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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica raptors

Costa Rica Birds to Know- The 10 Most Common Raptors

“What is that, an eagle? It’s huge!” This or a similar version in any number of languages is a common phrase heard by birders from Tennessee to Thailand. It makes sense, our primate instincts just won’t allow us to forget about the honest threat that big raptors posed to our little ones way back before the height of the Anthropocene. Not to mention, big raptors are easy to notice, especially when they take flight and tend to look bigger than their actual size.

That thing about perspective tricking us into concluding that big birds are a lot bigger than they really are is one of the first things a birder learns, especially when binoculars reveal that that the massive “eagle” was actually a Turkey Vulture or a healthy Red-tailed Hawk. Until you learn and accept that perception of size is deceptive, you can bet that you are fooling yourself.

Rest assured, Tommy Shaw wasn’t talking about birding when he wrote this song but whether you listen to Styx while birding or not, being aware of the size/perception illusion is partly why we as birders know that condors and giant eagles aren’t really roaming the countryside (although we sure wish they were, we know it’s just some Grand Illusion). Depending on the part of the northern hemisphere where one wields the bins, Red-taileds, Common Buzzards, and Black Kites also remind us of how frequent big birds of prey can be.

In many places, it doesn’t take more than a drive down any country road to start seeing raptors perched here and there on posts, or to notice the silhouette of a raptor flying high overhead. In Costa Rica, that flying raptor is usually one or both common vulture species (Turkey and Black). Since these scavengers are such a regular part of the avian landscape and probably the first birds seen upon exiting the plane, I’m going to leave them off the following list. The birds I will mention are the 10 additional raptor species (non-owls) most commonly seen in Costa Rica. Go birding in Costa Rica and you will find that they aren’t as frequent as roadside raptors in some other parts of the world but you can probably still bet on seeing them.

White-tailed Kite

Locally known as the “bailarin” (dancer), this rodent catcher often hovers in place above grassy fields. Like most raptors in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly abundant but because there is plenty of habitat for it and because it isn’t shy about hovering in plain sight, get ready to see it.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Another bird easily seen because of aerial behaviors that make it wonderfully obvious. It occurs year round in parts of southern Costa Rica and is a wet season visitor in other parts of the country. Enjoy the elegance in hilly and mountainous areas with humid forest.

Gray Hawk

In many parts of Costa Rica, including the Central Valley, this is our buzzard, our Red-tail, our common kite species. Based on how often one hears and sees this “Mexican Goshawk”, this edge bird does quite well in the patchwork of habitats created by human endeavors.

Roadside Hawk

True to its name, this smallish hawk is a regular feature of roadside cables, telephone posts, and trees. In hot lowland areas, it can be more common than the Gray Hawk. Like the Gray Hawk, it also frequently calls and soars.

Short-tailed Hawk

Another of the most common hawks in Costa Rica, keep an eye on the skies and you might see this species every day of your birding trip. It often takes to the air with groups of Black Vultures, possibly flying with them to reach its aerial hunting grounds as unobtrusive as it can manage. Once up there, it soars and hovers in plain sight until it can fall like a rock onto some unsuspecting bird or lizard. Even better, it also comes in two cool color phases!

Common Black-Hawk

This cool and chunky raptor lives up to the “common” in its name but only on the coast. Watch for it soaring or perched near any coastal habitat but especially areas with coastal forest, including mangroves. This expert crab catcher can also hang out right on the beach.

Crested Caracara

A big bird that flaps around here and there as it searches for carrion and small and easy prey. Deforested lands and drier weather have made this large falcon a common sight even in the Central Valley. Its shape and foraging behavior sort of remind me of the Common Raven.

Yellow-headed Caracara

Another flappy, screechy falcon that thrives on carrion and small, easy prey. This bird is especially common in the Pacific lowlands where it sometimes perches on cattle so it can pick off their ticks or just be up to its own odd caracara devices.

Red-tailed Hawk

Although this bulky Buteo is not as abundant as birds up north and is restricted to the highlands, it soars a lot and is common enough to make it onto this list. As a bonus, resident birds look quite different from the birds of the north.

