The Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius) is not hard to find in the lowlands of Costa Rica. A place that offers excellent close-up photo opportunities is Kelly Creek in Cahuita, right at the entrance to the Cahuita National Park. If you stay at the Kelly Creek Hotel, last gate on the right before the beach, owner Erica is extremely helpful and you will be able to easily view this species and others at distances of less than 10 yards.
My family excursion to Cahuita, on the Caribbean Coast, involved only incidental birding and no cameras that would take good shots of bird species. Most of this post’s photos are courtesy of friends and taken at various Costa Rican locations. First shot is by John Beer and was taken in Turrialba at CATIE, a location that can be considered high for this species, which is found mostly in the lowlands up to only 300 m, according to Stiles & Skutch (A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica).
The shaggy crest, seen on the adult bird above, is usually kept flat. The eyes are large and the bill extremely broad, making this a strangely attractive bird. It is not very active during the day, but evening brings them out to disperse and then begin feeding. The next photograph was taken almost by happenstance by my son, Richard Huxley, at Kelly Creek during this actual visit. It shows one of at least 8 Boat-billed Herons, ready to feed and partially submerged in very shallow water. Nearby some White-faced Monkeys faced off with a semi-domesticated cat, while a raccoon looked on calmly from just a few feet away.
At Kelly Creek, the Boat-billed Heron shares habitat and some of its habits with the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). The immature bird below was found by John and Milena Beer at the nearby Angostura Dam here in Turrialba.
This species is well-known to North American birders, but visitors from Europe will have the difficulty of separating the juveniles from those of Black-crowned Night-Heron. I think the best field mark is the bill, dark for the Yellow-crowned and with mostly yellow lower mandible for the Black-crowned. In Turrialba, the Black-crowned is definitely the more common of the two, while the reverse seems to be true for the Cahuita area, where the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is hard to miss.
Lounging on the beach brought some brief looks at birds that were mostly just passing by. A pair of soaring Common Black-Hawks (Buteogallus anthracinus) was a nice sighting for me, since I am rarely in coastal areas. John Beer took the following photo of an adult of this species on another occasion but in Cocles, not far from Cahuita: