Where to go birding in Costa Rica? Where to see birds in Costa Rica? These are pertinent question for any birder, and, for some, all important concerns. The right answers vary; they wholly depend on what you would like to see. Walk outside and look around, as the Urban Birder says, “Look Up!”, and you will see birds, even in the concrete byways of San Jose. However, if you carry out that same action in and near primary rainforest, you could see ten times as many birds.
If “quetzal” is in your personal birding equation, any number of forested sites in the highlands will work. The same goes for many of Costa Rica’s near endemics including birds like Yellow-thighed Brushfinch, an arboreal towhee with legs that sport yellow pom-poms.
As you can see, I wasn’t kidding!
Looking for tanagers? Well of course you are! The best sites tend to be in quality foothill and middle elevation rainforest. How about hummingbirds? Yes please and with sabrewings on top! You’ll find those and much more at various middle elevation sites.
Nothing like seeing a massive purple hummingbird to get the birding blood flowing!
Now if you would like to see lots of cool, choice tropical birds, all at once, there are good birding sites in Costa Rica for that fast and furious happiness too. One such place is Nectar and Pollen, these are some recent highlights and birds to look for at this easily accessible, gem of a spot:
Some of best places to see raptors in Costa Rica are sites with good views of the canopy and sky over extensive primary rainforest. Walk into the pasture at Nectar and Pollen and you’ll see what I mean, especially during a sunny morning, right around 9:00 a.m. This is high time for raptors to take to the skies and if you hit a good day at Nectar and Pollen you could see several of these species:
Hawk-eagles, even the rare Black-and-White
Great Black Hawk
Rarely, you could also see Hook-billed and Gray-headed Kites
Scan the canopy at an early hour and you might also get lucky with finding a perched Tiny Hawk, Bicolored Hawk, Laughing Falcon, or other raptor species.
White-tipped Sicklebill and Other Hummingbirds
Plantings can attract sicklebill, hermits, and several other hummingbirds. A recent visit turned up:
Crowned Woodnymph, and
On other visits, I have also had Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Green Thorntail, Black-crested Coquette, Brown Violetear, Long-billed Starthroat, and that minute mega, the Snowcap.
A Flurry of Birds
If you do pay a visit, be prepared, the birds often happen fast and furious! One after another and sometimes, all at once. So as not to miss anything, your best bet is to let go and do what the guide says. A good guide will get you on the birds that need to be seen at that moment instead of looking at species more likely to be seen later the same day or on other days.
Be forewarned, whether birding with a guide or not, sensory overload is likely! Just try to stay focused, try to recall field marks, and wait until a lull in the bird action to check your birding app for Costa Rica or field guide book. Trust me, if you try to look up each bird as you see them, you could miss a lot.
As with any site, the fast birding at Nectar and Pollen varies but often includes troops of Black-faced Grosbeaks and Carmiol’s Tanagers, other tanagers in fruiting trees, euphonias, hummingbirds, parrots doing flybys and more. It’s bird action at its best!
Red-fronted Parrotlet and Other Uncommon Species
Although you can’t expect it on every visit, this is a perfect site to see the rare Red-fronted Parrotlet fly past in the morning and late afternoon. Watch for them from the small hill in the pasture while also enjoying views of Long-tailed Tyrant, Cinnamon, Rufous-winged, Black-cheeked, and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, and other species.
If you walk the forest trail, keep a close eye out for Olive-backed Quail-Dove on the ground, Dull-mantled Antbird in the ravines, and White-flanked Antwrem and other small birds in understory mixed flocks. The umbrellabird and other rare species are also always possible!
Tanagers and White-vented Euphonia
The number of tanagers can vary but fruiting trees usually attract Green and Shining Honeycreepers, Scarlet-rumped and Crimson-collared Tanagers, and various other species. Emerald, Silver-throated, Speckled, and Bay-headed are regular and once in a while, Rufous-winged, Black-and-yellow, and even Blue-and-Gold Tanagers occur! On a recent visit, although the tanager scene was somewhat subdued, we still had uncommon White-vented Euphonia and several other nice birds.
As you may have surmised, the birding at Nectar and Pollen can be pretty darn good. The same goes for bird photography, especially for hummingbirds, Rufous Motmot, and tanagers. Visits must be arranged in advance but that’s easy enough to do. Just send Miguel a message at the Nectar and Pollen Facebook page and give him the date of your visit. A visit for one to two people costs $25 per person, $20 per person for groups of three or more. If you go, please leave a comment with your sightings or link to eBird list at the end of this post. I hope to see you there!
Its February, 2023 and in Costa Rica, there’s a whole lot of birding going on. This current high season, I have seen several birding groups in various places and many an eBird list, perhaps even more than in previous pre-Covid years. It’s wonderful to see such a large number of folks enjoying the exciting avian delights found in this birdy nation. If you will be visiting Costa Rica soon, I hope these current tips and highlights will help with your trip.
The Medio Queso wetland
The name might translate to “half cheese” but when it comes to birding, this wetland is the full monty. Always good, lately, boat trips with Chambita have been even better. While enjoying the avian scenery on just such a tour last week, we were dazzled by flights of Fork-tailed Flycatchers, point blank looks at the pseudo sparrow Yellow-breasted Crake, Pinnated Bitterns, very local Nicaraguan Grackles, and more. Other recent trips have also had Jabirus in flight and other uncommon species. To sign up, contact me at [email protected]. I’ll put you in touch with Chambita.
Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Good Stuff at and Near Arenal Observatory Lodge
Sites at and near the Arenal Observatory Lodge are always good for birding. Recently, our group had a female mega umbrellabird right from the feeder deck. As this major bird tends to do, it snuck in with nary a sound to perch on a nearby branch for a few minutes before continuing on its merry way. If my friend Alec Humann had not been looking for birds away from the feeder, we could have easily missed it!
If you find yourself on the deck at Observatory Lodge, remember to keep looking around, keep checking trees for other birds, there might be an umbrellabird nearby. On that note, if you can walk up and down stairs, I suspect that the river trail below the feeder area could be good for it. Note that a male has also been recently seen on the Waterfall Trail.
Other extra nice bird species in that area have included Great Black Hawk seen on the road to the lodge, Fasciated Tiger-Heron frequenting the river just before the main entrance to the lodge, Black-crested Coquette at the Casona, Black-and-White Owls near lights at the reception (check trees near the lights), and White-throated Shrike-Tanager on the Waterfall Trail among many other species.
Crested and Spectacled Owls and Other Delights at Cope’s
Birding with Cope was wonderful as always and the main feeder watching area now features a concrete floor. We had wonderful feeder action there, King Vulture and Double-toothed Kite in flight from the road in front of Cope’s, and both Crested and Spectacled Owls in the forest.
Speaking of much desired birds, although we did not see Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle, other birders have! Cope was telling me he suspects that one may be using the forest he brings birders to with some regularity and he has also seen it fly over his house (talk about a good yard bird!).
Cedar Waxwings are in the House
2023 is the year for Cedar Waxwings in Costa Rica. Yes, if you come from North America, big deal, you see waxwings all the time. However, if you are visiting Costa Rica from elsewhere, you just might be interested in seeing this bonus bird. I’m not sure if there has ever been a year when so many have been seen in Costa Rica; there have been flocks of a couple dozen to well over 100 birds.
They have mostly been spotted in the highlands and parts of the Central Valley and seem to be attracted to fruiting figs. Since they do move around quite a bit, the best way to find them is to check eBird for recent sightings and listen for their distinctive, high-pitched whispering calls, especially when birding the high elevations, sites around the Central Valley, and on the Pacific slope.
Cocora Butterfly Garden
The butterflies are lovely but this garden has a much more. For example, a few weeks ago, they had an umbrellabird and one or more could still be around, we had an Ornate Hawk-Eagle fly right over us, sicklebill has been visiting Heliconias there, and there’s lots of hummingbirds to see. In addition, they have a trail that accesses excellent middle elevation forest and serve absolutely fantastic coffee (it truly is fantastic). The trail is only for the physically fit but if you can do it, you could see any number of uncommon species. When I get a chance, I hope to do a dawn survey on that trail. I’ll let you know what I find!
Saving one of the best places for last, this is a new place in the Arenal area that I can’t recommend enough. Located just outside of Fortuna, Papa’s Place is actually the home of Gerald and Priscilla, a local, friendly birding couple who offer up a unique blend of Costa Rican hospitality and excellent birds.
After a warm welcome, we sat down to watch the wooded riparian zone out back. The birding was nonstop and we were treated to an avian show that featured Golden-olive, Rufous-winged, Black-cheeked, and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, Olivaceous Piculet, Double-toothed Kite, and various other species. Ironically, one of our best birds was a rare wintering juvenile female Cerulean Warbler! We also had looks at several tanagers including Plain-colored and the rare Rufous-winged Tanager, as well as other birds.
Although we did not see them, White-fronted Nunbird can also show and they have also seen Yellow-eared Toucanet and various raptors. The birding was great but to top off the experience, we had a delicious lunch that featured authentic country Tico cuisine. Cooked with care, this food was a step far and above from the food we had been eating at hotels (which wasn’t bad by any means!), and some of our group also had fun learning how to make tortillas. Authentic, great birds in friendly surroundings, and supporting fellow birders, really, I can’t recommend the experience enough. I look forward to my next visit.
I could mention a lot more; when it comes to birding in Costa Rica, there’s always more to say. Suffice to say that when you go birding here, you will see a lot, especially when you visit the right places. To learn how to see more birds in every corner of Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 900 page ebook, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to share birds in Costra Rica with you soon!
Birding isn’t just watching birds. It can be a fun and stress-free outlet, an educational journey, and a personal challenge. However, no matter how many birds you see, no matter how you experience birds, birding is always a key way to relax and connect with your natural surroundings. A relaxed birding trip is when you go birding but you also sample and enjoy local cuisine, maybe spend some time in the pool, maybe spend more time in one bird-rich place to watch bird at your own pace.
Costa Rica is ideal for relaxed birding. It’s a place where relaxation and nature connection go hand in hand, especially for birders with non-birding partners. Beautiful tropical scenery and an incredible number of birds make this friendly country ideal for a relaxed birding trip.
The following are 5 additional benefits of relaxed birding in Costa Rica:
Beautiful Garden Birds
In Costa Rica, you don’t have to go far to see a lot of exotic, beautiful birds. Some photographers visit this birdy country and take pictures of a couple hundred species without setting one foot on a single trail. Stay in the right gardens and fruiting trees can host euphonias, tanagers and other small species.
Incredibly, stunning Golden-hooded Tanagers are also regular garden birds!
Flowering bushes and other plantings attract hummingbirds. The Violet-headed Hummingbird is one of several glittering species regular at many sites in Costa Rica.
