Birding Costa Rica’s Northwestern Lowlands at Caño Negro

A variety of waders fed in the marshy areas on both sides of the road as we headed towards Caño Negro –Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, a Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Storks, a Green Heron and Northern Jacanas were dotted around the edges of the ponds. The air was balmy, with a slight breeze – not the suffocating heat I had expected.

Our Audubon Naturalist Society(ANS) tour group had traveled to the northwestern lowlands, a few kilometers from the Nicaraguan border. We then headed west towards the village of Caño Negro, which lies within the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, an Internationally Important Wildlife Area for wintering neotropical shorebirds and waders. We stopped to get out, stretch our legs and get a good look at the birds.

Further along the road we paused when we spotted both Ringed and Green Kingfishers and a Black-headed Trogon.

Ringed Kingfisher

Ringed Kingfisher


After eating lunch and getting settled into the Natural Lodge Caño Negro, we took the first of two boat rides to explore the refuge, accompanied by our Costa Rican Expedition guides, plus a local guide who also operated the boat.

Exploring the Rio Frio

Exploring the Rio Frio

As we set off along the Rio Frio towards Lago Caño Negro, a variety of kingfishers darted back and forth across the river – Green, Ringed, Amazon and Belted. The sun now was hot and we were glad we were in a boat with a canopy.

White Ibis, Wood Storks and Neotropical Cormorants foraged on a small inlet. Caño Negro has the largest concentration of cormorants in Costa Rica. Mangrove Swallows swirled and dove around us. Occasionally one would land on the canopy for a free ride. Anhingas concealed themselves in the branches of the trees along the waterway.

Clouds began to gather as we headed towards the lagoon, and before long it began to rain lightly. Within a short time, the rain pelted harder and harder until it came down in sheets. We donned our rain gear and protected our cameras and optics. Our driver turned the boat around to head back to the dock. Charlie and Niño, our Costa Rican Expedition guides, stood beside the local guide trying to shield him from the driving rain with their umbrellas out in front.

By time we arrived back at the dock, the storm was passing. As we alighted and walked towards the bus, we saw Spotted and Least Sandpipers and a Purple Gallinule. We were delighted to see an American Pygmy Kingfisher on a low branch next to the path.

The call of a Great Kiskadee greeted us as we gathered for our pre-breakfast walk the next morning.

“Great Antshrike,” Charlie whispered. Before long, he located it in the bushes across from our rooms and made sure we all got good looks. Another new bird for the morning was a Stripe-headed Sparrow.

“A large bird flew into that tree over there,” someone called. A Striped Cuckoo.

Striped Cuckoo - Photo by Sue Clasen

Striped Cuckoo – Photo by Sue Clasen

“It reminds of the Greater Roadrunner we have in the Southwest,” I commented. Both are part of the cuckoo family and have streaked coloring, a long tail and shaggy crest.

After breakfast, we headed back to the river. As we started walking down the path, we stopped while a Bare-throated Tiger Heron inched across.

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

While it was cloudy, it was not predicted to rain, so we road in an open boat. We were grateful for the overcast skies which kept the temperature bearable. As we cruised along the Rio Frio, the scenery reminded me of the jungle ride at Disneyland. I was half expecting something to pop out of the bushes.

Nicaraguan Grackles, very localized to this area, strutted along the bank of the river in an open spot, alongside the more numerous Great-tailed Grackles and another cuckoo, the Groove-billed Ani. The bright orange feathers of wintering Baltimore Orioles looked like small beacons in the branches of the trees along the river.

We pulled the boat ashore and walked across a muddy meadow in hopes of spotting a Great Pootoo.

“Look for a stick,” Bill advised.

“Come here,” Charlie called. Sure enough the pootoo looked like an extension of an upright branch until we looked through the scope. A nocturnal bird, it was snoozing.

Great Pootoo

Great Pootoo


Howler Monkeys scrambled in a tree nearby. Green Ibis called as they flew overhead. A Pied Puffbird and a Slaty-tailed Trogon rounded out our sightings.

Back on the river, we spotted Boat-billed, Green and Great-blue Herons. And, like the previous day, a plethora of kingfishers worked the edges, and Neotropical Cormorants and Anhingas watched for fish.



