Birding Tips

Here are some tips on improving your birding skills from our resident bird guide, Patrick (Pat) O'Donnell:


Just Getting Started:

 Birdwatching. It’s an easy means of appreciating the outdoors, getting more in touch with your natural surroundings, and learning about the birds you see and hear while admiring the colorful combination of Hydrangeas, African Corn Plants, and Papaya trees in the garden, going hiking in the mountains, or even while waiting for the bank to open in the morning.

It’s also the main focus of our club and here in Costa Rica, we live in a pretty darn good place for seeing lots of birds. You do have to look for them in a bunch of places but there’s always going to be some new bird or bird behavior to experience.

The following are some tips that will hopefully help you in getting started with birding in Costa Rica:

  • Get good binoculars:  Binoculars (or binos) are the main tool of our hobby. If you really want to see birds well, upgrade from the small 10 X 20 travel binos to quality binos that are 7 X 42 or 8 X 42. The first number refers to magnification and the second to the measurements of the lens. 7 or 8 magnification is enough to identify birds and the higher the second number, the more light enters the binoculars which helps you see much more on the bird. Also, if you can get them, waterproof and fogproof binos are ideal. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find good binos in Costa Rica. Most of us buy good binos when outside of the country or have them ordered to a friend who then brings them to Costa Rica.

  • Get the field guide and study it:  That would be “The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide” by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean. The Stiles and Skutch book is also good but is more suited for reference, is rather big and bulky for the field, rather outdated, lacks range maps, and the illustrations are better in Garrigues and Dean. It’s important to study the book to see which birds might occur in your area as well as places you plan on visiting, and to become familiar with birds before seeing them.

  • Become familiar with bird families: As in, look at the book to see what a thrush is and why it looks different from a wren or tanager. This will make it much easier to mentally categorize birds by family as you see them in he field and will help with identification.

  • Over 900 species! Just too many to learn!: To this worry, I have to say something that frequently greets our ears, “Tranquilo, tranquilo, pura vida!” In this case, that means, “Don’t worry about learning all of the birds”. Although some may tell you other wise, no one knows everything about the birds of Costa Rica. There is always more to learn and although some birds will go unidentified, there will always be others that entertain with beautiful plumage, cheerful songs, and interesting behaviors.

  • Watch birds however you like:  Enjoy birds in the way that YOU like to do it. You can feed them in your garden, keep a list of birds that you see, just casually watch them from time to time, or listen and look for owls in the middle of the night. You can watch them however you want because this is after all, autonomous behavior (just don’t throw rocks or fire off a starting pistol to see them in flight).

  • Expect all sorts of birdwatchers:  While most of us in the club are pretty easy going about birds and birding, you might run into others who: seem standoffish because they want to focus every second on seeing new birds while in Costa Rica; are happy to share information and thoughts about birds; only want to show off knowledge; would rather walk alone; or are happy to watch birds with you. Just a note that there are people who partake in this hobby in all sorts of ways.

The best way to get started, though, is by focusing on the birds in your garden or around the house and looking for them in the field guide.

The Best Weather for Birdwatching:
"Summer" is beautiful in much of the Central Valley and the Pacific Coast. The skies are clear, the sun beats down, and the weather is mild. However, much to our misfortune, that’s not the best weather for birding. While it is a fair bit more productive for watching birds than pouring rain, hot, sunny weather is a recipe for a birdless day.

Sure, you will still find plenty of birds in the morning and some in the late afternoon, but for the rest of the day, it can seem as if our feathered friends are taking a siesta. In tropical habitats (and elsewhere), hot, sunny weather puts a serious damper on bird activity. The best weather for birding in Costa Rica is when the skies are overcast but not so much that they end up giving us a downpour. Even then, if the rain lasts for a short time, when it stops, birds seem to suddenly be flying from tree to tree and flitting through the branches of every bush. They also reveal their presence with song and it becomes much easier to find and see motmots, puffbirds, antbirds, and whatever else is hiding in the forest.

So, the next time overcast weather is called for, take advantage of that "good weather" and go birding!

Raptor Identification:
Hawks, eagles, falcons, kites, and more! More than 20 species of raptors occur in Costa Rica but we don’t see them nearly as often as we would like. This is because many species are naturally rare and a challenge to see in the forested habitats they call home. This also makes it tough to become familiar enough with raptors to identify them on those occasions when we do see them. The following are a few tips on learning to identify them:
  • Watch raptors during Spring migration: Spring raptor migration presents excellent opportunities for coming to grips with identification of Broad-winged and Swainson’s Hawks. The more raptors you watch, the easier it is to identify them. Watch for raptors in flight high over the Central Valley and look for them in the Caribbean lowlands.

