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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Tinamous in Costa Rica: How Common are They?

Tinamous are one of several types of birds guaranteed to be completely unfamiliar to birders from North America and northern Eurasia. Birders from other places may also feel perplexed but may also find their appearance slightly more normal. Africans may be reminded of Guineafowl and Francolins, and folks from Asian and Australia might have visions of Megapodes.

An ancient lineage of terrestrial birds restricted to the neotropical region, tinamous haunt the undergrowth of tropical forest, second growth and, in the Andes and southern South America, grassland habitats. As with other ground birds, tinamous can be tough to see. We can’t blame them, over the course of several million years, it was always in their best interest to stay unseen in home ranges stalked by a fantastic host of deadly predators.

Being highly evolved to stay alive is why they tip their way through the leaves so quietly and carefully, why they would rather sing from the shadows than run into the open, and why tinamous are heard way more often than seen. Those carefully honed attributes work well because in many places, as long as the habitat is present and hunting is controlled, most species are common.

Not that one can expect to see tinamous all the time but in protected areas, these odd, football-shaped birds aren’t that rare, especially in Costa Rica.

Go birding in any sizeable area of lowland rainforest and you will probably hear the calls of a Great Tinamou. This species can also range into the foothills but seems more common in lowland forest. Listen for its tremulous whistles and watch for it in places like Carara, Tirimbina, and La Selva. In these and other sites where it has become accustomed to people, the Great Tinamou can be downright tame.

Slaty-breasted Tinamous aren’t seen as often as Great Tinamous but they are still pretty common. La Selva is probably the easiest place to see them, with patience, you can even connect on the entrance road. In other places, I have heard a surprising number of Slaty-breasteds give their low pitched calls from lowland rainforest, perhaps especially in sites with treefall gaps or other spots with some thick, protective understory.

Like the Great, the Slaty-breasted also occurs in lowland and foothill forest, although only on the Caribbean slope.

Go birding in Costa Rica in lowland and foothill sites with second growth and you will probably hear the loud whistles of the Little Tinamou. Listen for a bird that sounds like a horse that inhaled a hefty dose of helium. Seeing it is another matter; this small quail-like bird jst loves dense second growth habitat. The Little Tinamou might even be one of the most heard, unseen species in Costa Rica. As with other tinamous, with patience, it can eventually be seen. It might just take a while.

Go birding in tropical dry forest and the low whistles of the Slaty-breasted Tinamou are exchanged for the single whistle of the Thicket Tinamou. As with other tinamou species in Costa Rica, this one is much more common than expected. However, in many places, it seems to be shyer than other tinamous and thus more difficult to see. This is probably because it gets hunted more than the other species.

Thicket Tinamous can be viewed in dry and moist forest from near the Ensenada area north to Nicaragua. As with laying eyes on other tinamous, patience is a big virtue, your best chances are in places where they aren’t as shy, places like Palo Verde and Santa Rosa National Parks.

Lastly, we have the least common feathered American football in Costa Rica, the much coveted Highland Tinamou. Among international birders, this species tends to be more of a target than other tinamous because even though it ranges from Costa Rica to parts of northern South America, reliable sites for this bird are few.

It’s not as common as the lowland tinamous but it’s not all that rare either. I have heard them in many places, including a few calling from the cloud forests on the road to Poas, and they occur in fair numbers in most cloud forest sites (up to 2,000 or so meters). With that in mind, the best place in the world to see a Highland Tinamou is probably the Monteverde area. Stalk trails through cloud forest and you might lay eyes on this prize.

Tinamous are more common than you think; learn their calls and practice patience and you might see a few. Wondering where or how to see tinamous and other unfamiliar species in Costa Rica? Find some answers in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

In the meantime, happy birding!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see Tinamous in Costa Rica

I wish I had photos of tinamous but other than pics of Undulated Tinamous from Tambopata, Peru, I haven’t been lucky enough to get adequate pics of any other of these goofy-looking, wonderful, feathered footballs (and by “footballs” I mean the somewhat cylindrical, all American “pigskin”). So, if you were hoping for lots of breathtaking imagery in this blog post, I am sorry to disappoint.

However, if you want to find out how to see tinamous in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) read on!

