In Costa Rica, the truth of the matter is that all of those hawks and other raptors are present but high levels of competition among so many different types of animals only leave so much food for each raptor species. Most of the birds on the list have populations in Costa Rica but they occur in low density populations.

Even so, go birding long enough in green space of the Central Valley and you’ll probably see a Gray Hawk flapping its way from one riparian zone to the next. There will be a pair of Short-tailed Hawks soaring high overhead, perhaps a Zone-tailed Hawk rocking its way through the neighborhood, maybe one of those Bicolored Hawks that have learned to catch pigeons. The two common vultures are a given, Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras may fly into view, and you might find a White-tailed Kite hovering over a vacant field.

Bring the binos to lower, hotter places and more species become possible. However, to see those additional raptors, you’ll need to leave the open country and bird near sizeable areas of rainforest. Rainforests host the healthy variety of birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians needed to support populations of hawk-eagles and birds like White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and Gray-headed Kite. Look long enough in the right places and you’ll probably see these cool birds.

Double-toothed Kite

The Tiny Hawk lives there too but unlike so many other raptors in Costa Rica, you can’t expect to see this one. The simple truth about the Tiny Hawk is that it’s especially hard to find. It’s not rare but it’s definitely an odd raptorial bird, one that will give you a run for your birding money.

Around the size of an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird (yes really!), this pint-sized raptor with long, sharp claws makes its living by ambushing small birds in humid forest from Central America south to northern Argentina. With such a large range, you would think it would be seen more often but nope! Many a veteran neotropical birder has only seen Tiny Hawk a few times or has never laid eyes on this challenging bird.

birding Costa Rica

Thinking of my own experiences with the bird, during decades of birding in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru, I have probably seen them around a dozen times in Costa Rica, once or twice in Ecuador (one from a ridiculously amazing canopy tower at Yasuni Research Station. Really, it was ridiculous.), and perhaps a few times in Tambopata, Peru. So what’s the deal? Why is it so hard to see? Isn’t it just a tiny Sharpie or Sparrowhawk? Is it just too small?

To answer the latter questions, yes, part of the problem is that the bird is very small. The other part of the problem is that no, the Tiny Hawk is definitely not a small version of a Sharpie or Sparrowhawk. In some ways yes, it does act like those familiar bird predators but in other ways, its got its own Tiny thing going on.

Similar to the small, well-known Accipiters of the north, the Tiny Hawk also hides in dense vegetation so it can dash out and ambush its avian prey. However, unlike the slightly larger Accipiters, it rarely if ever soars and that makes a huge difference. Just imagine if Sharpies never soared, if they didn’t migrate? Think of how often you would see them. Probably still more than a Tiny Hawk but not nearly as much as you normally do.

Those attributes make the Tiny Hawk a tough one to watch and a much more difficult bird to study. Based on scant observations of behavior and its small size, at first, the hawk was hypothezied to be a hummingbird specialist. However, as more Tiny Hawk observations have been made, as more birders have documented its behavior, the truth about this species has come to light; hummingbirds do not make up a large part of its diet.

In 2021, Alex J. Berryman and Guy M. Kirwan investigated this idea and determined that no, as one might expect from a small Accipiter, the Tiny Hawk does not limit its diet to hummingbirds. It will catch them when it can but it also catches a variety of passerines and other small birds. Interestingly enough, although I have only seen Tiny Hawk with prey on two occasions, both were of passerines; a Shining Honeycreeper and a Scarlet-rumped Tanager.

Speaking of animals that hunt other animals, don’t let the name fool you. Like weasels and other pint-sized predators, for its size, the Tiny Hawk packs a ferocious punch. It’s every bit as voracious as a Sharpie, as tough as a Sparrowhawk, and has been seen taking birds nearly as large as itself, notably, Great Kiskadee and Golden-green Woodpecker (!). In a sense, perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, we see similar feats of depredation from another group of birds that act a lot like a Tiny Hawk, the pygmy-owls. As with many raptors, they will catch whatever they can get away with catching.

The Tiny Hawk acts more or less like a Sharpie that never soars, like a pygmy-owl or small cat that uses its small size to stay hidden until it sees its chance. However, it’s still an odd bird. In fact, as it turns out, it’s not actually an Accipiter. What? But it has Accipiter as part of its name! Perhaps, but not for long, there are recommendations to give this bird and the related Semicollared Hawk their very own genus. Molecular and skeletal studies have revealed that these mini raptors are not closely related to other small Accipiters. They form a group related to but separate from them, a group that also includes the Lizard Buzzard of Africa.