Broad-winged Hawk

Only in the winter and on migration but worth a mention because during those seasons, this small hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors in Costa Rica. It makes Costa Rica a great place to study the subtleties and traits of Broad-winged Hawks.

These species are the most commonly seen raptors of Costa Rica but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a few more. On account of them being regularly seen in appropriate habitats, honorable mentions must go to Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk (since literally thousands migrate through Costa Rica), Gray-lined Hawk (replaces the Gray Hawk south of Dominical), Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey.

And that’s not all! Quite a few other sharp taloned birds also live in Costa Rica including hawk-eagles, the wily Crane Hawk, the striking White Hawk, and others. To learn more about identifying raptors and sites to see them in Costa Rica, check out this Costa Rica bird finding book. Use the Costa Rica Birds app to study vocalizations and images, and make target lists, and get ready for some truly fantastic birding. As always, I hope to see you here.

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Cool Falcons in Costa Rica

Falcons rank pretty high up there on the “cool bird” scale. They get automatic “cool” points (aka “epic”, “sweet”, “boss”, or even “swell” depending on your formative years) for being raptors, fly super fast, and many sport an avian moustache. I mean, can you get any cooler than that? Well, as with many things avian, you sure can! Take the Peregrine Falcon for instance. Some populations of this record holding famous falcon species casually fly south from their rookeries on Baffin Island to…coastal Chile. The falcon is so fantastically endowed with amazing flight capabilities that it flies over open water on purpose (!) to pick off and feed upon migrants (sorry lost warblers, shorebirds, and other unlucky birds- falcons gotta eat to).

Peregrines are a regular sight as they fly through and winter in Costa Rica. During migration, it’s especially easy to see many a Peregrine on the Caribbean coast but they can show up just about anywhere. A couple weeks ago, while being entertained by a soaring Black Hawk Eagle at El Tapir, a Peregrine appeared out of the blue and drove it away! The eagle barely had a chance to call before it left the scene. I guess that particular Peregrine likes hanging out in a hilly rainforest.

Merlins and American Kestrels also show up in Costa Rica but they are outnumbered by that masked connoisseur of serpents, the Laughing Falcon.

birding Costa Rica

The Laughing Falcon is crazy about snakes and eats nothing else.

So, if the Laughing Falcon is so sweet on serpents, why not call it the “Snake Falcon” or “Serpent Falcon”? Those names were rejected because this bird also loves to laugh. It’ local name in Costa Rica and many other places is “Guaco” and this is a fair description of the sound it makes when calling (or laughing). Pairs often call together and the result is a hysterical sounding bunch of mid-toned guffaws that echoes through the tropical forests they inhabit. Thankfully, this entertaining bird is pretty common in Costa Rica (and many places in the neotropics). For example, I saw and heard 4 or five this past weekend while guiding in and around Carara National Park.

The Bat Falcon is of course another amazingly cool bird. Here we have a Falco falcon species falcon is all of its hooded splendor, long pointed wings, and fast flight. It’s kind of colorful, and yes, it catches bats! If you want to see one of these speedy little raptors catch a bat for dinner, go on a boat tour at Laguna del Lagarto and ask to see a Bat Falcon catch a bat. Just do it and see what happens.

birding Costa Rica

The Bat Falcon also catches small birds like parakeets, tanagers, and whatever else makes the mistake of flying across a river or pasture that it’s keeping an eye on. Overall, it uses pretty similar hunting techniques as the Merlin although it’s not as feisty.

In the neotropics, some falcons gave up their fast-flying ways to adapt to niches filled by Black Kites over on the other side of the Atlantic. The caracaras flap along on floppy wings and scream as they search for carrion and small creatures that look catchable. Both Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras patrol highways in lowland Costa Rica to look for roadkill much in the same way as Northern Ravens do in (where else but) the north. In fact, they also have vaguely similar dimensions.

birding Costa Rica

Deforestation has made the Northern Crested Caracara a common sight when birding Costa Rica.

birding Costa Rica

Ditto for the slightly smaller Yellow-headed Caracara.