More Protected Habitat Makes for Easier Birding
Costa Rica is such an excellent place for easy-going birding because there’s a lot of easily accessible and protected habitats. Even better, several quality eco-lodges are found within or next to such protected areas. It’s why Costa Rica is an easy place to see large birds like Great Curassow and Crested Guan,
In general, more habitat means more birds without having to go on long, muddy hikes.
Fun for the Non-Birding Partner
Relaxed birding works very well when visiting Costa Rica with a non-birding partner. This type of birding means that you can get in fantastic birding in the morning and enjoy the rest of the day doing fun things with your partner. It can also mean birding for most of the day while your partner does other activities. There’s always plenty of fun stuff to do in Costa Rica.
Birding Boat Trips
Don’t feel like going on a long, hot hike? You aren’t alone! Boat trips in the right places are an excellent substitute. Float down a tropical river and you can see everything from waterbirds to trogons, raptors, and a roosting Great Potoo.
You Still See Lots of Great Birds
This is probably the best thing about relaxed birding in Costa Rica. When a well planned, easy going birding tour in Costa Rica stays in the right key places, many species are seen right at the lodge, even birds like trogons, motmots, toucans, parrots, and literally hundreds of other species.
To learn more about carefully planned, fun and relaxed birding tours in Costa Rica taking place in January, 2023, contact me today at [email protected]
Bird photography in Costa Rica is fantastic. Sure, we could say the same about dozens of destinations and there might be excellent bird photography right in your own backyard but what you might not have birds like
and Orange-chinned Parekeet.
You may not have access to a site that offers more than typical feeder species. In Costa Rica, one such top choice for bird photography is Laguna del Lagarto. It’s a place I have blogged about on more than one occasion and with good reason; this classic Costa Rica eco-lodge offers world class bird photography benefits that can be tough to beat, one of those being a chance to capture images of Tawny-faced Quail.
Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this beautiful little ground birds, if you haven’t seen many pictures. On account of its shy behavior and dense, dark rainforest habitat, this small quail is one of the most infrequently seen bird species in Costa Rica. However, thanks to the efforts of local birding guide Juan Diego Vargas and Laguna del Lagarto, chances to see Tawny-faced Quail have greatly improved. Even better, not only can you see it, you have a fair chance of getting pictures too!
The problem with seeing Tawny-faced Quail is that this species doesn’t like to be seen. This isn’t one of those birds that will walk into the open, it’s not a bird that takes many chances. In general, small groups carefully move over the forest floor and then freeze at the slightest hint of danger. Since their plumage acts as perfect camouflage in the dark forest interior, you could easily walk right past them and have no idea the bird was sitting still, just a few meters away.
Most birds that live in the understory of the rainforest are tough to see, most are experts at staying hidden. However, most also give whistled songs and calls that reveal their presence. Most do that but much to a birder’s chagrin, the Tawny-faced Quail bucks the trend. This little quail rarely sings and instead of using its voice in the morning, it often waits until dusk and even them, it calls just a few times.
The timing and manner of its song makes this bird incredibly easy to overlook. Even worse, in Costa Rica, this quail seems to sing more often during just two months; May and June. The bird can also be found and heard at other times of the year but based on the experience at Laguna del Lagarto, the most reliable time to see them is definitely during May and June. This is when they call the most and this is when Laguna offers your best chance to see them.
We all know that no bird is guaranteed, anything can happen while birding but I also know that May and June is when most of the local guides have visited Laguna to see and photograph this quail. I know that Laguna has found roosting sites for this bird and have followed careful protocols to make sure every visiting birder sees them. During the past two years, when a roosting quail at Laguna is known, the success rate of visiting birders for seeing this bird has been very high.
Perhaps roosting birds will also be found at other times of the year? Hopefully, but at the moment, May and June are the best months to book a trip to Laguna del Lagarto and photograph this bird. It’s one of several excellent side benefits when visiting Costa Rica for bird photography. Laguna being one of the better places for bird photography in Costa Rica, some of those other benefits include close photo opps for toucans, tanagers, tityras, puffbirds, and a host of additional rainforest species like the stunning Green Honeycreeper shown below. I know I’m looking forward to the next time I visit this special place!
There are 6 species of toucans in Costa Rica and birders visiting Costa Rica will be pleased to learn that most of them are fairly common! Colorful, big, and bold, these fancy birds are larger than life. On account of their fantastic appearance, these big-beaked birds have acted as inspiration for characters on everything from cereal boxes to marketing for a number of tropical destinations (Costa Rica included).
In Costa Rica, these surreal and wonderful birds occur in nearly every type of forested habitat. Three species live in the lowland tropical rainforests on the Caribbean slope. They include the bird with the rainbow-colored bill, the Keel-billed Toucan,
the Yellow-throated Toucan (formerly known as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and the Black-mandibled Toucan),
and the Collared Aracari.
Just above the lowlands, the elusive Yellow-eared Toucanet lurks in the foothill and lower middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope.
Not nearly as common as the other toucan species, pairs of this special bird prefer to forage inside the forest and rarely come into the open. Some of the better spots for them are forests in the Arenal area, Volcan Tenorio, and the foothills of Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Higher still, we have a chance at seeing the beautiful Northern Emerald Toucanet. Smaller than other members of its family, this pint-sized green toucan is a common denizen of highland forests. Listen for its barking call and you might see one.
