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First Birding Trip to Costa Rica- Where to Go?

Birding in Costa Rica has been on your mind since the early 90s. A visit to Costa Rica has been in the mental works and you figured that some fine day, you would take that trip. You almost did in 2003 but then you saw that amazing deal to visit Jamaica. Streamertails and island birds that inspired Bob Marley took precedence and you have no regrets (!) but, it wasn’t Costa Rica. On that other occasion, you went a bit further with trip planning but then your faithful birding friends convinced you to go to Arizona instead. Once again, no regrets! That was a fun trip highlighted by hummingbirds, desert blooms, and roadrunners but you aren’t getting any younger and there be hundreds of beautiful birds in the tropical forests of southern Central America…

speckled tanager
Eye candy birds like Speckled Tanager.

Spurred by photos of quetzals and toucans on Facebook, hearing the rest of the birding community rave about visiting Costa Rica, or just realizing that it’s now or never, the time has definitely arrived for that inagural Costa Rica birding experience. Now you just have to figure out where to go. Should be easy enough, the country is pretty small, the best places to go should be pretty straightforward, right?

Not exactly. Costa Rica might be a small nation but it’s big on a few things that complicate trip planning. These factors are biodiversity, mountains, and birding sites. Mega biodiversity gives Costa Rica a bird list of 900 plus species. Whoah! Yeah, that’s a lot to work with, even after taking vagrants and pelagic birds into account. You gotta take mountains into consideration too because driving up and over them, winding your way through the naturally broken and uplifted land plays a big role with driving times.

You might also want to visit mountains because that’s where quetzals are, that’s where the biggest percentage of endemic species occur. Then there are the birding sites in Costa Rica. As with any birding trip, we need know about the best sites, about where to go to see more birds, or photograph more birds, or see certain species, or if the site has a certain degree of comfort we are looking for, or if we don’t mind hiking on steep forest trails, or if we would rather spend more to soak in hot springs after a morning of easy-going birding.

So where do we go?

To effectively entertain that complex answer, you need to start with some questions of your own.

How Do I want to Experience Birds in Costa Rica?

There are many ways to bird. For some, birding is sitting back and taking pictures of whatever species happen to visit feeders or fruiting trees. Other people enjoy a blend of easy, casual birding, good food, good company, and a dance lesson or two. Some birders would rather focus on birds 24/7 and eBird their way to a big old satisfying list.

Ornate Hawk Eagle
A list with nice birds like Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

This may sound controverisal, but all of the above is birding. For this reason, the best places to go on a birding trip to Costa Rica depend on how you want to experience our friends of the feathered kind. There’s a lot of options with some more suited to photography, othes better for individuals or smaller groups, and others for more adventurous birders.

How Much Time do I Have?

Once you know how you want to watch birds in Costa Rica, you can move on to the question of time. If the trip is less than a week, I would visit two sites at the very most. Staying for a week? You could visit three or four sites, or even just stay at one place. Once again, it all depends on how you want to watch birds. Have two or more weeks to work with? That opens the door to many more birding possibilities.

No matter how much time you have, keep in mind that in general, very diverse sites like the Sarapiqui area, Rancho Naturalista, or the Carara area merit at least two to three nights. You could also, easily stay at such sites for a week and still see new birds every single day (seriously!).

Zeledon's Antbird
Skulky species like the Zeledon’s Antbird might require a bit more birding time.

In the highlands, although you could stay longer and still have lots of fun, two nights will probably suffice. The same goes for dry forest habitats in Guanacaste. If you just wanted to stay in the Central Valley and do day trips, that can also work for such places as the Carara area, San Ramon area, Braulio Carrillo and nearby (as in Cope’s and Centro Manu), Poas, Irazu, and more sites.

How Much do I Want to See?

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker
You might really want to see a Chestnut-colored Woodpecker.

Perhaps the most vital question of all because you can’t see certain birds unless you visit the places where they occur. That’s right, Costa Rica might have a huge list but that’s because some birds only live in the high elevations, others in middle elevations, some in the lowlands on one side of the mountains, others on the other side, and so on.

If you want to see as much as possible, then you have to spend at least two or more days in each main bio-region. If you are fine with seeing a bunch of cool birds and don’t really mind which ones you espy, then you could stay at one or two places just about anywhere, Costa Rica.

In general, I would suggest spending at least two nights in the highlands, three nights in the Caribbean lowlands, and at least two (maybe three) nights on the Pacific slope, probably in the Carara area. Do that and you will get a pretty good taste of Costa Rica birds, not to mention, it would be a shame to NOT see a Resplendent Quetzal, even more so if the birds in Costa Rica and Panama end up being split from the birds in northern Central America (there’s a fair chance that will happen!).

But where to go? Which places to stay? I have mentioned so few places because, without first knowing how you want to bird Costa Rica, nor your budget, there are honestly too many really good sites to choose from (and they aren’t all on eBird either). A thorough birding site guide for Costa Rica will provide the right answers. In the meantime, I might also have an idea for an itinerary or two. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Until then, happy birding, I hope to see you here!

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