Tinamous as a family range from tropical Mexico all the way south to the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia. They stick to the ground in both humid and dry forests, thick second growth, above the treeline in the October-colored paramo, and in the grasslands of the southern cone. They are also pretty tough to see no matter where you go but at least love to vocalize with haunting songs that are easy on the ears; a boon for birders who happily make ticks on their life list with “heard onlys”. For those of us who need visual confirmation to add one more precious bird to our life lists, though, the ventriloquil songs of Tinamous can quickly turn from being magical and beautifully mysterious to being maddening and horribly frustrating. Although they may be rather “primitive” birds, tinamous aren’t exactly dumb. On the contrary, they must be pretty smart to have survived as a family for several million years and are very adept at remaining unseen. Like avian ninjas of the neotropics, tinamous start the day by taunting birders with their loud, beautiful songs, but then carefully slink through and hide in the undergrowth as soon as binocular-toting, khaki-wearing people hit the trails. After a tinamou-less day inside the forest, and usually while musing about tinamous over drinks right around 5 P.M., the football-shaped birds laugh at the birders with a flurry of vocalizations emanating from deep within the forest. Some tinamous think the joke is so good that they just can’t help themselves and insist on singing in the middle of the night. Really, its’ no wonder that so many people who live near tinamous want to shoot and eat them!

I don’t want to do tinamous any harm whatsoever, nor do I even mind their sneaky behavior. As Zen as I would like to believe myself to be, I have to admit that it’s easy to withstand the tremulous laughs of the tinamous because I am the one who gets the final guffaw. You see, I think that one must think and act like certain birds to see them. In the case of tinamous, this means taking the birding gloves off and getting downright sneaky. You can try playback with tinamous, but aside from over-harrassing the birds, they don’t respond so well. I admit that I have had some success with playback on tinamous, but don’t find it to be as useful of a tool as some other tricks to see these guys.

The most basic and best way to see more tinamous is to walk carefully, quietly, and slowly through the forest. Stop often, be patient, constantly scan the undergrowth, and keep an eye on the trail ahead. Most of all, do not talk, and remember to think like a ninja! Don’t worry about rushing; there are birds around and some might be looking at you. In addition to tinamous, I often end up seeing other ground birds this way such as quail-doves, antthrushes, and wood-quail.

Watch for food sources. Although tinamous mostly eat small creatures such as bugs and lizards, many will also take fallen fruit. Watch for tinamous at antswarms, below fruiting trees, and at spots where flowers that have fallen from the canopy may attract more insects.

Track down singing tinamous at dawn and dusk and bring a flashlight. Get out there when they sing- you might be able to sneak up on one close to the trail.

If the above advice pays off and you do see a tinamou in Costa Rica, at least their identification is pretty straightforward. The five species in Costa Rica are:

Great Tinamou : Common in lowland and foothill rainforest, if you see a brown tinamou with grayish legs that looks bigger than a chicken, it’s this one. Although found at a variety of sites, the most reliable places are Carara and La Selva because Great Tinamous tend to be more tame in these protected forests. It sings with deep, tremulous whistles.

Slaty-breasted Tinamou : Restricted to the northern half of the Caribbean slope, there aren’t too many places to see this species in Costa Rica because of extensive deforestation. To me, they don’t seem as common as they used to be at La Selva although they are still fairly reliable there. Other possibilities are Tortuguero, the forested areas around Laguna del Lagarto lodge, and around the Arenal area. Slaty-breasted Tinamous also occur at Rara Avis and Quebrada Gonzalez, although they are more common in the lowlands. This species might be easier in countries to the north. I recall seeing one or two at Palenque in Mexico. Listen for two very low-pitched whistles that are the song of this one and watch for the gray breast.

Thicket Tinamou : If you see a tinamou in the dry forest, it’s probably this one. Watch for the barring on the upperparts, rufescent tones of the plumage, and reddish legs. During the dry season, especially watch for it in gallery forest and listen for the low, whistled song.

Little Tinamou : The most common and at the same time most difficult to see tinamou in Costa Rica, you will know that one is near when you hear what sounds like a horse that has been sucking on helium balloons whinny from the thick, humid, second growth. Their preference for dense vegetation makes them very difficult to see. Peering into the forest edge might reveal one or you might see one foraging below the Rara Avis feeders or at shaded kitchen middens behind restaurants in the lowlands that are adjacent to thick second growth. The Little Tinamou is indeed little (American Robin-sized) and is mostly plain brown.

Highland Tinamou : This is a tinamou of the cloud forest and the one you are most likely to see along the trails at the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves. In fact, try as hard as you can to see it at these sites because the Highland Tinamou is more regularly seen here than other sites in its range. Watch for the lightly spotted back, and the gray head with rufous throat. It doesn’t not sing as much as other tinamous, nor does it sound anything like the other species in Costa Rica. Listen for the repeated, short, rather harsh notes that make up its song.