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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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Finding Birds Costa Rica 2021

Finding birds in Costa Rica is pretty easy. Look outside and there they are; Red-billed Pigeons powering past, Great Kiskadees yelling from a tree, Palm Tanagers perched in, you guessed it, a tall palm. Look around and there’s lots more; a screeching flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets (!), a Yellow-headed Caracara flapping overhead, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, caroling from a guava.

In Costa Rica, Crimson-fronted Parakeets are often seen in cities.

Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a Lovely Cotinga (I mean it is lovely, what are you gonna do…).

We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what we each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also why I first visited Cost Rica in 1992 and why so many birders eventually make their way to this birdy place.

At the moment, few birders are visiting Costa Rica but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.

One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more become available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Costa Rica because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Costa Rica birds in 2021:

Learn about Habitats

One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Costa Rica is just like seeing more birds everywhere, planet Earth. To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Costa Rica, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:

  • Lowland rainforest– Lowland areas on the Caribbean slope and south of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (where the Crocodile Bridge is) on the Pacific slope.
  • Middle elevation rainforest and cloud forest– Many areas between 800 and 1,700 meters.
  • High elevation rainforest– Above 1,700 meters.
  • Tropical dry forest– On the Pacific slope north of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles including much of the Central Valley.
  • Wetlands– Large wetland complexes such as the Cano Negro/Los Chiles area, Palo Verde National Park and other parts of the Tempisque River floodplain, and the Coto 47/Las Pangas area near Ciudad Neily. Of course, other smaller areas of marsh exist and are important for many birds.

On the micro-scale, it also means knowing where micro-habitats occur:

  • Foothill rainforest– Rainforest from 500 to 800 meters.
  • Paramo– Treeline and tree-less habitats above 3,000 meters.
  • Mangrove forest– Mangroves that grow in estuarine habitats, mostly on the Pacific slope.
  • Different types of edge habitats– Various birds occur in different stages of second growth and open areas.
  • Lagoons and forested swamps– These occur in various parts of the Caribbean lowlands, and locally in the Osa Peninsula.

Try to get an idea of where those habitats are found and start learning about the suites of birds found in each habitat. Allocate birding time in each habitat and you will see an excellent variety of birds. If you have target species, research where those birds occur, think about how easy or tough they are to see, and have high hopes, or take the Zen approach and accept that you might not see a Slaty Finch.

Information and search options for major habitats will be on the next free update of the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.

Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare

Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might to see so and so species. To give an idea of abundance, Clay-colored Thrush would be a “1”, maybe even “-1”, White Hawk might be a “5”, Sharpbill a “7”, and Speckled Mourner a “10” or “10 plus” (or “only in your dreams”).

Make Reservations for Cope

A visit to Cope’s bird oasis and fantastic experience is recommended. But, because Cope likes to provide a high quality experience, as with many a gourmet experience, you need to make a reservation. I can help arrange that, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Don’t Expect to See Everything

Heck, that goes for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it Zen and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that many a bird species in Costa Rica is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.

Consider Hiring a Local Guide

And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Costa Rica such as cotingas or Ocellated Antbird, or even the coveted bizarre Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Costa Rica, although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at uber rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.

Go Birding in the Summer

Yes, as in the months of June, July, and August. This is an excellent time of the year for birding in Costa Rica. As long as you don’t mind missing out on wintering species, you will see a lot and maybe even more than during the dry season. No, I don’t think it will rain too much either but I do know that consistent cloudy conditions will boost bird activity.

These tips are probably similar to ones I have mentioned in other posts about finding Costa Rica birds and other places but heck, they still hold true and 2021 won’t be any different. Need help planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Want to see a few hundred lifers and have exciting birding every single day? Whether you could go for some happy avian madness or more relaxed birding while staying at a beautiful, relaxing “home base”, I would love to help.

