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big year Birding Costa Rica

Twitching the Ruff

That title would be a good one for new rap song or a dance practiced by the youth but those in the birding know understand what it really means. If you are new to birding or ended up at this site because you thought “Twitching the Ruff” was a a new dance, these definitions should provide illumination:

Twitching– The act of going to see a bird (usually rare and/or unusual) that often involves some sort of extra bit of travel and effort. The “twitch” probably stems from the nervous actions or attitudes expressed and felt by birders suddenly presented with an opportunity to see a very rare bird species near enough to home. For example, a birder in New York can’t travel to Costa Rica to twitch a Large-footed Finch. That would actually be traveling to look for a bird where it normally occurs. But, if a New Yorker heard about a Corn Crake in Queens in the evening and then called in sick the following morning to rush to where it was and anxiously see it, that there would be a classic twitch.

After a successful “twitch”, a birder might exclaim, “I twitched the Corn Crake!” If the crake was caught and killed by a domestic cat, instead, you might hear, “I tried to twitch the crake but dipped on account of a cat”. In the real world, either situation would likely include language too foul for this site, one in jubilation, the other in rancid fury.

Ruff- A small wading bird that nests in northern Eurasia and mostly migrates to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. It is likely named for the resemblance of the male’s extravagant puffy neck plumage on breeding grounds to the similarly extravagant collar seen as high fashion during the Middle Ages.

A winter plumaged Ruff from Israel.

The most important thing to know about twitching is that just because you try and twitch a bird does NOT mean that you will see it. Since birds are mobile and nature is a savage affair for survival, the sooner you twitch, the more likely you will admire that special bird through binoculars. This is why birders get anxious, why they race to the site, why they keep up on sightings before making the trip. They have seen hawks catch a squirrel or dove or sparrow, have witnessed what quickly happens to the weak and vulnerable, especially migrants far from familiar habitats and haunts.

This is why Mary and I went on a Ruff twitch this past weekend. The bird, yes, a Ruff supposedly straight from northern Asia (!) was found in Costa Rica during the previous week and better yet, it was seen every day for a few days after the initial sighting. The habitat was the same so the chances looked good for it to still be there, other cool birds were also present, and damn was I anxious to go!

Oh and Ruff is also a mega for Costa Rica. There are only a few documented sightings so it was now or never for our country (and lifer for Mary) Ruff! But, to get there, we couldn’t take the direct route. No, we were in for a circuitous twitch but it was the only nice way to make it happen. This first involved driving in the opposite direction of the Ruff to drop Mary’s daughter at her grandmother’s place (something that worked out well in the overall scheme of things). After that, we were off to the north and then west, crossing the continental divide at Volcan Tenorio near Bijagua. Although I had hoped for some side twitching of rare birds on that route, the weather was not in our favor.

We then made our way to the town of Canas in late afternoon rains, spending the night at the Cabinas Arena y Mar (recommended as a cheap, easy place to stay, it is located just around the corner from Cabinas Liwi)). This was so we could get to the Ruff site with more than enough time to connect with our target bird before driving back past Bijagua and on to San Carlos.

Early Sunday morning, we made our way to the site, a series of flooded rice fields along country roads far from everything. Despite being led astray on multiple occasions by Google Maps, we did find the place and started scanning the birds straight away. We were the first birders to arrive but far from the last. Where was it? The lost shorebird wasn’t at the first place we checked so we started watching from another spot when some friends appeared and told us where it had been seen on the previous day. Figuring that people looking in more than one place would find the bird more quickly, they donned rubber boots and ventured into the muddy fields while we picked another spot to watch.

The habitat was great and there were good numbers of Blue-winged Teals and more yellowlegs than I had ever seen in Costa Rica at one time. We had great looks at a sauntering Jabiru, some Stilt Sandpipers sewing machined in the shallow water, flocks of Least Sands flew around, and Wilson’s Phalaropes acted like tiny ducks but where was the Ruff?

A Jabiru in flight.

