Birding Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Lowlands

la-hacienda-countrysideAs we dropped down through the clouds hovering over the crest of the Cordillera Guanacaste, the landscape suddenly changed. Our Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) tour group had entered Costa Rica’s dry seasonal forest and was greeted with rolling hills of dry grass, cattle ranches, rice fields and sparse trees. Never in my wildest dreams had I envisioned this type of ecosystem in a country known for its tropical rain and cloud forests. It reminded me of the rural Southern California of my childhood.

Our destination was Hacienda La Pacifica, nestled amongst the oak and Guanacaste trees, where the architecture of the rooms was similar to many in New Mexico. Its rustic setting necessitated the use of flashlights or head lamps when we walked to and from our rooms after dark – or before dawn.

Sue was excited to finally see the White-throated Magpie-Jay when it came into feed with Great-tailed Grackles at the seed feeder.

As we explored the grounds that afternoon, we discovered bats snoozing under the eaves of the portal in front of the reception area and nestled in groups under the fronds. “They are so cute,” Rebecca, our bat aficionado, commented excitedly when she looked at them through the scope.

Sleeping Tent-making Bats

Sleeping Tent-making Bats

Other birds observed on the grounds included Squirrel Cuckoo, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Canivet’s Emerald, Rufous-naped Wren, Barn Swallows, and Costa Rica’s national bird – the Clay-colored Robin (seen every day of the trip).

We met for breakfast the following morning at 4:45 and then set out for Parque Nacional Palo Verde, located on reclaimed pastureland along the Rio Tempisque. The dirt road crossed the large irrigation canal that provides water for agriculture, rice fields in various stages of production, and other farmland with their web of acequias. Flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Barn Swallows swirled over the fields. We paused to look at a Black-headed Trogon perched beside the road.

The wind continued to blow, with gusts up to 30 – 40 mph. We hoped that it would keep the mosquitoes down.

Niño stopped the bus. Standing unperturbed in the road was a Double-striped Thick-Knee, a type of shorebird. Nocturnal feeders, they stand motionless during the day, and this one seemed reluctant to get out of our way.

A flash of orange caught our attention – a Spot-breasted Oriole. Red-lored and White-fronted Parrots, along with Orange-fronted Parakeets squawked as they flew in.

As we headed towards the Catalina Lagoon, we encountered downed branches from the winds. At one point, the men jumped out to help remove a large limb, which Niño hacked at with his machete. And we were on our way again.

At the lagoon beyond the trees, we braced ourselves against the wind as we observed Northern Jacanas, Great Egrets, Wood Storks, Crested Caracaras, Little Blue and Great Blue Herons, and Muscovy Ducks. A flock of Wood Storks rose into the air.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork

In another lagoon Anhingas, Black-necked Stilts, Glossy and White Ibis and Fulvous Whistling Ducks foraged with the above species. A Snail Kite perched on a fence post in the marsh, and then took flight, allowing us to see its white rump.

palo-verde-ponds We walked out on a rickety boardwalk bordered by flowering water lilies and grazing horses with Cattle Egrets hovering nearby. A mixed flock of terns were resting at the edge of the marsh – Caspian, Elegant, Royal, and one Gull-billed. I looked at the Gull-billed Tern through the scope to see its identifying characteristics, since it was a life bird for me.

“It is very rare for us to have Caspian Terns here,” Charlie, our Costa Rican Expedition guide, told us.

Next we headed up a hill behind the research station, part of the Organization for Tropical Studies based at La Selva. The trail was covered with the dry, fallen leaves from the oak trees that shed their leaves during the dry season.

We heard Howler Monkeys calling and before long were standing under a group of trees where the howlers in one tree were trying to outdo those in the other trees. We decided that it probably was not a good idea to continue standing under those trees, and moved on up the hill, leaving the monkeys to their squabbles.

Our next find was a Crane Hawk. We could see its long orange legs as we peered through the scope.

“I think I see a Long-tailed Manakin,” I said as I perched precariously alongside the steep trail. Bill came to take a look and confirmed my sighting before it flew off, its two long tail feathers floating behind it. Fortunately, Charlie spotted it later so everyone could take a look.

While Bill and I were looking at the manakin, the others had found a Turquoise-browed Motmot, which was still there when we joined them.

We ate our box lunches under the shade of some mango trees. Mangoes dropped as the wind buffeted the branches. Pretty soon we noticed White-throated Capuchin monkeys swinging into the trees near the clearing, lured by the sound of falling fruit. Some of them became braver and ventured closer. They would take a bite out of a green mango, find it distasteful, and then throw it down. In order to get the ripest fruit, they needed to come even closer. At one point I counted 10 monkeys. Watching and photographing them was one of the highlights of the trip.

White-throated Capuchin Monkey

White-throated Capuchin Monkey

Before we left the park we checked out a watering hole to see if there were any birds. Stephanie, our ANS guide pointed out some of the unique characteristics of the plants along the trail.

Don't lean against the Sandbox Tree

Don’t lean against the Sandbox Tree

“Isn’t that amazing,” Tena said as Stephanie explained the symbiotic relationship between the Bullhorn Acadia and the ants it hosts.

I decided not to lean against any of the nearby trees.

The next morning we made one more pass through the grounds before breakfast. Charlie found a Turquoise-browed Motmot.

Yellow Warblers flitted among the trees. “When they dip their heads into the red flowers, they get red pollen on their chins,” Charlie explained when I inquired why the warblers had red heads.

A white-fronted Parrot landed in a Guanacaste tree and we saw our first Green-breasted Mango for the trip, a female.

One of the trees was filled with a flock of hungry Baltimore Orioles. A Brown-crested Flycatcher sat quietly on the branch of another tree.

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Brown-crested Flycatcher


The Howler Monkeys were busy in the trees. “I got a great picture of a mother with her baby,” Janean told us.

And then it was time to head to another part of Guanacaste province.


2 thoughts on “Birding Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Lowlands

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « It’s a bird thing…

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