Miscellaneous Bird Notes

Red-throated Caracara by Juan Diego Vargas

I remember looking through my bird field guide on my earliest trips to Costa Rica. Every bird seemed like a possibility as I was oblivious to paying much attention to status and distribution. However, expectations are driven by such status terms as "rare" or "common," and it is worth understanding what they mean.

Unfortunately, there is no discussion of these status terms in the first edition of "The Birds of Costa Rica," the Garrigues and Dean bird field guide. The word "rare" may mean the bird is observed 4-5 times a year or 4-5 times in a decade. The range seems very wide. The second edition of the field guide corrected much of the problem, but the word "rare" is still used rather broadly. It is sometimes alleviated by modifying terms like, "very rare" or "very uncommon," but even that is ambiguous. 

There are also several birds in decline or very secretive that one should simply not expect to see. The Red-throated Carcara on the left, taken in July of 2013, is a bird that has declined to the point where the word "irregular" may be a more accurate definition. It's possible a year or more could go by without any reliable observations in Costa Rica. The reasons aren't always obvious, and research into declining species in the tropics is not easy to come by. There is much about tropical ornithology and species populations that remains unknown. 

In the United States and Europe, birders generally have some feel about which habitats will likely support which bird species. In the tropics, this is far more complex given the variety of plant life and the much higher number of nectar and fruit-eating bird species. Sometimes there seems to be appropriate habitat, but the sought-after bird species simply aren't there. Food availability changes. One mountain slope has Black-and-Yellow Tanagers, but the adjoining mountain slope does not. Snowcap hummingbirds are seen regularly for a few weeks
 outside their normal range. They suddenly disappear as certain blooming plants fade. A Lovely Cotinga reliably shows up every morning at the same tree. Then for no apparent reason, it stops. No Lovely Cotinga is observed for several months in that entire geographic region. Expectations should be tempered when birding the tropics. Birders would be wise not to build expectations by banking on past trip lists.

Many bird species simply do not allow easy viewing. 
The tropics can conceal birds in a way temperate zones cannot. Some forest falcons and small hawks make their living by stealth. Motmots and puffbirds can be seen at eye-level but are usually so motionless that one doesn't actually see them until they move. Green Shrike-Vireos make their living so high in the canopy that they are rarely observed despite being fairly common. Many of the ground-dwelling birds are very secretive
. Waterfowl, herons, and rails seen in a certain marsh one week, may be impossible to see a week later when water levels change.. 

Spotted Wood-Quail - Annika Lindqvist

Some Costa Rica birds have no history of being seen with any regularity. For example, it is not unusual for me to hear of birders making a target list that includes the Harpy Eagle when traveling to Costa Rica. After 20 years, that bird is still on my target list, and my chances of seeing it anywhere by just happening upon it are still no better than getting struck by lightening. It's nearly as difficult to see birds like Speckled Mourner, Lancelated Monklet, Pheasant Cuckoo, Great Jacamar or a dozen other birds deemed "rare". One should not expect many uncommon-to-rare bird species on a 10-day trip to Costa Rica. In fact, with more than 20-some trips to this country, I have seen none of the above species. The hard-to-see-specialties take luck, patience, and time. Mostly luck.

And I haven't even touched on deforestation and habitat loss.

Identification Challenges - There are two major identification challenges for those birders who have no personal guide with them and who have not had much experience in the American tropics; woodcreepers and hummingbirds. Other species (like the swifts) have particular issues for the average birder, but the woodcreepers as a family force birders to look at beaks and backs because of how they position themselves in the field. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, come in so many flavors with males, females, and juveniles all posing additional variations, that the problem is largely a problem of memory.

Woodcreepers - The challenge is simple. Woodcreepers all look pretty much alike but with subtle differences, and none of them are fond of showing you their throat, breast or belly - which is unfortunate since nearly all of them can be identified much more easily by seeing their throat, breast, or belly. I have no good rules here. Most Costa Rican guides know them by their call notes, and they are vocal. A playback recording might help with this family, but constantly fooling with equipment can be annoying in the field for a fast-moving family of birds like the woodcreepers. Looking carefully at woodcreeper beak shape and beak color can also be helpful, but a quick I.D. in the field is not going to come easily the first few times one sees woodcreepers.