  • Pay close attention to shape: First and foremost, try and get a handle on the shape of the bird in flight. Hawk counters don’t even bother with number of bands on the tail or whether the bird is barred or streaked on the underparts. They identify raptors based on their shape and once you learn the difference in shape between species like Swainson’s, Broad-winged, Short-tailed, and Gray Hawks, you will rarely fail to identify them. The same goes for Hawk-eagles and just about every other raptor species in the country. The Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica does a good job at showing the shapes of raptors in flight. Study that and watch for those shapes in the field.

  • Know that juveniles often look different from adults: The differences in plumages show by adult and immature raptors often throw birders for a loop. Although young birds can look quite different from adults, the shape will be the same.

It’s All About the Beak!
A lot of species have made it onto the bird list for Costa Rica. The list has topped 900 and there are still chances for new birds to be added in the form of extremely rare vagrants. Even if we took 200 of those birds off of the list, we would still have 700 possibilities to contend with!

With so many species to sort through, you can save a lot of time and cut through the confusion if you know where to look. In this case, knowing where to look refers to the bird itself and not the habitats where they occur (although that is helpful too). Diagnostic field marks are what we need to look for and although the locations of those field marks vary by species, a large percentage of birds show those helpful characteristics on the head. In fact, if you take a close look at the head, the beak might even be the best place to look.

Many tropical species are specialists or associated with distinct microhabitats. Many also evolve to eat certain types of food and this is reflected by the shape and or size of the beak. For example, although Hook-billed and Snail Kites are more easily identified by other field marks, if you can get a close look at the bill, you will see a long, curved upper mandible adapted for extracting snails from their shells.

In the case of woodcreepers, the beak differences may be subtle but they are certainly discernible and can help you separate a Cocoa Woodcreeper from a Streak-headed or a Tawny-winged from a Wedge-billed. For flycatchers, knowing the shape of the beak makes it easy to know that you are looking at a Greenish Elaenia and not a Yellow-olive Flycatcher.

Take a close look at the beaks of the birds you see next time to watch them in your backyard or in one of Costa Rica’s national parks. Don’t be surprised if you notice that most species have bill shapes that are greatly different or subtly distinct.

The Benefits of Just Watching and Waiting
One of the benefits for a birder living in Costa Rica is the high number of bird species found in so many areas. However, one often wonders where all those hundreds of bird species are after walking through a rainforest seemingly bereft of birds. We think, “Checklist of 300 species? Yeah right, more like 300 plus insects and a bunch of trees!”

Actually, there are a lot more than 300 species of insects because a lot of them are trying to hide from the hundreds of bird species out to eat them. Those same bird species in turn need to keep it on the down low to avoid predators and this is partly why we see so few when walking in the primary forest. Other reasons why we don’t see hordes of birds is because they are way up in the canopy and because most live at low densities and cover large territories. That last factor can make it especially tough to find birds but also hints at a good strategy for finding them.

Instead of hiking around the forest to search for birds, you can see quite a lot by just quietly waiting and watching the forest around you. Birds will eventually pass through their territories and if you are quiet, they might not pay you much attention, even shy species like tinamous, quail-doves, wood-quail, antbirds, and timid denizens of the rainforest.

Another means of seeing several birds while watching and waiting is by just hanging out near a fruiting tree. Keep watching and waiting and you will be surprised at the number of birds and species that make an appearance.

Use Water to Attract Birds
We could use some rain and so could the birds. Abnormally dry weather makes it more difficult for many bird species to survive and this is why we tend to find them concentrated at water sources.

In the Central Valley and the Pacific slope in general, the birdiest sites are going to be the evergreen riparian zones, and the edges of any flowing or standing bodies of water. Plants take advantage of this scarce resource and are in turn fed upon by insects which then attract a variety of birds and so on.

Even if you can’t find a riparian zone or standing water near your neighborhood, you can still attract and help birds by providing them with a simple bird bath, or better yet, a water drip. More birds will show up if you put the bath or drip in shade and close to vegetation because the temperature will be cooler than out in the sun, and they will feel more secure because they can hide in the vegetation if they see a raptor or other predator.

Watch the birds that show up, you never know what you might see!

Shape is the Key to Identifying Raptors in Flight
At this time of the year, look up into the sky and you might see flocks of Broad-winged and Swainson’s hawks flying overhead. Other less common raptors can fly with them and then there are the local raptor species that can be seen in the same binocular field.

