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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

In Search of Avian Emeralds in Costa Rica

Assigning “value” to something is, in part, always subjective. Whether looking at an object or experiencing an event, although measurable factors such as “rarity” come into play, the degree to which value is assessed eventually comes down to how we feel. For example, in terms of gem stones, vibrant colors are an important part of the value equation. In fact, if objects like garnet, sapphire, or aquamarine didn’t display hues that please the eye, such dun-colored, regular stones would be tossed aside and forgotten by all except actual geologists and kids with cool rock collections. Not to disparage semi-precious stones but even the value placed on those beautiful bits of matter is eclipsed by the true precious gems. Even though the fantastic sky blue of turquoise can be a wonder to behold, and many do love it (I love how it reminds me of Arizona skies), the value of that semi-precious gem still doesn’t come close to the cost of that green star of stones, the emerald.

They are indeed rare but if it weren’t for the mesmerizing, deep green hues, people wouldn’t pay large sums of money, work in dangerous conditions, and risk life-threatening ambushes just to buy or sell a beryl mineral with traces of chromium or vanadium. A similar thing happens with birds. Sure, we say that every bird is the same and not to discriminate but how many place a quetzal in the same category as a Plain-colored Tanager? That’s not to say that one bird is better or more worthy of life than the other, all are of equal merit and play their respective ecological roles but you won’t find many tours that vote for the tanager as bird of the trip over a quetzal, even when the small gray bird is a lifer.

Not a quetzal.

Whether because the emerald wavelength is of uncommon occurrence among birds or because we just love how it looks, our appreciation of shining green colors extends to birding. At least it does to me, equally as it did when I was into rocks, gems, and minerals. That interest happened right before my birding days at the ripe old age of 5, maybe 6. Around that time, I used to ask my parents to bring me into jewelry stores so I could look at the faceted rocks. I was fascinated by them, I can’t remember exactly why or what was going on in my young developing brain but suspect it had something to do with their colors and shapes. Along those lines, when we got the Sunday paper, I used to take out the inserts for Sears and other stores that sold jewelry so I could marvel over the beautiful royal blue of sapphires, the deep luscious reds of rubies, and the huge price difference between a necklace with amazing emeralds and rings merely set with onyx or topaz. At some point, not long after, in the same library where I perused books about gems, I had my eureka moment with birds and the living, colorful, feathered things took precedence. However, I never lost my interest in stones, minerals, and geology, perhaps that’s why I can’t get enough of birds that shine like emeralds.

The Green-crowned Brilliant has some emerald colors going on.

Although many people are more accustomed to the dull browns and grays of sparrows and pigeons, there indeed are birds that are on par with the most stunning of emerald treasures.

Think not? Just look up images of Cloven-feathered Dove, the Emerald Cuckoos, and Green Broadbill. However, before going that route, just be warned that you could be in for a visual knock-out. That and the strong desire to book a flight to New Caledonia, Borneo, or South Africa. Those places are wonderful for birds but before buying that ticket, you might want to also consider Costa Rica. We have some emerald birds here too and oh yes, everybody wants them!

Emerald Tanager

This sparrow-sized gem combines the colors of wet rainforest green with dappled yellow. Jet highlights on the face, back, and wings round out the striking beauty of a little bird that ranges from Costa Rica to western Ecuador.

Watch for it in mossy foothill and middle elevations rainforests. In Costa Rica, Arenal Observatory Lodge is especially good for seeing this beauty although it can also be espied at several other locales. For extra close looks, make a stop at the San Luis Canopy.


Golden-browed Chlorophonia

A bird with a name as fancy as that has to look good. It does indeed. While the female is dressed in gentle greens, the brilliant emerald and yellow plumage of the male always keep it dressed for cloud forest festivities. Despite its fantastic appearance, happily, the endemic chlorophonia is common in forests from middle elevations way up into the mossy oaks of the cold, high mountains. Like other euphonias, this beauty is usually seen at fruiting trees and mistletoes.


Green Honeycreeper


Although this beautiful bird seems to act more as an avian aquamarine or regular old beryl than an actual honest to goodness eye-blazing emerald, its appearance can still generate a mind-blowing, retina searing effect. As with the chlorophonia, the male is the one who sports the colors in this house. Watch for this common species at any site with humid forest from the lowlands up to cloud forest.


Resplendent Quetzal

Saving the most important avian gem for last, this bird has so much going for it, it almost ceases to be one. Mayan peoples sort of felt that way, preferring to view the quetzal as a divine messenger. Truly one of the top birds of the world, the R. Quetzal really does border on the verge of ridiculous. See one for the first time and you might be tempted to pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t having some fantastic siesta because its bizarre and spectacular appearance make it look more like a dream bird than an actual, live, large trogon. As one might expect from a divine messenger, photos hint at but can’t truly convey the shimmering emerald green, gold, and blues nor the full crazy combination of plush ruby red underparts, white undertail, extra long tail coverts, and a funky crest.

Male quetzal feeling funky on Pas Volcano.

Come to Costa Rica to watch these living emeralds and other precious birds in action. I hope to see you there!


3 replies on “In Search of Avian Emeralds in Costa Rica”

Those Northern Emerald Toucanets you showed us at Quebrada Gonzalez weren’t too shabby either!

You’re on a roll, Pat. How about a follow up series on brilliant reds/oranges,blues,yellows and their gem equivalents? Love this!

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