Birding at Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge

Bare-throated Tiger Heron



Recommended by many friends for years, Caño Negro, near the Nicaraguan border of Costa Rica, finally became a destination for Harry and me along with a few close friends in April, 2018. We were also accompanied by a superb naturalist Tico guide named Federico (“Fico”) Chacon. The attraction of this area of the Guatuso plains–lowlands that are seasonally flooded–is the 325 species of birds both migratory and non-migratory that visit the Caño Negro lagoon and its associated marshes and holillo (palm) groves. The wetlands are fed by the Frio River, which flows north from the Arenal Lake Basin.

Juvenile Bare-throated Tiger Heron

Heavy rains occur in the area between May and January (up to 120 inches annually), so we chose to go in April, and there was no precipitation whatsoever. Much of the birding is accomplished on the water in flat bottomed, tarp-covered boats, and the boatman are highly experienced and knowledgable about bird habitat preferences.

Black-collared Hawk


Grey-cowled Woodrail

Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1984. Almost 25,000 acres in size (9,969 ha), it was declared a wildlife area of international importance in 1991. The Refuge’s grasslands, forests and marshes provide habitat for jaguars, cougars, ocelots, tapirs, and sloths, among many other mammals. Our boatman recounted a recent jaguar sighting on the bank of the same river we were exploring. A European photographer had come to the area with the expressed intent of seeing a jaguar; a large male obliged by emerging from vegetation on the fellow’s first morning on the river! This news was heartening, until it wasn’t! We never did see any cats or tapirs, but we did see cavorting Spider monkeys and languid Howler monkeys.

Howler monkey and juvenile

Birding among good friends is a collaborative  interaction, everyone helping to spot and usually the guide pinpointing the exact location, so that everyone succeeds in seeing the bird–even for a brief instant. Being “in the zone”, far from the normal sounds of civilization except for the putt-putt of the boat’s motor (quickly extinguished when we wanted to drift), is almost a form of meditation. We are alert, but we are also very relaxed, in respite from all our usual preoccupations and routines. Glorious nature, unfamiliar landscapes, dawn awakenings and dappled sunrises, foggy mist and azure clarity, always the possibility of something never before seen right around the next bend in the river. Each day someone usually asks, “How lucky are WE?” And frequently, any one of us is recognizing the joy of the hunt with a cheery: “Well spotted!”

Wood Stork


Collared Aracari


Boat-billed Heron


Black Vulture, Spectacled Caiman


Black-necked Stilt, Cattle Egret, Spectacled Caiman


Green Iguana outside his lair on the river bank


Amazon Kingfisher


Chuck-will’s widow (see grayish crown); resembles Whip-poor-will


Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture


Dusky-capped Flycatcher


Black-headed Trogon


Our merry band, with escort, on our walk to the tiny pueblo of Caño Negro


Harry and a persistent pal


Horses and dog, in their element at dusk


Ficus trees adapted to annual flooding


Love and equality: a home-fashioned campaign flag in Caño Negro for the winning candidate for President of Costa Rica: Carlos Alvarado Quesada

If you decide to visit Caño Negro, we can recommend the simple, very reasonable and comfortable cabins known as Hotel de Campo, right on the lagoon with 13 protected acres (5 hectares reforested). The owners arrange boat trips. Their lodgings have a very attractive pool, and a restaurant with full bar provides creature comforts. A recommendation: the light in April is stunning.


Solitary Sandpiper




Remembering the Bush Dogs

They burst out of the understory and crossed the forest trail right in front of my dog, Melba, and me–about only eight feet away. Two identical bush dogs moving as if one animal–small yet powerful, self-contained, undeterred in purpose in the way of charismatic wild creatures–then sped east through the secondary forest of Finca Cantaros, […]