As we have learned from those who count hawks, vultures, and other birds of prey at raptor migration sites, the best way to ID these types of birds is actually not by seeing if the bird has bands in the tail or other fine details, but by carefully checking the shape of the bird in question. While tail bands, barring, and streaking are important to note, the shape and flight style of the bird is much more telling.

For example, Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks can be told apart in flight even as silhouettes because the Swainson’s has longer, more pointed wings that are held in more of a “V” shape than the Broad-winged Hawk. In other words, it flies a bit more like a Turkey Vulture than a Broad-winged.

Another example is the Double-toothed Kite. This small raptor is most easily identified in flight not by its barred underparts or banding on the tail (many raptors show these field marks), but by the rather narrow wings, and longish tail with puffy undertail coverts. Another raptor that is commonly seen in flight, even over the Central Valley, is Short-tailed Hawk. Watch for the projecting head, and “swept up” wing tips similar to the tips of a modern day jet.

Patience is a Virtue, Especially for Seeing More Birds in the Rainforest
There are literally hundreds of bird species that live in the humid forested habitats of Costa Rica. However, you wouldn’t know it after taking a quick walk through the forest. A quiet, rather bird-less stroll is the usual experience with sightings of a few birds here and there rather than two hundred species happily marching through the bushes and trees. So where are all of those species? Is it some sort of scam perpetrated by the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo (ICT)? Are field guides authors just incredibly imaginative?

While the ICT does think of some interesting initiatives to bring more people to Costa Rica and some field guide artists are very creative, believe it nor not, all of those birds in the book have occurred in the country and yes, there truly are hundreds of species that live in and near rainforest.

Quiet a few actually live in second growth, wetlands, and other habitats rather than inside the forest itself so that is why we don’t encounter birds like Slaty Spinetail or Olive-crowned Yellowthroat when walking through the forest, and many other species escape notice because they live way up there in the canopy. As for the other birds, most are shy, are adapted to hiding in plain sight, and most are naturally rare.

These are a few of the reasons why you will end up seeing more birds (and other animals) in the forest when your birding is accompanied by a Jabiru-sized degree of patience. Take your time and pay very close attention to your surroundings and you might be surprised by what you find! Just quietly hanging out near a stream, in a spot with a good view of the canopy, or near a fruiting tree can also be a good way to see shy birds that eventually come out of the woodwork after getting used to your presence.

Where to see migrant species in Costa Rica
September and October are migration months in Costa Rica. This translates to thousands of shorebirds moving through coastal areas and making brief stops at turf farms and wetlands in the highlands, and a stream of warblers, vireos, grosbeaks, orioles, and other small birds passing through Costa Rica on their way south. You might also see a “river of raptors” flying south or other species on the move. However, after reading this, you might also be thinking, “What? I haven’t seen any birds flying overhead! I don’t see huge numbers of birds in the garden. Where are these supposed migrants?”

In answer to that question, here are a few places to look:

  • Coastal sites: A lot of birds migrate near or along the coast either for navigation, habitat, or because they don’t want to waste the energy and take the risk of flying over open water. These factors concentrate the birds along the coasts, especially at sites like Tortuguero, Cahuita, and the Manzanillo area. Expect shorebirds in wetlands and large numbers of small birds in forest and second growth near the shore.

  • Green space, especially with water: Forested riparian zones and well vegetated gardens in urban areas attract migrants because those places act as oases where birds can find food and shelter in sterile, cement-laden surroundings. Keep an eye on the garden because even uncommon species like Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cukoos can show up.

  • Overhead: Watch the skies and you may be surprised by the number of swallows in the air. Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows migrate through the country in large numbers and a lot go right over San Jose. You might also see some migrant hawks.

Field Guide or Field Notes?
When we head out into the wilds of the backyard or rainforest, we need a tool for bird identification. The obvious answer would seem to be a field guide because after all, isn’t that its purpose? While yes, a field guide is an essential item when birding, there are times when you might not want to use it. For example, let’s say that you chance upon a big mixed flock. You see a few unfamiliar birds and want to identify them so you take off the day pack, get out the book, and start thumbing through the pages. Even though it takes a couple of minutes to realize that you saw a Russet Antshrike and a female White-throated Shrike-tanager, by the time you put the book away, the birds are gone except for one straggling Chestnut-sided Warbler!

Or, you might see an upright flycatcher perched on some distant snag. You can see that it has a white line down the breast, so when you look through the flycatchers, it’s easy to realize that it was an Olive-sided. However, your satisfied smile disappears when a few birders approach and ask if you saw the Solitary Eagle fly past (ouch!).