Northern Barred Woodcreeper - Annika Lindqvist

Woodcreepers, like so many birds in Costa Rica, are picky about which elevation they spend their time. They also have peculiar behaviors that are familiar to many Costa Ricans but will not stand out to foreign birders. If one can ask a lodge-guide (or perhaps the nearest Costa Rican with a pair of Swarovski's around his neck) which woodcreepers are the most likely candidates to be found around the area, it might help limit the inventory within this family if one is birding alone. Also, if birders can find local checklists or lodge-specific lists ahead of time, these can be helpful.

Back in the early 1990's when I first visited Costa Rica, I used to think that I would eventually learn to properly identify woodcreepers quickly and efficiently. I was wrong. This is a family of birds where it really pays off to see them every day, and to understand their local status and distribution. It's the kind of familiarity most foreign birders and foreign guides don't get to experience when traveling for short trips to the tropics.

Hummingbirds - By visiting the right locations, one can easily see 30 species of hummingbirds on a 10-day trip to Costa Rica. But hummingbirds, especially females and young birds, can be an extraordinary identification challenge. Even if one is familiar with all the habitat-specific altitudes in which hummingbirds are found, these birds are not terribly cooperative at allowing prolonged looks. It's really best if you can find places that put out hummingbird feeders. Why more Costa Rica hotels and lodges don't put out more hummingbird feeders is one of life's great mysteries, but for whatever reason, it's not particularly common. Some of the best multi-feeder stations are at Savegre Lodge, Monteverde, Rancho Naturalista and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. A few scattered lodges and restaurants may have perhaps one or two feeders.  

Personally, I think it's important to get a second opinion about many of the hummingbird observations if possible. Obviously Violet Sabrewings and Snowcaps are easily identifiable and won't need an introduction, but many others will. At Monteverde, Bosque del Rio Tigre, and Rancho Naturalista, one can find experts that can usually shed some light on identification. In the field, however, it might be difficult.

The most conspicuous hummingbird throughout Costa Rica is the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. The one thing birders are guaranteed to have time to do in Costa Rica is to become familiar with this species. They usually outnumber other species by a wide margin at low elevations. At Bosque del Rio Tigre, they have made a concerted effort to limit their hummingbird feeders because they were actually seeing a population explosion of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds which may have been at the expense of other hummers in the area. As for the high-elevation hummingbird species, prepare for a headache of diversity.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird - Irazu Volcano - Jim Peterson

Other feeder stations, like some at Rancho Naturalista, offer fruit to several species of songbirds. A good fruit-feeder station in the mountains will get a variety of tanagers and fruit eaters. The following video is a fruit-feeder in the high mountain area of Costa Rica and includes a visitation of Golden-hooded Tanager, Passerini's Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, and a Red-headed Barbet. Click here: Fruit-feeding station video .

Here is a link to the video of Hummingbird Gallery at Monteverde.

A video of hummingbirds at Rancho Naturalista

And a quick video I took of the Hummingbird Gallery at the Waterfall Gardens.

Other Birds - Many of the antbirds and wrens are skulkers. They may be relatively easy to identify, but it may be extremely difficult to get a good look with binoculars as these birds maneuver near the dark, forest floor. Most Costa Rican bird guides will quickly identify fly-over parrots by sound, but for birders who rarely see parrots, one needs to see good identifying visual marks. Other birds may be a problem because they are closely related to some other species (Tropical and Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees, Ruddy and Short-billed Pigeons, Sulphur-bellied and Streaked Flycatchers, Southern and Northern Rough-winged Swallows). 

Some bird families like the cotingas are not predictable anywhere, but one is likely to catch one or two somewhere along the way. Swifts and hawks can be problematic with too quick a glance, but that's the nature of birding anywhere. Sometimes one just has to admit ignorance. Other species difficulties, like Gray-headed and Gray-chested dove distinctions, are just a matter of field guide homework.

Ant Swarms - In order to have the best opportunity to observe certain antbirds, one really has to discover an army ant swarm where antbirds frequent. This is not particularly a common experience, but when someone runs across an army ant swarm it's important to focus on the entire event. When army ants march through an area, they drive a variety of insects, amphibians, and reptiles into the open where they are frequently eaten... usually by birds. The attending flock of birds may include several hard-to-see antbirds, flycatchers, and occasionally ant-tanagers. When someone runs across a small flock of antbirds, or finds army ants crossing a trail, it's important to stay with that activity for as long as possible. Over a short period, several species can be seen if one stays back a few feet from the ant swarm and quietly observes.

Spotted Antbird (left) - Jim Peterson (at Arenal)

This kind of activity does not happen with leaf-cutter ants or most of the other ant species. Only army ants generate interest from birds. Army ant behavior by itself is fascinating biology, but probably beyond the scope of this web site. What is important is for birders to know that many birds consider army ants a type of feeding territory. They follow them religiously, and finding these ants means you will also get to see several birds that are otherwise difficult to observe. A few of them, like the Ocellated and Bicolored antbirds, are extremely hard to see outside of ant swarms.

Mixed Feeding Flocks - In the tropics, it's a rather common               experience to walk into a deep forest habitat and not see any birds at all. Zero. None. This can be aggravating if one is birding alone, and it happens more often than you might think. However, the emptiness of the forest can change rather dramatically with a mixed feeding flock - a small flock of perhaps 5-20 species of birds that move quickly though the forest. Mixed feeding flocks are not exclusively a tropical phenomenon, but in the deep forests of tropical America, they rule.

A typical experience was one I had in southern Costa Rica. I walked onto a deep forest trail - the same short trail - every day for 5 days. The first two days I saw almost nothing. The next day, I saw a small flock of birds comprised of the following species: Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Plain Xenops, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and an unidentifiable woodcreeper. They were completely gone in 5 minutes of active feeding. The next day I saw nothing again. The day after that, however, I saw exactly the same feeding flock at almost the same location.

The nature of the mixed feeding flock is feast or famine. Over time, I found out this particular flock was fairly regular between 8-9 in the morning, but that's about the only pattern I could observe. As a birder, luck plays a role. Fortune has to shine on you. But one cannot assume the forest is dead just because of the initial silence. Mixed feeding flocks are comprised of several different species, sometimes entirely insectivorous and sometimes mixed with frugivores. Sometimes they will feed on the forest edges and in partial clearings and sometimes they stay completely within deep forest. Eventually one will be rewarded with the rush of a mixed feeding flock even if it's brief. The mixed feeding flock, as an entity, is a fascinating study by itself. Many of the birds within it have selected roles to play. The more one understands about mixed flocks, the more one will appreciate tropical ornithology.

Quetzals- The Resplendent Quetzal is a highly sought after Costa Rican species, but it's not particularly common even within the narrow zone of elevation where it is usually found. Only two major birding hot spots really advertise a good possibility of seeing the bird - Monteverde north of San Jose and the Savegre Mountain Lodge south of San Jose. Smaller lodges, like Paraiso del Quetzal, also offer a good chance at a sighting if one like places off the more typical tourist path. Birders have a relatively good chance to see the Resplendent Quetzal.... but it is not a slam dunk.

At Monteverde or any area where quetzals are regularly seen, quetzals will frequent the edge of the canopy sometimes out in the open. It's worth asking a guide if they know where they're being seen. Hiring a guide may make one's chances even more likely. The guides at Monteverde - even general natural history guides - know that most visitors at the park are eager to see a quetzal. It's not uncommon for the location of a morning quetzal sighting to be passed around from guide-to-guide.

Play Back - For those interested in bird sounds of Costa Rica, I'll recommend something I've used in both Costa Rica and the U.S. - smartphone audio playback. I have also used an iTouch and many of the guides I see carry an iPod for the same purpose. It's also possible to sync recorded sounds to an iPhone. Or one can go to the Xeno-Canto web site and download songs from Costa Rica.

[To date, I have found it difficult to find a complete commercial recording set of all the Costa Rica bird sounds.]

iTouch Birdjam with Costa Rican Birds Songs (right) 

I now use an iPhone App for Costa Rica called Birdseye. It contains most of the bird songs and pretty good photos of most of the Costa Rican birds. The iPhone itself comes with a small, internal speaker system that works fairly well. It has enough sound of its own so that one can learn many of the sounds casually, but to use it effectively in the field as a playback mechanism, one needs the decibel level of an external speaker system. 

I've seen several owls without the use of playback in Costa Rica, but recordings of this family could be important if they can be found. There are a lot of night sounds in the tropics at all seasons and having nocturnal bird recordings would certainly be helpful. Other vocalizations that are helpful in playback are the tinamous, antbirds, antpittas, leaftossers, and wrens. Most of these birds will respond to playback most of the year. That doesn't mean one will see them, but having them call back is an engaging enterprise and helpful to learning bird calls if not over-done.

