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!
Tis the high season for birding in Costa Rica. Higher numbers of optic-associated folks began to arrive in December, more arrived in January, and by February, birders have become a common occurrence at hotels, in national parks, and on quiet country roads. Yeah, make no doubt about it, right now is high time for birding in Costa Rica. You can be entertained by birds in Costa Rica at any time of the year but it’s hard to beat escaping some of the winter’s cold frozen fingers while watching the long tail coverts of a quetzal stream behind it in crazy, colorful flight.
The influx of birders will continue right on through March. If you happen to be one of those lucky bino wearing people, these recent Costa Rica birding highlights will get you psyched for your trip. Some are from recent birding I was involved with, others stem for other reports. I hope all of them help with your birding time in Costa Rica:
Bright colors, loud voices, and odd shapes, who doesn’t yearn to see cotingas? In Costa Rica, they aren’t easy but if you go to the right places, you can get lucky. If you are headed to Rancho Naturalista, you will be in the right place for one of the toughest cotinga in Costa Rica, the Lovely one. Recently, a male Lovely Cotinga has been showing at Rancho just about every day. This is likely the same bird that visited this classic birding lodge on several occasions over the past couple of years. Up your cotinga odds by hiring one of Ranch’s excellent local guides.
The lovely cousin of the Lovely, the Turquoise Cotinga, has also been showing in patches of rainforest around Perez Zeledon as well as its stronghold in the Osa Peninsula. It can also be seen at Rincon de Osa but recently, the birds around Perez have been more reliable. Check eBird to do a cotinga stakeout or hire a good local guide.
As for the white cotingas, the Snowy is frequenting its usual Caribbean lowland strongholds while the endangered Yellow-billed is most easily seen at Rincon de Osa, in the Sierpe mangroves, and from the tower at Cerro Lodge right around 7:30 to 8:15 in the morning.
Resplendent Quetzals are waiting for you at most cloud forest sites. They aren’t common but if you go to the right place and know how to find them, you have a very good chance of seeing this mega spectacular bird. Recently, I have seen them calling and displaying at a site near Varablanca, on the Providencia Road (one of the bext spots), and in the Dota Valley.
Megas at the San Luis Canopy
The San Luis Canopy (or the Parque de Aventura de San Luis) might be off the main birding routes but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the better birding hotspots in Costa Rica. Seriously. How else to describe a place that has been good for Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, and Ochre-breasted Antpitta along with tanagers, hawk-eagles, hummingbirds, and more? You have to descend and ascend steps and cross canopy bridges but there are some serious birding prizes at the end of this cloud forest rainbow.
Owls and Potoos Oh My!
Owls and potoos are always present, the main issue is where and how to find them? Here’s a rundown of some good recent spots for these crafty nocturnal creatures:
Great Potoo- As per usual, fairly common in the Caribbean lowlands. Recently, I had great looks at roosting birds in the Cano Negro area; both at the Caiman restaurant and in the Las Cubas area (hire Chambita to guide you!).
Common Potoo- These birds aren’t all that common in Costa Rica but do occur in many open and edge habitats. I have had recent, fantastic views of birds near Jaco and around La Gamba. Cano Negro is another of several great spots.
Spectacled Owl- This large owl occurs in many lowland foothill sites, especially (and perhaps appropriately) at ecolodges. I have had good recent looks at Quinta de Sarapiqui, while taking Cope’s tour, and at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge. They also occur in many additional spots.
Black-and-white Owl- One has been roosting on the Bogarin Trail, the birds at the Arenal Observatory Lodge are also still being seen, and one often visits the restaurant at Laguna del Lagarto.
Crested Owl- A couple have been showing very well on Cope’s tour and I also had them calling at Hotel Quelitales, Rancho Naturalista, and at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge.
Mottled Owl- There has been a roosting, extremely well hidden bird at Curi-Cancha and others are commonly heard and seen at many other sites.
Striped Owl- This uncommon species can show up at any number of open, wet habitats and is usually seen perched on a power line.
Screech-owls- Although not rare, all of the Megascops species in Costa Rica can be elusive unless they vocalize. Some of the better spots for Tropical have been at Talari Mountain Lodge, and around La Gamba. Pacific occurs in Cano Negro and most dry areas where large trees are present. Middle American has been showing on trails at Arenal Observatory Lodge as well as other lowland Caribbean sites. There is a supposed roost of Bare-shanked at Curi-Cancha and it continues to be common at most highland sites. The “Choco” has also been vocal at and near Esquinas Ranforest Lodge but its propensity to call from dense vegetation makes it tougher to see than the other Megascops.
Pygmy-owls- Ferruginous is common and easy in edge and open areas of the northern and Pacific lowlands and foothills, Central American has been showing well at Laguna del Lagarto, and Costa Rican has been ocassionally showing in its usual best haunts.
