Bird Watching

One of the blessings of the perfect Costa Rica weather is the natural wealth we have, including the wonderful amount and variety of bird species. Home to 920 species of birds (10% of the world´s birdlife) Costa Rica is one of the more productive birding destinations in the tropics.

In terms of number of species there are other countries with higher number of birds, however in numbers per Sq Km or Mile, Costa Rica house the highest birds’ density in the planet, considering the country represents only 51 000 Square Km, the size of West Virginia in the US or Holland in Europe.

This happens because of the position of the country as a bridge between North and South America, as well the diversity of ecosystems in the four great ecoregions of the country: The Highlands, Caribbean Lowlands, Northern Lowlands and Southern Pacific Lowlands.

Costa Rica is renowned all over the world for its protected areas and National Parks, perfect for thrilling hikes and unforgettable bird watching tours. About 870 species of birds have been found in the country, hidden in different tourist attractions like dry tropical forests, rain forests and cloud forests.

With a very small size and an extensive network of roads, it is possible to easy access all the greatest birding locations in Costa Rica and move from the dry forest, tropical humid, or any other to the highlands within three hours or less, by driving.

Best time for traveling to Costa Rica, is anytime but is high recommended from August to November and April to May, to take advantage of the Fall and Spring migration from-to the Northern Hemisphere, when more than 250 species of birds are coming to spend Winter in the tropics.

The best thing is that almost all Costa Rica Vacation Packages are great for birdwatchers, because you can make birding tours almost in every region of the country. In fact, there are specific boutique hotels ideal for birdwatchers due to its location.

Even the Costa Rica’s Ornithological Society, points out that bird watching, once exclusively a tourist activity, has been increasing steadily in popularity among Costa Ricans. “Now, wherever you go, everybody knows their birds”, they say.

One important birding spot for bird watching tours in Costa Rica is located approximately 1 hour from country’s main International Airport: Carara National Park. Scarlet Macaws, on the top of every birdwatcher list, can be easily seen here early in the morning or in the afternoon flying from their roosts in the mangroves into the reserve.

Important populations of boat-tailed trogons, violaceous trogons and rufous-tailed jacamars can also be spotted here.

Other of the most-sought bird in Costa Rica is the resplendent Quetzal, which can be seen easily in the town of San Gerardo de Dota and in Monteverde. In the 1997 Christmas Bird Count, local birders at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve identified 368 species, more than anywhere else in the world.

Excellent birding spots in the Caribbean rainforest are La Selva Biological Station and Tortuguero National Park. Birders at La Selva will be surprised at how tame the birds have become in this long-protected reserve where more than 325 species are lodged. In the watery world of Tortuguero can be found five species of kingfishers, chestnut-billied herons, sungrebes, rufescent tiger herons and three species of toucans.

Here you can find the top birding hotspots of the country by the eco-regions, a small guide to the birds of Costa Rica:

Caribbean Lowlands:

This is the biggest ecoregion with the highest number of birds (+600 Sp), including the Northern, Tortuguero, Limon and South Caribbean plains, and the foothills of the mountains. This is the area with the most productive number of species in the whole country.

The top hotspots are:

  1. Caño Negro: in the northern plains, called the Costa Rican ´Everglades` because of the high diversity of water birds including Jabiru and bitterns.
  2. La Fortuna-Arenal: with the stunning Arenal volcano, suspension bridges and a combination of middle elevations and lowlands species.
  3. Tortuguero: home to more than 300 species of birds, combining marine and rainforest species as the elusive Agami Heron, the most beautiful heron of Costa Rica and the largest preserved tropical rainforest in Central America.
  4. Braulio Carrillo & Sarapiqui: with the famous Aerial Tram, La Selva Field Station, the Quebrada Gonzalez Ranger´s Station and the basin of the Sarapiqui River, this is one of the birding capitals of the country where almost a half of the birds of Costa Rica have been recorded.
  5. South Caribbean: encompassing the Bananito river, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo area, including the location for the second biggest raptor´s migration in the world during the Fall and Spring, the Kekoldi watch tower.