After thoroughly checking this one spot where a bunch of birds were obscured by tufts of grass, I noticed that many were sort of moving out of that site and slowly spreading to other parts of the muddy flooded fields. Going back to our first spot, I started scanning there once again and within seconds, there it was. A pseudo yellowlegs with more brightly colored legs and pale edging to feathers on the back. That was it! I got Mary on the bird and while she ticked a mega, I called Anthony to tell him the news. He showed up shortly after with the other guys who had been working the muddy fields and we all enjoyed Costa Rica’s most accessible Ruff. Not long after, some other birders arrived, one of whom ticked a Ruff and several other lifers on his birthday no less (which was fantastic because what better way is there to celebrate a birding birthday?).

Two other Ruffs from Israel.

After much admiration of the Ruff, teasing out a few decidedly uncommon year Long-billed Dowitchers in the back, and looking for other birds, Mary and I had to leave for the drive back over to the other side of the mountains. We didn’t see too much of note along the way but we couldn’t complain, the twitch was a successful one that resulted in a major country and year tick. What’s next? The Aplomado Falcon that has been hanging out in Guanacaste? I could go for that…

Many thanks to local birder Juan Astorga for being adventurous enough to wander the back roads of Taboga, find this mega and share the sighting with everyone. Gracias!

bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Looking for Shorebirds and Yearbirds in Costa Rica

Last Friday, my partner Marilen and I had a golden chance to go birding. Non-birding daughters were being taken care of, we had a free day! Did we watch the latest “Avengers” movie? Go for lunch or out to dinner? “Claro que no”. Naturally, we decided to look for year birds. But, where to go? The cool highlands for Buffy Tuftedcheek and other species needed by Team Tyto? The Caribbean side to search for Canada Warbler and other migrants?

Roadside birding on Poas Volcano.

The smartest move may have been trying for Black-crowned Antpitta at Braulio Carrillo. I have been hearing one there for the past couple weeks and it would be a mega tick for Mary. But, since late April is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica, and the best longshot at Hudsonian Godwit, with visions of dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and other year birds in mind, we took a gamble on the coast. Although we probably should have left in the early morn, since high tide wasn’t going to happen until two something in the afternoon, we made a leisurely 10 a.m. exit from the house.

Although Chomes was the main destination, we decided to check out Punta Morales first. The drive to the salt ponds at Morales was the usual rocky and dusty jaunt but as always, each minute was heavy with anticipation. This is one of those place a bet birding places; a site where any number of rare birds can show or where there might be nothing at all. You have to drive on in to see what’s there, you just might hit the jackpot where winnings include thousands of shorebirds, terns, and who knows what else. Come to think of it, a remote camera would be ideal at Punta Morales. It could tell us when most of the birds are there and when the nearest birders should race there to twitch a jaeger or some mega like a Gray-hooded Gull (a local ornithologist recently documented one from this site!). A cam. would have been especially helpful on Friday because as it turned out, we were greeted by very few birds; just a small group of Willets, Whimbrels, and one Marbled Godwit.

No problem, you never know unless you look! And, we still had Chomes to look forward to. The drive in to Chomes tends to be rockier and dustier but is also more exciting. It’s a longer drive and can give a birder Spot-breasted Oriole, thick-kness, rare swallow species, and even Upland Sandpiper. Although we had none of those, we did find a surprise Black Swift! An excellent find and key year bird (aren’t they all?), it foraged low over the trees for perfect looks. Not so for the swallows but most seemed to be Barns in any case.

Other interesting species on the drive in included Shiny Cowbird, Orange-fronted Parakeets, and sleek Scissor-tailed Flycatchers but the best stuff was waiting at the end of the road (or so we thought). It’s back there near the beach where the shorebirds tend to be, and, fortunately, the road was good enough to make the drive. Unfortunately, though, few birds were present.

Given the prime date for spring migration, I was honestly surprised. There were some birds and we did manage a year Wilsons’s Phalarope but not nearly as many as expected. No terns either. The tide and timing were right, I can only wonder if the Holy Friday beachgoers had something to do with the lack of birds. There were lots of people there on the beach making lots of noise and racing back and forth with boats. Yeah, I guess if I was migrating from South America up to the Arctic, I would also hope for a bit more peace and quiet.

But, we did pick up that phalarope and swift and it’s always fun to bird there. However, on a somewhat alarming note, the construction of shacks continues apace at Chomes, if it keeps growing, this very important site could lose habitat, birds might be hunted, and it could end up being inaccessible to birders.

