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Birding Costa Rica: Classic Sites or Off the Beaten Path?

The routes that birding tours in Costa Rica follow are like those of most nations; you go where the birds are BUT in accessible places near enough to other sites to make the route feasible during a week or two of birding. They also need to offer the right blend of comfort, service, food, and security.

A Black-crested Coquette from Rancho Naturalista, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites.

No matter where you bring the binos, this winning tour combination is basically why so many birding tours tend to follow similar routes. Not always, but for logistical reasons, many tours follow a similar circuit and why not? If a birding tour route keeps clients happy and can lessen the chances of running into snags, its a good one. Why not always use the same or similar routes? Those routes can also help with planning a birding trip. Using a blend of trip reports and tour company itineraries as a template for your own trip has long been an easy way to know where to go. After all, you can’t go wrong by visiting the same places as the group tours, right?

Maybe…trip success depends on what birds you want to see and how you want to go birding. See a good number of birds while staying in comfortable rooms? Yeah, those tour itineraries will work but if Black-crowned Antpitta and other uncommon target species are reasons for the trip, the well traveled birding byways won’t be your best option.

The same goes for adventurous birders who would rather explore on their own, visit less birded sites, or pay less. Solo birding, or with a private group? The classic sites will still work to produce a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica but if you want something a little bit different, perhaps see if you can document a Solitary Eagle, don’t overlook the luxury of having the liberty to bird wherever and whenever you want.

Birding on your own, in a small group or on a custom tour and you have a lot more leeway but there’s that one big catch; how do you know where to go? Check out Google Maps and there’s promising looking patches and extensions of ruffled green. But what’s it like on the ground? Some places seem to have roads, some don’t, and some of the better looking spots only have one eBird list.

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to stick to the spots that have been eBirded to the max because after all, at least you know what’s there. With so much coverage, you have a fair idea of which birds roam the woods of places like Rancho Naturalista and La Selva Biological Station (even with an error or two) but what if you want to bird other, lesser known spots?

Isn’t it just as worthwhile to bird places with large areas of forest even if they lack or have smaller eBird lists? You bet it is. The birds aren’t where people have uploaded lists, they occur where the habitat exists and the places with the most species will always be sites with the largest areas of mature, intact forest. It’s pretty simple, if you want to connect with rarities, see more raptors, and see the highest number of species, spend more time in mature forest.

Don’t worry too much about the second growth, you will still see plenty of edge species at and near the forest. If you are up for exploration, try these routes and regions:

Large areas of forest in the north

Check out forest along roads north and west of Rincon de la Vieja, and north and east of Laguna del Lagarto. Not that one could expect to be so lucky but it’s still worth mentioning that Costa Rica’s most recent documented Harpy Eagle sighting happened north of Rincon de la Vieja. I know I wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time up that way. The same goes for sites near Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque, and east of there.

The area south of Limon

There’s a lot of excellent forest habitat near and south of Limon. It’s underbirded, it probably hosts some sweet surprises, and the region seems to be the best part of the country for Black-crowned Antpitta and Great Jacamar. What else might live out there? Various roads that penetrate forest will work for some birding excitement including ones near Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Gandoca, and Hitoy Cerere.

Great Jacamar

The Osa Peninsula

Want to look for Crested Eagle while watching Baird’s Trogons and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, try the La Tarde area and birding on the road to Rancho Quemado and Drake Bay. Seeing one of the prize eagles would be a maybe lottery ticket but it’s always fun to look for it.

Black cheeked Ant Tanager

Other Spots With Promising Habitat

Any other spot with habitat will be good birding, a few to try include the road from Varablanca to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, roads east of Tirimbina, sites south of Guapiles and Siquirres, roads near Dominical, and the Las Tables area north of San Vito.

Still not sure where to go birding in Costa Rica? Don’t sweat it too much, find some habitat and the birding will deliver. Find out more about birding sites in Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica , a site guide and birding companion to Costa Rica. If you do find a Solitary Eagle, please get a picture and let me know, I know a lot of local birders who would love to see one. Until then, happy birding wherever you might be raising the binos.

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Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.

Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.

They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.

Its why Nicaraguan Grackles are reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.

Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.

Medio Queso, a fantastic wetland site in northern Costa Rica and a good place to go when you wonder where to go birding in Costa Rica.

Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.

Pretty Similar

Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.

If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.

Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.

Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.

What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?

In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.

If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.

It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!

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Tips for Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes and Puerto Morales

Last weekend, I had a memorable day of birding near the Pacific port town of Puntarenas. The high point was a much awaited lifer in the form of Arctic Tern (a pretty rare bird in Costa Rica, this year some have shown up on the Pacific coast). If there was a low point, I suppose it was the heat but even that wasn’t so bad. Although many of the birds we look for in that area are migrant terns, shorebirds, and other species seen in the USA, the dry habitats, open fields, and mangroves always turn up a bunch of other resident species.

