Location 4: Nicoya (Costa Rica)
Coastal birds and stunning forest trails.
Nicoya is the name for the bay on the coast of north-west Costa Rica. It is also often used as the name for the land around the bay. It is a fantastic place for waterbirds, particularly in the winter.
Nicoya includes the top wildlife destinations Parque Nacional Carara (often described as the best birdwatching site in Costa Rica and also very good for mammals) and Parque Nacional Palo Verde (during the drier part of the year excellent for large concentrations of waterbirds).
Many of the trails, including those in the forest at Parque Nacional Carara, are close to sea-level. There are also roads and trails that head up into the forested hills reaching approximately 500m.
- Site 1: Tarcoles Beach Walk I strongly recommend this to birdwatchers. A wide range of habitats with a wide range of birds. (GPS coords 09.7556N 84.6254W)
- Site 2: Parque Nacional Carara Perhaps one of the top destinations for birdwatching in the world. An atmospheric forest to explore. Mammals are also good and crocodiles can be seen where the main road crosses the river. (GPS coords 09.7809N 84.6070W)
- Site 3: Walk East of Tarcoles Extend your stay at this location with a walk along a quiet rural road. Alternatively drive to the places mentioned along this road. (GPS coords 09.7575N 84.6175W)
- Site 4: Palo Verde A national park with dry forest and marshland. (GPS coords 10.3456N 85.3390W)
- Birds Seen in 1 Week at Tarcoles (Winter)
Waders on the sand at Tarcoles. The overall look is of a sandpiper. I am reluctant to identify this from a photo as lighting and the lack of movement makes the subtle features more difficult to see. The bill is relatively short, chunky and down-curved. I typically use the breast and belly colours to help with identification. They are probably Western Sandpipers based mainly on the bill.
This information is a summary only and times/routes may have changed.
There is a public bus route from San Jose http://www.transportesjacoruta655.com which runs regularly. This can drop you off at Carara or Tarcoles. Once you are on the coast there are local buses between Quepos/Jaco/Puntarenas which stop at and between these towns. I got a bit confused at times because in this location the buses seem to sometimes do loops through the towns and just because a bus is headed north does not mean it is actually going that way! So, I recommend being careful and asking other bus-users for help.
If you have a hire car then you are in a great position to do some independent exploring and perhaps see lots of waterbirds very efficiently (that is if you are after waterbirds although these are not really the speciality of Costa Rica). If you drive along the coast you should find other places to stop as well.
In general I found that most locations in Costa Rica could be reasonably explored on foot: I did not find this at Tarcoles. The Tarcoles walk is stunning and one of the best "free walks" that I have found in Costa Rica but this is the exception. For example, Parque Nacional Carara is considered one of the best birdwatching locations in Costa Rica and the entrance is on this main road with no pedestrian access.
Some people stay at Manuel Antonia and come to Tarcoles/Carara from there. Others take a day trip from San Jose with a travel time by bus of approximately 2 hours each way. There are places to stay in the village of Tarcoles but you are likely to need some Spanish to book a place.
Palo Verde is also a beautiful place to stay if you enjoy dry forest and wetland. There is accommodation near and within the park. There is an ecolodge http://www.threepaths.co.cr which is part of the same organisation that provides accommodation at La Selva and Las Cruces. Alternatively, there is a campsite nearby run by the National Park http://www.sinac.go.cr/AC/ACAT/PNPaloVerde/Paginas/default.aspx although as usual you will need some Spanish to book.
Wow! Near the equator reptiles are able to grow very large. This green lizard was just under one metre long.
Wildlife of Nicoya
- likely birds: grackles, macaws, vultures, Kiskadee (and other similar flycatchers), storks.