Managing all the vocalizations I hear with a recording device, however, can absorb a lot of my time. At some point, my wife will start rolling her eyes. A playback mechanism is a nice toy and the iTouch and iPods are lightweight devices, but recordings are in no way critical to one's birding experience in CR unless one is trying for hard-to-see target birds. This is especially true if it's a birder's first or second time in the country. As I continue to travel in this country, however, I find playback recordings more and more useful. 

Photography - Photography in Costa Rica can be done anywhere with almost anything, but bird photography is another matter. A few places like Rancho Naturalista can bring hummingbirds to the room porch and make photography easy with the smallest digital camera. Deep forest birding, however, requires special lenses and better camera equipment. Bird photography now has become so specialized that there are several companies now doing nothing but bird photography in Costa Rica. A Google search can usually pick up 2-3 tours specific to bird photography. I now personally take a lightweight mega-zoom digital camera with a 30x zoom lens (Fujilfilm HS20) just in case I need to document something. I am not looking for the perfect bird photograph. My camera cost me around $500. I carry it with me around my neck and have become used to having it. Bird photography, however, is now a big deal in Costa Rica and avid photographers should have no trouble finding places that cater to bird photography.

Central American Pygmy-Owl - Greg Lavaty

If one does take a high-end camera, be vigilant about theft. There are scams that include thieves scouting out your vehicle in advance for the equipment and then making a determination on how best to separate the traveler from that equipment. Tourism is Costa Rica's biggest industry and I've seen a lot expensive optical equipment left unattended - even my own! I've never had anything stolen in Costa Rica myself, but I know people who have.

Taking A Scope - Personally, I have not found enough value in taking a spotting scope to Costa Rica. There's clearly a trade-off in weight, and one is now charged for luggage over 50 pounds on major air carriers, and 25 pounds on small aircraft. Most birds I'm looking for in Costa Rica aren't far out to sea or in distant, open-plain environments. It just never made much sense to drag along a scope and tripod. Many Costa Rican guides have them of course. I would be surprised if I hired a Costa Rican bird guide and he showed up without a scope or playback mechanism. But I can't imagine a pay-off that would warrant me dragging it on planes and lugging it around every time I got out of a vehicle. And I haven't even mentioned theft and insurance.

Costa Rica Bird Route - A route created for the low-impact birding tourist. Several important ecolodges are on this route. This is a good website with a variety of resources.

Bird Guides - Without a personal bird tour guide, birders in Costa Rica will likely lose some species no matter how much they know about the avifauna. It would be very hard to see and identify several antbirds, antpittas, rails, and most woodcreepers without a guide knowing in advance where they frequent or at least being very well-versed in their vocalizations. Only good birding guides can provide this (see my page on guide services). A good bird guide will also know where a manakin lek can be found or where a specific owl or potoo is known to roost in the day time. This will always be the trade-off to birding Costa Rica without a guide. To counter this problem, I frequently contact bird guides in advance for one day around a specific park or refuge or sometimes for two and three day trips. I've had good success with local professional bird guides within Costa Rica, and I won't hesitate to hire one for a specific day trip. I have a more thorough discussion of guides on the "Guides" page.

In my opinion, Costa Rica can be far more enjoyable if one is not officially "on tour." Tour groups can sometimes make one feel as if they're learning about a new place only through a bus windshield. I have enjoyed all of my group birding tours to Costa Rica, but I like to be able to bird on my own. Birding on my own allows me more time to think about the nuances of tropical ornithology while in the field. I give myself the time to soak it all up. I won't have the bird list I might have with a guided bird tour, but I'll be a better birder. Plus, I'll know more about the environment and habitat when birding on my own. There's no doubt travelers will have more personal feelings about Costa Rica when traveling by car and giving oneself the time to explore.

Boat-billed Heron - Greg Lavaty  

Finally, I recommend spending a good deal of time with local checklists and field guide range maps before leaving for Costa Rica. And as long as one doesn't bother other guides while they are on tour, I find most Costa Rican birders and guides friendly and helpful if birding in the same vicinity (but please don't attach yourself to someone else's tour).

New in November of 2009, is Barrett Lawson's Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica. This book is a new site guide to finding Costa Rican bird species by region. This is a nice book that gives the reader an outline of expected species at many of the standard Costa Rican birding locations. The location trail maps are particularly helpful.

I also recommend the "Costa Rica Living and Birding" blog by Pat O’Donnell which has relevant articles and pictures of Costa Rica birds, lodges, and habitats.