It helps that they also visit fruit feeders!
On the Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris also occur in forests of the Nicoya Peninsula and in some parts of Guanacaste. They share some space with Keel-billed Toucans in areas of moist forest, including sites in the Central Valley.
In the Central Valley and southern Pacific slope, Collared Aracaris are replaced by the flashy Fiery-billed Aracari. This near endemic is especially common in areas with humid forest. It shares such places on the south-Pacific slope with the Yellow-throated Toucan.
Although these toucan species occur at many sites, the places where they are most common are areas with extensive tropical forests replete with large trees used for nesting and as food sources. Since toucans are also omnivorous, their populations fare much better in high quality habitats that can provide them with plenty of fruit and small creatures. In Costa Rica, that would mean larger areas of mature tropical forest.
This is why we tend to find more toucans in Costa Rica in places like the Osa Peninsula, lowland and foothill rainforests in the Sarapiqui region, near Boca Tapada, Rincon de la Vieja, Monteverde, and forests in Limon province. More toucans usually means more of other wildlife because good numbers of these real life cartoony birds are indicative of healthy tropical forest that likewise provides habitat for hundreds of other birds, plants, and animals.
Such sites can be good places to look for manakins, cotingas, tinamous, and many other species that require healthy forest, including two species that prey on toucans; Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles.
To find more toucans and the best places to see birds in Costa Rica, use this Costa Rica bird finding guide. I hope you have a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica and hope to see you here!
Where’s the best birding in Costa Rica? The answer can be elusive; it depends on the observer, what you want to see and how you want to experience Costa Rica birds.
Even so, by merit of outstanding habitat or propensity to facilitate seeing lots of cool birds (aren’t they all?), some places stand out . One such place has been making the local birding news for the past few months. It isn’t new and the birds I am about to mention have always been there but because the site is not on the regular birding circuit, it has been very much overlooked.
That place is the San Luis Adventure Park and if you can fit it into your birding trip to Costa Rica, by all means do it. San Luis was started some 15 years ago by four local guys who wanted to start a tourism business in beautiful surroundings. They picked a site with cloud forests located between the city of San Ramon and the tourism hotspot of Fortuna. To make a long story short, this ended up being the perfect choice both for their business venture and for local wildlife. Their business has been successful, and on account of being aware of the importance of protecting biodiveristy and fostering a conservation mindset, the birding in the cloud forests of San Luis is as accessible as it is fantastic.
The better the forest, the better the birding. Another way of saying that is that the more mature and extensive the forest, the more diverse and healthy it is. Mature tropical forest composed of massive trees provides the array of microhabitats and food sources necessary to sustain the full complement of bird species that have evolved to live in such habitats. For the birder visiting San Luis Canopy, this translates to chances at seeing large and speciose mixed flocks, Collared Trogon, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Dull-mantled Antbird, and many others (including Sunbittern along the river).
San Luis isn’t the only site with high quality forest but it’s one of the few places where such habitat is easily accessible. Located on the main route that links San Ramon to Fortuna, it only takes a bit more than an hour to drive there from the airport, or an hour and 30 or 40 minutes from Fortuna. This also makes it easily accessible by public bus.
Some birding is possible from the parking area but the best birding is along the trail. This is a well maintained trail with some areas of steps and several bridges that allow views into the forest canopy. It starts at a deck that often has tanagers coming in to fruit and shortly after, accesses a hummingbird viewing area. Folks with mobility issues won’t be able to do the trail but they can still see quite a few tanagers and other birds from the viewing deck and even from the parking area.
Speaking of tanagers, this is one of the best sites to get close looks and shots of Emerald, Bay-headed, and Speckled Tanagers.
Tawny-capped Euphonia is also regular and when nearby trees have fruit, the viewing deck can also be good for Black-and-Yellow and Blue-and-Gold Tanagers! Both of these special species are also regular on the forest trail.
The hummingbird viewing area can host Brown Violetear, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet Sabrewing , Crowned Woodnymph, and other species. Once in a while, Snowcap occurs and Green Hermit, Green Thorntail, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Coppery-headed Emerald are regular.
Whoah! Yes, one of the mega of mega tough birds to see can be encountered at San Luis Canopy! Not every day but often enough to be worth mentioning. Recently, two were seen by many visiting birders as they foraged at an antswarm. Although they didn’t show for Mary and I yesterday (no antswarms were present), I’m sure they will be seen again.
The chances of seeing a ground-cuckoo at San Luis are boosted by local guides who keep an eye out for them on the trails and relay that information back to the front desk. In fact, before we entered the trail, one of the co-owners, Nelson, was very helpful in providing us with information about the latest sightings and told us that if we wanted, we could also wait at the tanager viewing area until their guides could tell us if they were seeing the cuckoos.
Whoah! Yes, another major mega occurs at San Luis! Although one or two might be present year round, this very special bird seems to be much more likely and quite reliable from November to January. It can occasionally show near the parking area but is far more likely on the trail. Once again, the local guides let the front desk know where they have been seeing them.
As is typical of sites with extensive, quality forest, San Luis can also be very good for rainforest raptors. Over the years, I have seen such species as Barred Forest-Falcon, Bicolored Hawk, White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles. This can be an especially good site for the latter fancy raptor, mostly on sunny days when it calls during soaring flight.
