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Birding Costa Rica

How to See 20 Raptor Species in One Weekend of Birding in Costa Rica

One of the major laments of birders who visit Costa Rica is the apparent lack of raptors. Accustomed to the wealth of fierce, sharp-taloned birds that soar above and dominate telephone posts along country roads in Europe or North America, they expect to have the same easy experiences with raptors in Costa Rica. Since the high number of raptor species depicted in field guides for Costa Rica tends to strengthen such expectations, some birders feel let down after seeing so few birds of prey. Vultures excluded, raptors seem to be far and few between and this typically becomes a reality that is difficult to accept.

Birders used to the raptor crazy plains of Africa are especially perplexed at the apparent dearth of hawks, eagles, and falcons and often say things like, “If this were Africa, we would see raptors in that open area over there. Why not in Costa Rica?” I dealt with such perceptions in a previous post but if you don’t feel like clicking on that link, in short, you don’t see raptors as much as you do on the plains of Africa because like most bird species in Costa Rica, the birds of prey in Tiquicia are mostly adapted to forest. Most have yet to become adapted to living in open areas so we don’t see so many in open habitats. The other factor in this equation is related to high alpha diversity whereby there may be a couple dozen raptor species in a given area but there are fewer numbers of each species. So, you can’t expect to see very many raptors when birding Costa Rica. That doesn’t mean you won’t see them though. Spend two weeks birding Costa Rica in various habitats with a knowledgeable guide and you could see 20 species. In fact, over the past weekend, I discovered that you can see 20 species of raptors (or more!) in just a few days if you bird the right places at the right time of the year!

To rack up a healthy assortment of hawks, falcons, eagles, and other avian raptorial creatures, drive through different habitats on your way to some nice lowland forest and do it during the peak of raptor migration. This is what myself and three other birders did during a recent birding club trip to Tortuguero National Park and could hardly believe it when we recorded 16 species of raptors in just one day without even trying. If we had actually tried for specific species, we probably would have seen a few more!

The first leg of our trip took us through Braulio Carrillo National Park but constant rain kept us from seeing any birds whatsoever. Otherwise, we might have gotten White Hawk or something else along the way. Nevertheless, once the rain stopped and we were on our merry way to the jumping off point for Tortuguero in the northern Caribbean lowlands, we started seeing raptors bit by bit. Our first were common, open country species such as White-tailed Kite, Gray Hawk, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, and Crested Caracara. Somewhere in there we also saw Broad-winged Hawk,  the most common wintering raptor in Costa Rica. These were pretty much par for the course so we didn’t think much of it.

Birds that did get our attention were less common (but not unexpected) Bat and Laughing Falcons. We got these as we made our way through partly deforested areas north of Cariari but still didn’t start counting the numbers of raptor species we had seen. That changed once we got a perched King Vulture soon after the boat left the dock on the Rio Suerte at La Pavona. Somehow, that big, fancy scavenger woke us up to the fact that we had already seen a bunch of raptors without even trying and it wasn’t even noon.

As the boat sped downriver towards Tortuguero and approached the coast, we began to notice more and more birds headed in the same direction. Most were Chimney Swifts and swallows that sped south on determined, speedy wings. They were cool to watch for sure but they became steadily overshadowed by a growing stream of Turkey Vultures, Mississippi Kites, and swarming kettles of Broad-winged Hawks. Upon arrival at the Casa Marbella, we set up the scope on the dock and leisurely watched some of the best raptor migration I have ever seen in Costa Rica. There were thousands of birds moving south in a continuous line and forming massive kettles. A look through the scope revealed occasional Swainson’s Hawks and our one and only Red-tailed Hawk of the trip. Several Peregrine Falcons zipped on past, we had at least three Merlins, and Ospreys patrolled the waterways. After an hour or two of constant raptor action, we worked the buggy vegetation on the coast for smaller migrants. While getting my year Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gray Catbird, and a few other species, we managed Common Black Hawk for our final and 16th species for the day.

On Saturday, rare, sunny weather at Tortuguero probably kept us from seeing many of the local specialties but at least the raptor migration was spectacular! We didn’t add any new raptors but saw or heard 11 species that we had already seen on Friday. On Sunday, scoped views of more migrating kettles revealed one Northern Harrier (excellent year bird!) and we got onto a Roadside Hawk on the drive back through Cariari. With a total of 18 species since Friday, hitting 20 was looking very feasible. We could still get Short-tailed Hawk, White Hawk or even something much more rare on our drive through middle elevation forests near Cinchona. The rare bird and number 19 came in the form of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle seen a few kilometers south of Chilamate. This was at a restaurant called, “Rancho Magallanes”. Even if we hadn’t seen the hawk-eagle, I would still highly recommend this place. The food was great, service excellent, and the prices reasonable. The menu translations are kind of funny and strange but don’t worry, the place is great. Although we didn’t see Sunbittern or Fasciated Tiger-Heron, those probably show up on the rocky river behind the restaurant and some good birds probably also turn up in nearby patches of forest.

The way we saw the hawk-eagle was about as uncanny as you can get. While looking for birds in the parking lot with Robert Dean (the guy who illustrated the field guide and a friend of mine), he was telling me about the time when he and another friend of ours, Eduardo Amengual, saw an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched in a tree just on the side of the road at this same spot. While marveling at their luck and expecting that to have been a freak occurrence, Robert says, “Look! There’s something big in a tree by the river! I think it might be an Ornate Hawk-Eagle!”

We put the scope on it and sure enough, it was an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle! Freak occurrence in the same spot twice? I doubt it. A more likely scenario is that a pair has a territory in that area. Although you would have to be lucky to see them, I know I will be checking any time I pass through that area.

With that Ornate Hawk-Eagle bolstering our hopes, we were surely going to get our 20th species. After all, the road between San Miguel and Varablanca is quite reliable for White Hawk and could also turn up other species. As we made our way uphill, though, the clouds opened up and the rain poured on down. Despite a valiant attempt on my part to turn a very light-colored Cecropia leaf into a White Hawk, we didn’t get our 20th species. However, I’m pretty sure we would have if it hadn’t been raining because other people in the car glimpsed a perched raptor that could have been a Great Black Hawk or even a Solitary Eagle. The fact that we didn’t turn around and go back for it should give an indication of how intense the rain was and how difficult it can be to turn around on mountain roads in Costa Rica.

The experience of the past weekend gives me incentive to try for a 20 plus raptor day in Costa Rica. As long as it isn’t raining, this would be my route and my targets:

1. Drive through Braulio Carrillo and spend the morning at Quebrada Gonzalez and El Tapir to try for:

White-tailed Kite in the Central Valley, 3 vultures, a hawk eagle or two, hopefully Double-toothed Kite, Barred Hawk, and Bat Falcon.

2. Take a left towards Sarapiqui and pick up migrating raptors- Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Osprey, maybe a Harrier, Hook-billed Kite, Sharpie, or Coop. Also a chance for Crested Caracara, Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, Laughing Falcon, and other rainforest raptors. Might also get Short-tailed Hawk.

3. Eat lunch at the Rancho Magallanes to keep looking for raptors.

4. Head uphill through Cinchona and Varablanca for White Hawk, another chance at Barred Hawk, maybe Great Black Hawk or even Solitary Eagle, and Red-tailed Hawk at the top of the hill.

Migration will be key though so I won’t be trying any big raptor days until Spring.