Costa rica: Part I – the birds

Crimson-fronted Parakeets Above: Crimson-fronted Parakeets (Aratinga finschi) in flight over the Central Valley

The Honeymoon

Costa Rica is one fifth of the size of the UK (if it were a US state it would be 42nd by area). However, it is one of the most biodiverse places on earth and boasts nearly 900 species of bird. What better place to choose for a Honeymoon destination? In our three weeks in this beautiful country, my wife and I took part in a range of activities and adventures, but a birder cannot visit Costa Rica without spending some time watching birds. Even my wife got into the spirit … seen below photographing Black Vultures…

Lily and Vultures

By the end of the trip, I had photographed at least 117 different species of bird (there are a couple I haven’t been able to definitively identify), and spotted many more. Here is a selection of the avian fauna of Central America (many birds will be familiar to American readers, but were largely excitingly new for a Brit abroad).

The birds

Gray-headed Chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps) congregating in heavy rain:

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Crested Guan (Penelope purpurascens), a rainforest-dwelling cousin of the Turkey, and the Chachalaca above:

Crested Guan

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) a smart-suited relative of the cormorants, that we saw fishing the rivers of the rainforest:


A couple of snaps showing a female and juvenile (respectively) of the Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) soaring over the Caribbean coastline. I last saw these stunning birds a decade ago nesting on the Galapagos. They famously harry other other birds to steal their fish so as not to get their own feathers wet by diving:

Magnificent Frigatebird

Juvenile frigatebird

We saw a number of different herons including: this Bare-throated Tiger Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum)…

Bare-throated Tiger Heron

… the enormous Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)…

Great Blue Heron

… Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)…

Snowy Egret

… Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)…

Cattle Egret

… the almost ubiquitous (and not very green!) Green Heron (Butorides virescens)…

Green Heron

…and finally, the extraordinary looking nocturnal Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius)…

Boat-billed Heron

We also saw lots of Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis)…

Green Ibis

… and hundreds of Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)…

Black Vulture

…and Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)…

Turkey Vulture

… which would sometimes swarm together on thermals way above the forest canopy:


Whilst we photographed White-faced Capuchin monkeys (see next blog post) from a boat in the jungle, a Double-toothed Kite (Harpagus bidentatus) flew in and fed off a large insect disturbed in the trees by the boisterous monkeys:

Double-toothed Kite

We were also afforded good views of the Roadside Hawk (Buteo magnirostris):

Roadside Hawk

… and the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo Platypterus)…

Broad-winged Hawk

I was hugely lucky to see the unusual (as it is the sole species in its family) Sun Bittern (Eurypyga helias) which, a few seconds after I took this photo of it, flew away revealing a mesmerising sunburst pattern hidden whilst walking but which explains its name:


We got close to the Northern Jaçana (Jacana spinosa) which holds the record for having the largest feet in relation to its body size of all vertebrates:

Northern Jaçana

There are many beautiful doves and pigeons in the Americas. I photographed a few, including the Red-billed Pigeon (Patagioenas flavirostris)…

Red-billed Pigeon

… and the wonderfully marked Inca Dove (Columbina inca)…

Inca Dove

The tropics are famous for parrots. We were incredibly lucky to see the rare and enormous Great Green Macaws fly over our car, but were unlucky in not capturing them in pixels. Whilst often seen at great distance and so only just identifiable in fuzzy shots, I did photograph three of the Psittacidae: Crimson-fronted Parakeet (Aratinga finschi)…

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

… Brown-hooded Parrot (Pionus menstruus)…

Brown-hooded Parrot

… and, White-crowned Parrot (Pionus senilis)…

White-crowned Parrot

I was warned by a local guide about the ominous powers of the strange looking Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris):

Groove-billed Ani

The proximity I was able to achieve with the Crested Owl (Lophostrix cristata) was a result of the fact that the bird had an injured wing (I obviously kept enough distance to avoid causing distress). This normally terminal misfortune was countered by the owners of the eco-lodge where we were staying who took the owl off to a rescue centre, from where we were told the bird was making a strong recovery towards being released back into the wild:

Crested Owl

Costa Rica is blessed with over 50 species of Hummingbird – always a delight for visitors to the New World from the Old World where they do not occur. Here are a small selection from the 12+ (uncertainty reflects the difficulty I have in identifying some of them) species I photographed during my visit: Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemilecurus)…

Violet Sabrewing

… Magenta-throated Woodstar (Calliphlox bryantae) on the left and Brown Violet-ear (Colibri delphinae) on the right of the feeder…

Volcano and Brown Violet-ear

… The beautiful Rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) was perhaps the hummer I saw most frequently in a range of different environments…

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

…Purple-throated Mountain-gem (Lampornis castaneoventris)…

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

…Violet-crowned Woodnymph (Thalurania colombica)…

Violet-crowned Woodnymph

… and finally, one of the birding highlights of my trip to Costa Rica. One of two endemic hummingbirds (found only in Costa Rica) and of a total of three endemic birds found on the mainland (there are three more found on Cocos Island way out in the Pacific), is the Coppery-headed Emerald (Elvira cupreiceps)…

Coppery-headed Emerald

Birders travelling to Costa Rica will often hope to see the Resplendent Quetzal. We did not have this pleasure, but we did see its close relative, the Slaty-tailed Trogon (Trogon massena):

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Equally stunning are the Motmots, such as the Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota)…

Blue-crowned Motmot

…and Broad-billed Motmot (Electron Platyrhynchum)…

Broad-billed Motmot

I photographed three of the six species of Costa Rican Kingfishers, including:

