Falcons and caracaras in Turrialba

To continue from my previous post, here are seven Falconidae species that you can reasonably expect to see if you’re birding in and around Turrialba. Costa Rica has 13 species of Falconidae. However, four of these (two of the three forest-falcons (Slaty-backed and Collared), plus the Orange-breasted Falcon and one caracara, the Red-throated) have managed to escape me completely in all these years. The final two species I will mention very briefly at the end of this post.

Below are the 7 species most commonly seen in our area; only 3 of them will be unfamiliar to North American visitors:

  1. Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans)
  2. Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway)
  3. Yellow-headed Caracara (Milvago chimachima)
  4. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
  5. Merlin (Falco columbarius)
  6. American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
  7. Bat Falcon (Falco rufigularis)

First in line is undoubtedly the Laughing Falcon. This beautifully attired snake-hunter is the species seen (and heard!!) most regularly. Its insistent and repeated call often descends into the cackling laugh that gives it its name. It is very active in the early morning and just before and well into dusk.

Laughing Falcon at Corozal on the Rio Pacuare; photo by John Beer

The Crested Caracara is a l large, long-legged carrion-eater that behaves much more like a vulture than the fast-flying falcons. It is also unlike falcons in that it builds its own nest. It prefers open country and has extended its range considerably in the wake of deforestation. In our area it is only recently that it has been seen at higher elevations on the Turrialba Volcano slope.

A rather inquisitive Crested Caracara; photo by John Beer

The other caracara in our area is the Yellow-headed Caracara, a much smaller bird that also feeds to a large extent on carrion. It is a southern species and until recent years was found only on the Pacific coast in Costa Rica. In and around Turrialba it is now a fairly common sight. Like the Crested Caracara it is a scavenger and I have even found it in the centre of Turrialba where it picks through refuse. Not a picky eater then! As the photo shows, the head is actually buffy white in colour.

Yellow-headed Caracara; photo by Larry Waddell

The Peregrine Falcon is a cosmopolitan species that needs little introduction. Most of my local sightings of this species have been on the hilltops adjacent to the Espino Blanco Reserve. Any large falcon that you see is likely to be this species.

Peregrine Falcon, courtesy of Richard Garrigues

Like the Peregrine Falcon, the next two small falcons are not tropical species and are rather hard to find in Costa Rica. In our area, for example, I have seen the Merlin almost always only on the slopes of the Turrialba and Irazú volcanoes. Nonetheless, the individual below appeared down at the Angostura Dam.

Merlin at Angostura; photo by John Beer


The Merlin is certainly a more frequent visitor to our area than the American Kestrel. North American visitors should NOT expect to find this small falcon staking out its territory from wires along every roadside. On the contrary, I consider it to be quite a rare find in the Turrialba area despite the fact that there are fairly frequent sightings to the west in the Central Valley.

This female American Kestrel at Florencia returned to winter there for a period of several years; photo by John Beer

And in flight …..

Female American Kestrel takes flight; photo by Larry Waddell

More typical of Costa Rica is the little Bat Falcon, the last of our seven species.Its range extends from northern Mexico down through most of the northern half of South America. It is a smaller version of the Orange-breasted Falcon, a bird that has near-threatened status and is rare or accidental in Costa Rica. Near us in San Antonio a breeding pair occupy a huge tree overlooking the La Cascada waterfall. However, the following images are of an individual in the southern part of the country:

Ready….
Set …..
Go! – Bat Falcon photo sequence by John Beer and Larry Waddell, taken at Finca Estrella in the southern Pacific area

The little Barred Forest-Falcon (Micrastur ruficollis) and the Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis) are the remaining two species that deserve a mention here since I have encountered them not too far from Turrialba. The Barred Forest-Falcon’s relative scarcity is demonstrated by the very few sightings from our area this year so far. One of these, at Vista de Paz at San Rafael and close to our house, is unfortunately in error.

Don’t imagine either that you’re going to see the Aplomado Falcon, rare or accidental in Costa Rica. Local guide Ernesto Carman found one in October 2016 in Paraiso, possibly the same famous bird that stayed near Coris in July and August of 2017. See my post from August 2017 for details.

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