Not wanting to wait and see if more birds would brave the Holy Friday chaos on the beach, we made our departure from Chomes and drove towards Ensenada.

An overlook at Ensenada.

A private wildlife refuge and lodge, Ensenada protects excellent shorebird habitat as well as mangroves and dry forest habitats. The grounds of the refuge are good birding and a lot can also be seen along roads outside the lodge. On the Arizona Road, we picked up our first Thicket Tinamous of the year while listening to the songs of Banded Wrens, Long-tailed Manakins, and other dry forest species.

Once we reached Ensenada, we made a bee-line for the salt ponds and were greeted by a good number of shorebirds. Quite a few Ruddy Turnstones were there along with Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, three species of peeps, Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers, and a few other species. The best for us was our year Stilt Sandpiper. While watching the shorebirds, we also heard a year Spot-breasted Oriole and saw a flyby Hook-billed Kite. A quick view of Plumbeous Kite rounded out Team Tyto’s birds of 2019 before dusk took over and saw us on the long road to home.

Hook-billed Kite from another day.

It was a good, long day, we had 17 species of shorebirds, now we have to figure out when we can add that Pittasoma and catch a few other key year birds at the same time…

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Morning of Shorebirds, Waders, and More in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, thankfully, we have been spared the hurricanes that have wrecked their way through other parts of the world. Irma and Jose may have sent a few wayward birds our way but if not, no problem, we still have thousands of other more expected birds to watch. Fall migration has begun and in Costa Rica, it starts with swirling clouds of Plumbeous, Swallow-tailed, and then Mississippi Kites, handfuls of Cerulean Warblers, and thousands upon thousands of shorebirds. Each day that goes by sees flock after flock of waders moving through the country, especially on the Pacific slope. While more than a few no doubt zip right on over Costa Rica, many more take a break in the Gulf of Nicoya.

The large areas of nutrient rich mud flats are a perfect place to feed and take a much needed rest, and quite a few of those birds stay around for the winter. However, with so many birds on the move now, this is when the shorebird scene is at its most exciting. Who knows how many lost individuals from Asia pass through? Surely not many but I bet there are more than we realize. When you take into account the small number of accessible sites, the very few people who are watching, and the difficulty in picking that one winter plumaged Red-necked Stint out of distant Semipalmated Sandpipers, the struggle is real. However, those factors do leave the door open to the equally real possibility of stints from Siberia and other birds taking accidental vacations in and and through Costa Rica. Good luck finding them but since looking for such super rare birds is like going through a never ending box of avian chocolates, it’s all good!

That box of chocolates is why I have been itching to check out shorebird sites in the Gulf. Every day brings more birds, I wish I could be there to count them all but since I have other super important stuff to do (like making my daughter breakfast and then playing “eye spy” in the car while bringing her to school), I just gotta get down there when I can.

Thankfully, I had that golden chance this past Sunday. Although the mud holes at Chomes kept me from investigating the site with my small car, the bird rich lagoons at Cocorocas, Punta Morales were accessible and always act as an excellent second option.

Sometimes, there are more birds there than Chomes, I’m not sure if that was the case on Sunday but there were certainly a lot.

Both areas of salt ponds or lagoons were populated with hundreds of waders especially Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers. Other birds included dozens of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, many Western Sandpipers, and a scattering of other species, my best being a small group of Surfbirds. Along with that year bird, I also added Common Tern for my Costa Rica year list, and had fun scanning through the skimmers and other birds at the site. Nothing rare and the variety was lower than I had hoped for but I can’t really complain about watching hundreds of shorebirds.

After two hours at Morales, birds began to fly back out to the Gulf as mud flats were exposed by the retreating tide. I took that cue to likewise move on to better birding grounds, and based on its proximity to Morales, took the turn off on the highway to Ensenada.


Ensenada is a private refuge that also has salt pans that can be great for shorebirds. Unfortunately, I never found out what was using them on Sunday because the gate was closed and locked. At least the road in was a nice, birdy drive. Despite a few pot holes here and there, the gravel way was good, nearly free of other vehicles, and passed through a matrix of fields, second growth, Teak farms, and older tropical dry forest in riparian zones. A few stops here and there turned up expected species like Long-tailed Manakin, different flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Banded Wrens, Blue Grosbeak, and other common birds of the dry northwest.