- likely mammals: squirrels, monkeys, agouti, peccaries
- likely reptiles: lizards
- likely amphibians: frogs
- likely insects: ants, dragonflies
- possible birds: 312 species (of which 124 are likely)
- birds possible at this location but not in many other places in Costa Rica: (151 species) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis), Fulvous Whistling-Duck (Dendrocygna bicolor), Muscovy Duck (Cairina moschata), Masked Duck (Nomonyx dominicus), American Wigeon (Anas americana), Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors), Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata), Northern Pintail (Anas acuta), Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris), Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus), Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Crested Bobwhite (Colinus cristatus), Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), Wood Stork (Mycteria americana), Pinnated Bittern (Botaurus pinnatus), Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), Harris's Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus), Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea), Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Great Black-Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Rufous-necked Wood-Rail (Aramides axillaris), American Coot (Fulica americana), Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), Double-striped Thick-knee (Burhinus bistriatus), Collared Plover (Charadrius collaris), Wilson's Plover (Charadrius wilsonia), Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola), American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica), Southern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis), American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus), Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa), Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes), Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana), Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda), Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Surfbird (Calidris virgata), Sanderling (Calidris alba), Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos), Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii), Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), Red Knot (Calidris canutus), Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus), Long-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus scolopaceus), Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata), Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus), Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla), Franklin's Gull (Leucophaeus pipixcan), Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia), Elegant Tern (Thalasseus elegans), Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica), Sandwich Tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis), Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), Least Tern (Sternula antillarum), Black Tern (Chlidonias niger), Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger), Inca Dove (Columbina inca), Plain-breasted Ground-Dove (Columbina minuta), Violaceous Quail-Dove (Geotrygon violacea), Orange-fronted Parakeet (Aratinga canicularis), White-fronted Parrot (Amazona albifrons), Yellow-naped Parrot (Amazona auropalliata), Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (Morococcyx erythropygus), Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (Glaucidium brasilianum), Northern Potoo (Nyctibius jamaicensis), Cinnamon Hummingbird (Amazilia rutila), Green-breasted Mango (Anthracothorax prevostii), Plain-capped Starthroat (Heliomaster constantii), Turquoise-browed Motmot (Eumomota superciliosa), Stub-tailed Spadebill (Platyrinchus cancrominus), Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet (Camptostoma imberbe), Northern Scrub-Flycatcher (Sublegatus arenarum), Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (Tyrannus forficatus), Brown-crested Flycatcher/Nutting's Flycatcher (Myiarchus tyrannulus/Myiarchus nuttingi), Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis), Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis), Mangrove Vireo (Vireo pallens), Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius), Rufous-naped Wren (Campylorhynchus rufinucha), Banded Wren (Thryothorus pleurostictus), Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), Olive Sparrow (Arremonops rufivirgatus), Stripe-headed Sparrow (Aimophila ruficauda), Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis), Streak-backed Oriole (Icterus pustulatus), Scrub Euphonia (Euphonia affinis)
- resident birds: 216 (in addition there are 22 passage, 71 winter and 3 summer)
- birds seen on 1 week research trip (winter): 136 species
- birds most often seen on 1 week research trip (winter): (starting with most common) Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) 15x6 (m20), Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) 10x4 (m10), Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 8x2 (m7), White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica) 8x2 (m4), Rufous-naped Wren (Campylorhynchus rufinucha) 8x2 (m3), Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens) 7x3 (m4), Great Kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) 7x2 (m2), Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) 7x2 (m3), Chestnut-sided Warbler (Dendroica pensylvanica) 7x2 (m3), Blue-gray Tanager (Thraupis episcopus) 7x2 (m4), Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) 5x6 (m12), Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) 5x5 (m12), Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) 5x1 (m1), Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris) 5x7 (m12), Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea) 5x2 (m2), Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 4x39 (m150), Mangrove Black-Hawk (Buteogallus subtilis) 4x2 (m2), Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa) 4x2 (m2), Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) 4x2 (m2), Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) 4x1 (m1), Hoffmann's Woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii) 4x2 (m2), Wedge-billed Woodcreeper (Glyphorynchus spirurus) 4x2 (m2), Chestnut-backed Antbird (Myrmeciza exsul) 4x2 (m4), Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) 4x2 (m2), Blue-black Grassquit (Volatinia jacarina) 4x2 (m2)
- average birds seen in 1 day (winter): 44 species
In the winter this location is a good place to see waders, ducks and other waterbirds. So, if you are a birdwatcher this may be reason enough. For the more generalist wildlife watcher, Parque Nacional Carara is worth a visit as it offers excellent birdwatching combined with good chances of mammals, insects and a local population of crocodiles. Parque Nacional Palo Verde has similar wildlife but can be very hot and dry making it less suitable for a general recommendation.
For the list of possible birds I have included birds that you could see at Carara, Palo Verde and also other wetland areas around the coastline of the Bay of Nicoya. I have not personally explored the coastline with a hire car which is one of the reasons there is such a disparity between the list of "possible birds" and the list of "birds seen" for this location. I have read reports from other birdwatchers that say good numbers of waders can be seen if you explore side roads towards the coast.
In the open areas, birds such as flycatchers, grackles and pigeons/doves are common. I sometimes saw raccoons in the more rural areas. Because it is fairly wet I also saw kingfishers, egrets and other waterbirds which I think really adds to the spectacle. I like to look for places with non-intensive farming that does not have a busy road with my recommended walk at Tarcoles a good example of this.
The open habitats had the usual good numbers of birds such as flycatchers, grackles and pigeons/doves. I also found this location to be particularly good for wrens and sparrows in the more open areas (often feeding along hedges). The fields in and around Tarcoles get a special mention as they seemed to have lots of very good birds including waterbirds such as herons, egrets and kingfishers.
The forests are very popular with birdwatchers because they offer a lower-elevation forest on the Pacific-side that is easily accessible from San Jose. I also found the mammals to be good. If you are walking along a forest trail and there are no other people around I recommend walking in silence. Take the opportunity to be very aware of the noises of the forest and keep walking quietly for up to an hour. Eventually you can be lucky and be rewarded by mammals feeding without knowing you are watching or maybe you could see a rarer bird. On the northern trail at Parque Nacional Carara I have seen monkeys, agouti, peccaries and deer all possible. On the trails near the ranger station at Parque Nacional Palo Verde I have seen monkeys, agouti, peccaries, deer and coati.
The Jirabu is an unusual-looking waterbird that you might be lucky enough to see at Palo Verde.
This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on June 2017.
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