Costa Rica’s geographic location, an isthmus connecting the Americas, and its wide-ranging topography, fuse to create very varied ecosystems: cloud and rain forests, mangroves, grasslands, wetlands and shorelines. Flowering plants, varied fruit trees, and species migrating from South and North America allow for observation o endemic and migratory species. In a very small area, traversing the country searching for different bird species quite accessible in a relatively short amount of time. All these characteristics have made Costa Rica one of the Top Ten Birdwatching hotspots in the world; home to 920 bird species and where you can see up to 150 species in just one day, depending on location and season. Migrating species head to Central and South America to spend their winters from August to December and January through early May the birds head back to North America. These are ideal times for a birdwatching excursion to Costa Rica, and will give you better chances for spotting birds on your list, as well as hearing their calls.
Birdwatching Routes in Costa Rica
From the cloud forest highlands, the Caribbean lowlands to the coasts, birdwatching can be done pretty much anywhere in Costa Rica. Our Wonders of Nature routes have classified top spots for your convenience based on where you will see raptors, warblers and shorebirds. Starting off in the Central Valley is the most convenient and time effective way to begin your birdwatching route in Costa Rica. Give yourself at least two weeks to complete your chosen route and if you can make it three for a side trip or some rest and relaxation, even better.
Route 1: Caribbean Lowlands and Foothills (Central Valley-Sarapiqui-Tortuguero-South Caribbean-Turrialba-Central Valley)
Start of your journey at Finca Rosa Blanca immersed in a coffee plantation in the province of Heredia or at Hotel Xandari, in the slopes of the Poas Volcano overlooking the Central Valley. Both hotels allow for birdwatching inside their extensive grounds, a lovely welcome and introduction to Costa Rica.
Head off to Sarapiqui, considered part of one of the most accessible rainforests in the world. Some of the endemic species you may visualize here are: The White-bellied Mountain Gem, the Lattice-Tailed Trogon and the Bare-Necked Umbrella Bird.
Tortuguero is next, on the Northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, where over 300 bird species have been identified. The rainforest meeting the mangroves and canals and heading out to the ocean all make for a combination of different habitats in a small area. Some endemics here include: TInamous (Great, Little and Slaty-Breasted), Herons (Great Blue, Tricolored, Green, Agami and More), Glossy and Green Ibis, Vultures (Black, Turkey and King) and many more.
Continue exploring the Caribbean coast, heading South.
As we head back towards the Central Valley, a stop in Casa Turire allows us to explore the town of Turrialba in the province of Cartago. The property is reminiscent of a colonial farmhouse, bordering a river and in the slopes of the Turrialba Volcano. From there you can explore the Tuis River Valley and Silencio Mountain. The elevation variances allow for extensive birdwatching, and the property will gladly provide a checklist of species seen in the area for you to keep track of your sightings.
Route 2: Northern Lowlands, Caribbean and Pacific (San Jose-Arenal-Caño Negro-Monteverde-Gulf of Nicoya-San Jose)
After your stay at the Central Valley, head towards the Arenal Volcano/La Fortuna area. Here you can stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge, next to an imposing Volcano and with impressive views of the Arenal lake. The 870-acre property has registered over 500 bird species. This birding hotspot combines Caribbean lowlands rainforests with the forests of the Caribbean foothills. Arenal Springs is another lodging option from which you can travel to the base of the Arenal Volcano and hike its trails.
Head further north to the Caño Negro National Park, in the Northern Plains, where some of the endemic species you may observe are: The Black and Yellow Tanager, the Snowy Cotinga and the Stripe-Breasted Wren.
The cloud forests of Monteverde are next, where the Quetzal, a bird revered by the Mayans for its magical beauty, makes its home in the decaying trees. Don’t miss a visit to the Hummingbird Garden next to a small café and gift shop at the entrance to the National Park. No entrance fee, just walk right over, stand still in the middle of the feeders and feel the buzz and energy of these vibrantly colorful small creatures around you. If you can manage to hold your hand out and keep still for a bit they might perch on your hand, or stop midflight in your line of sight. Hike inside the protected areas of Monteverde and Santa Elena equipped with cameras and binoculars, and be rewarded with Dusky Nightjars, Black Guans, the Volcano Hummingbird and the Costa Rican Pigmy Owl among others. Stay at El Establo Mountain Hotel, with expansive grounds and its own trails and tours, or at the Poco a Poco Hotel in town.
Continue your journey towards the Gulf of Nicoya, and stay at Estancia Rancho Humo, strategically located in basin of the Tempisque River and bordering the protected area of Palo Verde. The Palo Verde National Park is home to the largest stork in North America, the Jabiru, these lowlands have formed great marshes that are home to hundreds of aquatic birds such as Herons, Egrets, Kingfishers and Moorhens.
