Questions about birding in Costa Rica. As with any birding destination, there’s a lot to think about. Where to stay? Where to watch birds? Can I find good New York style pizza? Well, maybe that last question isn’t as common but it’s still valid to wonder if you can have coffee each morning. Heck, when you travel, there’s a lot to think about, even if you are “just” visiting Cape May for the weekend.
No matter where you don those birding shoes, no matter where you sport them bins, all our questions are meant to fulfill our birding needs. You want your trip to be the best it can be, hopefully, to surpass expectations and give you a life experience high that lasts long after you walk back through your own front door.
Oh yeah, that is possible. Do the birding trip to Costa Rica right and you’ll be dreaming about quetzals for days to come. Yearning for twittering tanagers while trudging through traffic? Wondering why you are still haunted by the hidden words in woodcreeper whistles as you sip a choice craft brew? That’s Ok! All of it means your trip was a success, that it went way beyond the boundaries of average expectations.
Those are the type of results we would love for every birding trip, the type of birding that makes us feel fire-eyed alive. I suppose that if you move with the right type of expectations, you can have them fiery eyes any day of the week. Easier to have them after birding though, especially after watching the dizzying passage of a mixed flock in Costa Rica. Certainly after experiencing the ancient cries and flights of macaws in the humid skies of a late afternoon rainforest.
Expectations and state of mind will always be key factors for fire-eyed birding success but maybe answers to the following questions about birding in Costa Rica will help too.
Is there a quetzal season in Costa Rica?
In a word, no. There is no real quetzal season in Costa Rica. At least I don’t believe there is. Yeah, for some reason, a number of people talk about there being a season to see quetzals but I think there are confusing “nesting season” with some actual best time for seeing the birds.
So, yes, the mega dream birds mostly nest in March and so, if you know where a nest is, yes, you can go and wait until they appear. But, not only should people NOT bother quetzals at nest sites, you don’t need to visit during their nesting season. Check out this birding truth; the Resplendent Quetzal is a permanent resident.
Yeah, unlike its famous cloud forest cotinga counterpart, the Three-wattled, ye olde quetzal is not migrating to some remote corner or playing hard to get.
Seeing a quetzal in Costa Rica is like seeing most birds. The formula goes like so- bird in the right habitat, visit the right place, know how to look for them, and you’ll probably see them. At least I see quetzals on just about every visit to their habitat, in every month of the year.
So, when planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, don’t worry too much about it being a so-called “quetzal season” or not. Think more about where the best places are to see them, how to find them, and if you should hire a local guide who knows what they are doing. Hint- if the guide tells you that no, sorry, it’s not quetzal season, find someone else.
When is the best time to visit Costa Rica?
This question is probably the top one and rightly so. I mean I wonder about the best time to visit places like Borneo and Argentina, it makes sense to concern oneself with choosing the best time to see the most birds.
That said, in Costa Rica, heck, no matter when you visit, yes, you will see lots of birds. Just like quetzals are here all here all year long, in Costa Rica, more than 600 other birds are also in this birding house, 24/7.
To figure out the best time to visit, I suggest asking yourself a few sub-questions:
-Do I really want to see a bellbird?- If so, visit any time from March to July and include the Monteverde area.
-Can I chance getting rained out for part of most days?- If yes, then you can visit any time of the year. If not, bird Costa Rica from January to April. The rains tend to be especially challenging in November and early December.
-Do I need to see wintering birds?- If yes, November to March will work (and part of April too).
-Should I experience migration?- I am a firm believer in experiencing migration no matter where you are. Visit the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica in April or October and you’ll be in for some major bird passage.
Where should I go birding in Costa Rica?
Another common and all important question. However, it’s one that doesn’t have any easy answers. Where you go depends on what you want to see, how you want to go birding, or if you want to focus on bird photography.