A pair of requisite Double-striped Thick-Knees was also a treat.

Fly-over Hook-billed Kite was also cool.


I would love to bird that road at dawn to see what else is out there and check it at night to see if I can finally add Northern Potoo to my country list. That one is seriously overdue.

Since Ensenada was inaccessible, I eased on down the road towards yet another set of salt pans at a placed called, “Colorado”. That drive wasn’t as nice as the one in to Ensenada and the last bit in to Colorado was also made inaccessible by virtue of muddy conditions but from what I could see, there didn’t appear to be many birds there anyways. I did luck out though, with another hoped for year bird, the uncommon Spot-breasted Oriole. I had stopped in a place with several big trees and right on cue, a pair of the orioles were singing. They eventually came through the canopy overhead but ignored me and just kept on going, perhaps in search of flowering trees.

Although the orioles didn’t pause long enough for a good picture, this Yellow-naped Parrot was a good sport.

After the oriole incident, I had to choose between checking the estuary at Tarcoles or getting in a bit of sea watching at Puntarenas. A tough call but eventually I settled on the port. Although the sea was choppy and it looked good for finding some wayward sweet addition to the year list, I didn’t see much more than an Elegant Tern or two. That was alright because you never know what’s there unless you try and it was still a gift to see a few terns and catch glimpses of dolphins out in the Gulf as a cool breeze came off the water.

I wouldhave made one more stop but by that time, the rains had started up again, so I drove on home to enjoy a fresh cup of afternoon coffee while the cloud’s release soaked the backyard.

Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Some Sites for Shorebirds in Costa Rica

When most birders think of Costa Rica, shorebirds don’t usually come to mind. Although thousands of waders do winter and migrate through the country, let’s face it, people with serious bins usually visit Costa Rica for a pleasantly high number of regional endemics, a few dozen hummingbirds, glittering tanagers, quetzals, and the list goes on but it doesn’t typically include Whimbrels, Willets, or even godwits.

Marbled Godwits are common in Costa Rica during the winter months.

For birders from North America, most of those shorebirds are especially unexciting because they can be seen back home, or at least on shorter trips closer to the home base. However, for birders from other parts of the globe, getting in some shorebirding is a quick way to tick and study a bunch of New World waders. To fill in the shorebird pages of your guide or checklist, bring a scope and try these following spots and strategies:

Estuaries, especially Tarcoles

Any of the estuaries on both coasts are good for shorebirds. As with many places on the planet, river deltas in Costa Rica are a good way to connect with species like Collared Plover, Semi. and Wilson’s Plovers, Black-bellied (Grey) Plover, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers (the three standard peeps in Costa Rica), and a few other waders. Other, rarer shorebirds can of course also show, and the most productive estuary might be the one at the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. For this spot, I’m not sure which end of the tides is best (maybe low?), but it’s always worth checking. This can be done on one of the birding mangrove boat tours or by visiting the Playa Azul area.

This estuary is a rarity magnet and thus always worth checking.


This most classic of shorebird sites has long been the best place to look for waders in Costa Rica. That dynamic could be changing because of different management practices and the presence of squatters but, so far, it still seems worthwhile to check. During the dry season, much of the place can dry out but the lagoons close to the beach are often the best ones. The road through the ponds often requires four wheel drive and also provides access to mangrove birds. High tide is the best time to visit this site because this kicks the birds out of the Gulf of Nicoya and sends them in the ponds. However, if you do visit during low tide, you can still check out some of the birds on the mud flats of the Gulf. Since this site has little shade and is rather extensive, walking it could be a good way to die from heat stroke. Therefore, a vehicle is definitely required and it’s needed to reach every corner of the salt ponds in any case. You may have to search a fair bit to find the birds. Keep in mind that the drive in is also good for dry forest and open country species.

Visiting Classic Chomes last autumn paid off big time with a major flock of Buff-breasted Sandpipers. They were in this lagoon near the beach. This and an adjacent lagoon are two of the more productive ones for birds.