Given its easy access, the San Luis Adventure Park makes for an excellent day trip from the Central Valley, or as a great way to start or end a birding trip to Costa Rica, especially for birders traveling to and from Fortuna. As a bonus, this excellent site is also near other very good areas for birding including Finca Luna Nueva, the Pocosol Station, cloud forests near San Ramon, and Lands in Love. I hope you visit this special place someday, until then, happy birding from Costa Rica.
Birding as a kid in the 70s and 80s was about using cheap but precious binoculars to look at birds in the backyard, in nearby fields, and at state parks. It was about checking out and studying bird books in the public library and back at home, trying to see the differences among sparrows streaked with differents shades of brown, gazing at photos of Prairie Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and other birds (in books), and wondering how I could see them.
It was also about seeing how I could reach places outside of my backyard and joining local trips with an older birding crowd. I went on day trips with the Buffalo Ornithological Society and the Ranbow County Birders to local reserves to look for warblers in May, shorebirds in August, and migrating hawks in early spring. Living in Niagara, we had a fantastic gull trip and were fortunate to have Canadian friends that treated us to 9, even 10 owl species in a day in cold, snowy places. There were different levels of interest but the way we went birding was pretty much the same.
A trip usually started with a meeting time and place that tended to be a McDonald’s parking lot. That way, folks could use the restroom, get a coffee, and maybe a quick breakfast. Before GPS and associated modern digital wayfaring, the big golden arches came in handy as an easy and obvious point of reference. From our meeting spot, the trip leader would convoy us to our morning birding stops and we would watch birds, talk about how to identify them, and maybe look at some through scopes. We would check out field marks in field guides, maybe a Perterson or a Golden Guide. After the Nat. Geo. became available, that fantastic storehouse of updated birding knowledge took center stage. It was a huge help with identification, especially with gulls and shorebirds. We would bring our own lunches and at some later point, say our goodbyes and head back home.
This was how most birding trips were. It was birding without digital cameras, apps, nor any access to broader, collated information about sightings and advanced identification. In other words, birdwatching was just that; watching birds, and there was a big emphasis on field identification. There had to be. The birding community was still figuring out how to identify all sort of things and didn’t have any immediate picture taking devices to check the birds we had seen. Sometimes, people would bring print-outs of articles on identification. When Kenn Kaufman’s book on advanced bird identification was published, that fantastic resource also found a place in the car. Birding was often about getting good looks as fast as you could, knowing what to look for, taking notes and maybe making field sketches.
Since those pre Internet days, birding has evolved and expanded into a many-faceted hobby. The birding spectrum includes everything from watching birds to simply watch them and not worry much about their names, solely taking pictures of birds, and using every technolgical resource on hand to race and see as many species as possible. People also watch birds for other reasons but no matter how you go with the birding flow, in Costa Rica, everyone is welcome at the birding table.
Costa Rica has enough birds and birding sites to please every aspect of the hobby. One of several choice areas to visit for any degree of birding or bird enjoyment or bird photography is Cinchona and Route 126. Situated around an hour or less from San Jose, this route provides access to several habitats, each of which have their fair share of birds. Cinchona is the name of a small settlement on that road where a small restaurant with a wealth of birds is located. It’s called the “Cafe Colibri” or “Mirador San Fernando“.
More than a dozen hummingbird species, tanagers, Black Guan, quetzal, Flame-throated Warbler and other highland endemics, Cinchona and Ruta 126 has enough birds and birding sites to please all aspects of birding. These are three strategies for a day of birding in this area, each tailored to a distinct manner of birding:
Focusing on Birds in Costa Rica and Not Much Else
I admit, this is the birding I have usually done, the birding I prefer to do because it pushes me to concentrate on my surroundings, to listen and look closer and become enveloped by natural surroundings. This type of full scale birding makes for some nature connection at its finest. If you bird like this on Ruta 126 and Cinchona, there are a couple of ways to start your long yet exciting day.
If you can’t sleep, at some pre-dawn hour, drive up the road towards Poas Volcano as far as you can go. Listen and look for Bare-shanked Screech-Owl and Dusky Nightjar. Keep an ear out for the less common tooting whistles of Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl and be aware that Unspotted Saw-whet might also occur up there (it has yet to be documented from Poas but you never know..).
From dawn to 9, get in roadside high elevation birding in that same area before making your way to Varablanca. Keep an eye out for Black Guan, quetzals, silky-flycatchers, and just about everything else. Make sure to stop at the Volcan Restaurant and enjoy a coffee and a snack while watching the hummingbird feeders. Still need Scintillant Hummingbird? Maybe Magenta-throated Woodstar? Check out the Porterweed bushes in the parking lot for the Corso farm.
When you reach Varablanca, make the turn towards Sarapiqui, drive downhill for a little bit and turn right on the San Rafael Road. Bird forest patches there and watch for Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and various other cloud forest species.
At some point, head back to Ruta 126 and keep driving downhill. You could make stops at the Peace Waterfall to look for American Dipper and and other species, and at one or more overlooks to watch for Ornate Hawk-Eagle and other soaring raptors.
Arrive at Cinchona just before noon. If you visit on a weekend, the cafe could be crowded. From January to March, it might also be crowded with birders. Find a table, order some food and enjoy the avian show.
While keeping an eye out for both barbets, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-gem, don’t forget to check the undergrowth and nearby vegetation for surprise birds like a quail-dove or two, Middle American Leaftosser, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species. Make sure to support this important, birder friendly place with a donation.