We watched as a Prothonatory Warbler dipped down to retrieve an insect off the water.

We wound our way into the lagoon. A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture perched alongside the edge of the lagoon, and then took flight and circled, flying low over the marsh.

“You can differentiate them from other vultures as they always fly low over their territory,” Charlie explained.

Further along, a Laughing Falcon stood watch.

A flock of Wood Storks were circling overhead, and then settled on the water.

As we glided through the lagoon, we startled a mixed flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Blue-winged Teal and they took flight, with the teal in the lead. In flight we could see the white wing stripes and orange bills of the whistling ducks.

Back on the river, we stopped to watch a Lineated Woodpecker working in its nest hole.

“It is throwing wood chips out,” commented Fred.

A Caiman languished along the shore.

Smiling Caiman

Smiling Caiman

“It looks like it is smiling,” Marion commented.

Further along two Ringed Kingfishers erupted into a squabble. It appeared as if one of them was an interloper in the other’s territory.

We could have glided along the river much longer; however, it was time to return for lunch. As we walked from the boat, a churring sound erupted from the nearby reeds.

“Crake,” Niño said.

Charlie whipped out his iPod and started calling the White-throated Crake. We were determined to get a look at it, since the ones at Sarapiqui had eluded us. The crake started responding and pretty soon darted between clumps of marsh grass, but not everyone got a look. Niño walked down near the marsh hoping it would flush, while Charlie continued to call it. This time the rest of us saw it as it popped out momentarily.

A Tri-colored Heron posed nearby and a Barred Antshrike worked the trees along the path.

After our siesta, we walked around the town of Caño Negro. One of the residents had set out fruit on their grass, and Yellow-throated Euphonias and Red-legged Honeycreepers were feasting.

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Variable and White-collared Seedeaters alternatively rustled in the grasses along the road and perched on the wires.

Charlie located a Lesser Nighthawk, still sleeping in a tree adjacent to a field where boys were playing fútbol.

“What kind of trees are these?” Stephanie asked as we walked along. They were planted in symmetrical rows.

“Teak,” Charlie replied.

Alongside the road, the teak farm was bordered by a ‘living fence,’ made by sticking branches of trees in the ground where they quickly sprout. They are kept pruned to fence height.

We watched a Golden-olive Woodpecker fly back and forth across the street. It was a new bird for the trip.

As we emerged from our rooms the next morning for our before-breakfast walk, two Green Ibis honked as they flew overhead and then landed in the tops of a nearby tree.

Green Ibis

Green Ibis

A Cocoa Woodcreeper was gleaning insects at the edge of the property.

Suddenly there was a cacophony of bird song from the fig tree adjacent to the dining hall. A flock of about 50 Orange-chinned Parakeets descended into the tree and started eating the fruit.

“They look like leaves, only fatter,” Joyce commented as we struggled to locate the parakeets once they landed in the tree.

They joined Yellow-crowned and Yellow-throated Euphonias, Blue-Gray Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Passerini Tanagers, and seedeaters. We could see flashes of yellow, blue, orange and red as they moved around the tree.

After breakfast it was time to load the bus and head towards our next stop. As we traversed the dirt roads leading to Upala, eagle-eyed Niño spotted a Trogon.. He stopped the bus so we could get out and take a look at the Violaceous Trogan. While we were watching, it flew off and it was replaced by a Black-headed Trogon!

Black-headed Trogon

Black-headed Trogon

A Keel-billed Toucan landed nearby, and then was off.

Blue-black Grassquits buzzed and flitted in the grass across the road.

Two Red-lored Parrots flew into a tree down the road. Crimson-fronted and Olive-throated Parakeets joined them.

At a marshy area we stopped to locate Gray-crowned and Olive-crowned Yellowthroats. Mark and Bill spotted a kite perched on a snag across the marsh. “It’s got to be a Plumbeous Kite,” Mark stated.

“You are probably right,” Charlie confirmed. “Mississippi Kites should be in Argentina right now.”

And then it was time to head to the dry side of Costa Rica.


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