And then there are the forest-falcons. Now these reclusive birds might even be cooler than the Falco species BUT they hate the limelight. These jungle dwellers rarely come out into the open, are most active in the half light of dawn and dusk, don’t soar, and love to sneak around dense tangles and the understory. Come to think of it, with those traits, they kind of seem like avian vampires. Like other dimensional wraiths, they are also tough to see but at least they frequently vocalize with haunting barks and laughing sounds (also like other-dimensional wraiths). Watch an antswarm long enough and one might show up (to mesmerize you with its captivating,stare of course…).

birding Costa Rica

Collared Forest Falcon– the avian Nosferatu of the neotropics.

Costa Rica also has its set of rare falcons and I of course lack photos for them. Aplomado Falcon seems to show up once or twice a year; probably wandering migrant birds. The wacky Red-throated Caracara used to be common before too much forest got turned into pasture. Nowadays, it’s only regular in the heart of Corcovado National Park. Orange-breasted Falcon may have been a former rare resident in the country but it could still show up as a vagrant. This would most likely be near the Panamanian border in the southeast (where hardly anyone birds) because it occurs only 250 kilometers away in the Panamanian province of Veraguas.

Costa Rica also has an honorary falcon. However, given its small size, the Pearl Kite could also be an honorary swallow, shrike, or kingbird. It kind of looks like an amalgamation of all three when seen in flight.


The cool and cute Pearl Kite.

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.

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Where are the raptors when birding Costa Rica?

The perceived scarcity of raptors (non-owl raptors) when birding Costa Rica is a recurring topic of conversation between  birders whom I guide and myself. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the following questions and observations:

“We haven’t seen many raptors other than Black and Turkey Vultures”.

“We have seen motmots, lots of hummingbirds, some tanagers, and a bunch of flycatchers. We haven’t seen any of those antpittas or antbirds though (another common theme), and very few raptors”.

“Where the heck are all of the hawks”?

With a field guide (that new classic, “the Garrigues and Dean”) that illustrates 53 (!) species of vultures, hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons, it’s no wonder this is a recurring topic of conversation.

I can’t recall if I wondered the same thing during my first trip to Costa Rica but I know that my raptor list had more holes than a Swiss cheese festival when I boarded the plane back to New York.

The raptor list for Costa Rica is certainly robust so where is the thrush-sized Tiny Hawk, the pint-sized Barred Forest-Falcon, the hefty Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and that king of the rain forest canopy, the monstrous Harpy Eagle when taking a birding tour in Costa Rica?

Well, all I can say is that they are out there, but there are some  factors that explain why we don’t see raptors as often as we do north of the Tropic of Cancer. In no particular order, the reasons for the perceived paucity of raptors when birding Costa Rica is:

1. High diversity=natural rarity. Instead of the raptor scene being dominated by a pair of Buteo species, two Accipiters, a couple of falcons, and a scavenger or two, Costa Rica has a much larger variety of raptors that occupy more specific niches. This means that most species occur at population densities that are lower than birds of temperate zones and are therefore naturally rare. This is demonstrated by raptor lists after two weeks of birding in Costa Rica. A fairly typical count after a two week visit to 4 main sites during the high and dry season might be:

Turkey Vulture- lots

Black Vulture-even more

King Vulture-1 (yay!)

Roadside Hawk (2)

Roadside Hawk birding Costa Rica

Gray Hawk (4)

Gray Hawk birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawk (4)

Osprey (3)

Double-toothed Kite (1)

Double-toothed Kite birding Costa Rica

White-tailed Kite (1)

Plumbeous Kite (2-they went to Cerro Lodge)

Crane Hawk (1-Cerro Lodge again)

White Hawk (1)

Barred Hawk (1)

Common Black-Hawk (4)

Red-tailed Hawk (2)

Crested Caracara (4)

Yellow-headed Caracara (6)

Laughing Falcon (1)

As you can see, the species number is fairly high (18) but few individuals. I should add that this is a pretty conservative count and if one goes to certain sites, uses a guide, and specifically looks for raptors, several more species should be seen.

2. Most Costa Rican raptors are forest species. Not only does this mean that they are harder to see in appropriate habitat (because all of those trees and epiphytes are in the way), but it also means that unless you bird areas with fairly large tracts of primary forest then you won’t have a chance at watching cool stuff like Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, Barred Hawk, or Semiplumbeous Hawk among others.

