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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

How to Find Sites for Rare Birds in Costa Rica in the Caribbean Lowlands (use Google Earth)

In the birding world, a bird denoted as being “rare” can earn that categorization in a number of ways. For example, a Common Cuckoo is a pretty darn good rarity when seen in North America because it normally lives on the other side of two oceans. Go to its typical home range at the right time of the year and you probably have a fair chance of hearing its distinctive call and seeing one or two (needless to say, I would love to see one because any time I have been in their breeding range, they were already on their way to Africa).

Squirrel Cuckoo- a common, widespread neotropical species.

If I had seen a cuckoo during November in Denmark, I would have seen another type of rarity, one that is simply out of season. In Costa Rica, such a species might be a Yellow Warbler in late June. At other times of the year, that super common bird would be a given in Costa Rica, but not when it is sweet singing from second growth and willow-edged rivers in upstate New York. Like the cuckoo situation in North America, common birds up north like Ring-billed Gulls would be a category 3 or 4 rarity here and the Hooded Merganser that appeared in 2012 would have been a straight up 5.

Nevertheless, those aren’t the birds that people come to Costa Rica to watch. Among the glittering bunch of hummingbirds, tanagers, and other avian delights, people on birding trips to Costa Rica hope to see such rarities as Slaty-backed Forest-falcon, Black and white Hawk Eagle, or Black-crowned Antpitta. They also wish they could glimpse even rarer species like Tawny-faced Quail, Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, and Harpy Eagle. While the first three species are tough enough to see, the latter trio of birds are probably ten times as difficult. In the case of the owl, it’s more a matter of looking for it at night in the cold, wet, high-elevation places where it occurs and then having one respond to a call. For the quail, you have to get lucky in areas of lowland forest in the northern part of the country that are big enough to host a population. Then there is the case of the Harpy Eagle. Like the quail, this monster raptor (and it really does look like a monster when seen at close range) needs areas of intact lowland forest with enough prey items to keep them healthy, happy, and raising successful baby Harpies. The only problem is that there might not be enough intact forest to support a healthy population.

Fragmented forest- an all too common sight in Costa Rica (and many other countries).

The Harpy Eagle used to thrive in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific slopes but even then was surely tough to see because it doesn’t soar, occurs in in low density populations, and sneaks through the canopy like a massive, winged feline. If you take a satellite view of Costa Rica with Google Earth, zoom on down to the Caribbean lowlands. Sadly, what you see is a huge amount of deforestation and fragmentation. Such destruction was all too easy to accomplish because Costa Rica is a pretty small place. We aren’t talking about some massive area but a country the size of West Virginia with maybe half or more of it being mountainous. It was a story that has been retold many times over in many parts of the globe and it’s a simple one. As the population grew, people needed places to live, so they cut down forests because they didn’t know how to use the rainforest to survive. Nor did the government realize the importance of keeping such forests intact but they did know that if they were cut down, people could maybe raise cattle or grow something to make some kind of living. So went a lot of the forests and that’s mostly why the Harpy Eagle is almost gone in Costa Rica. It’s also why it is tough to find sites where various antbirds and other lowland species are fairly common. A lot of the rainforest birds in Costa Rica (and other places) just don’t do well with edge effects. they evolved to live in complex, shaded, magnificent rainforests where edge was limited to rivers and treefall gaps, not forlorn chunks of forest flanked or surrounded by pasture. Many of the forest species generally die out or become very rare because they aren’t living in the conditions in which their lineages had been evolving for a few several million years or more.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird- a forest dependent bird that has become downright endangered due to deforestation of lowland rainforests.
The umbrellabird and many other species need large areas of forests that look like this.

Ok, so now for the brighter note!