Punta Morales, Ensenada, and other sites on the Gulf of Nicoya

Located near Chomes, Punta Morales has become a new classic for shorebirds. As with Chomes, the birds come in to the salt ponds during high tide. At times, thousands of shorebirds and terns can be seen on the dikes and feeding in the pools. This site is also easier to reach and likewise provides access to mangroves and some dry forest habitats.

Ensenada has similar ponds used by shorebirds during high tide but doesn’t usually host as many species or individuals. Nevertheless, since this wildlife refuge also offers lodging, it’s a good spot to combine an overnight stay with shorebirding and dry forest birding.

There are also other intriguing salt and shrimp pond sites on the Gulf of Nicoya, the best known being the ponds near Colorado. Interesting birds can occur at any such ponds, a normally pelagic White Tern was seen at one such area on the other side of the Gulf a couple years ago!

Shorebirds at Cocorocas, Punta Morales.

Mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya during low tide.

Rice Fields

These pseudo wetlands vary when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but can be worth a look, especially if there are muddy wet fields present. As one might expect, these are the places to look for American Golden-Plovers, Pectoral Sandpipers, Upland Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, and Long-billed Dowitcher. Other shorebirds can also occur and there can be large concentrations of them in the Tempisque basin. Although some of the best rice fields in this area are inaccessible, some good ones can still be birded on the road in to Palo Verde. Mega for Costa Rica Curlew Sandpiper has been found in this area and who knows what else might show?

Other good rice fields to check are the ones on the road to Playas Coco and Hermosa, rice fields near Jaco and Quepos, and, especially, the ones in the wetland area known as Coto 47. This latter site in particular holds a lot of promise and has been reliable for Upland Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

Rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa- lots of good stuff have occurred here including Baird’s and Upland Sands, and Aplomado Falcon.

Other Wetlands

Some other wetland sites can also be good for shorebirds, notably Cano Negro, the El Silencio wetland on the road to the VillaBlanca cloud forest, any number of wet pastures and fields, remnant wetland areas in the Coris-Bermejo area near Cartago (mostly inaccessible), and exposed mud flats at the Cachi reservoir (mostly visible from Ujarras).

Wet puddles and the edges of lakes and ponds in paramo and highland areas can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper.

The El Silencio wetlands.

Some Special Birds to Look For

These are a few of the more interesting shorebirds and megas that could show.

Surfbird– Uncommon during migration, any sites in the Gulf of Nicoya are good for it and they can also show on exposed rocky areas anywhere on the Pacific coast.

Wandering Tattler– Rare but winters and migrates through the Pacific coast, only on exposed rocks washed by waves. Check enough such sites and you will eventually find one.

Long-billed Curlew– Rare in Costa Rica but regular in winter at Punta Morales, the Colorado area, and Chomes. Numbers vary but there are probably three to ten birds present each year.

I was happy to get my year bird in January.

Hudsonian Godwit– A sweet one to add to your country list but a long shot because studies have shown that most probably skip over Costa Rica when flying from stop over sites in Colombia and Mexico. Nevertheless, there must be a few that touch down each April and May, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Josh Beck, Kathi Borgmann, Susan Blank, and I saw our bird at Chomes on April 24th, 2014.

American Golden-Plover– Several pass through but rather few stop. Watch for it at any shorebird sites during migration.

Pacific Golden-Plover– Very rare but this one might actually be slightly more regular than expected. The reason I say this is because this past February, one was documented out of a group of six (there were only photos of the one so we can’t say for sure if the others were also Pacifics but based on the date and the observer’s comments, it seems likely). They were in rice fields of the Tempisque basin; some of the least visited yet most productive shorebird areas in the country. The other reason why this species may be more regular is because few birders in Costa Rica are aware that this species is even possible and thus haven’t had it on their RADAR. When the photos of the recent Pacific Golden Plover were circulated, most people said it was an American Golden Plover (not as if it’s an easy identification to start with).

Curlew Sandpiper– Only a few records but given the lack of monitoring, I bet one or even a few pass through each year.

Ruff– See Curlew Sandpiper.

This one is pretty easy to identify.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper– Not on the list yet but at least one flew through here because this species was identified in Panama last year! Lots of Pectorals pass through, I wonder how many Sharp-taileds also migrate through the country? If you see a funny looking Pectoral, take pictures!