3. Not all raptors soar. The Red-tailed Hawks, buzzards, falcons, and kites of the north spoil us into thinking that all one needs to do to see a raptor is look up into the sky…..and there they are (!) beautifully soaring and calling up in the blue saying, “Here I am in all my raptorial glory! Watch as much as you like and study my subtle shape to master raptor identification!”

If only the raptors in Costa Rica (and elsewhere in the neotropics) were so extrovert and unashamed! Other than vultures, soaring raptors in Costa Rica are far and few between and the ones that do regularly soar either don’t do it that often or spread their wings as part of their hunting strategy and therefore “hide in plain sight”. Among regularly soaring raptors that are often seen with vultures that kettle up into the hot mid-morning sky are Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. The first two are seen just as often in their preferred edge habitats while the Short-tailed is one of the birds that attempts to “hide in plain sight” by flying so high that it becomes a speck way up there in the clouds.

Of course there are also the massive migrating flocks of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks that pass through but they don’t linger to show off. A good number of Broad-winged Hawks stay for the winter but they don’t seem to get kicks out of soaring around to show off their splayed primaries. What? You aren’t of the opinion that raptors get their kicks, their cheap thrills, demonstrate their joie de vie from soaring around on widely splayed wings? You might change your mind after watching American Swallow-tailed Kites for a few hours.

4. Many Costa Rican raptors hunt with surprise and ambush tactics. The problem for birders is that this effective strategy only works when your prey can’t see you which means that the forest-falcons and other forest raptors are naturally inconspicuous. Very short birders who do sloth imitations in the Osa Peninsula might get lucky (or very UNlucky) and attract a Harpy Eagle but in general, one has to be as attentive and disciplined as a fire-walking Shaolin monk and/or just get lucky in catching a glimpse of raptors inside the forest.

You can and do see raptors when birding Costa Rica but no, don’t expect to see them soaring all over the place. Hire a birding guide who knows how to find them and go to the right places, however, and you will fill in a bunch of those gaps in the raptor list.

In general, areas with extensive forest are your best bets. Some of the better places in Costa Rica for seeing a good variety of diurnal raptors in no particular order are:

  • Carara National Park and vicinity. The variety of forested and open habitats make the area around Carara a consistently good place for raptors. Cerro Lodge and vicinity is good for Plumbeous and Gray-headed Kites, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Osprey, and both Caracaras. The nearby national park also has these and Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, King Vulture, and Collared Forest Falcon are regularly seen.
  • The Osa Peninsula. The extensive forests of the Osa and Corcovado National Park offer the remote chance of glimpsing Harpy and Crested Eagles, a fair chance at all three hawk-eagles and Tiny Hawk, and a good chance at seeing White Hawk, Common and Great Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, and several other species.
  • Cano Negro. Cano Negro is a waterlogged, protected area with low rain forests and open country. This adds up to lots of raptors including species that are uncommon in Costa Rica such as Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kite, and Harris’s Hawk.
  • Braulio Carrillo National Park. Spend the mid-morning hours in the parking lot at Quebrada Gonzalez and you have a good chance of seeing King Vulture, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Barred Hawk, and a fair chance at White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite and all three hawk-eagles. You might also see Bat Falcon and Tiny Hawk.
  • El Copal. The vantage point from the balcony of the lodge is perfect for raptors in that it provides an ample view of a forested ridge. Barred Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk are regular while other species such as Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, and Ornate Hawk Eagle could also make an appearance.
  • El Ceibo ranger station, Braulio Carrillo National Park. I haven’t been to this site located well off of the beaten path on the western side of the national park since 1994 but it looked pretty darn good for raptors at that time! White Hawk was easily viewed as it hunted for toads at the forest edge, Bat Falcon was in the area, I got my lifer Barred Forest-Falcon in the forest (pure chance though and could happen at any number of sites), and the view from the ranger station overlooked a large area of forest.
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction raptors

How to see forest falcons when birding Costa Rica

Birders from up north who associate falcons with aerodynamically shaped, fast-flying awesome birds of regal appearance and open areas come to the neotropics and wonder, “What exactly is a forest falcon? I mean they don’t have the falcon shape and look more like accipiters (according to their illustrations because they are either extinct or don’t live in open habitats). When I listen to them on Xeno Canto, they sound more like a dog or weird yelping thing than a bird. Just what are those mysterious members of the Micrastur genus!”