Not all of the Caribbean lowland forests in Costa Rica have been cut down, there are still sites where you might see most species that historically occurred, and those areas can also be found by using Google Earth. Basically, if you want to find the best sites for seeing rare birds and lots of birds overall, you have to find the places most similar to what the landscape looked like before 1950. That would be areas with as much forest cover as possible and Google Earth is a phenomenal help in this regard. For example, take a look at Tortuguero National Park on Google Earth and you can see that it’s a pretty good sized area of forest that is also connected (if rather narrowly) to large areas of forest to the north (especially the Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, one of the most important lowland forest areas in Central America). It’s no surprise that the most recent records of Harpy Eagle in Costa Rica have come from Tortuguero, it also happens to be the most regular site for Crested Eagle in the country, and harbors good populations of a variety of forest dependent species.

Rainforest at Tortuguero.
I remember hearing many a Red-capped Manakin calling from these forests. Not a rarity but not as likely to see it in forest fragments.

Use Google Earth to scan to the north and you can see a fair amount of forest near the Nicaraguan birder that is much less fragmented than other lowland sites. Since this area is also connected to those mother lode rainforests in Nicaragua, it’s another good place to try for lowland forest rarities and Harpy probably turns up (and goes unseen) once in a while. Two lodges up that way are Laguna del Lagarto and Maquenque Ecolodge.

Nice forest at Laguna del Lagarto.
Spider Monkeys occur at Laguna and are an indicator of quality forest.

If we scroll back down to the south, you will see three or four other main areas of lowland forest. The first is La Selva but sadly, various edge effects and lack of connection to other lowland forests have resulted in serious declines of many forest species. While most of the birds are still present, they are much rarer than they were 20 and 30 years ago, and the deep forest birds seem to be more regular in the back part of the reserve. Further south, the next biggest lowland block is Barbilla National Park. This would be a great area to explore and I know that nunbirds have been seen there (a sign of good lowland habitat), but due to a near absence of infrastructure, the park is really tough to access. Keep on heading south and east and you will notice that there appear to be lowland forests at the base of the mountains near Limon and then further south near Cahuita on down to the border. Since the forests at the base of the mountains aren’t as fragmented and have a fair amount of connection along a southeast to northwest trajectory, it’s no surprise that they harbor some of the best Caribbean lowland birding in the country. Places like Veragua, Hitoy Cerere, and the Gandoca reserve aren’t visited so often by birders but if you want to have a fair chance at rare Caribbean lowland birds, this is where the most extensive habitat is found. I haven’t been to Hitoy in a while but I have yet to experience Caribbean lowland rainforest birding of the same high quality caliber anywhere in the country (nunbirds and fruitcrows are common and move around in canopy flocks with other larger birds, Black-eared Wood Quail are fairly common, Great Jacamar is there, antwren flocks, Snowy Cotinga, and so on and so on).

It would be a dream to see nunbirds at La Selva as often as they used to be encountered there.

On an even brighter note (and one that proudly hefts hope up on its shoulders), in addition to finding sites that might turn up the rarest of rainforest birds, Google Earth also helps us see where we can hopefully reforest to provide better corridors between existing forested sites. Who knows, maybe we can even restore La Selva back to its former full birding glory (if you thought it was good now, try imagining it being 5 times as good)!

Bare-necked Umbrellabird- a naturally rare species that has become downright endangered due to deforestation in the lowlands.
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Benefits of Birding Carara National Park at the Start of the Wet Season

The rains have made their annual return to Costa Rica and the landscape has shown its thanks with a green blush on the Pacific Slope.  Areas that were a dessicated gray-brown just a month and half ago would go unrecognized in their present tropical green attire. Tall, fresh grass adorns fields and road verges, insects are hatching all over the place, and the woods ring with birdsong. If that’s reminiscent of Spring in more temperate climes, there is at least one other similarity. Just as American Robins and Blackbirds are nesting way up north, Clay-colored Thrushes are feeding young down here in Costa Rica. The same can be said for lots of the birds in Tiquicia at this time of the year and that’s just one reason why the start of the wet season is a fantastic time for birding in Costa Rica.

