Santa Rosa National Park

On May 31st Doran and I met Ollie Esquivel of Natural Discovery outside the gate at 5:30 am for our second birding outing. The best way to see lots of different birds is to visit as many different habitats as possible, so we had picked a full-day outing covering both the dry forest of the northwestern Pacific and the rainforest in the valley between Rincon de la Vieja and Cacao Volcanoes. The description on the website sounded terrific, as it promised the best combination of birding spots in Costa Rica. I was a bit worried about the weather, as afternoon showers in the rainforest are almost a given even in the dry season, and we were now over a month into the rainy season. I packed my rain gear and prepared for wet conditions, though I hoped that any showers would be light and of short duration.

When Ollie arrived I told him about the martins I had seen perching on top of the antenna on the roof at the resort, so he set up the scope and we got some great views. I also told him about the Ringed Kingfisher that perches in the trees in the large pit outside the gate, and sure enough when we looked we saw it fly by. Ollie also got me my first lifer of the day just down the road when he spotted three Crested Caracaras in the woods right next to the road. These huge falcons were on my wish list, and I was thrilled to see a couple of them together.

Once again we stopped at the rice fields for a quick look. We counted about 20 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, 30 Great Egrets, a Purple Gallinule, and a Black-necked Stilt. The two Jabiru were there once again, and this time they were on the west side of the road so I didn’t have to shoot into the sun. Ollie mentioned that they were likely feeding on eels that lived in the water of the rice fields, something that seemed strange to me as I had never heard of eels living inland before.


I was much happier with my photos this morning, as not only was the light much better, but the birds were also much closer. Adult males and females are similar in appearance, although the male is larger than the female and has a longer bill. It was hard to gauge their respective sizes as they weren’t standing close together.


A Limpkin was also present again, and this time it was closer to the road.


We stopped in Liberia for a brief pit stop before heading north, and here I added House Sparrow and a few more Gray-breasted Martins to my Costa Rica list. We then turned onto the Pan-American Highway, a huge 30,000 km road that runs all the way from the tip of South American to the top of Alaska. Although it was originally designed to be one long road, the Pan-American Highway is interrupted between Panama and Colombia by a 100 km stretch of marshland known as the Darién Gap. It was too expensive and would have caused too much environmental damage to continue the road through the Darién Gap, so motorists must bridge the gap by sea.

It was nice to see more of the country as we headed north out of Liberia, and we stopped three times before reaching our destination. The first stop was adjacent to a wet field where we found two Wood Storks and 12 Southern Lapwings foraging. The Southern Lapwing is a shorebird in the plover family which, with its black facial pattern, black breast, and white underparts, is fairly easy to identify as there are no other similar species in its range. Like many other plovers, the Southern Lapwing is most often found in grassland habitats, though it also frequents coastlines and bodies of water. Away from water they may be found around paddocks, pastures, farms, lawns, and any other urban landscape with short, grassy vegetation.

Southern Lapwing

At no. 172 on my list of target species, the Southern Lapwing was found on 1.9% of all checklists, and a bird I figured I had little chance of seeing. Of the two resident shorebird species, I figured I’d have a better chance of seeing the Double-striped Thick-knee (no. 53 on my list; found on 7.4% of all checklists). The Southern Lapwing is a fairly recent addition to Costa Rica’s avifauna, having first been recorded in 1997 and considered resident as of 2007. It is slowly spreading north as a result of deforestation.

We made our second stop a few minutes later when we saw a Crested Caracara perching on top of a post next to the road. This bird was perching on the west side of the road, so the light was perfect. The Crested Caracara is a member of the falcon family, and was a species I was expecting to see at no. 15 on my list. Although it can be found as far north as Texas and Florida, I had missed it on our trips to Florida and Mexico. Interestingly enough, a bird was seen in Ontario only six months ago – one turned up just outside of Wawa in early December 2016!

Crested Caracara

My lifer Harris’s Hawk was perching in a tree on the east side of the road just a few kilometres away; the light was directly behind the bird, casting it in silhouette.

Our last stop was a metal bridge over a sluggish river. Ollie noticed a Green Kingfisher perching in a tree below the bridge, but it had flown by the time I crossed the road. I heard my first Yellow-Green Vireos singing here, sounding very much like our resident Red-eyed Vireos in Canada – these two birds were once considered part of the same species complex.

We entered the Santa Rosa National Park and traveled slowly down a narrow paved road toward the forest. We saw a White-tailed Deer in an open field about five minutes after entering the park; like many Central American mammals, it was smaller than its North American counterparts. Not long after we entered the forest we got out and started birding along the road as it passed through an old stand of evergreen trees, the Bosque Siempreverde (in Costa Rica, an evergreen is a tree that doesn’t lose its leaves during the dry season). We heard much more than we saw, but eventually a few birds popped out into the open. The first bird was a drab, tiny bird with a long, straight bill and at first all I could think of was a gnatwren. Ollie corrected me; it was a Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, which at 4 inches long was one of the smallest flycatchers I’ve seen. At no. 71 on my list, it was found on 4% of all checklists, and had a plain gray head and greenish back.