Route 3: Highlands and Pacific Lowlands (Central Valley-Cerro de la Muerte-Osa-Carara-Nicoya-Central Valley)
After your stay at the Central Valley, head towards the “Cerro de la Muerte” or Death’s Summit, Costa Rica’s highest point. Stay at Trogon Lodge and explore the San Gerardo de Dota region. This is an unmissable spot for any visitor due to its lush cloud forests, pristine rivers and cool climate. The top reason to come here for birdwatchers: the elusive Resplendent Quetzal. It is difficult to believe this trogon is endangered when you can watch them fly by and feed off their favorite “aguacatillo” while you sip your coffee on the deck of your hotel. Some highland endemics include: The Silvery-Thorated Jay, the Ocharaceous Wren, the Scooty Thrush and the Flame-Throated Warbler.
Leave the cool weather of the Cerro and head south towards the South Pacific. When arriving at the Osa Peninsula, it is not uncommon to see small trees, their branches heavy with dozens of Scarlet Macaws. Seeing them in flight is a spectacular sight, they always travel in pairs with their mates for life. When you see their spectacular colors in formation overhead you’ll understand why there are referred to as Costa Rica’s air force. While in the area, visit Corcovado National Park, holding 4% of the world’s biodiversity, and one of the most remote and untouched areas in the country. Some endemic species here include: The Baird’s Trogon, Fiery-Billed Aracari and the White-crested Coquette. Stay at Nicuesa Lodge, only accessible by boat, an eco-friendly spot from which to observe nature unencumbered. Playa Cativo provides secluded luxury, also only reched by crossing the waters of the Golfo Dulce by boat.
Head north along the coast towards Carara National Park. The transitional forest is home to species of both the dry and humid forests, creating rich biodiversity. It protects the basin of the Tarcoles River, popular spot for crocodile observation. There are large populations of red macaws, toucans and herons. Stay at Villa Lapas Rain Forest Eco-Resort, where they have created a Sky Way. This maze of bridges overlooking the forest allows a bird’s eye view from which to safely observe and take photos.
Next stop is the Nicoya Peninsula, further up the Pacific Coast, for a visit at the Palo Verde National Park, a mandatory stop for migratory species, and a protected area for nesting sites of aquatic birds.
Route 4: Caribbean and Pacific Lowlands (San Jose-Tortuguero-Sarapiqui-Arenal-Central Pacific-San Jose)
This route combines destinations in a different order, depending on what you’d like to see.
Birding Challenge 2017
The Costa Rica Bird Challenge took place October, 2017. The exciting competition brought together a group of 13 of the world’s top birdwatchers, including journalists, influencers and European travel agents. They were divided into three groups along with Costa Rican nature guides and taken to the best birding spots in the country. They had one week to observe as many birds as they could. The results were impressive and quite close: Tico Tickers came in first with 488 species, Redstart Wranglers visualized 478 and Tucan Tico came in a close third with 476. A total of 550 different species were seen or heard collectively, quite an impressive number. No doubt the fun, successful event will be replicated in the future. Check out some photos on Instagram under the hashtags: #costaricabirdchallenge and #birdwatchingrepublic.
What to bring for your birdwatching experience in Costa Rica?
You will have moments when luck or patience or both provides a perfect moment visible with the naked eye. For detailed sighting of a birds, especially in the tropics where their opalescent colors are mesmerizing, you’ll want good quality binoculars. You can pair these with a spotting scope for even more magnified views. A camera for photos sounds like a logical choice, but concentrating on taking photos might take away from the enjoyment of the moment. Your call of course, and documenting your sightings can be important for rarer bird species. Try to dress in light breathable clothes in earthy tones, long pants and shirts and wear comfortable walking shows, hiking boots are ideal.
Traversing the country
Choosing a pre-set itinerary, working with your travel agent to create a personalized one, or designing one on your own, these are all valid ways to experience birdwatching in Costa Rica. Traveling as a group with same-minded people can provide for learning, sharing and entertaining experiences during your journey, and not having to drive is comfortable and can take the pressure off. For some, the freedom of renting a car and having the independence to come and go is vital. Depending on your budget and time constraints, you can even travel by bus: Costa Rica’s public transportation can take you pretty much anywhere in the country. Adding a trained guide into the mix is always a good idea, especially if it’s your first time visiting the country. Their trained eyes and ears will assist you in spotting endemic species, and often they are equipped with field guides, binoculars and lenses you can borrow.
For serious birdwatchers, a chronicle of the locations and spotting of birds becomes intertwined with the story of their life, their history. Do you enjoy observing nature in all its forms? Do you need to cross birds off a list as a life-affirming assignment? Whatever your motivation, Costa Rica with its wild biodiversity, is a must visit destination for birdwatchers and birders alike.
At Futuropa, we have created suggested itineraries for you that allow you to include bird watching as part of your nature-lover adventure in Costa Rica traversing mountains and coasts. We can also personalize a trip for you and consult with you regarding lodging types and what your expectations are during your visit. To obtain information regarding travel itineraries, travel agencies, tour operators, rent-a-car options and hotels click here. Contact us and experience the wonders of Costa Rica.