Highlands and Middle Elevations

The highlands are a group of mountains that, together, are splitting the country in the Caribbean & Pacific. The Guanacaste volcanic range, The Tilarán mountains, the Central Volcanic Rand & the Talamanca Mountain Range. The cloud forest and paramo ecosystems are the key for some very rare and endemic birds happening only in the area. Must hotspots for birding in the highlands are:

  1. Monteverde: with the most famous cloud forest of the world and important birding preserves such as the Tropical Science Center, and Santa Elena. This also a great spot for the Three-wattle Bellbird and the Umbrella-bird.
  2. Central Valley: including some of the most visited national parks and important bird areas: Irazu and Poas Volcanos. Near the Poas, in the Vara Blanca area, it is possible to find one of the 3 continental endemics to Costa Rica, the beloved Coppery-headed Emerald hummingbird.
  3. Turrialba: a middle elevation area with the most productive transitional rainforest to premontane forest birdlife in the country, with the famous Snowcap, one of the holy grails of birdwatching in the neo tropics.
  4. Los Quetzales – Dota: in the upper mountains of the Talamanca highlands, the Quetzales area and San Gerado Valley are the best place in Central America, to get close to the most beautiful bird on Earth, the Resplendent Quetzal, all year round. Also, the Paramo is the perfect location to the Timberline Wren and the Volcano Junco, always in the wish list of the visitors.
  5. Las Cruces & Coto Brus: in the border of Panama, this is another great birding area with the famous Wilson Botanical Garden and research station of the Tropical Science Center.

Southern Pacific

The Southern Pacific ecoregion ranges from the Central Pacific Tarcoles River and Carara National Park to the Border with Panama, including Valle de El General.

The tropical humid forest, combined with coastal ecosystems and the biggest wetland in Central America (Terraba-Sierpe Mangroves), as well as the second birding capital of Costa Rica, the Carara National Park, and the Wildest Place on Earth according to National Geographic, the Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula, are the introduction to a super birding experience in the area.

Top hotspots here:

  1. Carara & Turrubares hills: this a transitional area where it is possible to find an overlap of South Pacific species of the tropical humid forest specials such as the Baird´s Trogon and the Orange-collared Manakin, with premontane forest and Dry forest specials as the Black-headed Trogon.
  2. Bahia Ballena: from Dominical to Sierpe, this coastal region belongs to the Osa area, where it is possible to find more than 300 species of birds in a combination of marine and humid forest specials as the Fiery-billed Aracari and the Riverside Wren. Here birdwatching is combined with whale watching and visits to Corcovado National Park and the Terraba and Sierpe Mangroves.
  3. Piedras Blancas: this a super region for endemics that Costa Rica shares with Western Panama, and the house of one of the very specials that only happens in Costa Rica: The Black-cheeked Ant-tanager.

Northern Pacific Lowlands

The Northern Pacific Lowlands are home to the biggest portion of the preserved Dry Forest in Central America and the driest region in Costa Rica (6 months of dry climate).

The ecosystems here are a mix of deciduous and evergreen forest in the river and wetland areas, the ideal places for spotting the birds of Guanacaste Costa Rica. Popular for its beaches and one of the Blue Zones of the World, this region is also a birding must during your vacations in Costa Rica.

The best locations for birding here are:

  1. Palo Verde & Tempisque: with the famous Palo Verde National Park and the Isla Pajaros (Bird´s Island) is one of the birding gems in the area specially because of the mangroves are the habitat for the Costa Rica´s endemic Mangrove Hummingbird and it is the best location for the endangered Jabiru and dry forest specials as the Plain Chachalaca and Lesser-ground Cuckoo.
  2. Nicoya Peninsula: With the only Absolute Reserve of Costa Rica: Cabo Blanco, a shelter for breeding marine birds, the Curu Reserve, Quizales Beach and the Costa Rica’s Blue Zone, this is a great location for migratory shorebirds as well regional specials including the colorful Long-tailed Manaking and a special location during the altitudional migration for the Three-wattled Bellbird.
  3. Rincon de la Vieja & North Guanacaste: are super-hotspots, with combination of dry forest and transitional Caribbean species, at the foot of the active volcano. This is one of the areas to experience the dry forest birding at its best.

Expert birders will be looking for Costa Rica’s endemic species, about fifty of which are found in the mountainous regions. These include the bare-necked umbrella bird, the zeledonia, the black and yellow silky flycatcher and the long-tailed silky flycatcher. Three endemic species are found on Coco Island: a finch, a cuckoo and a flycatcher. Also, experts may want to visit Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge, which is perhaps the best location to see the endangered Jabiru.

The best travel tips for birding in Costa Rica are: visit several habitats including dry tropical forest on the Pacific side, a cloud forest like Monteverde and a rainforest such as Tortuguero. Take a copy of the excellent field guide “Birds of Costa Rica” by Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch (available in both English and Spanish) and hire a naturalist guide specialized in birds in each area you visit.

If 368 species could be seen at Monteverde in a single day, just imagine how many you can see during your Costa Rica vacations!

Vacation Package Suggested for Bird Watching:

Costa Rica Bird Watching Package | Costa Rica Classic Vacation Package