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Advice for Birding the Cerro Lodge Entrance Road

Cerro Lodge is the place to stay when bathing in the mega-birding in and around Carara National Park. Other options include the oft-used Villa Lapas, the sometimes crowded Punta Leona, the new Macaw Lodge back in the hills on the other side of the park, and at least one hotel right in the middle of tiny Tarcoles. However, none of them share the blend of proximity, and diverse array of birds not found in the park possible around Cerro Lodge.

One of those birds is White-throated Magpie-Jay- we had these and others near Cerro.

Part of Cerro’s appeal comes from the birdy entrance road. This unassuming dirt road passes through open areas with scattered trees, second growth, and part of a river floodplain that results in a host of good birds. Whether staying at Cerro or not, this road is worth some serious binocular time. A couple of hours on that road that week reminded me of its worth as a site unto itself, here’s some advice on birding it :

  • Make time for this site: If you have plans to enter the national park, check out the road from 6 until 7 (opening time for the park during the dry season), or until 8 (opening hour at other times of the year). Or, if you have an extra day of birding, spend a full day on this road. Like every high diversity site, the more you bird it, the more you find, especially since the habitats also seem to act as a corridor between mangroves, other forest, and the park itself.

It’s also good for lots of common and edge species like this Lineated Woodpecker,

and Rose-throated (not) Becard.

  • Quality birds: If someone ever tells you that all birds are “quality” or that every bird is the same, they are either masquerading as a birder, or don’t know the difference between “common” and “rare”. Quality birds are the ones we don’t see that often, can’t really be seen elsewhere, or happen to be major targets because they look so cool. In other words, endangered and rare species, endemics, and stuff like Double-striped Thick-Knee. In the case of the Cerro Lodge road, it hosts a bunch of those quality species including the cool and crazy thick-knee.

Its cool, its crazy, its got thick knees and hypnotic golden eyes.

  • Double-striped Thick-knee: This target seems to be more frequent on the entrance road than in the past. Check for it in one of the first open pastures, and in the pastures in the floodplain. We saw 6 last week.
  • Crane Hawk: The road is one of the better places in Costa Rica to see this odd raptor. Watch for it flopping its way through the trees in the canopy or near the ground anywhere along the road. It also soars on occasion. We had rather distant looks at two different Crane Hawks.
  • Other raptors: Hang out on this road long enough and you have a chance at a pretty good variety of raptors. The long sight lines and birdy habitats offer chances at such other species as Gray-headed, Hook-billed, and Plumbeous Kites, occasional Harris’s Hawk and Pearl Kite (in the floodplain), Short-tailed, Broad-winged, Gray, Roadside, Zone-tailed, and Common Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, and both caracaras. Even Tiny Hawk has nested on the road in the past!

Short-tailed Hawk is one of the most frequently seen raptor species in Costa Rica.

  • Owls: Cerro is known as a site for Black and white Owl and this species can also show on the road along with Mottled, Striped, Barn, and Pacific Screech Owls. Not to mention, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is common during the day.
  • Swifts: Spot-fronted and Black Swifts are sometimes seen from the road in the morning along with more common White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts.
  • Psittacids: This can be a great area for parrots, parakeets, and their kin as they visit fruiting trees and move to and from roosting and foraging sites. The numbers and species vary throughout the year but lucky birders might see every possible species in one morning, mostly as flyovers. If not, it’s still pretty normal to see Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots, and Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets.
  • Good variety of dry forest species: Expect several dry forest species, including Black-headed  Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s and Brown-crested Flycatchers, occasional Stub-tailed Spadebill, Banded and Plain Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Stripe-headed and Olive Sparrows, Painted Bunting, and so on.

This is a good site for Nutting’s Flycatcher-  it looks almost exactly like the local variety of the Brown-crested but check out the small bill.