Yes. As testament to the old lineages shown by many a raptor, somewhere, way back when, the ancestor of the Tiny and Semicollated Hawks separated from the ancestor of the Lizzard Buzzard! And, before then, the ancestor of those birds separated from the ancestor of the Harpagus “kites” (that would be the Double-toothed and the Rufous-thighed). Perhaps that explains why the Lizard Buzzard has a dark mark on the throat and why it sort of looks sort of like something between a Doubke-toothed Kite and a Tiny Hawk? Those data likely also partly explain why the Tiny Hawk looks different from the Accipiters. It has a slightly different shape, one not shown in many field guides.

The illustrators were probably basing their drawings on the Accipiters they were familiar with and we can’t blame them, the Tiny Hawk is not an easy bird to see and when many field guides were illustrated, few images of Tiny Hawk were available. The real shape of this fun little raptor is more along the lines of a pint-sized raptor with a short tail and almost “Passerinish” look. It’s notable that the Tiny Hawks shown in “The Birds of Costa Rica” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, and in “Birds of Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama” by Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer are accurate depictions of this bird.

Getting back to the Lizard Buzzard, this cool bird is plumaged rather like an adult Gray Hawk although those features are surely convergent adaptations for the tropical semi-open habitats preferred by these and other species with similar gray-barred plumage. The plumage of the adult Tiny Hawk also shows fine gray barring and is likely an adaptation that helps camouflage the bird in dense vegetation. As for the young birds, unlike various other, larger raptor species, their plumage does not mimic the adult plumages of large raptor species (such as juvenile Bicolored Hawk and juvenile Hook-billed Kite resembling adult Collared Forest-Falcon among other examples).

Instead, curiously enough, juvenile Tiny Hawks have a rufous plumage. Did this trait evolve to resemble a thrush or other non-predatory bird and thus help them surprise the small birds they prey on? When you see a young Tiny Hawk perched high in a tree, that’s sort of what it looks like. But if so, why don’t the adults have rufous plumage too? Perhaps the adult plumage works better at catching prey in more situations. Who knows but it’s interesting to note that various pygmy-owls, a bird that, once again, hunts very much like a Tiny Hawk, also have morphs with similar rufous coloration.

All of this is interesting from an evolutionary perspective but what about seeing a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica? What about watching one go after an unwary Bananaquit? As previously eluded to, laying eyes on this special little bird isn’t the easiest of tasks but as with so many other aspects of tropical birding, there are tricks to up your birding odds. Try these tips to see Tiny Hawk while birding in Costa Rica:

Bird in the Right Places for Tiny Hawk

Yes, you could check eBird sightings and that will help but when birding Costa Rica, always remember that first and foremost, birds live in the right habitat, they aren’t restricted to places where people have eBirded. The right place for a Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica is any area of lowland or foothill rainforest on the Caribbean slope and, on the Pacific slope, humid forest from around Carara south to Golfo Dulce area. Yes, even around Carara. It’s not as regular there but small numbers probably occur from time to time around Macaw Lodge, Cangreja, and other, more humid sites in the area.

Tiny Hawk habitat.

Some years ago, I thought there were some spots that were better for this bird in Costa Rica than others. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. As long as rainforest or foothill forest is present, it seems like the Tiny Hawk can turn up in any number of places with similar degrees of frequency.

Scan the Treetops in the Early Morning and Late Afternoon

Get out there early and check the treetops, check them well. Do the same in the late afternoon. These are the times when Tiny Hawk is more likely to perch in the open, usually on a high branch. If you see a funny looking “thrush”, look twice, use the scope, it might be a Tiny Hawk.

As an aside, if small birds are making a ruckus at any time of day, take a close look, they might be upset about a Tiny Hawk. I saw that happen once in Manzanillo, the small size of the hawk made it easy to overlook, helped it blend in with the small birds that were mobbing it (at a healthy distance!).

Peripheral Birding around Mixed Flocks

Tiny Hawks may follow and catch unwary birds in mixed flocks. When encountering a mixed flock, keep an eye out for any lurking birds at the edge of the flock, especially if the lurker suddenly flies into the flock. Likewise, if you hear the birds give an alarm call, keep looking, keep watching to see if you can get lucky with a Tiny Hawk sighting.

Forest Clearings and Edges with Fruiting Trees and Hummingbird Activity

Whether because it’s easier to see birds or because Tiny Hawks prefer such situations, small clearings or places with scattered trees adjacent to forest seem to be good places to see this challenging bird (Nectar and Pollen is an ideal situation for this bird). Get a good vantage point and keep watching, check any thrush-like bird that suddenly comes into view. If small birds are active around fruiting and flowering trees or some other food source, there could easily be a Tiny Hawk lurking nearby. Keep watching and be ready for any sudden movement followed by alarm calls.

