Birding along Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast is vastly different than in the cooler, wetter forests of the interior, where volcanoes rise and rain falls nearly daily. In Guanacaste, where Hotel Sugar Beach is located, the forests are dry tropical, rather than rainforest, and for half the year little or no rain falls at all.
Along the coast, however, thick mangrove swamps house the estuaries where birds congregate, to feed, to mate, to raise their young. These are the only permanent wetlands in this part of the country, and ripe grounds for good bird-watching even in the peak of summer, from January to April.
The larger wading birds in particular are common estuary residents: a variety of herons, such as the green, little blue, great blue and bare-throated tiger herons, can be seen year-round, stalking the silted shallows of the estuary’s edge, or heard cackling wildly from within the tangled thickets of the mangroves. Black-crowned and yellow-crowned night herons might be spotted bundled in the meshed branches, sleeping through the day.
Less often, the tri-coloured and boat-billed herons, as well as the reddish egret, will make an appearance; least common of all, but one of the great wetland treats of our region, the wood-stork, might pause here on his way to or from the Palo Verde National Park, a vast wetland sanctuary in southern Guanacaste.
Great, snowy and cattle egrets, along with regal white ibises, stand out brilliantly against the greens and browns of the estuary, and occasionally, a flight of roseate spoon-bills can be seen soaring, evoking the colours of dawn with their pale pink feathers. Anhingas are ubiquitous, found swimming with just their heads above water, or spreading their wings wide to dry.
Five species of kingfishers, including the ringed, belted, Amazon, American pygmy and green varieties, zip in unwaveringly straight lines up and down the length the rivers, rattling off a strident rat-tat-tat-tat-tat as they fly, usually followed closely by a mate.
Mating season is witness to the finest tricks of courtship. The male great egret suddenly sports a long, silken cape of breeding feathers with which to woo the females, and his normally yellow face can assume a distinctly green hue. The snowy egret, in turn, flushes red to his toes, while the cattle egret develops tufts of orange feathers on his head, back and chest. The tiger heron, in contrast, sings a love song to his lady, hunching down tight and then extending his long neck to its full length to prove his worth. Coyly, she might cast a glance or two his way to signal her assent.
Sharing the safety of a fallen log, black-bellied whistling ducks and muscovy ducks (including many hybrid varieties, likely from escaped domestic birds) fuss and preen alongside the larger residents. In the waning light of dusk, new mothers will furtively guide their train of fluffy young chicks across the estuary, the young’s camouflaged colouring barely discernible against the light and shadow of the mangroves rising from the water.
Early morning and sunset are the best viewing times in the mangrove estuaries that can be found along the coast near Hotel Sugar Beach.
Amazon kingfisher: Chloroceryle amazona
American pygmy kingfisher: Chloroceryle aenea
Bare-throated tiger heron: Tigrisoma lineatum
Belted kingfisher: Ceryle alcyon
Black-crowned night-heron: Nycticorax nycticorax
Boat-billed heron: Cochlearius cochlearius
Cattle egret: Bubulcus ibis
Great blue heron: Ardea herodias
Great egret: Ardea alba
Green heron: Butorides virescens
Green kingfisher: Chloroceryle americana
Little blue heron: Egretta caerulea
Reddish egret: Egretta rufescens
Ringed kingfisher: Ceryle torquatus
Roseate spoonbill: Platalea ajaja
Snowy egret: Egretta thula
Tricolored heron: Egretta tricolor
White ibis: Eudocimus alba
Yellow-crowed night-heron: Nyctanassa violacea