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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

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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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica planning birding trip Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica: Classic Sites or Off the Beaten Path?

The routes that birding tours in Costa Rica follow are like those of most nations; you go where the birds are BUT in accessible places near enough to other sites to make the route feasible during a week or two of birding. They also need to offer the right blend of comfort, service, food, and security.

A Black-crested Coquette from Rancho Naturalista, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites.

No matter where you bring the binos, this winning tour combination is basically why so many birding tours tend to follow similar routes. Not always, but for logistical reasons, many tours follow a similar circuit and why not? If a birding tour route keeps clients happy and can lessen the chances of running into snags, its a good one. Why not always use the same or similar routes? Those routes can also help with planning a birding trip. Using a blend of trip reports and tour company itineraries as a template for your own trip has long been an easy way to know where to go. After all, you can’t go wrong by visiting the same places as the group tours, right?

Maybe…trip success depends on what birds you want to see and how you want to go birding. See a good number of birds while staying in comfortable rooms? Yeah, those tour itineraries will work but if Black-crowned Antpitta and other uncommon target species are reasons for the trip, the well traveled birding byways won’t be your best option.

The same goes for adventurous birders who would rather explore on their own, visit less birded sites, or pay less. Solo birding, or with a private group? The classic sites will still work to produce a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica but if you want something a little bit different, perhaps see if you can document a Solitary Eagle, don’t overlook the luxury of having the liberty to bird wherever and whenever you want.

Birding on your own, in a small group or on a custom tour and you have a lot more leeway but there’s that one big catch; how do you know where to go? Check out Google Maps and there’s promising looking patches and extensions of ruffled green. But what’s it like on the ground? Some places seem to have roads, some don’t, and some of the better looking spots only have one eBird list.

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to stick to the spots that have been eBirded to the max because after all, at least you know what’s there. With so much coverage, you have a fair idea of which birds roam the woods of places like Rancho Naturalista and La Selva Biological Station (even with an error or two) but what if you want to bird other, lesser known spots?

Isn’t it just as worthwhile to bird places with large areas of forest even if they lack or have smaller eBird lists? You bet it is. The birds aren’t where people have uploaded lists, they occur where the habitat exists and the places with the most species will always be sites with the largest areas of mature, intact forest. It’s pretty simple, if you want to connect with rarities, see more raptors, and see the highest number of species, spend more time in mature forest.

Don’t worry too much about the second growth, you will still see plenty of edge species at and near the forest. If you are up for exploration, try these routes and regions:

Large areas of forest in the north

Check out forest along roads north and west of Rincon de la Vieja, and north and east of Laguna del Lagarto. Not that one could expect to be so lucky but it’s still worth mentioning that Costa Rica’s most recent documented Harpy Eagle sighting happened north of Rincon de la Vieja. I know I wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time up that way. The same goes for sites near Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque, and east of there.

The area south of Limon

There’s a lot of excellent forest habitat near and south of Limon. It’s underbirded, it probably hosts some sweet surprises, and the region seems to be the best part of the country for Black-crowned Antpitta and Great Jacamar. What else might live out there? Various roads that penetrate forest will work for some birding excitement including ones near Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Gandoca, and Hitoy Cerere.

Great Jacamar

The Osa Peninsula

Want to look for Crested Eagle while watching Baird’s Trogons and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, try the La Tarde area and birding on the road to Rancho Quemado and Drake Bay. Seeing one of the prize eagles would be a maybe lottery ticket but it’s always fun to look for it.

Black cheeked Ant Tanager

Other Spots With Promising Habitat

Any other spot with habitat will be good birding, a few to try include the road from Varablanca to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, roads east of Tirimbina, sites south of Guapiles and Siquirres, roads near Dominical, and the Las Tables area north of San Vito.

Still not sure where to go birding in Costa Rica? Don’t sweat it too much, find some habitat and the birding will deliver. Find out more about birding sites in Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica , a site guide and birding companion to Costa Rica. If you do find a Solitary Eagle, please get a picture and let me know, I know a lot of local birders who would love to see one. Until then, happy birding wherever you might be raising the binos.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.

I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.

In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:

The Perils of Plane Travel

For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?

According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.

As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.

Entering the Country

As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.

Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!

The web site for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington D.C. has this to say about the health insurance policy:

“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:

  • Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
  • Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
  • Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”

Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.

What’s Open?

Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.

Restrictions?

Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.

The Birding

As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!

The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.

I hope to see you soon!