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A High Octane Birding Itinerary for Costa Rica

Birding itineraries can take many forms. They can range from easy-going, relaxed trips that put more emphasis on sampling local culinary delights to focused birding jaunts where sacrifices to see as many species as possible are the norm. Such sacrifices include proper food, proper sleep, maybe feeling the creeping fingers of hypothermia, you know, that sort of thing.

As one might expect, the latter type of trip makes for an exhausting, exciting, mind-numbing adventure. Given that such birding trips require propious energy and concentration, they are perhaps more suited to the younger crowd (or birding ninjas).

I have done such trips, have sweated by fair share of electrolytes and been bitten by ants, I’m not sure I would be so keen on doing them again. I enjoy all the wondrous facets of birding but I don’t feel the need to get too crazy to see birds. I don’t think you have to. Bird the right way, get in the Zen birding mode and you’ll do alright. Focus is important, working with local guides can help, and coffee is paramount (organic dark chocolate ispretty good too…).

With all of that in mind, I would like to present an idea for some high octane birding in Costa Rica. This itinerary can be done the crazy way or with more time on your hands. Either way, I carefully constructed it to see a solid number of uncommon or rare species that frequent highland habitats and the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. It’s chock full of endemic/near endemic birds, this is how it goes:

Start in the Central Valley

No, not the birdiest of places but do it to save travel time to and from the airport and have a chance to look for Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow the day of arrival and the next morning. While checking for this endemic towhee, you will also run into various other common birds. Keep an eye on the skies for swifts, even Spot-fronted and White-chinned are possible (although they are a challenge to identify when flying high and being silent).

Stay in the right place and you could also pick up various dry forest species.

Irazu

Head to the mountains! Actually, a big volcano with some nice birds on top. On the way, try for Grass Wren and then spend the afternoon on the Nochebuena trails to look for Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and other high elevation species. Additional specialties include wood-partridge, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, and maybe Blue Seedeater too. If you enter the national park or bird in nearby paramo, you can also try for the junco and Timberline Wren Stay until it gets dark and you could look for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl too. If so, dress for November weather!

Hotel Quelitales

After Irazu, head to this newish site; a real hotspot with chances at Scaled Antpitta, Crested Owl, and other nice middle elevation birds! Hummingbirds are fantastic and the food and lodging are pretty darn good too. This is also a good base for birding Tapanti National Park.

Rancho Naturalista

After Quelitales, go to Rancho, one of the classic birding lodges of Costa Rica. It’s still really good and is an excellent place for Tawny-chested Flycatcher, Bicolored Hawk, and many other birds including Sunbittern and Snowcap. The elusive and weird piprites may be present as well as Lovely Cotinga. If not, they could be at other nearby sites. Other possible places in the area fit for lower budgets (and comfort) but with excellent birding include El Copal and La Marta.

One of the coquettes from Rancho…

With this itinerary, Rancho will also be your main chance for Caribbean slope species. To see some marsh and low elevation birds, do day trips to the Angostura area and sites between Turrialba and the lowlands.

Cerro de la Muerte

It’s time to head back into the mountains! Go up to the Cerro de la Muerte area to check the birding in the high elevation rainforest. There are several places to do this and see birds like Resplendent Quetzal, Spotted Wood-Quail, and all the highland endemics. The toughest ones are the pygmy-owl, the pewee, and the jay. Peg-billed Finch can be tough too.

The General Valley

Descending Cerro de la Muerte, Bosque Tolomuco can offer up some fine middle elevation birding. Further down, differents sites in the valley can turn up Turquoise Cotinga, Rosy Thrush-Tanager and lots of other new birds for the trip. If you have enough time, you can also try for Ocellated Crake, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, and a few other specialties of the savanna habitats near Buenos Aires.

San Vito and or Ciudad Neily

If you want birds for your Costa Rica list like Lance-tailed Manakin and Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, you will need to visit San Vito. That’s not a bad thing, the birding is exciting and excellent! If you have enough time, the trip is worth it. If not, a trip to Panama or northern Colombia will get you a few of those same specialties.

Whether going to San Vito or not, Ciudad Neily is worth a visit! Not necessarily the town but you should visit the nearby open wetlands. This newish hotspot can turn up any number of odd rarities, can provide a good chance at Masked Duck, Paint-billed Crake and other rails, and local birds for Costa Rica like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Savanna Hawk, and some other species.

Masked Duck
Masked Duck from Costa Rica

Golfo Dulce

Just up the road from Neily are sites in and around the Golfo Dulce including the Osa. Pick some good ones and you can harvest a bonanza of southern Pacific endemics along with many other species of forest and edge habitats. The owling can also be very good (and provides your best chance at the local variety of Choco Screech-Owl (likely a distinct undescribed species), and Common Potoo is present.

The Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager only occurs in and around the Osa peninsula.

During your visit, make sure to check Rincon de Osa for cotingas, raptors, and other species.

North-Central Pacific

It’s a long drive from the Osa but now that we have a good coastal highway, the trip is worth it. There are also several good stops for food. I personally love Pizzatime and Bageltime (?) in Uvita but that might just be me missing some good old NYC pizza and bagels. Other nice food options also exist especially in the Jaco area.

Aside from food, as you make your way north, once you cross the Tarcoles River, there are several opportunities for dry forest species. Shorebirds are also possible especially at Punta Morales or Chomes (where Mangrove Rail also awaits).

Monteverde

To cap off the trip, spend some time in the cloud forests of the Monteverde area. You will have seen some of those birds at Quelitales but not all of them! Spend a couple nights there to connect with Ruddy Woodcreeper, bellbird (in season), and lots of other birds. You could also hike to more rugged sites on the Caribbean side of Monteverde to try for umbrellabird, Sharpbill, and the monklet.

After Monteverde, head back to the airport zone and celebrate a fantastic, mega birding trip with appropriate drinks and meals. How many birds will you see? That all depends on how much time you have and if you go with an excellent local guide. If all goes well, 500 species are possible but even if you don’t reach that high water mark, the birding will still be fantastic. Get ready for your fantastic Costa Rica birding trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

Soon, I will be doing a trip somewhat like this, I’ll let you know how it goes!

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