14 Types Of Raptors In Costa Rica (Explained By Zoologist)

Types Of Raptor In Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a haven for bird watching.

However, there are some species that catch the attention of birders, and non-birders alike, like no other.

The raptors, otherwise known as birds of prey.

So what types of raptors live in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is home to approximately 80 species of raptors. Raptors are a group of carnivorous birds that feed on other animals. There are three orders of raptors: Falconiformes; which includes species such as falcons and caracaras, Strigiformes; which include owls and Accipitriformes; which includes eagles, hawks, kites, and vultures.

Like species of monkeys and turtles of Costa Rica, I have worked closely with a variety of raptor species – however, this has mostly been in a captive setting. I have assisted in raptor rescue and releases, as well as aiding veterinarians with health check-ups of certain species.

In this article, we will be exploring some of the different raptors found throughout Costa Rica, from the abundant vultures to the elusive eagles, and everything in between.

Strigiformes

There are approximately 230 owls in the world, 17 of which can be found in Costa Rica.

Owls are predominantly nocturnal and often hunt on the wing. Using their tubular, forward-facing eyes, and exceptional hearing, they can pinpoint prey whilst flying low to the ground.

To help them accurately locate prey, owls have ears (hidden away within a ruff of feathers) located asymmetrically on their face disk – with the left ear sitting lower than the right. Sound reaches the ears at differing times, allowing owls to determine the exact location of prey. A pretty nifty evolutionary advantage.

1. Spectacled Owl

With a ring of white feathers surrounding the eyes, the name of this owl soon becomes apparent. But, like the spectacled caiman, a bit of imagination is required.

The spectacled owl is one of the largest owls in Costa Rica, reaching a height of 50 cm. It is a striking owl and easy to identify, not only due to its large size, but also its distinctive colourations of white breast feathers and black wings. Their large eyes are yellow.

Being a large species of owl, most small mammals are on the menu – from bats to rodents. Small monkeys, such as squirrel monkeys, have also been recorded to have fallen prey to the spectacled owl.

In Costa Rica, spectacled owls can be found in primary rainforests as well as montane cloud forests, such as Monteverde.

2. Costa Rican Pygmy Owl

From the largest owl, to one of the smallest, the Costa Rican pygmy owl is endemic to Costa Rica and Panama and grows no larger than 16 cm.

The Costa Rican pygmy owl can be found in the central region of Costa Rica, along the Talamanca mountain range, at elevations as high as 3,000m. Seeing one in the wild will require careful planning and a whole lot of luck.

Whilst their habitat range is a lot more restricted than other species of pygmy owls in Costa Rica (3 other species), all pygmy owls share a similar plumage of rufous brown and white stripes on the belly, and light brown spots across their head.

3. Mottled Owl

The jet black eyes of the mottled owl are enough to send shivers down anyone’s back.

Their most striking feature, however, is their mottled brown plumage. Just like the spots of a Costa Rican wild cat, the plumage allows the owl to blend into the surrounding vegetation, aiding in camouflage and hunting.

The facial disk of the mottled owl is brown with white “eyebrows”. Their breast is whiteish, with flecks of brown across.

The mottled owl, like most owl species, feeds on small mammals and reptiles. However, they have also been known to prey on invertebrates whilst in flight.

4. Crested Owl

Looking like it has come straight from the Pokemon world, the crested owl has large, almost comical-looking, ear tufts.

These tufts, also known as horns, are neither ears nor horns. Instead, they are thought to aid in communication and camouflage.

In their wooded habitat of lowland and montane forests, especially in Arenal National Park, the long tufts help break up the typical rounded features of their facial disks. Couple this with their cryptic colourations, and it is near impossible to spot the crested owl when peached against a tree trunk.

However, when erect, the ear tufts are also thought to aid in communication; either towards predators, making the owls seem bigger than they really are, or towards their own kin, communicating their position in the forest.

Due to ongoing habitat conflicts with humans, the number of crested owls is falling. However, due to their large geographical range, the IUCN has classified this species as stable and of least concern.

5. Striped Owl

Like the crested owl, the striped owl has distinct ear tufts extending out the top of its head. These are mostly seen during daylight hours, where the owl is more alert.

Their speckled brownish-white facial disk is rimmed by a line of black feathers. Their dark coloured eyes are protected by two sets of eyes, or rather, owl lashes. These are not hairs, but modified feathers. Like mammalian lashes, the function of these lashes is to protect the eye from debris whilst flying. However, they are also used to aid in sensory perception.

The striped owl is a relatively large species of owl, with an appearance similar to that of the mottled owl, and can typically be found up to 1,500m. They thrive in areas of grassland with scattered tree cover, in places such as Santa Rosa – a Pacific dry forest habitat in Guanacaste.

Falconiformes

Consisting of upwards of 60 species worldwide, falcons, and caracaras, are characterised by their daytime hunting tendencies. They are believed to be some of the fastest animals found on Earth.

To reach incredible speeds, the wings of falcons are thin and tapered – meaning the wing narrows at the tip. This structure makes falcons some of the most aerodynamic bird species.