Red-necked Stint– Not on the list either and in winter plumage not likely to be noticed. If there is a vagrant one in Costa Rica, hopefully it will have the decency to sport some breeding plumage. Along similar lines, I suppose it’s not out of the question to also mention Common Ringed Plover as a very rare possibility.

A Red-necked Stint I saw in Thailand- note the very unassuming plumage in this old, digiscoped shot.

Bristle-thighed Curlew– Um, isn’t this blog supposed to be about Costa Rica? No, not on the list yet but like the Pacific Golden-Plover, it winters on Pacific islands. It might turn up some day on Cocos Island and who knows, perhaps on the mainland coast?

American Pipit– Not exactly shorebird material but since it would be a great find, has already occurred a few times, and is likely to show in the same habitats as sandpipers and plovers. The same goes for Red-throated Pipit and wagtails- serious long shots for sure but hey, they are possible!

To learn more about sites for shorebirds and other birds in Costa Rica, as well as how to find and identify them (and to support this blog), get my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

Birding Costa Rica migration Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes- What to Expect in 2015-2016

Chomes. I birded Costa Rica’s top shorebird site last week. I wish I could bird there every day because, as with any important hub for migration, birds come and go, probably on a daily basis. What flies in the day after you visit? Heck, what flies in later the same day? I wish we knew! This is the place that probably sees visits by a lone, lost Red-necked Stint, Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and other vagrants. But, there’s no one there to see them. Heck, if a Red-necked Stint showed up in winter plumage, who would notice it anyways?

Shorebirds await at Chomes.

Chomes is always exciting because every visit is different. You never know what’s really going to show up but if you visit during high tide during shorebird migration, you can bet that you will see a bunch of those Arctic messengers. Various terns and a gull or two are usually mixed in with the shorebirds, and there are other birds. Here are some thoughts on what to expect during the upcoming birding season:

  • A good access road: The road into Chomes leaves from the Pan-American highway. It’s not signed very well (no surprise there), and used to promise a bumpy ride. Yes, “used to” because the road has been drastically improved! Much of the road was graded this past Saturday, and the workers seemed ready to finish the job. At the moment, it is definitely good enough for two-wheel drive cars, including the tracks into the shrimp ponds. Heavy rains could change all that but they aren’t likely.
  • Too dry on the way in: Speaking of rains, we wish that more water would fall in Guanacaste and Chomes. The current El Nino effect is keeping things dry and since that’s actually global warming, it’s only going to become drier. Although we didn’t survey birds on the drive in, I can’t help but get the impression that there are fewer birds around. No surprise there since the life-giving rains have not lived up to ecological expectations. The riparian zones might be the best places to check for dry forest species along with sites in the foothills.
  • Huge agricultural areas: Immense fields have been a part of the Chomes picture for years and they probably explain why the road has been fixed. I don’t know what they will be used for but if it happens to be pineapple, just drive on past. Pineapple fields are basically filled with poison and thus have almost no birds (or other life for that matter). If something else is planted, scan for thick-knees, Harris’s Hawk, and other open country species (Aplomado Falcon has been seen there in the past).
  • Shorebirds during high tide: Some plovers and sandpipers are there during low tide but the numbers don’t compare to high tide. Check the tides and schedule accordingly because a lot of birds come here to roost and feed when the nearby Gulf of Nicoya is filled with water. On Saturday, we had hundreds of Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, hundreds of Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and lesser numbers of other species including a rare Long-billed Curlew. This is the eBird list.

    Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers

    Chomes is a good site for Wilson's Plover.
  • Collared Plovers on the beach: You can also pick out a few on the ponds but this past visit had a dozen or so on the beach. Nice close looks!

    Collared Plover

    More Collared Plovers
  • Mangrove Rail: This secretive species has always been present in the scrubby Black Mangroves but it’s of course always hidden. Go early in the morning and look in spots where the scrubby mangroves are in shallow water and wet ground. When the edges of the mangroves dry out, the rails seem much harder to find because they are probably hanging out in the middle of the mangroves. These are the short mangroves that grow in the ponds.

    There is a Mangrove Rail in this picture.

    Mangrove Rail habitat

    White Ibis hanging out in Mangrove Rail habitat.
  • Mangrove birds: I was surprised that we saw so few mangrove species this past visit. Most of my past birding at Chomes has resulted in easy looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, and various other species including chances at Mangrove Cuckoo, Mangrove Hummingbird, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Try the taller mangroves on the road to the beach and on the track next to it for all of these.