via Remembering the Bush Dogs — Finca Cántaros

The noisy, flower-eating, acrobatic Crested Guan

Adult Crested Guan at Finca Cantaros. Male and female are similar.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon while walking with my dog, the tranquillity was suddenly pierced by a chorus of very loud avian voices. Melba and I ran up an incline to the forest edge by the orchard to see six highly energized birds, communicating in their own enigmatic language and hopping around the treetops. The long-tailed Crested Guan, as big as a hen turkey, is astonishingly arboreal for a bird that can weigh 3 lbs 12 oz (1.7 k) and measure in length up to 35.8 inches (91 cm). Penelope purpurasare also surprisingly agile on even slender branches, often preferring to eat upside down. At our nature reserve, Finca Cántaros, these fruit-loving birds are common and, at times, raucous visitors. In forest areas of Costa Rica that are unprotected, Crested Guans (colloquially called Pava, Spanish for turkey) are, in fact, hunted by people in Latin America for their meat. Such hunting is now against the law in Costa Rica except in indigenous reserves. Because these birds are so large and vocal and often move through foliage in noisy groups, they would certainly be easy targets for someone hoping for a turkey leg in the slow cooker. They are reportedly even sold in food markets in Darien, Panama.

Every year in December or early January, after all the leaves have fallen, the Corteza trees (Tababuia crysantha) have their “big bang”–full bloom–overnight, signifying to some the end of our winter rains. The flowers remain on the trees for about four days, then quickly fall and cover the ground. The annual golden flower extravaganza attracts a wide range of birds, bees, wasps and butterflies looking for nectar and pollen. Among the many avian visitors are hummingbirds and very reliably, the Crested Guan.

A Crested Guan resting during its consumption of Corteza flowers.

Crested Guan with Corteza flower in its mouth. The flowers are sometimes torn, sometimes swallowed whole.

In small groups–usually no more than eight–on the blooming Corteza trees, they gorge for extended periods on the flower petals. If I’m walking under the tree photographing them, they eye me and briefly try to hide behind foliage but otherwise throw caution to the wind as they tear off and swallow the yellow delicacies.

For the rest of the year the Crested Guan feeds on shoots, leaves, seeds, (21% of diet) and fruits (76% of diet) such as berries, ficus (figs), wild papaya, wild nutmeg, Cecropia, Guatteria (locally, Guatteria puntata), Spondias, and much more–up to 36 plant species in Costa Rica. Occasionally Crested Guans come to the ground for insects and fallen fruit.

Crested Guans amble on the ground at Wilson Botanical Garden

Not migratory, the Crested Guan are called “sedentary”, keeping to a home range of about 6 km in radius on the Pacific slope. Between March and June–the Guan’s breeding season–I hear several of their vocalizations, but the most arresting are their single or double-note, high-pitched honking calls which can last for at least 15 minutes. Even the wingbeats in flight call attention to the bird with a loud rushing sound, reminding me of the Yellow-throated Toucan’s loud flight pattern.

Researchers in Costa Rica have identified 36 woody plants eaten by Crested Guans. This is a Ficus sp. (fig) at Finca Cántaros.

The conservation status of Crested Guan is “not globally threated” (Least Concern). However, in Costa Rica this species has disappeared from deforested countryside and is becoming rare in unprotected forests: 69% of its original habitat has been lost.


Head shot with bushy crest of a Crested Guan at Finca Cántaros.

Other guans I have been fortunate to see on birding travels include the Black-fronted Piping Guan, in Argentina at Iguazu Falls. 


At least in our county of Coto Brus we commonly see the impressive Crested Guan at Las Cruces Biological Research Station and Wilson Botanical Garden, as well as at Finca Cántaros. In the Amistad Biosphere Reserve about 18 miles to the north and east of us, the largest protected area in Central America, I like to imagine that the population of Crested Guan is thriving. 




Andean Guan, Peru, Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu, very similar to Crested Guan


Blue-throated Piping Guan, a Pantanal, Brazil species that became accustomed to regular feeding by our lodging manager. (It is a pet with free-roaming privileges).

Resources: (Handbook of the Birds of the World)

A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, Comstock Publishing Associates, a Division of Cornell University Press, N.Y., 1989, pp. 118-119

Trogons, Laughing Falcons and Other Neotropical Birds, by Alexander F Skutch, Texas A&M University Press: College Station, 1999, pp. 120-122.

The Birds of Costa Rica A Field Guide by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean, A Zona Tropical Publication from Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, p. 26.


Corteza flowers on and off the tree draw smiles to the faces of people tired of the rainy season.




Jose Pablo Castillo

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