  • Keep an eye out for the cotinga: Last but not least, Yellow-billed Cotinga moves through this area, maybe even once or twice a day. The size of this population is very small (and, sadly, will likely disappear from the Carara area within ten years) but the few remaining birds are seen now and then near Cerro Lodge and in trees near the floodplain.
  • Bring a scope: It comes in handy when checking out distant crowns of trees and open areas.
  • Check the small marsh at the edge of the floodplain: It’s been so dry, this small wetland might not even be around when you visit. But, if so, check it for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other expected wetland species, possible American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and rarities like Masked Duck and maybe even a rail or two.

How to get there: From the turn off to Jaco on the Caldera highway, drive five minutes and watch for the turn off to Guacalillo on the right. Go a bit further and watch for the Cabinas Vasija on the left. The road will start going down a hill and shortly after comes to the entrance road to Cerro Lodge (the next road on the right). Be careful, it’s easy to miss!

For more information about how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, the most comprehensive bird-finding guide for the country.

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Where to go for Target Species when Birding in Costa Rica at Carara National Park- part uno

In the highly important block of habitat known as Carara National Park, the birding is always productive even though there are few trails that actually access the forests of the park. Even so, they are enough to provide access to just about every species that occurs there and can even turn up some amazing surprises. For example, one resident guide told me that he was pretty sure that he saw an Oilbird once and another very reputable person is certain that he saw a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. As bizarre as that sounds, he was 99% sure about the cuckoo, so was the person he was guiding, and although I won’t say who the guide was, believe me when I say that you can trust his observations. The only scenario we could think of was that this shy, low density species may have an undetected population that normally keeps to the higher parts of the park.

Unfortunately, since the national park service doesn’t show any indication of putting in trails that would access those areas, they will keep their avian secrets  and birders will have to “settle” for the River Trail and the forest trails near the HQ.  Although they barely scratch the surface of the park, they do provide access to most of the bird species that occur at Carara and are exciting no matter how many times you bird them. Recently, a reader of my blog was inquiring about target species along the trails at Carara. Is the River Trail better for certain species than the HQ trails? Is it passable during the wet season? Or maybe you were wondering how these trails differ?  Read on for some answers:

General Differences and Similarities between the two sets of trails:

Habitat:

  • The River Trail passes through a mosaic of semi-open, viny, riparian forest. It also accesses thick, second      growth, and towards the end of the trail, an oxbow lake and closed, primary rainforest.

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A scene along the River Trail.

  • The HQ trails access some second growth but mostly pass through beautiful, old-growth rainforest with immense trees. A couple of forest streams are also found along this trail.

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The forest along the Universal Access segment of the HQ Trails at Carara.

Climate: Pretty similar for both trails but it feels hotter on the River Trail due to its more open nature.

Difficulty: Both are mostly flat and easy for walking. The HQ trails also have a cement, “Universal Trail” that can be accessed by wheelchair.

Accessibility: Both are easily accessed along the coastal highway between Orotina and Jaco. The trailhead for the HQ trails is at the main entrance to the national park. The River Trail is 2-3 kilometers from the main entrance along the highway, heading back towards Orotina and San Jose. Drive slow, ignore the horns of impatient drivers, and watch for a strip of yellowish paper tied to a tree on the right (east) side of the road that marks the entrance to the trail. If that sounds easy to miss, you are right, it is! It’s kind of ridiculous but watch for that strip of paper and a steep turn-off that goes down to a small parking area. The River Trail does flood on an annual basis and is closed when this occurs. This of course depends on the rains but usually happens from September to December. Check at the HQ to see if it’s open.

Restrooms and drinking water: Best to bring your own water for both but the HQ trails do have restrooms at the HQ and on the Universal Trail. Such facilities are lacking at the River Trail. The water is potable from faucets at the HQ but who knows if it will always be like that.

Safety: Both trails are safe but vehicles should always be parked where someone can see them. For the HQ trails, this is in front of the office where tickets are purchased. For the River Trail, this is at the trail head but only park the car there if someone is present to watch it as vehicles left alone have been broken into on many occasions. That said, it goes without saying that you should never leave anything of value in the vehicle.

