The Owls of Costa Rica and How We See Them
The birds of Costa Rica include more than four dozen glittering and common hummingbird species, a host of beautiful tanagers, several parrots, two larger than life macaws, and much more. A wonderful assortment of birds have been found within the borders of this small country, more than 930 species packed into a place the size of West Virginia.
As with every top birding destination, some birds are easier to see than others, there are species lurk in dense, dark forests, and others that blatantly sing from roadside cables. The best thing about birding in Costa Rica is that no matter where you look, you will see birds. However, you might not see owls. Well, yes, you can see them, we have several owls, most are more common than people realize but if you don't know where see owls, you probably won't find them. These are the many owls of Costa Rica and how we routinely see them:
The Big Ones
A large owl or two or more live in most places on the planet. In Costa Rica, we have several medium to large, resident owl species. Thankfully, all are common.
Locally known as the "Oropopo", this species haunts forest and riparian zones with big trees from sea level to 2,000 meters or more. They prey on small mammals and other animals, and we often find them in woodlands at eco-lodges. To show people this beautiful bird, we bring them to roosting sites we know of, or look for them at dawn and dusk in places we know.
As with many owl species, before its call was known, this stunner was believed to be rare. Nowadays, we know that this species is common and expected in many lowland areas and can sometimes be seen hunting for bats and insects near streetlamps! We look for them in various places and show people birds at various known sites.
One of the most versatile owls in Costa Rica, its gruff call can be heard in forest and small patches of woodland from the lowlands to cloud forest. A lot of birders visiting Costa Rica have seen this species roosting in the gardens of the Hotel Bougainvillea. We see them there, at other sites, and at dusk and dawn in many parts of the country.
The exciting Striped Owl is a bird of open, grassy habitats, marshes, and even urban zones. We sometimes know of a roost but also see this bird in several other places, usually perched on power lines at night.
One of the top owls, this species of humid and moist forest is fairly common in a number of places. It can be tough to see but we keep track of roosting sites and occasionally find them during the day.
The Odd One
The "odd" owl is the Barn Owl, the only Tyto species in Costa Rica. This bird is found from lowlands all the way to pastures at 3,000 meters but is a local species. Although it's not the main bird most visiting birders want to see, we still keep track of known roosts and know reliable spots for it.
The Small Ones
These are the screech-owls, pygmy-owls, and the rare Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. At least one or more of these small owl species is found in every part of Costa Rica.
This little beauty is one of the easiest owls in Costa Rica to see. Active and vocal during the day, we often find them in dry forest and edge habitats on the Pacific slope.
Central American Pygmy-Owl
On the other side of the mountains, this species occurs in and near lowland and foothill rainforests. This is another bird commoner than most people think. It just escapes detection because it hides in the canopy of tall forest and doesn't always call. We know several good sites for them and have often gotten pictures at Laguna del Lagarto among other sites.
Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl
One of three near endemic owl species in Costa Rica, this bird is an uncommon resident of high elevation forest. We find them at a number of high elevation sites, sometimes seeing them when they are mobbed by Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and other small bird species.
This screech-owl occurs in woodlands in the Central Valley and on the Pacific slope from Jaco south to Panama. It's common in many areas but you still need to know where to look.
A common screech-owl of dry forest, this bird is pretty easy to see at roosts around Cano Negro and other sites, and at night in many places. Sometimes, we also find birds in their roosting or nesting holes.
This screech-owl of highland forest is fairly common and pretty reliable in many places. Once in a while, we also see one during the day, like the birds in this image.
Middle American Screech-Owl
Although not as easy to see as the other screech-owls in Costa Rica, it is not a rare species and not too tough if you know where and how to look for them. They are most common in areas of lowland rainforest but populations also occur in moist forest on the Nicoya Peninsula and near Monteverde.
This little bird is one of the best owls to see in Costa Rica because it is almost certainly an undescribed species endemic to southern Costa Rica and western Panama. Reclusive and uncommon, we find it around the Golfo Dulce and some other sites.
This picture is from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl
This picture was taken by Dani Lopez Velazco in Costa Rica and is from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
This special bird is a tough one. It only lives at high elevations, doesn't always call, and is pretty uncommon. Even so, with time and going with the right people, it can be seen. When we look for it, we usually go with local ornithologists who work with this species.
The Ones We See in Other Countries
The fourteen owl species listed above are resident species. The following three birds are also on the Costa Rica bird list but are vagrants to Costa Rica, and thus much easier to see in other places.
Great Horned Owl
Although common in many other places, this big bruiser is a rare winter vagrant in Costa Rica.
More than a century ago, small numbers of Short-eared Owls wintered in marshes in the Central Valley and probably other parts of Costa Rica. However, at present times, North American populations of this species are much lower than they used to be. A rare and adventurous vagrant could still make it to Costa Rica, we hope so as that would be one of our best sightings ever.
The cute Burrowing Owl is another rare vagrant. We suspect that a few end up in Costa Rica from time to time in November but finding them in the wide expanses of pasture and agricultural lands in Guanacaste would be like finding a needle in a haystack.
As with so many other places, seeing owls in Costa Rica can be a challenge, especially if owling on your own. They can be found but not as many and only with a substantial investment in time. Like anywhere, the best way to see more owls in Costa Rica is by working with experienced local guides that know where to find them. When we focus on owls, we can see a lot. During one such custom tour, we had 14 species of owls. Which owls would you like to see in Costa Rica? Tell us about them by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.