Unspotted Saw-whet Owl- This most challenging of owls continues to be a challenge but some have seen it around Paraiso Quetzal and the upper part of the Dota Valley.
I have already mentioned this birding hotspot and with good reason; the birding is simply fantastic. Having an owner who is also a birder makes all the difference. This is why we had great looks at Green-fronted Lancebill, close Sooty-faced Finch, and saw various cloud forest species on the trails. On our one morning there, I also heard both Crested and Mottled Owls near the cabins and although they failed to appear during our brief visit, Scaled Antpitta and Black-breasted Wood-Quail have become regular from the blind on the birding platform. We topped off our morning with views of Barred Hawk and Hook-billed Kite. I can’t wait to go back!
This excellent birding oasis has become a new classic hotspot. Roosting Black-and-white Owl, Uniform Crake on the trail (which we saw!), White-throated Crakes, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and American Pygmy Kingfisher around the trail entrance…that’s some quality birding! Not to mention motmots, jacamars, and occasional visits by a juvenile Ornate Hawk-Eagle, this place is easy birding that rocks.
Alma del Arbol in the Dota Valley, Stella’s Bakery in Monteverde, and Casa Tangara dowii on the road up Cerro de la Muerte.
All of these spots combine great food and drink with great birding. Alma del Arbol is a small restaurant/cafe/bistro in San Gerardo de Dota. Located across the street from Savegre at Batsu, one of the best bird photography hotspots in Costa Rica, this well run gem of a spot has a delicious, fusion menu and some desserts to die for.
Stella’s is a landmark bakery and cafe in Monteverde that serves excellent, creative cuisine and some of the best desserts in Costa Rica. Given the euphoric delicousness generated by the brownies, it’s probably good that I don’t live near this special place.
Casa Tangara dowii is a wonderful spot to have lunch accompanied by locally brewed beers and cloud forest birds. Designed with birders in mind, owner Serge Arias (who also runs Costa Rica Birding Hotspots) will make you feel very welcome. Our group sure did, another place I can’t wait to go back to!
What makes a bird rare? Is it because, like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker or Aquatic Warbler, it is threatened by various factors related to its ecological needs? Is a bird naturally rare because it requires certain types of uncommon habitats or situations? Or, is the species something like a Boreal Owl in not being really threatened but just hard to see?
In complex tropical habitats, birds can be “rare” because of these and additional factors. In the case of the Black-crowned Antpitta, this big understory player is probably affected by all three of the factors mentioned above. Hard to detect, difficult to see, we don’t know much about this northernmost Pittasoma but what we do know is that it’s one of the most challenging species to connect with in Costa Rica.
During birding tours to Costa Rica, this cool looking species has the tragic distinction of being one of the least likely birds you will run across. In part, the paucity of sightings is related to few tours actually visiting places where it occurs. However, even then, it can still be a challenge and worse, it seems to be getting rarer with each and every year.
This wasn’t always the case. Although, seeing a BC Pittasoma in Costa Rica has never really been easy, some years ago, it was petty reliable at Quebrada Gonzalez. When the foothill rainforest at this excellent site was perpetually dripping wet, this Pittasoma was regularly heard and seen. At one point, I recall hearing and seeing birds right behind the station and at two different points along the trail. Incredibly, it was a regular bird at this site! You still had to know how to look for it but it could be expected.
That began to change as the forest became hotter and drier. Bit by bit, as the forest at the beautiful forests of Quebrada Gonalez saw longer days with less rain and decreased humidity, there seemed to be a concurrent decrease in the numbers and types of birds. One of the most affected species was the Pittasoma. It still seems to occur on occasion but much much less than in the past.
With that in mind, this is my take on why this mega bird of the forest floor has become much more rare in Costa Rica:
It Needs an Especially Wet Microhabitat in Areas of Intact Habitat
The Black-crowned Antpitta seems to be a bird of very wet forest replete with plenty of streams and muddy, wet soil. At least that’s my impression and those are the only places I have encountered them. I suspect they are adapted to this type of microhabitat because it harbors more of the worms, large insects, and other small animals they feed on. Perhaps there are other factors associateed with this microhabitat they also require?
But that’s not all! It seems that they also need this microhabitat to occur in large areas of intact habitat and even then, they can seem to be absent from what appear to be suitable sites (which hints at this species maybe requiring more specific needs than expected or apparent).
The Pittasoma Mostly Occurs in Less Accessible Places or Does Best in Habitats that Have Beeen Destroyed
The bird is rare but I do think inaccessible areas are part of the situation. Most of the intact foothill forests where it occurs are in less accessible spots, especially in the Talamanca Mountains, its likely stronghold in Costa Rica. Another idea is that the bird might be most suited to the places where foothill forest meet lowland rainforest; places that have been largely destroyed. This idea is supported by more observations of the Pittasoma coming from sites like Hitoy Cerere and Kekoldi.