The common Green kingfisher (Chloroceryle americana)…

Green Kingfisher

… and, largest Kingfisher in the hemisphere, Ringed Kingfisher (Ceryl torquatus)…

Ringed Kingfisher

You don’t have to be nutty birder to appreciate the incredible Toucans:

One of my favourite photos of the thousands I took in three weeks was of the Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus)…

Collared Araçari

We also saw the Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus)…

Keel-billed Toucan

… and the Chesnut-mandibled Toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii)…

Chesnut-mandibled Toucan

Here are two of the four woodpeckers I snapped:

Lineated Woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus)…

Lineated Woodpecker

… and the much smaller Black-cheeked Woodpecker (Melanerpes pucherani)…

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

I only photographed a couple of the huge variety of similar looking treecreepers such as the Streak-headed Woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii):

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

One of the largest families of birds in Costa Rica are the flycatchers, such as:

Common Tody Flycatcher (Todirostrum cinereum)…

Common Tody Flycatcher

The devilishly difficult to identify (there are numerous species that look almost identical) Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens)…

Eastern Wood Pewee

It is perhaps worthwhile me pausing here to thank Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean for their excellent book, Birds of Costa Rica (Helm Field Guides) which was invaluable…

Birds of Costa Rica

…the appealing Black Phoebe (sayornis nigricans)…

Black Phoebe

And then, there are the birds I unscientifically call, the yellow flycatchers (Yes, I know Tody was yellow, but he is different), which are probably two-a-penny to Americans but are exotic and different to us Europeans:

There was the noisy and widespread, Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus)…

Great Kiskadee

… the similar-looking Social Flycatcher (Myozetetes similis)…

Social Flycatcher

… and the beautiful Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholichus)…

Tropical Kingbird

There is a strange and small selection of corvids in Costa Rica, such as the Brown Jay (Cyanocorax morio)…

Brown Jay

There are numerous wrens in Costa Rica, but they are very tricky to spot hidden in dense jungle undergrowth. I probably heard five or six, species, fleetingly saw three or four, and photographed a couple, including the Stripe-breasted Wren (Thyrothorus thoracicus)…

Stripe-breasted Wren

I saw a few different members of the Thrush family including the familiar-looking Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) with its differentiating spectacles…

Swainson's Thrush

…and… *DRUMROLL*… ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the National Bird of Costa Rica…

…the Clay-coloured Thrush (or Robin) (Turdus grayii)…

Clay-coloured Thrush

…the rather nondescript bird holds the honour of the being the National Bird of Costa Rica because of its impressive song.

There are lots of warblers in Costa Rica including residents, such as the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat (Geothlypis poliocephala)…

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat

… and, a number that migrate down to spend the winter away from North America, such as the Tennessee Warbler (Vermivora peregrina)…

Tennessee Warbler

There is also the unique and scientifically confusing cousin to the warblers, the wonderfully named Bananaquit (Coereba flaveola)…


I was lucky enough to photograph 12 members of the Tanager family, including the common, but beautiful, Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus):

Blue-gray Tanager

…and the Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata)…

Golden hooded Tanager

Whilst the photo is heavily cropped and blurry, I had to include the stunning Red-legged Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus)…

Red-legged Honeycreeper

… and the closely related – albeit this female and juvenile look quite different from the male – Shining Honeycreeper (Cyanerpes lucidus)…

Shining Honeycreeper

The most common sparrow in Latin America is the Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonatrichia capensis):

Rufous-collared Sparrow

There were lots of the invasive, Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus):

Great-tailed Grackle

And the extraordinary, Montezuma Oropendula (Psarocolius montezuma) famous for the huge hanging basket nests across Latin America:

Montezuma Oropendula

And finally (finally), I wanted to share a photo of the beautiful little Olive-backed Euphonia (Euphonia gouldi) which I had never even heard of before I went to Costa Rica, but which was often present during our stay in so many wonderful places there:

Olive-backed Euphonia

And relax!

I am aware that I have posted a few too many photos to be good blog etiquette, but I wanted to give a sense of the variety of the incredible avian life in an incredible country.

And that was just the birds, but I shall share other wildlife in another blog post when people have had a chance to get some fresh air.

5 thoughts on “Costa rica: Part I – the birds

  1. oblequante

    Your pics are absolutely fantastic. I esp like the Tennessee Warbler and the sheepish looking owl .. and the boat-billed heron. They show great character. I also like your dab about the ‘boisterous monkeys’. The most inspiring item of all for me was the ‘volcano hummingbird’. It is such a splendid name. I don’t know if you saw a msg I sent you some months ago about swifts and Canary Wharf pubs. I recall you mentioned CW pubs in a pvs blog. Well, I left my job at Reuters on Friday and repaired with about 50 cols to the North Pole pub. The Timothy Taylors was very acceptable. At the end of the evening though it became evident that the landlord was a bit down in the mouth. ‘We’re closing in January,’ he says, shaking my hand mournfully. ‘Thirty-two years I’ve been here since the docks closed in ’81. They’re going to build a thirty-two story hotel.’ It felt as if we were at a wake for the pub, rather then the pub was hosting a leaving do for my mere 25 years with Reuters. If you visit the Pole, you can only get there via Byng Street at the moment.

    brgds Ron Askew … Emma and Leo … Watching Swifts … Kew Gardens, one summer …

    Date: Sun, 1 Dec 2013 13:41:50 +0000 To:

    1. iago80 Post author

      Thanks very much for the message Ron and the kind words. Congratulations on your milestone and leaving Reuters.

      Sad to hear about another old pub closing.

      I hope the writing continues to go well.


  2. Pingback: Costa Rica: Part II – three ecosystems explored | iago80

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