Birding along the road

Small birds seemed to be the theme of the morning as we found a couple of Long-tailed Manakins in the area; my life bird was a pretty green female (6″ long), though we later saw the extraordinary male with its black body, red cap, blue back, and long central tail feathers. The plaintive, whistled three-note song accompanied us throughout most of the day, though the singers rarely came out into the open. At no. 7 on the list I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t seen one.

A pair of Chestnut-capped Warblers (formerly known as Rufous-capped Warblers based on the split of that species due to their different songs and ranges;) followed, and I got a few fairly good looks as they fluttered through the vegetation. These 5″ birds look almost like female Common Yellowthroats except their heads and cheeks are red with a white supercilium. They were no. 21 on the list.

A flycatcher darted out into the open, the perched on a branch right above the road. Though it’s hard to see the hammerhead appearance from this angle, the unique head shape identified it as a Royal Flycatcher. This species has a beautiful frilly red crest that it rarely opens and a long, tawny tail that, at 7″, makes it one of the larger birds of our walk. At no. 280 on my list it wasn’t a bird I thought I would see, let alone get such great views!

Royal Flycatcher

Other birds were less obliging, including a tiny 3″ Stub-tailed Spadebill, an almost tailless member of the flycatcher family with a distinct facial pattern; an Olivaceous Woodcreeper; a Yellow-Olive Flycatcher; two Brown-crested Flycatchers which I left to Ollie to identify; and a Banded Wren which I thought was very beautiful. We could also hear a low-pitched humming noise coming from within the woods; Ollie said it was the call of a Great Curassow, and although it sounded close, when we followed a small side trail into the forest we were unable to spot it. I was disappointed as the curassow is a large land bird, something like a turkey with a head full of curly feathers.

The most stunning birds of our walk were an Elegant Trogon, the only red-bellied trogon on my life list and one of Santa Rosa’s specialties, and a Lesson’s Motmot. We saw the Elegant Trogon on the side trail, quite far from the path, and there were too many branches in the way to get any sort of photo; plus, it kept flying deeper into the woods every few seconds. The Lesson’s Motmot, like most motmots, just sat there motionlessly. It, too, was several feet from the road, but Ollie found a gap in the branches that allowed me to take a few photos.

Lesson’s Motmot

Lesson’s Motmot wasn’t in my field guide, but while I was studying my eBird target list I learned that it used to be known as the Blue-crowned Motmot. In 2010 a single species known as the Blue-crowned Motmot was split into five different species; one of these new species was the bird that retained the name Blue-crowned Motmot, whose range extended from southern Mexico to central Panama. Then, in 2016 – the same year that Gray-necked Wood-rail was split into Gray-cowled and Russet-naped Wood-rails – Blue-crowned Motmot was further split into Blue-capped and Lesson’s Motmots. Blue-capped Motmots have entirely blue crowns, while all the other members of this group have a blue ring of feathers surrounding a black crown. The Blue-capped Motmot is found north of Veracruz, Mexico, while Lesson’s Motmot is found further south.

Lesson’s Motmot is a fairly common bird in Guanacaste; it is no. 24 on my list. Interestingly, I enjoyed my lifer Lesson’s Motmot and Elegant Trogon more than the other birds; I suspect this is because most of the other birds were flycatchers, which is a family I’m familiar with from the birds back home, whereas motmots and trogons are tropical species and are therefore somewhat mysterious. Or it may simply be that flycatchers are generally drably coloured, while the motmots and trogons have brilliant hues of red and green and blue.

After birding the road for a hour we drove deeper into the park and found some picnic tables where we ate the breakfast that Ollie provided. It was hard for me to sit still at the table, especially when I saw a couple of large birds fly into the trees just down the road (White-throated Magpie-Jays) and Doran noticed this amphibian hopping away:

Túngara Frog

Of course, this species wasn’t in my wildlife guide, so I wasn’t able to identify it immediately – it wasn’t until I joined iNaturalist a few years later that it was identified for me as a Túngara Frog, whose name is derived from the sounds the male frog makes during courtship: the ‘tún’ is a whiny call, which is followed by two or more chucks sounding like ‘gara’ (this one was not callling). One interesting thing that turned up during my later searches for Túngara Frog is that it may have a mutualistic relationship with certain tarantulas of the genus Aphonopelma . Some types of frogs, of which this species is one, develop mutually beneficial relationships with tarantulas in which the spider may protect the frog from predators while the frog protects the spider’s eggs from ants! This was the only amphibian that we saw on our trip – we didn’t see any of the tiny, colourful species featured on so many tourist websites such as the Poison Dart Frogs or the Red-eyed Tree Frogs, chiefly because we weren’t in the right habitat, and many of these are only active at night.

Our driver noticed the monkeys in the trees a little further along. Both Howler Monkeys and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys were present, and we spent some time photographing this one sleeping on a limb out in the open.

White-faced Capuchin

I got my next lifer while eating breakfast, the Scrub Euphonia. A family group was moving around near the tops of the trees, including a male and several females or juveniles. This was a bird I had hoped to see in Mexico, and spent some time learning how to distinguish it from the other common euphonia, the Yellow-throated Euphonia (the Scrub Euphonia has a black throat). Euphonias are small finch-like birds that were once considered tanagers but now belong to Fringillidae, the finch family.

