Going birding in Costa Rica? I hope so. Since my first visit in 1992, experiencing the birds and biodiversity of this beautiful country is something I have wished for every birder. Costa Rica offers accessible tropical habitats, mixed flocks busy with colorful tanagers, toucans calling from treetops, and macaws dominating their surroundings by way of super sized plumage, appearance, and, most of all, screams.
Referring to those loud voices as vocalizations wouldn’t be wrong but we aren’t talking about some sweet rainforest melody. Macaws scream and they do it loud. It’s good, it makes sure you know where to look, where to watch the sky and wait for that avian royalty to fly into view. But I would be amiss if I said it was a song. That term seems better for the more musical voices of Bay Wrens and Clay-colored Thrushes.
The friendly voice of the national bird may be more evocative than its modest appearance.
Just as Costa Rica has hundreds of birds to look at, this birding nation also has just as many birds to listen to. Yes, hundreds, as in several hundreds. If you feel daunted or that it would be silly to try and learn all of those bird songs, well, you might be right. I suppose it depends on how much time you feel like dedicating to the endeavor. However, as with visiting any place for birding, learning at least some of the more common and noticeable bird sounds will be worth your while.
The audible side of birding is just as important as the visual aspect of experiencing the avian. It might be even more important because most birds sing or vocalize and we hear them before we see them.. As with most forested habitats, in tropical forest, we hear many more birds than are seen, maybe even 20 species heard before laying eyes on just one. Knowing which birds make those whistles, chirps, and other calls is key to knowing what’s hiding in the forest, which species are waiting for us back there in the bromeliads and vines and mossy understory. That knowledge also helps locate target species and adds depth to a journey already made rich by time stopping viws of golden-beryl green quetzals, strutting curassows, and surreal wine-dipped Snowcaps.
It might seem daunting but it’s worth learning some of those calls, a few of those songs. With that in mind, these are a good 50 bird species to start with. They are frequently heard, have distinctive vocalizations, are very special birds you don’t want to miss, or a combination of those factors.
Great Tinamou– Listen for the mournful evocative whistles in lowland and foothills rainforests. It can sing any time of day or night.
Crested Guan– If you hear loud, odd sort of barking or honking calls coming from the forest canopy, this species is probably around.
Spotted Wood-Quail– Birding in the Dota Valley? Listen for this bird’s rollicking song in the cool montane airs of the early morning.
Gray-cowled Wood-Rail– This loud, drunken sounding bird calls from riparian zones in many parts of the country, urban green space included.
Green Ibis– Another bird that sounds like it may have had a few too many. It blends its prehistoric sounding calls with an equally prehistoric appearance.
White-throated Crake– Heard much more often than seen. If its sounds like eggs are sizzling in a marsh or tall wet grass, this species is the cook.
Ruddy Ground-Dove– The typical doveish calls of thsi common bird are good ones to learn.
Red-billed Pigeon– Ditto for Costa Rica’s most common pigeon.
Short-billed Pigeon– The Barred Owl isn’t the only bird that says, “Who cooks for you”? This plain colored rainforest pigeon asks the same question.
Squirrel Cuckoo– Some people claim this bird is being rude and saying, “Up Your’s!” I just think its living up to its cuckoo family antics.
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl– A common bird in many of the dry parts of the Pacific slope.
Mottled Owl– One of Costa Rica’s most frequently heard owls.
Common Pauraque– The standard nightjar in many parts of Costa Rica.
Gartered Trogon– A common bird, vocal, and a good one to know so you can admire its plumage of many colors.
Resplendent Quetzal– Not as common but one of the most spectacular birds on the planet. They are vocal and hearing them is one of the best ways to find them.
Lesson’s Motmot– Hear a dog or owl giving a double bark or hoot? You might be hearing a Lesson’s Motmot.
Broad-billed Motmot– This motmot makes a funny nasal sounding noise that is difficult to describe.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar– Vocal, locally common, and a good bird to know.
Collared Aracari– This aracari doesn’t sound anything like the larger toucans.
Yellow-throated Toucan– Loud and proud, the yelps of this big-beaked badboy are typical of the audio rainforest scene.
Lineated Woodpecker– It sort of laughs like a Pileated but still sounds quite different.