Figure those things out and then go from there. In the meantime, here are a few recommendations:
-Don’t necessarily base your trip on eBird hotspots. Whoah, but what? Isn’t that where the best birding sites are? Well, yes and no. Like, yeah, the top hotspots have great birding and you can’t go wrong birding at them but they aren’t the only places to watch birds in Costa Rica. AND, most hotspots have inflated site lists because they include birds that are no longer there or, most of all, include species at other, separate sites.
It’s still Ok to visit those eBird hotspots. I’m not saying they are bad, most are wonderful but remember that the birds are where the habitat is. Just because a site in good habitat has fewer species than a hotspot doesn’t mean that it isn’t as good. It only means that many more people have birded the hotspot and that sites in good habitat with low lists probably haven’t been adequately surveyed.
-Spend at least two nights in each major habitat. For lowland and foothill rainforest, three nights will be even better. You won’t see all the birds in an area in one day. No one can see them all in one day, not even psychic birding ninjas. But, you can have a fair chance at connecting with a good percentage of them during three or four days of birding.
-Think about where you would like to stay. If eco-lodges and good ,easy going birding in comfort is necessary, by all means, visit Hotel Quelitales, Rancho Naturalista, and Quinta Sarapiqui among other places. However, if you just need a place to spend the night, look into air bnbs and book your own cheap cabinas. However, be warned that cheap cabinas often also mean loud surroundings and possible bugs.
How can I see a Snowcap? What about an umbrellabird? Macaws?
The Snowcap is unreal. It looks like burgundy come to life and crowned with powdered sugar. I mean, yeah, that’s one heck of an enticing bird! And yes, you can and should see one. To make it happen, the best sites are Rancho Naturalista, El Copal, Nectar and Pollen, and Centro Manu. It can also show up elsewhere but those places are good for some of that lovely hummingbird madness.
Umbrellabird? The crazy crow-like bird is never easy but you’ll have a better chance at Veragua Rainforest, the Rainforest Aerial Tram just outside of Braulio, and Centro Manu. Keep in mind that it can also occur at various other sites but it’s easy missed; sadly, the umbrellabird of Central America is endangered.
Macaws! Compared to the other species mentioned above, thankfully, these fantastic birds are a piece of cake. That’s always good but especially for giant, larger than life, must-see parrots as these. The Scarlet is wonderfully easy in many places and the Great Green ain’t that tough either. Bird Sarapiqui, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, or Tortuguero and you’ll have a good chance of seeing them.
What field guide should I use?
Another common and important question indeed. These days, in terms of books, there are two main field guides for Costa Rica. There is the classic Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean, and the Bird of Costa Rica by Dyer and Howell.
Both will be good but personally, I still like the Garrigues and Dean. However, the Dyer and Howell is more recent, and has some interesting and insightful takes on taxonomy. In any case, either book will be good to have and I know many people who have bought both.
In terms of a digital field guide, there is the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and the Merlin app. The Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is currently only available for IOS while the Merlin app is available on IOS and Android devices. I admit that I am one of the creators and co-owners of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app but everything I say here is true. Both apps are good, here’s how they compare:
-Bird species- The Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app includes all birds on the Costa Rica list and several species that could eventually occur. Merlin has most of the species but leaves off some rare ones and some pelagic birds.
-Bird sounds- Merlin includes several sounds for most species. The Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app also includes sounds for most birds on the app- vocalizations for 870 species.
-Customization- Merlin is a great, easy to use app with good information but the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app includes more features. You can customize it to include target lists, show regional endemics, show birds by region, and more. This makes it a good study guide before your trip as well as a handy tool during your trip.
-Accuracy- The maps on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app are up to date and pretty accurate. The ones on Merlin are mostly accurate but not entirely. The information for the Costa Rica Bird Field Guide app is also written specifically for Costa Rica and now includes tips on how to see each bird.
-Cost- Merlin is free and that is obviously a major bonus but the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app has more features and more overall information.
Planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? I hope these questions can help! Just keep in mind that no matter where and when you visit Costa Rica, as long as you go birding in quality habitat in different eco-regions, you’ll see a lot! I hope you get here, I hope to see you here.