Post Cafe Colibri, watch for perched Bat Falcon and soaring raptors as you continue driving downhill. For the rest of the afternoon, you can’t go wrong with birding Virgen del Socorro (four wheel drive), Mi Cafecito, and lower foothill birding on the San Miguel-Socorro Road. Checking streams could yield Faciated Tiger-Heron and other nice birdies.
Finish off the day by relaxing at Albergue del Socorro or further on in the Sarapiqui lowlands with a cold beer, or dinner, or counting the 100 plus species you have seen.
Bird Photography in Costa Rica
You still want an early start but unless you want to take a stab at capturing images of night birds, pre-dawn birding won’t be necessary. You might even want to stop for breakfast at Freddo Fresas. That way, you can also set up in their gardens just across the road.
Although you can do bird photography on the road up to Poas, if you can, I suggest saving high elevation photography for places like Batsu or other spots in the Dota Valley. Whether you stop at Freddo Fresas or not, you may want to check out the hummingbird bushes in the parking area of the Corso farm and ice creamery. Further on, make your way down Ruta 126 towards Sarapiqui and on to Cinchona and spend a good few hours there. Make sure to buy lunch and also give them a donation of at least $10 per person. They may also charge a small photography fee. Whatever you do, please do what you can to support this important, fantastic, locally owned place. They have suffered tragedies, worked very hard to rebuild after being destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, and have supported birding and bird photography for many years.
Post Cinchona, keep an eye out for perched and soaring raptors on the drive downhill. The next best stop for photography would probably be Mi Cafecito. Although photo options vary, the area of the canyon overlook can have toucans, guans, tanagers, and other species at fruiting trees. Be careful on that cement trail, it can be very slippery!
After Mi Cafecito, head to your hotel in the Sarapiqui lowlands. To maximize photo opps, you may also want to skip Mi Cafecito altogether and visit Dave and Daves, or just shoot at your hotel.
Easy-Going Birding in Costa Rica
If you just feel like seeing whatever you can see, you should still get up early but you won’t need to rush out the door. If you are staying at a place like Villa San Ignacio, enjoy some nice easy birding in their gardens before and during a tasty breakfast. After that, drive up towards Poas and stop at Freddo Fresas to visit their gardens and perhaps buy some strawberry bread for an afternoon snack.
After checking out the gardens, continue on towards Varablanca and start driving downhill towards Sarapiqui on Ruta 126. Stop at one or two overlooks (with small parking areas), scan for flying raptors, and enjoy the scenery. Further on, if you feel like seeing various rescued wildlife in a somewhat zoo-like setting in beautiful surroundings and nice trails, visit the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (there is an entrance fee). If not, continue on, make an optional stop at the Peace Waterfall and then visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.
Pick a table, order some food and drinks, and enjoy the birds. Take your time and keep watching, see how many species you can find! You might also want to browse their souvenirs and pick out some quality organic chocolate before easing on down the road. Please give a donation to help support this special place.
Further downhill, if you feel like walking a short trail in foothill rainforest, visit Mi Cafecito and walk to the overlook (be careful of slippery trail conditions). This place is also an excellent spot to take a coffee tour. After Mi Cafecito, continue on or head back to your hotel.
No matter how you watch birds, in Costa Rica, there’s a heck of a lot to see. For example, on the route mentioned above, over the years, I have seen more than 330 species. You won’t see all of them there in one day, but you can expect to see a lot and if you visit the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona, the norm has been close, prolonged views of fantastic tropical bird species.
The Costa Rica birding season will be here soon. For some lucky folks, it’s already happening. Those fortunate birders have been enjoying the benefits of birding in Costa Rica with views of everything from shy Yellow-breasted Crakes to mega Bare-necked Umbrellabird and hawk-eagles. The usual magnificent mix of glittering hummingbirds and tanagers are also being seen along with
Resplendent Quetzal– a true world mega.
Would you like to start your year of birding with ten days full of fantastic birds in Costa Rica?
How about seeing Costa Rica hummingbirds like the Purple-throated Mountain-gem,
Violet Sabrewing and chances at more than 30 other species.
Scarlet and Great Green Macaws
along with several other parrots and parakeets including
While birding rainforests entertained by the haunting whistled songs of tinamous, antbirds, and woodcreepers, there will be chances to see such stunning tropical birds as
Gartered Trogons and much more.
In cloud forest, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers await
along with cute Collared Redstarts
and Yellow-thighed Brushfinches.
Boat rides in bird rich wetlands can have crakes,
the unique Sungrebe,
and the near endemic Nicaraguan Grackle.
Tropical dry forest offers another fantastic suite of birds to watch including stunners like the Turquoise-browed Motmot
and Long-tailed Manakin.
On the tanager front, Costa Rica is blessed with beauties like the Crimson-collared Tanager,
Red-legged Honeycreeper and more.
Toucans? Oh, there will be toucans too…
Hundreds of birds are waiting including the beauties shown above. Many will be seen (maybe 400 of them) on a fantastic birding tour in CostaRica scheduled for 10 days in January and February, 2022. Carefully designed by local experts to maximize bird variety at key sites, lucky participants will visit such hotspots as the Sarapiqui rainforests,
If you are or know of a woman birder who would love to experience the fantastic birding of Costa Rica and be willing to share a room with another woman birder on this trip, send an email today to [email protected]
Fantastic tropical birding is waiting in Costa Rica, I hope to see you here!
