The official Costa Rica bird list stands at 932 species but soon, it’s going to hit 933. The bird species about to bump the list up a notch is the Dark-billed Cuckoo, an Austral migrant that was expected for Costa Rica but had never been documented until January 16. When the star bird appeared, a few people wondered if this was the same species I may had seen near Ciudad Neily two years ago. Although they are related, no, that bird was the Pearly-breasted Cuckoo, yet another Austral migrant that could also certainly occur.
That particular sighting was never confirmed to be the Pearly-breasted or the extremely similar Yellow-billed Cuckoo but at least the Dark-billed Cuckoo has been found and documented. Even better, the bird was photographed and subsequently seen by several local birders. If it sticks around, and you bird the rice fields south of the Ciudad Niely hospital, maybe you will see it too! I hope the bird also stays around long enough for me to see it but if not, at least a bunch of other local birders “got” it.
I figured it was a matter of time before a Dark-billed was found in Costa Rica because the species migrates within South America, is fairly common, and has already been documented from Panama, Nicaragua, Belize, and even Texas and Florida. As for it being found near Ciudad Neily, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that one (or maybe two) were seen there; this part of the country seems to routinely attract Coccyzus species cuckoos.
While birding around Ciudad Neily, I have personally seen several Mangrove Cuckoos, the possible Pearly-breasted (but more likely Yellow-billed), and other have also seen Yellow-billed. Perhaps the second growth and woodland edges adjacent to wetlands provide especially good habitat for larvae prey preferred by the cuckoos? Following that line of thought, it’s also interesting to note that, in winter, Mangrove Cuckoos utilize similar habitats at and near Cano Negro (speaking of that hotspot and megas for Costa Rica, Chambita found a Greater Ani there yesterday!).
Whatever the explanation may be, a new species for Costa Rica and other cuckoos are yet one more good reason to go birding around Ciudad Neily. The rice fields and associated wetlands are fun but there’s also other, forested habitats in the same area that harbor an excellent variety of species. To learn more about birding around this hotspot and where to watch birds in Costa Rica, get the second edition of “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”; a 900 plus page bird finding book for Costa Rica and overall birding companion for this birdy country. Go see some cuckoos, I hope to see you here!
Most birders don’t visit Costa Rica to look at shorebirds. Their rung on the birding priority ladder is outpaced by endemics and hundreds of other species not possible at the home patch. Even so, sandpipers and plovers are always fun to watch and if you get a chance to do some shorebirding in Costa Rica, you’ll reap the following benefits:
Lots of Birds
Bird in Costa Rica in the right places and you might hit a wader jackpot. Thousands of shorebirds migrate through and winter in Costa Rica, much more than we manage to document. As I write, I’m sure that fantastic flocks of sandpipers and plovers are moving along both coasts. Some birds stop, many fly on and pass through Costa Rica’s bit of air space in less than a day. Among those migrating groups of birds, among the birds that stop to rest and others that continue on, a rarity or two could certainly be present.
Marbled Godwits, Surfbirds, and Wilson’s Plovers
Birders who aren’t from this side of the globe will get their fill of Western Hemisphere waders. Yellowlegs, Willets, “Hudsonian” Whimbrels, Western, Semipalmated, Least, and Stilt Sandpipers, and more. Among some of the more interesting and wanted shorebirds are Marbled Godwit, Surfbird, and Wilson’s Plover, lot’s of Wilson’s Plovers!
Find a Siberian Vagrant
As with other places that concentrate shorebirds, Costa Rica can also host vagrants from Siberia. So far, such lost shorebirds have taken the form of Ruff, Curlew Sandpiper, and Pacific Golden-Plover but given Costa Rica’s position on the Pacific Coast flyway, more are certainly possible. I’m sure a few of those species have been here but passed through unseen or unnoticed. Four species of stints are possible, the most likely ones maybe being Red-throated and Little Stints, the others being Little, Temminck’s, and Long-toed Stints. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is also likely (one was seen in Panama), and Lesser Sand Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit could also make a surprise appearance.
Yeah, real long shots but all are long distance migrants that migrate through or too similar latitudes in southern Asia and all have occurred in Washington state or California. Some have probably made it to Costa Rica at some point, hopefully a few will make it here again. It doesn’t hurt to be ready to recognize them (and is why these and other possible vagrants are included on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app). Unfortunately, separating winter-plumaged Red-necked and Little Stints from Semipalmated Sandpipers is an incredible challenge. If you see any funny looking Semis in Costa Rica, take a closer look and take a lot of pictures.
Much More than Shorebirds
A befits the bird-heavy nation of Costa Rica, one of the other benefits of watching shorebirds is seeing lots of other birds too. As one might expect, various other waterbirds will also be present, often, birds like Roseate Spoonbill and White Ibis. On the Pacific Coast, there will also be a fair selection of dry forest species and mangrove birds including chances at uncommon species like Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Mangrove Rail, and Mangrove Hummingbird.
Provide Important Data on Wintering and Migrant Species
As with all birds, keeping them around depends on knowing how many occur and where they make a living. Taking a day or two to focus on shorebirds, making careful counts and then uploading the data to eBird is an easy way to help.
It’s always worth it to watch shorebirds. In addition to helping with eBird data, in Costa Rica, a scopeful of elegant migrants from the far north can act as a relaxing break from the challenges of forest birding. Learn about the best spots to see shorebirds in my Costa Rica bird finding guide. I hope you see a lot!
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 Gracklesare 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.
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.
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!