    We did get nice looks at Panama Flycatcher though.
  • Bobwhite and hordes of roosting White-fronted Parrots in the evening: You can also get Spot-bellied Bobwhite during the day but it seems easier in the evening. A covey or two can show up anywhere on the road to the beach. The parrots fly in by the hundreds.
  • Hot weather, bugs, and no services: I almost forgot to mention these fun factors! That vehicle you are in is your terrestrial lifeboat, especially if it has air conditioning. Be prepared, use the restroom before birding at Chomes, and scope from the shade!

Hope to see you at Chomes!

Birding Costa Rica dry forest Guanacaste Pacific slope

Birding Costa Rica in Chomes

Chomes, Costa Rica is this end of the road village on the Gulf of Nicoya. There is a sign for it on the Pan-American highway, but your average tourist just zooms on by as if the place never existed. I don’t know what the guide books say about Chomes but if the place is even mentioned at all, it’s surely something along the lines of, “nothing of interest there” or “don’t bother with Chomes”. If you didn’t watch birds, they would be right. A friend of mine and I went to Chomes on Saturday and we didn’t see any restaurants, hotels, or anything remotely related to tourism for that matter. That was Ok with us, though, because we weren’t visiting good old Chomes to stroll the dusty streets, watch a community soccer game, or learn how to pick pineapples. We were there for a much better reason and it was called, “shorebirds”.

Chomes is pretty much the shorebird capital of Costa Rica. As those long distance, long-legged migrants fly south, they stop off in the food-rich estuarine habitats of the Gulf of Nicoya. A lot also stay for the winter but even more pass through during the fall trifecta of August, September, and October. They use mudflats and mangroves all around the gulf but so many of those are inaccessible. Since few birders make it to hotspots that can be scanned with a spotting scope, I wonder how many rarities get missed.

We didn’t connect with any super rare birds at Chomes on Saturday but since we also couldn’t check the entire place, there could have easily been something like a Long-billed Curlew, phalaropes, jaegers, boobies, or much rarer birds among the maze of mangroves and shrimp ponds. Before the place was divied up to cultivate shrimp, it was probably a much more productive area of mangrove forests and natural mud flats. Nevertheless, a heck of a lot of birds still use the temporary mud flats that form in the shrimp ponds and you can drive along most of the dikes that criss-cross the area. Birding from the car in hot and shadeless wetlands reminded me of wildlife refuges up north and I half expected to see brown signs that depicted a flying goose. However, the total and utter lack of signage combined with the calls of Orange-fronted Parakeets and Groove-billed Anis reminded me that I was still in Costa Rica.

But before I talk any further about the wonderful, blazing hot shrimp ponds at Chomes, let me tell you about the birding on the way in. After leaving the highway, the road to Chomes goes for 9 kilometers through patches of dry forest, pasture, at least one old growth riparian zone, some wet fields, and way too many acres of bird-bereft pineapples. In case you didn’t know, do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica if you want to protect bird habitat! Lots of chemicals are used, they cover massive areas, and you would be lucky to find even one Tropical Kingbird. There should be laws that restrict the amount of land dedicated to farming pineapples and the chemicals used on them because it’s an incredibly unsustainable way to misuse invaluable natural resources.

Away from the pineapple fields, the birding was pretty good (surprise surprise)! With our hearts set on shorebirds and shrimp ponds, we only made a few stops in the dry habitats along the way but were immediately impressed by a Crane Hawk doing its usual floppy foraging act, flybys of Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, and calling White-fronted and Yellow-naped Parrots. On another conservation note, Yellow-naped Parrots have become rather uncommon due to the cage bird trade. You can still see them in a lot of areas of Costa Rica, but we need to do more to protect nesting sites and educate people that keeping birds in cages is cruel and just plain wrong.