Birding sites come and go. Some get better, others become off limits or, in too many worse case scenarios, are converted to housing or sterile pineapple fields. As Joni Mitchell reminded us, new parking lots can also happen and while those frozen patches of tar might make a Ring-billed Gull cackle with glee, other birds would opt for trees.
Thanks to recent guiding, I visited two classic birding sites in Costa Rica and noted a few changes that have happened at both of them. Not to worry (!), the changes are neutral or for the better at the Colibri Cafe in Cinchona and the San Luis Adventure Park. Here’s what to expect:
The Cafe Colibri (aka Mirador de San Fernando, aka Cinchona, aka Cinchona Cafe, aka awesome spot to get mind blown by tropical birds)
Although a parking lot did happen at the cafe, fortunately, it did NOT pave over any bit of paradise. Having nudged my vehicle into undefined parking spaces at the Colibri Cafe for years, I can attest to the new parking area being an improvement. Even better, for kids and domestic animal lovers of all ages, the parking area is now accentuated by a pair of braying donkeys.
As birders are entertained by the occasional loud, toothed voices of corralled mules across the road, they now also have more seating room on the birding deck.
The deck removed a very small part of the garden but it shouldn’t really affect the birds and more space was needed anyways. The new set up also makes it easier to watch the main feeder, a star fruit buffet featuring such beautiful attendees as the Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Silver-throated Tanager, and eye-pleasing species.
The hummingbird scene hasn’t changed, it still provides the chance to witness Brown Violetears extending their “ears”, Coppery-headed Emeralds sputtering and flashing the white in the tails, Green Thorntails doing their best wasp imitation, Violet Sabrewings acting large, purple, and in charge, and more.
I should also mention that the menu is still the same albeit with the addition of flavored coffees available from a flavored coffee machine (which, if my mochaccino was any indication, could be better).
From the very mouth of the owner, the current fees for bird photography are 1500 colones for a bit of time and 2500 for a few hours. Since this is still a pittance, if you visit, please be generous and donate accordingly to this classic, birder friendly spot. My eBird list from September 13, 2021.
The San Luis Adventure Park (aka San Luis, aka San Luis Canopy, aka dream close looks at tanagers)
Over the years, this neat little place nestled in cloud forest on the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna has grown. Although the owners haven’t paved over anything, a bit of habitat has been removed. It’s nothing substantial and won’t affect the birds too much but it does affect the birding, at least a little bit.
As San Luis has expanded ever so slightly, various fruiting trees that were located just behind and next to the buildings have been removed. It’s a shame because those very trees made it easy to watch a wealth of tanagers from the parking area, Blue-and gold included. Not all of the trees were cut down, several are still there, just not as many visible from the parking area. Even so, I can’t honestly blame the owners for removing a few trees.
A few had to be taken out because they interfered with their zipline operations. Others were cut so they could expand a deck and the restaurant. I wish there could have been a better solution but it’s hard to think of one. Since they still protect a sizeable area of cloud forest, I can think of a lot more enterprises much more worthy of criticism for actual unsustainable and destructive practices.
Not to mention, the deck that was built also happens to be where birders can view tanagers at close range, so there is that. Speaking of the tanager deck, while it used to be freely open to birders, a locked door has been installed and access is now only possible by paying $20 in the reception. If $20 seems too much to view Emerald Tanager at close range, not to worry, you get more for that price! This same fee also provides unlimited access to the San Luis Canopy trail; a maintained series of steps that descends a river and has several hanging bridges.
If you can handle a bunch of steps, hanging bridges, and great birding, this might be the trail for you! It accesses mature cloud forest that can feature close looks at various tanagers, excellent mixed flocks, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, a chance at umbrellabird, and many other species. Since the fee also includes access to a hummingbird garden and close looks at Emerald, Speckled, Bay-headed Tanagers and other birds, I would say that’s money well spent.
San Luis is currently open seven days a week, from 8 until 4. The restaurant is good enough and currently features a typical Costa Rican menu (used to be buffet only). My eBird list from September 12, 2021.
As with every good birding site, I look forward to going back, I hope you make it there too. In the meantime, to learn more about identification tips and birding sites in Costa Rica, get ready for an amazing birding trip to Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy fall migration!
Target birding, it’s nothing new, it’s just looking for the birds we want to see. It can be as relaxed as watching for that daily Downy Woodpecker or as extreme as braving the Poseidon swells of the southern Atlantic as you make headway to Inaccessible Island. Although the daily Downy twitch and an incredible seafaring jaunt for the Inaccessible Island Rail are two very different endeavors, essentially, both are still target birding.
When it comes down to it, as long as you have a bird in mind and watch for it more than some other species, you are partaking in target birding. Seasoned birders know that most target birding goes far beyond the familiar branches and brush piles of the backyard and that it typically begins well before stepping out the door. Even if the bird in question is at a local reserve, we don’t want to leave the house until we know where and how to look for it. We don’t want to take the risk because from past experience, we know how easy it is to not see birds.
We know that if we only focus efforts on the western side of a sewage lagoon, we could miss or “dip” a Green Sandpiper that only prefers the ponds on the eastern part of the dark water treatment stinkplex. From dips of the past, we know that we might need to look for the target bird at a certain time of day. That’s of course how we missed the vagrant Black-headed Gull that only flies past the river mouth at 6 p.m. (we were watching at 6 a.m….).