Birding is great right now throughout the country but one of the best places to visit in May and June has to be Carara National Park. One of those classic Costa Rica birding sites, Carara is a must on any birding itinerary to Costa Rica no matter what the time of the year. Its accessibility, flat trails, excellent forest, and combination of wet and dry species makes it just too good to pass up. I was reminded of that on a short visit to Carara this past Thursday.  The new highway has made Carara a rather quick hour and a half drive from San Jose but I still wouldn’t be able to leave until 7:30 in the morning (and thus wouldn’t be arriving until 9 AM). Nevertheless, I figured I would just go hang out in the woods to try and digiscope a few choice species anyways. As it turned out, I ended up being pretty busy with birds until around noon and could have easily spent the rest of the day inside the forest and seen more birds.

The following are a few reasons why Carara is so good at this time of the year:

  • Temperature: Although it’s still damn hot, the cloud cover makes it that much more tolerable than the deadly heat of the dry season. When the vertical rays of the dry season noontime sun beat down and mix with those high levels of humidity, you yearn to trade those sightings of Riverside Wrens and Chestnut-backed Antbirds for a massive block of ice that you could just sit right on top of your overheated head. I sweated like a runner in the desert on Thursday but it was still more comfortable than birding during the dry season!

birding Costa Rica

Chestnut-backed Antbirds are pretty  easy to see in Carara.

  • Black-faced Antthrushes: If Thursday was any indication, May is a fantastic time of the year for this rail-looking forest bird. Without even trying, I must have seen 8 of them while walking the HQ trails! I realize luck was also a factor but they were especially vocal and evident as they waltzed through the undergrowth. I also saw two different Great Tinamous.

birding in Costa Rica

One of the Great Tinamous from Thursday.

  • Cloud cover: Although I already mentioned this under the temperature subtopic, it just might be the most important factor for good birding at Carara so it gets mentioned again. The birding is always better at Carara when there is some cloud cover and at this time of the year, it’s a rare day when you bird beneath brightly lit, blue skies. For some reason, that cloud cover makes undergrowth species like tinamous, antthrushes, and antbirds come out and play. As I experienced on Thursday, it even keeps them active during the normally languid mid-morning hours.
  • Bird song: When birds sing they are easier to find and there was no quiet time in the woods on Thursday. Although I also saw quite a few species (54), I heard at least 30 more. Green Shrike Vireos were singing from the canopy throughout the morning as were four species of trogons, four species of wrens, Streak-chested Antpitta, and lots of other stuff. It was especially good for woodcreepers with 6 species identified. The best of those tree-creeping rufousy birds was a Long-tailed Woodcreeper that was also singing! I was especially pleased to get recordings of most of its song as its vocalizations will play a key role in figuring out species limits of this taxon.  I hope to post its song on Xeno-Canto today.
  • Good activity in general: I am guessing that cloud cover played an important role but in general, the bird activity on Thursday was better than those hot, dry season days. I rain into several mixed flocks, one of which had the afore-mentioned woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Sulfur-rumped Flycatcher, Bay-headed Tanagers, and Slaty Antwren.

birding in Costa Rica

Plain Xenops are standard birds of Carara. This one showed off its acrobatic skills at close range.

birding in Costa Rica

Bay-headed Tanagers are always beautiful.

birding in Costa Rica

Dot-winged Antwrens are very common in Carara.

birding in Costa Rica

It’s also a good site for that feathered dancing fool known as the Red-capped Manakin.

  • Hermit leks: These just might be active all year long but get mentioned because they were especially good  on Thursday.

birding in Costa Rica

Stripe-throated Hermits lek near the forest floor. They seem to be more shy when lekking than their bigger, long-billed cousins.

birding in Costa Rica

This and other Long-billed Hermits let me stare at them to my heart’s content without showing any signs of fright. They perched about 2 meters above the ground.

  • The green season is cheaper: May and June are green season months and hotel prices are substantially cheaper just about everywhere you go.

It’s a good time to be birding Carara. Later on, the rains make the HQ trails a lot more muddy, flood the river trail entirely, and bring on an abundance of mosquitoes. It’s not like that now though and it doesn’t usually rain until the afternoon so don’t shy away from birding Costa Rica in May and June!