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Bitterns, Wetlands and Boat Rides

Location: Caño Negro town

Usual birding spots: Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge by boat, Caño Negro town environs, Medio Queso Wetland from the road or by boat, San Emilio road. 


Caño Negro is a wildlife refuge located near the border with Nicaragua. The Frio river is one of the most important tributaries for the San Carlos river and it cross from side to side the wildlife refuge so when the river floods it creates a complex system of lagoons that become a magnet for a number of resident and migratory birds.


Caño Negro lagoons and Frio river boat tour

The boat tour and nearby wetlands are unquestionably the main reason to drive the 5 and half hours ride from San Jose all the way there. Once on the boat, let the captain know your target birds, then trust him to deliver. A typical trip downstream takes you to the most forested area. This is normally good for Snowy Cotinga (Carpodectes nitidus), Nicaraguan Grackle (Quiscalus nicaraguensis), Green-and-rufous Kingfisher (Chloroceryle inda), Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis), Sungrebe (Heliornis fulica), and Agami Heron (Agamia agami). Typically, the last two-named species are found in small flooded areas surrounded by forest. These include the popular (among local birders and boat captains) Charco Verde, which is accessible particularly from November to early February.


Alternatively, if you focus your time upstream, you will get to the open llanos. These excelfor classic birds of open wetlands such as Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) , Black-collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricollis), Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria), and Wood Stork (Mycteria americana). Make a beeline for floating vegetation, which is frequented by the otherwise secretive Yellow-breasted Crake (Porzana flaviventer). Ask the captain to cut the engines and wait patiently. The llanos are best from late December to late March.

Caño Negro town and the San Emilio road

The boat ride may be over, but the birding opportunities are just starting; there are many other sites to explore. Just walking around Caño Negro town itself can produce a fair number of good birds. Whilst some targets are more common elsewhere in northern central America, this is their only site in Costa Rica: examples include Spot-breasted Wren (Pheugopedius maculipectus) and Grey-headed Dove (Leptotila plumbeiceps).

When driving from the Arenal area there are two roads that lead to Caño Negro, the best for birding is known as 'Los Chiles route'. The finest area is San Emilio, a damp cattle pasture just before you cross the bridge over the Río Frio (which is only metal bridge you cross when following this road out of Caño Negro). This is normally the easiest site for Nicaraguan Seed Finch  (Oryzoborus nuttingi)  a regional endemic. Other good birds here include Jabiru, Red-breasted Blackbird (Sturnella militaris)  and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater (Sporophila minuta).

 Save some energy for nocturnal birding, which can be exceptional around the town and along the San Emilio road. Targets include: Common (Nyctibius griseus) and Great (Nyctibius grandis)  potoos; Mottled (Cicada virgata), Black-and-white (Ciccaba nigrolineata), Striped (Pseudoscops clamator)  and Spectacled (Pulsatrix perspicillata) owls, and Pacific (Megascops cooperi)  Screech Owl. An added incentive is that one of only of a handful of Costa Rican sightings of Ocellated Poorwill (Nyctiphrynus ocellatus) comes from a vocalizing male the authors of this website found in 2013 within a few km of the Río Frio bridge.

Medio Queso wetland

This spectacular wetland is accessible from the town of Los Chiles which is 20 km from Cano Negro town. To reach it, take the gravel road right adjacent to the landing strip and police station. Follow the road until you will find the road ends on a impressive grassy wetland. Wetlands around this last part of the road is a prime site for Least (Ixobrychus exilis)  and Pinnated (Botaurus pinnatus) bitterns, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus), Black-collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricollis) and, occasionally, Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis) and Spotted Rail (Pardirallus maculatus)

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