No matter how earnest your scanning of the cold waters of Lake Ontario might be, if the bird doesn’t go there at 10 a.m., even a Yodabirder couldn’t bring it into a field of view. That need for accurate information is why mild-mannered birders can become temporary experts on the habits of Northern Wheatears, why we can have an incredible thirst for odd, ornitho-information, how we can spend hours looking over and analyzing eBird data. That’s all good (I freely admit to have done all of these things too) but is all of that research necessary when birding Costa Rica? Do we really need to learn about and know the habits of every possible species?
Perhaps not but for those of us with the time to do so, even if we don’t need to know about the habits of tail-wagging Zeledon’s Antbirds, we might still learn as much as we can simply because we love to learn about birds. I know that I love getting insight into the habits of pretty much every bird but does it come in handy?
To answer this latter question, I would say, “Yes” because the more you know about a bird, the more complete the experience when you finally see it. When you finally focus in on a Clay-colored Thrush, as common and bereft of colors as it may be, the experience is enhanced by knowing that this average looking thrush is also the national bird of Costa Rica, that it’s melodies bring the rains, that it’s local name of “Yiguirro” comes from the Huetar culture and shows that this dull-colored bird has made a happy connection between birds and people for thousands of years.
Knowledge is handy, it enhances any birding trip to Costa Rica. It’s not absolutely necessary for seeing target birds but it does enhance a once in a lifetime trip to a birding paradise. With that in mind, this is my take on some additional, effective strategies used to target birds in Costa Rica:
This fantastic tool for bird information also works for Costa Rica BUT it is limited by accuracy, site bias, and the fact that tropical ecosystems are complicated. Don’t get me wrong, it can tell you where any number of species have been seen and I often use it to get an idea about distribution but a fair number of reports should be taken with a grain of salt, locations for various sightings are incorrect, and since a high percentage of visiting birders bird at the same sites, that bias is reflected in the data. It’s not a bad tool to plan for target birds by any means, I would just suggest not solely relying on eBird in Costa Rica to plan your trip (at 10,000 Birds, I wrote a post about tips for using eBird in Costa Rica).
I should also mention that since we now have more reviewers in Costa Rica working to improve the quality of the data, information about bird distribution in Costa Rica on eBird should improve with time.
As with birding anywhere, no matter how many bird lists you have for a given site, you still don’t really know where your target birds are until you know which habitats they use and how to recognize those habitats. This is one of the reasons why we included text and photos about major habitats in the birding app for Costa Rica that I am involved with.
Simple enough, right? Maybe if all you had to do was find mature pine forest but in Costa Rica, the only pines we have are on tree plantations. The birds around here use a much more complex array of habitats, many of them only occur in specific microhabitats like forested streams, Heliconia thickets, or advanced second growth. Heck, for a few birds, we still don’t know what the heck they really need!
If you have a limited number of target species, this is where research can help. Learn as much as you can about the types of microhabitats and elevations used by a mega target like the Black-crowned Antpitta and you will have a better chance at finding one. Learn where various types of quality habitat occur in advance and you can plan a trip that gets you birding in the best places even if some of those sites don’t feature so well on eBird. Some of those places might even have some of the best habitat, the lack of eBird lists probably just means that few people have birded there.
That said, even if eBird does show that a Lattice-tailed Trogon has been reported at some wonderfully forested site, it might not be there when you visit for the following important factor.
Tropical Ecosystems are Complicated
The Lattice-tailed Trogon was there yesterday, how come it’s not there today? The trail looks the same but despite the frustrations of not seeing an uncommon trogon that was photographed on Monday, you did manage to see a Sharpbill on Tuesday! The reason why that trogon wasn’t present might have been because it was visiting another part of its territory, or because most birds of tropical forest are naturally rare (even more so these days because of the detrimental landscape level effects of climate change), or because it found a better fruiting tree, it was there but hidden, or other reasons not obviously apparent to human senses.
The reasons why birding in tropical forests can seem to change from one day to the next are related to why such those same forests host so much life. Basically, they are ecosystems so complex, at first glance, they seem to be some amazing chaotic, out of control profusion of life gone into overdrive. And maybe they are! It’s more likely, though, that tropical forests are amazingly complex systems and webs of life where interactions happen on innumerable facets and fronts. That just means that you can’t always expect the same birds, but that you can ALWAYS expect surprises and exciting birding.
Consider Hiring a Qualified Guide
As with any place, the easiest route to seeing target birds in Costa Rica is by hiring a qualified local guide. By “qualified”, I mean a guide who knows how to look for those birds, where they have been recently seen, and how to find them. It goes without saying that the guide should also know how to identify your target species. There are a number of qualified guides in Costa Rica, to choose the best for your purposes, I would ask them about their experience, see what others might say about them (especially any professional guides from other places), and ask them about chances at seeing target birds. If they say, “Sure, we can see a Harpy Eagle!”, unless a nest is found, they are likely not being honest. If they say, “No, we probably won’t see Speckled Mourner but I know a few places to try and how to look for them”, that’s a good sign.
Accurate Information on Where to Find Birds in Costa Rica
If you hire a qualified guide, they will know where to find any number of target birds and can probably help plan your trip. However, if you would rather plan a birding trip to Costa Rica on your own, trip reports from tours can act an inspiration. This very blog also has plenty of information. If you would like more in-depth information and details on where to find birds in Costa Rica as well as tips for looking for and identifying them, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
Now that vaccines are on the way, it really is time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Which target birds do you have? Tell us in the comments. I can’t promise that you will see them but I can tell you where to find them.