Scrub Euphonia (female)

Scrub Euphonias are found along the coasts of Central America from Costa Rica north to Mexico. Males are smartly attired with a glossy blue-black head, chest, and upper-parts, and yellow underparts. The forehead is yellow, too. Females are duller, with yellow underparts and greenish-gray upper-parts. Once we were done eating our breakfast we got to see both at close range when we found them eating fruit in a small clearing. This common bird lives in a variety of habitats including arid or humid forest, scrubby woodland, open fields with scattered trees, and villages with fruiting trees. It is no. 30 on my list, tied with Elegant Trogon for being seen on 11.6% of all complete checklists.

Scrub Euphonia (male)

We walked along a dirt road out in the open before entering a trail that led through the forest. As usual, there were butterflies everywhere, though few sat still long enough for a photograph. This daggerwing was one of a few attempting to glean moisture from the dirt road.

Many-banded Daggerwing

I also saw this butterfly land briefly on a leaf and had time to take one photo before I needed to catch up with Ollie. It appears to be a a species of Cattleheart, a family of butterflies that are dark with scalloped edges on the hindwings, and a distinctive red patch on the hindwing extending across several cells.

Parides sp.

The trail through the forest was very nice, a wheelchair-accessible concrete path with benches at various junctions. The trail was relatively new, and relatively birdless. We heard a Long-tailed Manakin and saw Clay-coloured Thrush and another Banded Wren. Two Chestnut-capped Warblers darted in and out of the vegetation, while the songs of the Yellow-green Vireos accompanied us throughout our walk – we even managed to see one foraging at the tip of a branch. There was no wildlife to speak of, although Ollie did point out these Leaf-cutter Ants marching up and down a tree. This was my first experience with them, and although I’m not particularly fond of ants – I much prefer six-legged creatures with wings – I was quite entranced by their industriousness as they formed a long line climbing up into the canopy and another long line coming down with their prized pieces of leaves.

Leaf-cutter Ants

We drove back to the same spot along the main road where we’d had such great luck earlier, though the driver stopped just before we got there – a female Great Curassow was walking slowly in the vegetation at the side of the road! While males are entirely black, females have a dark head and a rufous body. I was really glad we saw the female; she was spectacular. At no. 69 on my list, the Great Curassow was one of the birds I hoped to see on my trip; however, I’d had higher hopes for another large terrestrial bird, the Thicket Tinamou, instead. These red-legged, nearly tailless turkey-like birds are supposed to be easy to find at Santa Rosa National Park than other places, their long whistled notes a common sound of the forest, but if any were present, they kept silent and well-hidden. Thicket Tinamou was no. 18 on my list and one of only two birds out of the top 20 that I missed.

We got out of the van a little further up the road, where Ollie spent some time whistling the song of a Cabanis’s Wren trying to get it to show itself. The wren was halfway up an open slope, singing in response, but it refused to show itself. I did get a look at a male Long-tailed Manakin, as well as a Northern Bentbill, another small, plain-looking flycatcher with a pale eye and a peculiar downward kink in its bill. This was one of the more difficult birds to see in Guanacaste at no. 217 on my list (similarly, the Stub-tailed Spadebill was no. 207). Then Ollie heard the song of a Rufous-and-white Wren, and this one responded when Ollie whistled back. We got good views of it as it came out into the open on a bench about 15 feet high. As its name suggests, it is white below with reddish upper-parts. It also has some fine black streaking on the side of its face and tail. It was great that the wren was so obliging; the Cabanis’s Wren was completely ignoring us. Of these two wrens, Rufous-and-white Wren was ranked lower on my list at no. 39, and Cabanis’s Wren was no. 89, having been seen on 4% of all checklists. Eventually I decided to count the Cabanis’s Wren on my life list as a “heard only” bird as by the time Ollie and the wren finished their duet I was very familiar with its song – it now joins the likes of Cerulean Warbler and Sedge Wren, two other birds I’ve heard but never seen.

By the time we finished birding Santa Rosa National Park I had added 17 life birds to my list that morning:

  1. Crested Caracara
  2. Southern Lapwing
  3. Harris’s Hawk
  4. Elegant Trogon
  5. Lesson’s Motmot
  6. Olivaceous Woodcreeper
  7. Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
  8. Stub-tailed Spadebill
  9. Royal Flycatcher
  10. Long-tailed Manakin
  11. Banded Wren
  12. Chestnut-capped Warbler (fomerly Rufous-capped Warbler)
  13. Scrub Euphonia
  14. Great Curassow
  15. Northern Bentbill
  16. Rufous-and-white Wren
  17. Cabanis’s Wren

This wasn’t as many as I had hoped to see, but I had high hopes for the second segment of our outing, a trip to the rainforest. However, the park was beautiful and the weather was sunny, so I thoroughly enjoyed our time in the tropical dry forest of the Pacific Northwest.


Ebird Checklists:


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