Birding Costa Rica’s Northwestern Pacific Coast

“Jabiru,” called Charlie, our Costa Rica Expeditions guide. The large bird rose to the sky over the catfish ponds at Guardia with slow steady wing beats. It clearly was larger than the storks that also were in flight.

Our Audubon Naturalist tour group had traveled north on the Interamericana Highway to Liberia, and then headed towards the Pacific coast. We witnessed structural damage and downed trees from the heavy winds that had whipped through Costa Rica the prior few days – and had caused a change in itinerary for our group. We passed many handmade signs along the road advertising sandias (watermelon) for 200 colones (about 50 cents).

After lunch and michaladas at the restaurant next to a catfish farm, the owner gave us permission to explore the birds that congregate on the ponds. One of our first sightings was of a Limpkin. There also were Wood Storks, Blue-winged Teal, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Black-necked Stilts, Northern Jacanas and Great Egrets. In one pond, there was a group of dowitchers.

“Normally we expect Long-billed Dowitchers.” Charlie explained, “However, when I was here with another group recently, one of the participants said he had heard Short-billed Dowitchers.” Since they were silent, we couldn’t make a positive ID and debated whether they had the ‘swallowed a grapefruit’ look of Short-billed Dowitchers.

In another pond several Least Grebes appeared secretive as they dove and resurfaced near the edges.

“Look, there’s an Osprey,” someone pointed. “And, it has a fish in its mouth.”

Our bus in front of Casa de Conde Mar

Our bus in front of Casa de Conde Mar

Our home for the next two days would be Casa de Conde Mar on the Golfo de Papagayo. As the road wound through the canyon leading to the ocean, it reminded me of driving through Topanga Canyon before it drops down into Malibu. The closer we got to the water, more impressive the houses became.

While other guests at the resort were lounging by the pool, we started checking out the bird life in the mangrove woods behind the rooms. A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl alerted us with its call. A White-fronted Parrot flew in.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird

As dusk was approaching, we wandered out to the beach. Magnificent Frigate Birds were floating on the thermals and a flock of Brown Pelicans flew by.

It was a calming ending to the day.
playa-panama-sunset

During the drive to the Parque Nacional Santa Rosa the next morning, Charlie filled us in on the historical and ecological significance of the park while we ate our boxed breakfasts – cheese sandwiches on crustless white bread again.

“Although most of the park is a dry forest, our first stop will be in a small segment that is actually a rain forest,” Charlie said as the bus pulled over so we could explore.

Where's the Trogon?

Where's the Trogon?


“Trogón,” called Niño, our excellent driver and spotter.

A male Elegant Trogon was perched on the branch of a tree, half hidden by branches. “This is its southern-most range,” Charlie told us.

“A life bird for me,” Stephanie exclaimed when she had a chance to look at it through the scope.

As we walked further, we had the opportunity to see the female – a first for me, since I only had seen the male in Arizona.

We were delighted to be able to see a Western Slaty Antshrike. The three antshrikes seen at various locations were the only “ant birds” for the trip.

“Curassow,” Mark gasped. We turned to watch a Great Curassow walk through the trees and then disappear into the woods – but not before we had a chance to see its curly crest feathers.

Charlie pointed out a vanilla bean orchid. The vanilla bean used in cooking is actually the fermented seed pod of this orchid plant. We had a chance to smell the flower, which also had a faint vanilla aroma.

Next we wandered down a road past the park headquarters in the dry forest part of the park with many new sightings for the trip, including Yellow-throated Vireo, Western Tanager, Olive Sparrow and Indigo Bunting – all clustered in about the same area.

All of a sudden, a Blue Morpho Butterfly floated by – our first for the trip. We all held our breaths, especially Marion.

Blue Morpho Wings

Blue Morpho Wings


“This is our gift for having to change our itinerary,” I stated. Before we returned to the bus, we had three sightings of the Blue Morpho. Niño found a dead one lying on the side of the road, which enabled us to get a close-up view of its still-brilliant wings.

As we walked back to the bus, we stopped to watch a Pale-billed Woodpecker drumming industriously in a nearby tree.

santa-rosa-batsIn the historic Hacienda, which is now used as a museum, we watched a mixed group of bats hanging from the ceiling in one of the rooms. Occasionally, one or more would flutter off its perch and groggily fly around the ceiling.

There were several Spiny-tailed Iguanas sunning themselves. When one of us got too close, the iguana would lumber off.

After lunch and siesta back at Casa de Conde Mar, some of the group headed back to the catfish ponds. New birds for this visit included Little Blue, Tri-colored, and Green Herons.

As we approached the pond with the dowitchers, Mark heard one of them call. “It’s a short-billed,” he exclaimed. “I heard the tu, tu, tu sound.

In the same group of birds were both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs.
catfish-ponds-cattle-egret
A small herd of cattle were grazing in the grass between two of the ponds, each with one or more Cattle Egrets hovering nearby.

A Peregrine Falcon sat in one of the trees bordering the ponds.

The clouds turned crimson and gold as the sun was setting while we walked back to the bus.

The following morning, Sue and I walked out to the beach just before dawn. The swallows already were up, swooping over the beach and snatching insects. We stopped in awe as we watched the moon slip over the horizon just as it began to get light.
playa-panama-dawn
A Willet walked along the water’s edge. As it got lighter we could see two Spotted Sandpipers working the outgoing tide.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper


One last early morning bird walk. One last Hoffman’s Woodpecker. One last Rufous-naped Wren. One last roar of a Howler Monkey. One last Variegated Squirrel.

White-throated Magpie Jay

White-throated Magpie Jay

As we gathered for breakfast in the resort’s open-air dining area, two White-throated Magpie Jays flew in and perched on the back of an empty chair at the end of our table. They were after the sugar packets at the table behind us. They took turns taking short flights over the table, grabbing a sugar packet, and then sailing up to the branch of a nearby tree, where they poked a hole in the top of the packet and retrieved the sweet nuggets.

And then it was time to load the bus and take those leaving from Liberia to the airport to check in. Since there are no facilities at the airport, we all drove down the road a short distance to a restaurant, which appeared to be the unofficial airport eating spot. After enjoying our final plato tipicos we posed for a group picture.
cr-group-image_9-feb-09

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One thought on “Birding Costa Rica’s Northwestern Pacific Coast

  1. I got back last night from 10 days in Guanacaste and found your info, plus Stiles, Skutch and Gardner’s “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” of terrific help. Although I was largely ‘confined” to the Riu Guanacaste (new resort) area, I did spot 75 species in various and sundry outings. Mighty hot, though, for those having a tough time coping with daily 100F highs.

    Bird of the trip? Long-tailed mannakin seen and heard twice in some undergrowth of scrub forest close to the beach. Incredible sight and sound!

    I have a question and hope someone ventures a guess: I spotted an olivaceous-colored, seedeater, 5″ or so, in a small mangrove area. Some stripes along back. My guess is that it was a female but I’m stumped as to what it might have been.

    If anyone is interested, I’d be glad to share more about my April 2010 birding experience in Guanacaste.

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