Birding in Costa Rica is like birding everywhere; better habitat means better birding. In Costa Rica, the best habitat translates to large areas of mature tropical forest; the principal vegetation cover in much of this birdy country for thousands of years, the habitat that provides the complex structure and ecological connections that boost bird diversity.
Primary forest might not provide the easiest of avenues for birding but it does open the door for more raptors and the full complement of expected and rare species. While a birder will see more bird activity in young second growth, they won’t see nearly as many species and won’t have nary a chance at seeing dozens of birds that require the shade, vine tangles, and peculiar situations found in mature forest.
In the highlands of Costa Rica, the most intact, large areas of mature forest occur in the Talamanca Mountains. Check out satellite maps of southern and eastern Costa Rica and you’ll notice that big swath of deep green covering ridges and mountains from near Cartago on into Panama. As inviting as all that habitat looks, unfortunately for us birders, much of it is simply inaccessible. We shouldn’t complain though, that inaccessibility is why so much of that primary highland rainforest still stands.
On the fortunate side of the coin, thanks to protection being given to mature forests in Costa Rica, there are some places in the highlands where intact, fantastic forest can be visited. The following are the most accessible of those sites.
Quetzal National Park and Other Sites on Cerro de la Muerte
The main road that links Cartago to Perez Zeledon is also the primary conduit to the largest area of mature high elevation rainforest in Costa Rica. It only reaches a corner of the large forest block but it is enough to get you birding in groves of massive tropical oaks draped with lichens, moss, and bromeliads.
There are several places where such forest can be experienced but the most accessible spots are roads to and near Providencia. These roads pass through mature forests of Quetzal National Park and true to its name, yes, this is a good area to see that spectacular species. Roadside birding is excellent and can turn up all possible species (including Silvery-throated Jay). Trails are also present, to use them, visit the national park headquarters where the road to Providencia meets the main road between Cartago and Perez Zeledon.
If not using the trails, the public roads can be birded for free and at any time of the day or night.
Santa Elena Forest Reserve in Monteverde
Although an entrance fee is charged, this reserve has a number of good trails accessing excellent cloud forest in the Monteverde area. You will see some other people on the trails but not nearly as many as in the Monteverde Reserve or in Curi-Cancha.
The trails in this reserve can be especially good for Highland Tinamou, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and other shy species.
Bajos del Toro
Roadside birding in mature forest is possible on the main roads from Zarcero and Sarchi to Bajos del Toro. Be forewarned, they can be steep and narrow in parts but do pass through excellent habitat offering chances at rarities like Black-banded Woodcreeper and Azure-hooded Jay along with more common species like Flame-throated Warbler and Collared Redstart.
In terms of easy access, entrance fees, and quality habitat, the three sites and areas mentioned above offer the easiest access to the best highland habitats. That said, many other sites are also possible, including these ones.
-Roble Trail at Savegre: Excellent forest at Savegre accessible with an entrance fee and hike or ride uphill. Inquire at the Savegre reception desk.
-La Georgina: Somewhat steep, free trails through excellent forest can be found just behind the La Georgina cafe on the highway through Cerro de la Muerte.
-The NocheBuena area on Irazu Volcano: Although the forest here is more fragmented than in the Talamancas, the trails at the NocheBuena do pass through quite a bit of good high elevation habitat. Most species are present, notable misses being Silvery-throated Jay and Ochraceous Pewee (although maybe they will eventually occur too?). A small entrance fee is charged.
-Tapanti National Park: This national park has excellent birding on the road through the park and on a few trails. The road to the park is also good and suitable for any vehicle but, as with most national parks in Costa Rica, Tapanti is only open from 8 to 4 and thus not during optimal birding times. Entrance fees must also be purchased online.
The sites mentioned above are particularly suited for DIY birding in Costa Rica. To learn more about where to watch birds in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, a 900 plus page ebook that covers every corner of the country. Happy birding in Costa Rica, I hope to see you here.