Roadside Hawk is one of the nice resident species.

Throw in some scanning at Puntarenas and you also have a chance at a storm-petrel or some other super cool pelagic. If you feel like fitting in Chomes, Morales, and other places near Puntarenas into a birding trip to Costa Rica, these are some tips:

  • High tide is a must: During low tide, a couple thousand shorebirds, terns, and other waterbirds forage far and wide on giant mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. This translates to most of the birds being distant silhouettes or in some inaccessible corner of the gulf. When that open muddy land disappears, they move into the shrimp ponds and salt ponds at Chomes, and other sites adjacent to the coast.

    A Baird's Sandpiper turned out to be the first bird we scoped! It was hanging out with dozens of Western sandpipers, a few Semi Sands, Leasts, some Short-billed Dowitchers, a few Willets, Semi Plovers and Wilson's Plovers, and so on. Can you find it?
  • Watch the birds fly into the gulf: Since high tide was pretty early (and we birded en route), we were witness to the low tide exodus of birds from Chomes and Morales. Although we couldn’t get good looks at most because they flew by in fast motion flocks, often zipping overhead, the experience was nevertheless spectacular. This happened while we were checking out the beach as flocks of hundreds of shorebirds suddenly appeared without warning. Most that we could identify seemed to be Semipalmated Plovers, Western and other small sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and several Willets, Whimbrels, and Marbled Godwits. The most interesting species were American Oystercatchers, and three Long-billed Curlews.

    We also counted 50 Black Skimmers,

    and saw the usual Collared Plovers on the beach.
  • Check the short mangroves for Mangrove Rail: This former Clapper Rail lurks in thick, scrubby Black Mangroves. Get there early, scan the edges of this habitat, and you might see one.

    We also saw a few Painted Buntings in these scrubby mangroves.
  • Check the grass for Tricolored Munias: Do this if you feel like ticking this Asian species for Costa Rica. You might also see Dickcissel, White-collared Seedeater, and other grass birds.
  • Check the tall mangroves for the specialties: Try a pygmy-owl whistle to bring up Panama Flycatcher, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and maybe even Mangrove Hummingbird. Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail also occur.
  • Scan the fields on the way in to Chomes: The huge, bare fields often have Double-striped Thick-Knee, and can turn up Harris’s Hawk and other raptors (like vagrant Aplomado Falcon).
  • Try the Lagarto Road: This birdy road connects Chomes with the road to Puerto Morales. It has pot holes and you eventually have to ford a river but for most of the year, the river is pretty low. It also passes by a few salt ponds, and runs through a constant grove of tall shade trees that host family after family of Howler Monkeys. Those trees are also home to various dry forest species including Banded Wren, orioles, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. To reach this road, go to the northern corner of Chomes village, and follow the road north that goes past the cemetery.

    Note the nice shade trees.
  • Turn left at the sign that says “camarones frescos”: On the way in to Puerto Morales, watch for a small sign on the right for “camarones frescos”. Turn left to go in and check out some salt ponds.

    Although we didn't find the avocet that everyone else has been seeing, we did see this bunch of Elegant Terns and a few other species.
  • Take the road at the bus stop: After checking those salt ponds, go back to the main road, and head back north for a short ways until you see a blue bus stop on the right. Take a right and drive on in to other salt ponds. Hit these at high tide and they can be filled with birds. The mangroves and scrubby habitats also host resident dry forest species.

    At low tide, most of the birds were gone, but we still got this and 24 other Stilt Sandpipers, and a few Wilson's Phalaropes.
  • Seabirding at the lighthouse in Puntarenas: If you feel like scoping for seabirds, this is the place to do it. Drive all the long way in to the end of Puntarenas and park near the lighthouse. Go to one of the overlooks and scope the water. Morning and late afternoon are best but I have even seen storm-petrels during the middle of the day. Birds tend to come closer to shore at this bottleneck between the outer and inner Gulf of Nicoya. On Sunday, things were pretty quiet but I still managed one Black Storm-Petrel, a few Franklin’s Gulls, and a probable Sabine’s. Unfortunately, that probable sat on the water a half mile away and refused to fly. Just before it went down to the water, I was pretty sure that I saw the distinctive white pattern on its wings BUT it was just too far off to identify the bird from a glimpse.
  • Check the beach at Caldera: Especially these days! The mouth of the small river is where Arctic Tern has been seen and thank goodness, it was still there on Sunday! In fact, we saw two along with Common Terns, and Black Terns. We were favored with excellent close looks and direct comparisons with the Commons. Now that’s how you want to see a lifer!

    Tern comparison.

    Arctic Tern lifer!

I guess you should also bring plenty of water, stay cool, and deal with the mosquitoes in whichever way works best (excepting the use of a flamethrower).