Other species near the Crane Hawk included White-lored Gnatcatchers, hordes of Yellow Warblers, one Red-eyed Vireo, a few Eastern Wood Pewees, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Blue Grosbeak, White-collared Seedeaters, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Anis, a bunch of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Gray Hawk, White-winged, Inca, and Common Ground-Doves, Violaceous (Gartered Trogon), Turquoise-browed Motmot, Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Rufous-naped Wren. All of these are a typical litany of birds that you run into when birding Costa Rica’ Pacific northwest and I’m sure we would have seen more had we started birding at dawn and concentrated our efforts in the riparian zones.

birding Costa Rica

The road to Chomes.Here is what it sounded like: chomes road medley1.

Just before we reached Chomes, a field with tall grass and a hidden wetland yielded a dozen Double-striped Thick-Knees and a bunch of Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets. We wouldn’t have known about the wetland had we not seen the heads of the tall wading birds at the far end of the field. It was a shame that we couldn’t get closer to the wet area because it looked like perfect habitat for Pinnated Bittern- a potential lifer. I bet there was one or two out there in the tall, wet grass but my lifer P. Bitty will have to wait for a day with better visibility.

birding Costa Rica

One of 12 Double-striped Thick-Knees near Chomes.

Looking forward to shorebirds, we drove with determination through the dusty streets of Chomes and after 4 blocks, came to a halt at the end of town. Where were the shrimp ponds? Why don’t they have a sign that shows a proud Marbled Godwit standing next to a smiling, claw-waving crustacean? If everyone was a birder, we would see so many cool avian-themed signs. There would be an annual laying of wreaths at monuments to the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Paroquet. We would see top ten hits of songs that paid homage to Nightingales, Northern Cardinals, and pratincoles, and poems and jokes about birds would grace greeting cards throughout the world.

“Your eyelashes are more beautiful than a Rhea’s, your voice more lovely than the caroling of a Hermit Thrush. Be My Valentine!”

“Macaws and albatrosses still look great at 65 and so do you. Happy Birthday!”

“If heaven exists, she is watching a flock of Pink-headed Ducks as a parade of Great Auks and Moas march through the streets. Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.”

But alas, crowds of New Yorkers aren’t exactly pulling out binoculars from briefcases to scan the sky for peregrines and residents of Chomes don’t hang out at the shrimp farms to count shorebirds. They are, however, aware of birders, friendly, and told us how to get to the shrimp ponds. When you get to what appears to be the last block in town (there aren’t that many), go left until you see an obvious gate with a blue archway. Ask for permission to enter and say that you would like to watch birds (for the non-Spanish speakers out there, you could say, “Podemos entrar para ver aves?”).

Someone should let you in and may also tell you that the main road to the beach is impassable. This was true on Saturday and so we could only check out a few of the ponds but we still saw a bunch of cool birds. Black-necked Stilts were the most common shorebird.

birding Costa Rica

Black-necked Stilt. My camera really hates to focus on this skinny bird.

There were also quite a few Short-billed Dowitchers, plenty of yelping Willets, and lots of Whimbrels. Hundreds of Black and Least Terns also entertained us by flying around and calling but we had to walk to the last shrimp pond on the right to hit the shorebird mother lode.

birding Costa Rica

A glimpse of the Chomes shorebird mother lode.

That wonderful mud flat was pretty much crawling with shorebirds. A group of orangey Marbled Godwits held court in the middle with a bunch of Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers, Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed Terns, two Elegant Terns, and one Black Skimmer! Elsewhere on the mud flat, there were a bunch of Spotted, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, and White Ibis. Yeah, it was pretty damn cool, especially because I picked up a few new year birds.

There might have been something else in that muddy shrimp pond but to keep from turning into dried out, wraith-birder husks, we walked back to the car for rehydration and AC. In checking out the road to the beach, we discovered that a massive water-filled hole was indeed preventing any further passage and therefore proceeded to do a 10 point turn to aim the car towards the exit.

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Heading towards the exit. Note the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

At the entrance (now exit), we had to wait five minutes for a friendly shrimp pond worker to unlock the gate. I don’t know how frequently people come and go at the shrimp farms so if you do go birding there, don’t stay until evening or you might spend the night in your car (or on dike with the mosquitoes for company).

I hope I make it down to Chomes at least one more time before the end of the year to pick up a rarity or two. It would be nice if I could drive to the beach but I don’t expect them to fill that huge hole anytime soon.

birding Costa Rica

Willet pretending to be a dead branch at Chomes.