After coming back forest-falconless from Costa Rica in 1993, I had some of these same questions and felt more determined than ever to find out the truth about forest-falcons. Over the subsequent years, during birding adventures in tropical forests from Mexico to Bolivia, in addition to discovering that you can find re-runs of The Simpsons just about everywhere (I once watched an episode of this epic animated series in a tiny village in eastern Oaxaca that had only seen two, previous non-Mexican visitors), I have discovered a few things about these mysterious birds.

Here is what I have found out so far:

Don’t expect to see them. I’m sorry if that feels like a low blow to the birding psyche but I just don’t want anyone to get their hopes up about forest-falcons. These sneaky raptors often have a strong aversion to being seen. Whether they are extremely shy or just can’t stand binoculars, they would much rather taunt you with ventriloquial calls from dense cover than guffaw right out in the open like the much more reliable Laughing Falcon.

Laughing Falcon, Costa Rica birding

Laughing Falcon- a fairly common, reliable raptor in Costa Rica.

Forest falcons are creatures of the twilight. No, I’m not saying they are vampires, but that these forest raptors  are adapted to and most active during the crepuscular hours. Guide books usually mention this so I can’t claim that it was my discovery. The birding literature is are right though because  forest-falcons vocalize the most at dawn and dusk.

Forest-falcons are by no means extinct, are fairly common, and just do not like open spaces. Although you hardly ever see them, Micrastur species are quite vocal and you can certainly hear them in most forested areas of Costa Rica. Their vocalizations give you a much better idea of their numbers in addition to making you feel cheated because they so rarely allow you to see them.

They are stealthy, cat-like hunters. Although it’s easy to label forest-falcons as cowardly or unfriendly, their adaptations for hunting are the true reason why they are so hard to see. Like cats, they can’t allow anything to see them because they hunt by surprise. They probably don’t care whether birders watch them or not but they cannot afford to let their prey espy them or they would starve. So, they automatically stick to dense vegetation, keep quiet when moving around, and refuse to soar.

They often hunt in the undergrowth. I have seen very few forest-falcons actively hunting but others have mentioned this in field guides and books on raptors. They also sometimes show up at army ant swarms, and once I observed a Barred Forest-falcon actively hunting in the undergrowth at Luna Lodge in the Osa Peninsula. I was sitting on a  log in the forest and was casually watching a family of Chestnut-backed Antbirds go about their business. They hopped around, called, and before I realized it, suddenly disappeared! Maybe ten seconds later, a Barred Forest-falcon showed up. It had quietly flown in and perched on a low branch near the ground. The Micrastur looked this way and that before moving on to another perch near the ground and kept doing so until it vanished into the rainforest. Eventually, the antbirds starting calling again and when back to their terrestrial ways after coming out of hiding.

They do respond to tape or imitations of their calls. Not always, but I have had the most success with this strategy at dawn and dusk during the dry season (maybe they nest then?). Needless to say, if you do use tape, please don’t overdo it. By “overdoing it” I am referring to playing recordings of their songs over and over to get a distant bird to come in and/or then continuing to play its vocalization for several minutes despite having already seen the bird.

Based on these experiences with Forest-Falcons, talking with other birders, and reading about them, here are some suggestions about the best ways and places to see them in Costa Rica arranged by species:

Collared Forest-Falcon: The largest forest-falcon, it’s also the most common and widespread Micrastur when birding Costa Rica (and many other places). About the size of a Cooper’s Hawk, they occur in open woodlands in regions with dry forest as well as in dense tropical rainforest. They sometimes range up into the cloud forest but in Costa Rica seem to be most frequent in dry and moist forests of the Pacific Slope. The most reliable way to seem them when birding Costa Rica is to locate a calling bird during the pre-dawn or dusk, and call them in. Watching for them along the river trail at Carara National Park or in gallery forest of the northwest also yields more frequent sightings than elsewhere in Costa Rica.