Falcons typically kill their prey with their beaks, using a specialised tomial tooth, which is used to sever the vertebrae of prey. Unlike mammalian teeth, the tomia is typically defined as a sharp projection on the upper mandible.

There are 13 species of Falconiformes in Costa Rica.

6. Laughing Falcon

Named after its so-called laughing abilities, which are thought to mimic that of a human laughing (personally, I think scientists just got lazy the day they discovered this raptor), the laughing falcon emits a series of laugh-like shrieks when alarmed.

In Costa Rica, laughing falcons are commonly referred to as “guacos” – this is what locals believe their call to sound like. What do you think?

They are also referred to as “snake falcons”, due to their insatiable appetite for venomous snakes of Costa Rica. To minimise snake bites, the falcon swoops down from above, and bites the snake’s head off using its sharp beak.

If their call isn’t distinctive enough, their off-white body and brown eye markings allow for easy identification. Like many raptor species, they have a barred, or stripped, tail – a potential camouflage strategy.

They have a wide distribution across Central and South America. In Costa Rica, they can be found in semi-open environments across the Pacific coastline, including the provinces of Guanacaste and Puntarenas.

7. Bat Falcon

Can you guess what the bat falcon preys upon?

I’ll give you a clue – there’s also a man named after one and he fights crime…!

If you guessed bats, give yourself a pat on the back – that was a tough one.

A crepuscular species, commonly sighted at dusk and dawn, the bat falcon can often be seen perched on branches close to rivers or caves. Here, they wait for their prey to come out in their thousands. The Sarapiqui river, Heredia, is a known hotspot for bat falcons.

Their long, streamlined wings enable them to accelerate fast and turn with ease, an adaptation that enables them to catch their airborne prey with ease.

Interestingly, a group of scientists researching bat falcons in Costa Rica recorded a group of bat falcons picking and eating fruit from a tree – a behaviour never recorded in raptors before.

In Costa Rica, the bat falcon can be spotted in a range of environments. Unlike other raptors, they are not uncommon in urban environments, where they use buildings as a vantage point. Look out for the bat falcon around the Nicoya Peninsula.

8. Crested Caracara

Instantly recognisable, with their large, silver-tipped beak and mullet-like hairdo, the crested caracara is a common sight in Guanacaste, and much of Pacific Costa Rica.

Although it looks more like an extinct terror bird, caracaras are most closely related to falcons. However, its behaviour is comparable to that of vultures. Although it does hunt small vertebrate species, the caracara is mostly a scavenger, feeding off the dead.

Perhaps this is why they are commonly sighted along roads, where they forage for recently killed animals as a result of road traffic collisions. They are also common sightings around beaches, where they scavenge for leftover fish.

Their large, bright orange beak helps them tear chunks of flesh. However, they also use their beak to carry bones up high, to be dropped on the ground below. This gives the caracara access to the nutritional bone marrow within bones.

9. Peregrine Falcon

The one you’ve been waiting for – the fastest animal on our planet.

Reaching speeds of 350 km/p whilst diving, the peregrine falcon puts the fastest land mammal, the cheetah, to shame.

Like the bat falcon, the peregrine has pointed wings and a short tail, allowing it to be torpedo-like as it strikes prey, such as other birds, from above. They have a hooked, yellow beak and dark barred patterning on their pale breast.

The peregrine falcon is a migratory species – not a tropical species of falcon, like some of the others on this list. During the winter months, populations of peregrines migrate south from their rookeries in Baffin Island, Canada, towards coastal Chile. Along the way, they can often be spotted throughout Costa Rica, especially on the Caribbean coastline, in places such as Moin and Tortuguero.

Although their numbers are slowly becoming more stable, much of the population of peregrine falcons was wiped out due to the pesticide DDT. The chemicals affected the reproduction of peregrines, causing low fertility and thin eggshells. DDT is now prohibited in Costa Rica.

Accipitriformes

Like the falcons, raptors of this family – including eagles, hawks, and vultures – are diurnal, hunting their prey during daylight hours. However, unlike falcons, this group of raptors kills using their talons, not their beak.

They are some of the most commonly sighted (but also some of the rarest) birds in Costa Rica, and can be observed in popular National Parks, as well as cities.

There are approximately 39 species of Accipitriformes in Costa Rica.

10. Harpy Eagle

The harpy eagle is a bird of legends. Quite literally.

Harpy eagles are named after the harpies of ancient Greek and Roman mythologies, which according to tales, were the most disgusting monsters.

And, if you are a sloth or primate in the forests of Central America, you’d be inclined to agree.

With talons the size of the claws of a grizzly bear (about 4 inches long), the harpy eagle can carry a fully grown three-toed sloth, as well as other mammals of Costa Rica, with ease.

The talons can easily puncture the skull of arboreal mammals – including the largest primate in Costa Rica; the spider monkey.

Weighing up to 10kg, and with a wingspan of over 7 ft, harpy eagles are one of the largest eagle species on our planet. It is also thought to be one of the largest birds in all of Central America.