Don’t ever leave the book at home but in many circumstances, you will be better off looking up the birds during lunch than certain times in the field. Tropical birds are rare by nature and can be easily overlooked. Instead of looking at the book when a mixed flocks passes through, try to remember field marks and jot those down in a small notebook just after the flock passes through. When no birds are around, then you can take out the book and identify what you saw. Otherwise, you are just about guaranteed to miss species including rare chances at Sharpbill and other uncommon birds. Another solution is birding with more than one person so they can get you onto a bird that you would have missed when looking at the field guide.

Lighting & Bird Identification
When we talk about “lighting” and birds in the same sentence, we aren’t referring to track lights or other means of illuminating interior décor. Lighting for birding is all about how well we can see the bird. In general, the more light, the better we can see a bird’s field marks and colors, and the easier it is to identify.

However, a bright sunny day doesn’t always translate to easy bird ID either. If we have to look up at a tanager against a light background, we end up seeing a silhouette instead of bright colors. If we have strong light on part of the bird, it can look orange when it is yellow, or bright rufous when we usually see brown.

It’s good to remember that challenging lighting conditions are a normal part of birding, especially when we see birds that don’t look familiar or like the pictures in field guides. If the bird doesn’t seem to match up with an image, lighting conditions might be obscuring field marks that we need to see, or making colors look different from ideal conditions. If you see a bird that evades identification, switch positions to see if the bird can be viewed against a dark background or from an angle with light shining on the bird instead of behind it. That might be what you need to clear up the ID issue.

A Few More Tips for Better Bird Identification
Anyone who as spent any amount of time looking at birds is aware of the challenges associated with their identification. Other than Tropical Kingbirds and Rufous-collared Sparrows, the times are far and few between when a bird will perch in perfect light and let us look at it for as long as we want. Such avian lovers of attention are the true rarities in the bird world because most species love to hide in thick vegetation, fly away as soon as they see us, or just evade detection entirely. This non-cooperative behavior doesn’t help with bird identification, but there are countermeasures to make it easier to put a name on a bird. Here are a few tips:
  • Study before heading outside: Although a field guide is designed to facilitate bird identification in the forest, marsh, and garden, every bird expert has spent countless hours studying the guide long before heading into the field. Studying the book at home makes it easier to recognize the birds we come across, especially if we know which field marks to look for.

  • Group birds by family: Learn how to recognize birds by “group” or ”family” and identification becomes much easier. This goes for everything from “obvious” birds like hawks and eagles to knowing the subtle differences that separate vireos from wood-warblers (small vireos have larger bills and heads, and more deliberate foraging behavior).

  • Focus on field marks: If you already know what to look for, you can watch for an eyering, wing bars, or other characteristics that put a name on a species. Quite often, the head of the bird is a good place to start.

How to See Target Species
Target birds are those certain species a birder has always wanted to see. The bird might be a Red-capped Manakin, a shy Nightingale Wren, or an elusive, mind boggling Lovely Cotinga. Whatever the bird is, here are some tips to see those target species:
  • Start out with a field guide: Look in a field guide and look at the range map. This is where the bird could occur. Don’t expect it elsewhere and you still have to find the right habitat within the mapped range.

  • Habitat: Read about the habitat. Does it like second growth? Riparian zones? Mangroves? Primary forest? Use the Internet and bird finding guides to find out where such habitats occur. Google Earth can also help.

  • Behavior: Ok, now that you know where the bird might live, learn about its behavior. Does it perch high up in a tree or is it a nasty skulker? Does it come out at night or sing a lot? Do you need to wait by flowers or fruiting trees?

  • eBird: To see where the target species has been seen, use eBird. This is a fantastic resource and the best, overall database for bird sightings in Costa Rica and many other paces on the planet. Although not every bird sighting can be trusted, you can get a fair idea about places to look for target birds.

  • Know the field marks: Finally, make sure that you know what to look for to recognize the target species when you see it. You could also hire an experienced guide but these tips will help if you want to do it on your own.

Identification of Nightingale-Thrushes
Nightingale-thrushes. Why not just Nightingale? Why not just a thrush? After all, they are in the same esteemed family as the good old Yiguirro. In fact, they are even in the same genus as the Swainson’s Thrush, Hermit Thrush, and other Catharus species.

I suspect that the tropical Catharus species were given that binomial title because they looked so different from their small, brown, spotted brethren from the north. Some have bright orange legs or bills, and they do share a long-legged appearance with the true Nightingales of Eurasia.