Collared Forest-Falcon– Learn its mournful calls to realize how common this relusive species is actually is.
Laughing Falcon– The laughter of this masked snake eater carry for some distance.
Scarlet Macaw– It is good to know what the screams of this magnificent bird sound like.
White-crowned Parrot– A common parrot in many parts of Costa Rica.
Barred Antshrike– Another common bird with a characteristic song.
Chestnut-backed Antbird– The friendly whistled notes of this understory species are synonymous with rainforest.
Cocoa Woodcreeper– One of the more common woodcreeper species in the humid lowlands.
Spotted Woodcreeper– A common bird of mixed flocks in foothill and cloud forest habitats.
Three-wattled Bellbird– The loud calls of this special bird are incredible.
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo– Another bird heard more often than seen, you will hear its loud staccato vocalizations in cloud forest and high elevation habitats.
Masked Tityra– It’s just nice to know that some birds sound like cartoon pigs.
Great Kiskadee– A bird that says its name and says it often.
Boat-billed Flycatcher– A kiskadee look-a-like. Maybe it complains about kiskadees getting more attention?
Yellow-bellied Elaenia– Common in gardens and second growth and very vocal.
Long-tailed Manakin– The intriguing calls of this beautiful bird are frequently heard.
White-collared Manakin– Another common manakin, this one calls and displays from second growth.
Lesser Greenlet– Easy to overlook but common and often heard. A good vocalization to learn.
Green Shrike-Vireo– No, that’s not a titmouse even if it does remind you of one.
Brown Jay– Hear some typically jayish calls? It’s probably this bird.
Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (and other wrens especially Rufous-and-white and Nightingale)- You will hear plenty of wrens, including the friendly song of this bird while birding in cloud forest.
Clay-colored Thrush– The song of this bird may remind you of the American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.
Black-faced Solitaire– One of the best songs in the country!
Olive-backed Euphonia– You will probably hear quite a few of these in the lowland and foothill forests of the Caribbean slope.
Yellow-crowned Euphonia– Another commonly heard euphonia.
Rufous-collared Sparrow– This is one of the first species heard at first light in the Central Valley.
Melodious Blackbird– The ringing calls of this common species have become a regular part of the audio backdrop in many places.
Great-tailed Grackle– Another loud and very common urban species.
Collared Redstart– The hurried song of this friendly species is typical of high elevation sites.
Black-thighed Grosbeak– A nice, beautiful song to learn.
Whether because they are common, heard often, or make fantastic sounds, these are the 50 species I recommend learning first. If 50 seems like too many birds to learn, go for 25 or even 20. You will probably hear several from the list when visiting Costa Rica, maybe even on that first exciting morning. If you can find time to learn more, that’s even better. If you can’t learn any, that’s alright too; what’s most important is making it to Costa Rica for birding and enjoying several days of fantastic Costa Rica birds.
There are additional birds not on this list that would also be good to learn, other birds you will certainly hear during a birding tour to Costa Rica. Some are bird species that may be familiar to folks who have birded Arizona or other places in the USA, species like Blue Grosbeak and Inca and White-winged Doves. Others include various hawks, hawk-eagles, warblers, and so many others. It’s always good to study those other species because make no doubt about it, many will be entering your personal birding audiosphere.
Whether you just want to learn a few, the 50 on this list, or listen to the whole shebang of 900 species, a complete birding app for Costa Rica can help. It works because you can:
- See pictures of the birds while listening to them.
- Use filters to show birds by family (if you feel like say focusing on antbird vocalizations), region (if you want to study the calls of birds that say only occur in the mountains), or other attributes.
- Listen to the sounds of 900 species (its nice to have the songs of so many birds at your fingertips).
Not to mention, in a recent update, we also included:
- 7 more species for a total of 1005 species and subspecies on the app. One of these was a recent addition to the Costa Rica bird list, the others are species that could eventually occur.
- More images, including birds in flight.
- Regional endemic search filter and updated list of regional endemics
- Updated information about behavior and habitats of pelagic birds and other species.
- Name changes that reflect AOS and eBird checklists
- Improved range maps
Learn some bird songs to get ready for your birding trip to Costa Rica. The birds are waiting and the birding is always fantastic. I hope to see you here!