A good situation for Tiny Hawk.

Follow these tips and yo might find a Tiny Hawk. It’s a challenging bird, I won’t promise anything but if you do look for Tiny Hawk in Costa Rica, rest assured, you’ll still see lots of other birds.

To learn more about the best sites for birding in Costa Rica, support this blog and get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. I hope to see you here!

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Guided Birding or Birding Costa Rica on Your Own- What’s the Difference?

There are a lot of birds in Costa Rica. More than you think. Some information says 800 plus species and that’s a heck of a lot but the real total is more like 930. Yes! Around 930 species have been identified in a place the size of West Virginia. Those crazy numbers translate to a lot of birds waiting to be seen, always more birds to look for, even after several visits.

Red-headed Barbet male
The Red-headed Barbet is one of those birds.

I’m often asked how many bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or which birds I’m missing. Other than some pelagic species, not much although I have seen a bunch of birds on the Costa Rica list elsewhere. That is, I still need various species for my country list, birds like Black-throated Blue-Warbler and Botteri’s Sparrow for example.

This makes my lifer possibilities pretty slim but I’m still excited every time I go birding in Costa Rica and how not- there’s always lots to see; dozens of birds to listen to while walking beneath huge rainforest trees draped with epiphytes, interesting seabirds to scan for from rough beaches on the Caribbean and the scenic tropical bays of the Pacific. There’s also high mountain birding punctuated by dawn quetzals and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers undulating through October airs.

It’s always good!

On my first trip, even though I had studied the field guide for months in advance, the biodiversity still blew me away. I suppose it still does, the more you get into it, the more you discover. When I visited Costa Rica in 1992, I didn’t hire a guide but if I could go back in time, I probably would. Even so, it’s worth asking if you need a guide when birding in Costa Rica. It’s worth considering birding on your own. Trip funds play a basic role but answers about guiding also depend on additional factors:

How You Prefer to Experience Birds

If you don’t mind birding in a group, or even prefer that birding dynamic, a guided tour is a must. With dozens of companies to choose from, it can be hard to know which tour is best. Before signing up, think of your needs, what birds you would like to see, how you want to experience them, and go from there.

For example, if birding for you means some relaxed birding in the morning and taking it easy the rest of the day, you might want to avoid tours with descriptions like “constant birding”, “non-stop birding”, or “we don’t stop until we see the bird”. Such tours might still be able to accommodate a more relaxed birding style but you’re better off delving into the itinerary and speaking with a company well before sending a deposit.

If the group thing is not your slice of birding pie, touring with other birders isn’t going to work. You can still hire a guide though and you’ll have them all to yourself. That can be a very good thing, you’ll get personalized attention and see more birds, especially shy ones. However, without any shring of cost, you of course pay more for the personalized experience.

streak-chested antpitta Caribbean subspecies
Having the guide to yourself may give better chances at seeing shy birds like the Streak-chested Antpitta.

If cost is a factor, one solution is doing a few day tours during the trip instead of having a guide the entire time. Of course, the other main option is doing birding on your own. If you do go your own way, though, do it knowing that you’ll likely miss some species as well as possibly missing out one some little known hotspots. Contraringly, birding on your own does open the door to exploration. Get off the beaten track and you might find your own birding hotspots, might find a rare bird or two.

How Much You Want to See

This is probably the biggest difference between guided birding and birding on your own. Studying before a trip will help in finding more birds and also enhances the experience but no amount of studying can compare to being guided by a highly knowledgeable, local birding guide. The best guides don’t just know principal vocalizations for their local complement of species, they also know many lesser known calls and songs, behaviors, habitats, and sites. These factors along with knowing the lay of the land adds up to more bird species including better chances at rare and little known birds.

With all of that in mind, if you want to see as much as possible, and/or see certain rare species, hiring the right guide is an essential part of the trip. Sure you could still chance it and might do alright but a top local guide will boost your birding opportunities.

How Much Time You Have

This third factor is just as important and is tied into the number of birds you want to see. If you have all the time in the world, you have plenty of time to find and identify a good number of birds in Costa Rica. If you only have a day or a week of birding at different sites, a good guide makes a huge difference. That doesn’t just go for Costa Rica either but anywhere in the world.