Collared Forest Falcon birding Costa Rica

A Collared Forest-Falcon photographed in dim, morning light on the river trail at Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Slaty-backed Forest Falcon: This is a tough bird to see no matter what country you visit! I heard them once in awhile in the Peruvian Amazon but saw them on very few occasions. They often vocalized during the pre-dawn hours and the best strategy to see them is to locate a calling bird at this time of the day and call it in.  The one bird I have seen in Costa Rica was a wonderful, vocalizing individual that called from the understory and let me watch him for several minutes at La Selva during the Christmas count of 1995. They probably still occur at La Selva but I haven’t heard of any being recorded there for a while so one can’t expect to see them at this famous Costa Rican birding site. Other, more likely locations to get this species when birding Costa Rica are at sites with extensive, lowland Caribbean slope rainforest such as Laguna del Lagarto, Hitoy Cerere (where I have heard them), and near Gandoca-Manzanillo.

Barred Forest-Falcon: This small forest-falcon is fairly common in humid forest in Costa Rica from the lowlands up into the cloud forest. They seem to be more common in hilly areas but are always tough to see. Like the other two Costa Rican forest-falcons, locating a vocalizing individual in the pre-dawn darkness or during the morning and calling it in is probably the most reliable way to see one when birding Costa Rica. They also show up at antswarms and attack hummingbird leks (I witnessed an unsuccessful attempt on a lek of Brown Vieoletears once in Braulio Carrillo National Park) so if you come across either of these in Costa Rica, just sit back and quietly hang out for a while- you may see a Barred Forest-Falcon. I don’t think there is any best site for this species when birding Costa Rica but searching for them in any humid forested, hilly site during the pre-dawn hours will increase your chances of seeing one. By humid-forested, hilly areas, I mean places like Braulio Carrillo National Park, Monteverde, Tapanti National Park, the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol, Las Heliconias, and El Copal.

Birding Costa Rica raptors

Incredible new species for the Costa Rica list; Gray-bellied Goshawk!

While checking the Pajareros bird forum, where rare bird sightings in Costa Rica get posted, I was blown away by the latest post (December 16, 2008). In that post are digiscoped images of Gray-bellied Goshawk (Accipiter poliogaster) from La Selva. Although Costa Rica could still get some new species for the country list, this was one I never expected! This is a little-known South American species rarely seen even in its known range. Amongst neotropical ornithophiles and raptor lovers, it is most well known for exhibiting juvenile plumage that mimics adult Ornate Hawk Eagle. Check out the Pajareros post to see how incredibally similar it resembles Ornate Hawk Eagle. The main differences to separate it from the Hawk Eagle aside from size (the Hawk is smaller) are:

1. Structure- lack of pointed crest,

2. Black malar goes up to black crown behind the eye instead of going through the eye. I realize this sounds confusing- post mentions this and is apparent when comparing images of both species.

3. More spotted affect below rather than barred.

4. White edging to feathers on upperparts.

5. Bare thighs- often hard to see.

6. Juveniles often give a high-pitched call over and over.

Most of these marks are shown by the bird in the image which also resembles the only Gray-bellied Goshawk I have seen. That was a juvie. in Tambopata, Peru (Posada Amazonas) around the same time of year, 2004. This was a new species for that area as well. I especially recall the more spotted appearance of the underparts, white edging on the upperparts, black stripe on the face behind the eye and (like other juv. raptors) very easy to see. It sat all day at the top of the same tree ( conveniently near a canopy tower) and called over and over a short high-pitched descending call.

Gray-bellied Goshawk species is known to be a partial austral migrant; this juv. must have gotten lost somewhere between here and Argentina. Hard to say where it came from exactly; especially because this species is probably wider ranging than thought since neotropical forest Accipiters are very infrequently seen. It is interesting to note that the poster at the forum mentions that he saw one in the Darien, Panama. Who knows- it might even occur there or in the Choco (western Columbia and NW Ecuador) on a regular basis.

Hopefully this bird will stick around for the La Selva Christmas Count on Saturday!