Harpy eagles are instantly recognisable, with a light grey coloured breast, barred legs, a dark ring of feathers around the neckline, and two prominent head feathers.

Besides owls, harpy eagles are one of the few raptor species to have a facial disk, forming a circular face of feathers. When erect, the feathers can help direct sound into their eyes, allowing them to hunt in the dense tropical forests of Central and South America.

They are one of the few diurnal raptors that have a facial disk, a trait they share with owls. The facial disk is composed of feathers that form a circle around the bird’s face. The disk can be lifted or lowered at will. When the feathers of the facial disk are raised, they help direct sounds to the birds’ ears, which are located on the sides of its head.

It was once believed that harpy eagles had become extinct in Costa Rica, however, relentless conservation and reforestation efforts have seen the harpy eagle once again return – albeit, a slow return.

Deforestation ravaged Costa Rica in the 1980s. But now, over 30% of the country is protected. Just last year (2022), a harpy eagle was spotted in Boca Tapada, North Costa Rica (Alajuela province).

11. Black Vulture

One of the most numerously sighted birds in Costa Rica, on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides, black vultures can be seen both soaring in thermal vents high in the sky, as well as in groups on the ground.

The superstitious amongst us relate vultures to death and decay. As such, they are not the most popular raptor in Costa Rica.

And whilst they do scavenge around the carcasses, without vultures, we would be knee-deep in cadavers. By consuming the decomposing bodies of animals, they provide essential services and keep deadly diseases at bay.

The stomach acid of the black vulture is incredibly potent – enough to destroy any bacteria and parasite that may be lurking within a dead body. This, in part, could explain why vultures don’t get sick when eating raw meat.

Black vultures, like many species of vultures, lack feathers around their neck. In other words, they are bald. But this is premature feather-loss. This is an evolutionary adaptation that prevents the soiling of feathers whilst feeding from within carcasses.

Black vultures are commonly sighted around cities and urban areas, where they feed off human scraps, as well as forested areas.

12. Roadside Hawk

Similarly to the black vulture, the roadside hawk is a commonly spotted raptor species throughout Costa Rica. In fact, they are one of the few animals that are experiencing a population boom.

As the name suggests, roadside hawks can be found within close proximity of roads. Individuals are often sighted on electricity wires and telephone poles. However, they thrive within most ecosystems.

The roadside hawk uses vantage points to identify passing prey, including invertebrates, as well as small birds, various reptiles, and mammals.

This hawk is relatively small, growing no larger than 40 cm in length. The lower breast of a roadside hawk are barred brown and white. Despite its small side, they are an incredibly vocal bird, letting out a series of high-pitch squeaks.

13. Common Black Hawk

The black hawk could almost be considered a seabird – they certainly can be seen in large numbers across the Pacific coast, in places such as Playa Grande, Cabuyal and Santa Rosa.

This large-ish species of hawk is a shellfish specialist, adept at hunting crabs on beaches and throughout mangrove systems. Aside from eating frogs as you can see in the video above, they also have been known to actively hunt fish, where they use their broad wings to guide shoals of fish into shallower water.

Inland, they are less common – possibly outcompeted by more agile forest-dwelling species.

The black hawk is nearly entirely black. They have a yellow beak and white barring across its tail.

14. Swallow-tailed Kite

Instantly recognisable by their iconic V-shaped tail, the swallow-tailed kite

Like the peregrine falcon, the swallow-tailed kite is a migratory species, leaving North America when winter arrives. In Costa Rica, you can spot this distinctive black and white raptor throughout the months of October to February.

Some of the best places to see the swallow-tailed kite is through the Central Valley, in National Parks such as Arenal.

Experts of the skies, the swallow-tailed kite can hunt and catch prey whilst on the wing. Using their talons, the capture flying insects mid-air and gobble them up whilst in flight, leading to some amazing acrobatic maneuvers.

However, their keen eyesight also enables them to pinpoint vertebrate species, such as small reptiles and amphibians, from trees and vegetation.

Their forked tail serves an important function. It allows the swallow-tailed kite to change direction in a split second. By twisting and pivoting its tail feathers, the swallow-tailed kite can make sudden and tight turns with ease, all whilst avoiding flapping its wings to conserve energy.

Final Thoughts

Costa Rica is a hotspot for wildlife diversity.

However, few birds grab the attention of birders, and tourists alike, like the raptors.

These powerful, dinosaur-like birds have evolved to exploit most ecological niches within the small Central American country of Costa Rica.

Some, such as the black hawk, specialise in hunting around coastal environments. Others, such as the powerful harpy eagle, can snatch large mammalian prey straight from the treetop canopy.

All raptors are equipped with an arsenal of weaponry, from razor-sharp talons to expert vision – no wonder we use the expression “eagle-eyed” when referring to someone with keen eyesight.

Many species of raptors can be seen year-round in Costa Rica, however, some, such as the peregrine falcon, are migratory.

Now, more than ever, raptors need our help. Deforestation, persecution, reduction of prey species and, more recently, collisions with wind turbines, are all contributing to the decline of many raptor species.

However, ongoing conservation efforts are already having a positive influence on raptor populations across the country.