Additional places to look for it are in Barbilla National Park and less accessible spots in and near Braulio Carrillo National Park.
Top of the Understory Food Chain = Low Reproductive Rate
One of the other main factors that make this species such a rare bird is its likely low reproductive rate. That’s just a guess but given its status near the top of the forest floor avian food chain, I bet this is true. As with many other tropical birds, it may have a long lifespan over which rather few young are successfully raised. This adds up to there being few birds to find over a large area.
Hopefully, we can find more accessible sites to see this spectacular bird of wet forest. Sadly, I fear that if/as climate change continues to decrease rainfall and humidity in foothill forests of Costa Rica, the Black-crowned Antpitta will either move upslope or it will continue to decline and maybe even disappear. Populations also occur in Panama (although birds typically seen are of another subspecies) but if the same factors affect the species there, it could become one more of many amazing facets of life eventually obliterated by a long, lethal combination of greed, ignorance, and refusal to accept that long-term sustainable living is of crucial importance.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
During your visit, make sure to check Rincon de Osa for cotingas, raptors, and other species.
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).
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!
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.
Finding birds in Costa Rica is pretty easy. Look outside and there they are; Red-billed Pigeons powering past, Great Kiskadees yelling from a tree, Palm Tanagers perched in, you guessed it, a tall palm. Look around and there’s lots more; a screeching flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets (!), a Yellow-headed Caracara flapping overhead, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, caroling from a guava.
In Costa Rica, Crimson-fronted Parakeets are often seen in cities.
Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a Lovely Cotinga (I mean it is lovely, what are you gonna do…).
We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what we each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also why I first visited Cost Rica in 1992 and why so many birders eventually make their way to this birdy place.
At the moment, few birders are visiting Costa Rica but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.
One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more become available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Costa Rica because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Costa Rica birds in 2021:
Learn about Habitats
One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Costa Rica is just like seeing more birds everywhere, planet Earth. To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Costa Rica, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:
Lowland rainforest– Lowland areas on the Caribbean slope and south of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (where the Crocodile Bridge is) on the Pacific slope.
Middle elevation rainforest and cloud forest– Many areas between 800 and 1,700 meters.
High elevation rainforest– Above 1,700 meters.
Tropical dry forest– On the Pacific slope north of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles including much of the Central Valley.
Wetlands– Large wetland complexes such as the Cano Negro/Los Chiles area, Palo Verde National Park and other parts of the Tempisque River floodplain, and the Coto 47/Las Pangas area near Ciudad Neily. Of course, other smaller areas of marsh exist and are important for many birds.
On the micro-scale, it also means knowing where micro-habitats occur:
Foothill rainforest– Rainforest from 500 to 800 meters.
Paramo– Treeline and tree-less habitats above 3,000 meters.
Mangrove forest– Mangroves that grow in estuarine habitats, mostly on the Pacific slope.
Different types of edge habitats– Various birds occur in different stages of second growth and open areas.
Lagoons and forested swamps– These occur in various parts of the Caribbean lowlands, and locally in the Osa Peninsula.
Try to get an idea of where those habitats are found and start learning about the suites of birds found in each habitat. Allocate birding time in each habitat and you will see an excellent variety of birds. If you have target species, research where those birds occur, think about how easy or tough they are to see, and have high hopes, or take the Zen approach and accept that you might not see a Slaty Finch.
Information and search options for major habitats will be on the next free update of the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.
Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare
Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might to see so and so species. To give an idea of abundance, Clay-colored Thrush would be a “1”, maybe even “-1”, White Hawk might be a “5”, Sharpbill a “7”, and Speckled Mourner a “10” or “10 plus” (or “only in your dreams”).
Make Reservations for Cope
A visit to Cope’s bird oasis and fantastic experience is recommended. But, because Cope likes to provide a high quality experience, as with many a gourmet experience, you need to make a reservation. I can help arrange that, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Don’t Expect to See Everything
Heck, that goes for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it Zen and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that many a bird species in Costa Rica is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.
Consider Hiring a Local Guide
And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Costa Rica such as cotingas or Ocellated Antbird, or even the coveted bizarre Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Costa Rica, although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at uber rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.
Go Birding in the Summer
Yes, as in the months of June, July, and August. This is an excellent time of the year for birding in Costa Rica. As long as you don’t mind missing out on wintering species, you will see a lot and maybe even more than during the dry season. No, I don’t think it will rain too much either but I do know that consistent cloudy conditions will boost bird activity.
These tips are probably similar to ones I have mentioned in other posts about finding Costa Rica birds and other places but heck, they still hold true and 2021 won’t be any different. Need help planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Want to see a few hundred lifers and have exciting birding every single day? Whether you could go for some happy avian madness or more relaxed birding while staying at a beautiful, relaxing “home base”, I would love to help.
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.