Whatever the reason for the name, that has little to do with their identification. In Costa Rica, we have five species of nightingale-thrush, here are a few tips to identify them:

Range: Most of these birds are similar in size and behavior and that’s why we don’t usually find them in the same habitat and place. Take habitat and elevation into mind and you will have a good idea about which nightingale-thrushes are present. Although two species can sometimes be found in the same area, in general, the rubric goes something like this:

  • Central Valley, moist forest, and second growth: Orange-billed.
  • High elevations: Black-billed.
  • Upper middle elevations: Ruddy-capped.
  • Middle elevation cloud forest: Slaty-backed.
  • Foothill and some cloud forest: Black-headed.

Focus on the head: Like most birds, if you can get a good look at the head of the bird, you can identify it. This holds true for all nightingale-thrush species that occur in Costa Rica.

Although nightingale-thrushes are typically shy, one of the better ways to see them is to watch for them feeding at the edges of roads and trails in the early morning and late afternoon.

Green Oases for Birds
Many people live in an increasingly urbanized world. Where places aren't turned into concrete and asphalt, many areas are converted to agriculture. This modern fact of life leaves less and less room for birds and other animals because even when farm fields look green, they actually don't provide food or shelter for most bird species. Since most of Costa Rica was historically forested, most of the bird species that live and migrate through Costa Rica are adapted to forest habitats. There are exceptions but most migrants need forest, and trees and bushes that host insects and fruits required for survival.

When warblers, vireos, thrushes, cuckoos, and other migrants arrive in Costa Rica, they have flown hundreds of miles during the previous nights (they probably fly at night to avoid predators), and when they touch down, there are two main things they do: (1) find shelter, and (2) find food. Good shelter usually coincides with food and typically comes in the form of forest or similar areas with thick vegetation. In San José and other urbanized places, such bird-friendly areas are restricted to isolated parks, riparian zones, and big gardens. These rare patches of green space essentially act as oases in a desert of concrete and thus become very important places for migrants birds at this time of the year.

If you have a large garden, allowing some trees and bushes to grow might help more migrants that we realize. Keep an eye out for birds in the garden and parks during October, you might be surprised at what you find.

Where are the hummingbirds?
Are the hummingbirds absent from your yard? If so, they might have taken a gastronomic vacation to the chayote fields of Ujarras. At this time of the year, many of the chayote plants are in bloom and can attract hundreds of hummingbirds. These farms are located behind and near the ruins of Ujarras. Look for cultivations that resemble “closed canopy” vineyards.

If you still have hummingbirds in the yard, then your yard probably has a constant food source and thus no reason for the hummingbirds to leave. Away from the garden, many hummingbirds seem to move around quite a bit. Although we know very little about the movements made by those little feathered dynamos, we do know that several species make altitudinal migrations in search of choice flowering plants, and since hummingbirds need to have a constant food source for everyday survival, most will probably keep moving until they find that food source. To find those “missing” hummingbirds, keep an eye out for flowering bushes and trees, especially Porterweed and Inga species trees.

Are High Magnification Binoculars Always Better?
You might find yourself looking into new binoculars for yourself, a birding friend, or family member. If so, these are a few tips to keep in mind:

High magnification: Since we buy binoculars so we can see birds much closer, off hand, it would seem that higher magnification would always be better. In reality, this isn't exactly the case. While you do want optics that bring the image close enough, we don't want binos so powerful that the image is constantly shaking, and we can't even find the bird in the field of view to begin with. This is why most binos fall in the range of 7 to 10 times magnification (the first number on the binoculars). Anything over 10 is probably too much for easy birding.

Field of view: This basically stands for how much or how little area is visible when looking through binoculars. It also refers to the second number on a binocular. The larger that number, the wider the field of view and vice versa. For example, 10 x 42 binos will show a larger area than 10 x 32, and 8 x 42 will show more than 10 x 42. Field of view is important because it's easier to find a bird when raising the binos to the eyes with a big field of view.

Light: Since we are diurnal beings, this is a big factor when looking at birds. The more light a binocular lets in, the better. We can see more colors, more details, and augment our appreciation of even the most common of birds. This is also related to the second number on the binoculars, as well as the quality of the optics. The larger the second number, the more light comes in through the binocular barrels.

Birding in the Wind
As we are all aware, there is often very windy weather in Costa Rica. It’s a challenge for everybody, especially for watching birds. In fact, wind might even be worse than rain because most species opt for shelter in some hidden spot whereas as some species will at least come out during rain. A couple of tips for birding in windy weather:


  • Reschedule: If you can go birding another day, this is probably the best option. You won’t see much during high winds and might have to deal with downed power lines.

  • Think like the birds: Ok, so they have wings and might just fly elsewhere but since that might take them far from home, most are more likely to hunker down. They still have to eat, though, so look for habitat in ravines and other spots sheltered from the strong breeze. Keep watching close to the ground and you might be surprised at what shows up.

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