And now for the birds.. Keep in mind that many of these can also be seen elsewhere and some are easier to see in mangroves, etc.

Species that are only found on the River Trail:

  • Boat-billed Heron: A few are usually found roosting in trees at the edge of the oxbow lake.

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Boat-billed Heron or NAG- the “neotropical avian gargoyle”.

  • Other waterbirds: Widespread species such as Northern Jacana, Anhinga, Black-necked Stilt, and various herons and egrets are often seen at the oxbow lake.

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The oxbow lake at the River Trail- always some good stuff here.

  • Plumbeous Kite: Sometimes seen soaring high above the River Trail but easier at Cerro Lodge and in mangroves.
  • Crane Hawk: Occasionally encountered on this trail, but easier at Cerro Lodge and in mangroves.
  • Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers: Yep, at the oxbow lake.
  • Olivaceous Piculet: Rare but if you are lucky, this is where you will probably see one at Carara. Keep an eye out for it in mixed flocks and learn its high-pitched, quiet, trilling song.
  • Black-bellied Wren: Listen and look for this babblerish skulker in the heliconia thickets.
  • Cherrie’s Tanager: Rare at Carara but sometimes seen along this trail.

Species that are only found on the HQ Trails:

  • Blue-crowned Manakin: I suppose one could also turn up on the River Trail but I have never seen it there.

Both trails actually harbor many of the same species but it’s worth it to allocate quality birding time to each because some species are easier along one compared to the other. If you don’t see something mentioned (Rufous-tailed Jacamar for example), it’s because I have encountered it along both sets of trails with the same degree of frequency.

Species that are easier to see on the River Trail:

  • Collared Forest Falcon: More regular along this trail.

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A rather bad picture of this large raptor from the River Trail.

  • Swifts: The more open nature of this trail facilitates watching (and being subsequently confounded by) swifts.
  • American Pygmy-Kingfisher: Much easier near at the oxbow lake.

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The American Pygmy-Kingfisher is one gem of a bird.

  • Barred Antshrike
  • Royal Flycatcher: If you can’t do the River Trail, look for it near the stream on the HQ Trail and along the Universal Trail.
  • Orange-collared Manakin: Although I have seen it almost as often along the HQ Trail, especially along the beginning of the trail and the Universal Trail.
  • Yellow-billed Cotinga: Rare but easier to see at fruiting trees along the River Trail.
  • Turquoise Cotinga: Ditto.
  • Rufous-breasted Wren: It’s common along the HQ Trails too but easier to see along the River Trail.

Species that are easier to see on the HQ Trails:

  • Great Tinamou
  • Muscoy Duck: Oddly enough, yes, along the creek!
  • Blue-crowned Motmot: Although still easier in hotel gardens of the Central Valley.
  • Long-tailed Woodcreeper: I see it much more often in mixed flocks along the forest trails than the River Trail although I have also encountered it there.
  • Black-striped Woodcreeper
  • Black-faced Antthrush
  • Streak-chested Antpitta

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Carara National Park is one of the more reliable places to see Streak-chested Antpitta.

  • Golden-crowned Spadebill
  • Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
  • Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
  • Eye-ringed Flatbill
  • Red-capped Manakin
  • Thrushlike Schiffornis
  • Rufous Piha
  • Scaly-breasted Wren
  • Tropical Parula: More common and much easier to see at middle elevation sites.
  • Spot-crowned Euphonia

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The S-P Euphonia is a nice little near-endemic.

If you can’t bird the River Trail, don’t fret too much about missing Royal Flycatcher or Orange-collared Manakin because you still have a pretty good chance for them along the Universal Trail, especially if you hire a guide who is familiar with birding the park. For the Black-bellied Wren, though, I am afraid that you will have to bird some Heliconia thickets a bit further south.

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O-C Manakin males are fancy little birds!