Unfamiliar Birds

white-whiskered puffbird

This is another main factor that comes into play when birding with or without a guide, especially on a first birding trip to the Neotropical Region. Most of the birds will be more than species you have never seen. They will be completely different and nothing like the birds from home (unless your local park has trogons, puffbirds, and antthrushes). Most birds won’t be remotely familiar and this will be fun but if you go birding on your own, it can also be confusing. You might find yourself wondering where certain birds are and how to see them.

Peace of Mind

Another advantage of birding with a local guide is simply peace of mind. Bird with a guide and common worries associated with language, cultural differences, where to eat, stay, and visit are neatly wooshed away. The same goes for worrying about bird identification, finding certain species, and so on.

Should you hire a birding guide in Costa Rica? Although what I have written above seems to make a case for that, I’m just being honest about the benefits of hiring a guide. You can still bird without a guide and see a lot of birds but whether birding in Costa Rica or elsewhere, birding with a good, local guide does make the trip easier.

If visiting Costa Rica for birding, whether taking a tour to Costa Rica or birding on your own in Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” will enhance your trip. Get it to see identification tips, where to go birding, prepare for your trip, and to support this blog. As always, I hope to see you here in Birdlandia!

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What to Do When You Want to Go Birding in Costa Rica But Can’t…Yet

Want to go birding in Costa Rica? I do and I live here! I usually start the day with some “lite” birding from the back balcony every morning, today a Ringed Kingfisher perched nearby for the first time as a Barred Antshrike, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and Cabanis’s Wrens called from the vegetation.

When I get the chance to do so, I travel further afield and submerge myself in the tropical birding experience. That bird immersion means venturing into tropical forest or other habitats just around dawn and taking it all in; parsing out the distant mournful calls of Collared Forest-Falcon, listening for the first hints of woodcreepers, and watching the avian scene come to life.

It’s a natural show that requires, demands attention, I like to lose myself in it but I also love to share it with visiting birders. These odd days, although some birders are in Costa Rica, the number is much less than it would be; its the same for so many other places and understandable. The dynamic will eventually change but for those who would love to be here now, especially during these frozen days of February, here are some ideas for things to do when you can’t bird in Costa Rica (or elsewhere for that matter):

Study a field guide

Get out a field guide or buy one and start studying. Read it from start to finish even if it takes a few months. Pick out the birds you like the most, study field marks, and keep doing that because some day, you will be here and you will be better prepared for birding in Costa Rica.

Ready to see a Baird’s Trogon.

Listen to birds sounds, play with a birding app for Costa Rica

Studying bird sounds isn’t for everybody but with plenty of time to kill before the trip, why not? Even if you don’t feel like memorizing the differences between Little and Great Tinamous, its still fun to listen to their tremulous calls, listening to birds that occur in Costa Rica helps you get ready for that eventual birding time in Costa Rica.

The best way to listen to and study sounds is with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. I know, I am a co-founder of the app and work on it but since it now has sounds for more than 900 species and images can be viewed while listening to vocalizations (unlike a few other apps), I stand by that statement. The app can also be used to help prepare for a trip by studying and checking out birds filtered by region, habitat, family, and other factors.

Learn about the habitats in Costa Rica and the best sites for birding

Learn about tropical rainforest, cloud forest, tropical dry forest, and other habitats in Costa Rica. What are those habitats like? Which birds live there? Where can you experience the fantastic birding in those amazing places? There’s a lot of information out there but given the tendency for Google to turn up results biased for SEO, searching will turn up some answers but maybe not the best of information.

Books like the Neotropical Companion are always a good read, there is information about bird habitats on the Costa Rica Birds app, and you just might find a thing or two at this very blog. If you want to know about the best sites for birding, and how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, you will find more than enough information to prepare for any birding trip to Costa Rica in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Check out a virtual birding tour for Costa Rica

Virtual live birding is an exciting, new way to give a hint of what the birding is like in Costa Ric and help you get ready for a trip. Not to mention, its also a great way to support local guides, many of whom are also involved in conservation in Costa Rica.

Think about doing a trip

Its never too early to start planning a trip to Costa Rica, and its definitely not early to start thinking about one now. The best birding trips are planned months in advance and even if you aren’t sure of the exact dates for the trip, the planning will eventually pay off. Look into plane tickets, think about dates, pick your target birds, and think about the pros and cons of group tours versus small tours versus birding on your own.

Support organizations and policies that protect bird habitat

Because intact ecosystems are good for birds, biodiversity, and people. There are several to choose from including The Children’s Eternal Rainforest and the Cerulean Project.

Costa Rica might seem impossible or far off but the birds in Costa Rica are closer than you think. As the travel situation improves, coming to Costa Rica will take shape and before you know, you might find yourself looking at tanagers, motmots, and quetzals.

And Squirrel Cuckoos!