Resplendent Quetzal is one of the world’s most elegant birds. Photo: Luke Seitz
With an area somewhat less than 20,000 square miles Costa Rica, is the third-smallest nation in Central America; yet in proportion to the country’s size its avifauna of nearly 900 species is among the richest in the world. It is a modern country, politically stable and generally considered the most democratic in Central America, and it is proud to be a nation without an army. For the visiting birdwatcher Costa Rica presents the obvious advantage of compactness combined with the variety resulting from the country’s division by major mountain ranges, or cordilleras: one can pass readily from San José on the Central Plateau to cloud forest, to subalpine páramo at nearly 11,000 feet, to the wet tropical forest of the Caribbean slope. Its well-studied biology also makes it an ideal destination. Costa Rica was one of the first countries in the Neotropics to have its own field guide to the birds, and guides to the country’s butterflies, reptiles and amphibians, and mammals are also available, making possible a complete natural history experience.
Day 1: The trip begins this evening in San José. Night in San José.
Day 2: The Cordillera de Talamanca, much of which is protected as either national park or forest preserve, forms the largest massif of the Central American highlands. Shared with Panama, these mountains are home to one of the richest endemic bird areas in the world. One national park, Tapantí, is only a short distance from San José, and we’ll spend the first half of the day exploring its lush cloud forest, noted for orchid-laden trees, tree ferns, giant Gunnera thickets, and clearwing butterflies that sparkle in the understory. Here we’ll have our first chance at many montane forest species such as White-bellied Mountain-gem, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Torrent Tyrannulet, and Spangle-cheeked and Bay-headed Tanagers. Silvery-fronted Tapaculo and Wrenthrush, two of the most sought-after regional endemics, are also the most difficult to see, and we’ll search diligently for them. In the afternoon we may have time to stop in the elfin moss forest on the Continental Divide before we drop down into a steep valley to our lodge. Night in San Gerardo de Dota.
Day 3: Our hotel is situated in the midst of an oak forest on the Pacific slope of the Cordillera de Talamanca, and we’ll have easy access to most of the montane species endemic to these highlands. Birding along dirt roads, we’ll encounter many new species including Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-winged Vireo, Mountain Robin, Flame-throated Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, and Yellow-thighed and Large-footed Finches. Practically within walking distance from our hotel we’ll have our first chance at seeing the magnificent Resplendent Quetzal and the furtive Emerald Toucanet as they feed on the miniature avocados of the aguacatillo Nectandra trees. At local hummingbird feeders we can expect White-throated Mountain-gem, Green Violet-ear, and Scintillant Hummingbird. In the afternoon we’ll continue up to Cerro de La Muerte where, in the Swallenochloa bamboo thickets above the treeline, we’ll look for high-elevation specialists such as Timberline Wren, Peg-billed Finch, and Volcano Junco. If it’s sunny we might be treated to a Green Spiny-Lizard or the black-and-emerald-speckled Highland Alligator Lizard. Depending on the weather, we’ll probably have an evening foray in search of Dusky Nightjar. Night in San Gerardo de Dota.
Day 4: After a final look for any specialities we may have missed – perhaps Black-cheeked Warbler, Buffy Tuftedcheek, or Ochraceous Pewee – we’ll drop out of the highlands and work our way south. We’ll make opportunistic roadside stops as we start noticing more and more tropical birds from the bus, such as Roadside Hawk, Gray-capped Flycatcher, or perhaps even Pearl Kite or Streaked Saltator. As we continue down to the Pacific lowlands near Golfito and on to the more humid Osa Peninsula, roadside birds could include such tropical excitement as Yellow-throated Toucan, Crested Guan, and Golden-naped Woodpecker. We’ll plan to arrive at our lodge with enough time to get oriented and perhaps do some owling near the grounds. Night at Bosque del Río Tigre.
Days 5-6: The Osa Peninsula is in the heart of the South Central American Pacific Slope endemic bird area. Not only does it host all of the region’s endemics such as the blue and red Baird’s Trogon, the well-named Fiery-billed Aracari, the lovely Turquoise Cotinga, Black-hooded Antshrike, and Spot-crowned Euphonia, it’s also home to the very localized Costa Rican endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. Most of the birding is right at our lodge, where we stand a good chance of seeing all of those specialities. The feeders usually have visiting Little Tinamou, one of the best places to see this very secretive bird, and Black-faced Antthrushes walk around near the compost pile at dawn and dusk. Mixed flocks on the forest trails often have Long-billed Gnatwren, White-shouldered Tanager, Plain Xenops, and several woodcreepers, and a couple of ponds usually have Boat-billed Heron and a chance for American Pygmy Kingfisher. We’ll also have optional afternoon excursions which involve wading up the shallow El Tigre River and a nearby stream in search of rarely-seen specialities such as White-crested Coquette and White-tipped Sicklebill. The birding in this area is extremely rich, and day lists of over 120 species while birding on foot and never more than a kilometre from our lodge, is quite likely. Nights at Bosque del Río Tigre.
Day 7: The first stop on our way north today will most likely be the Rincón bridge where the old-growth rainforest and mangroves are home to the rare and declining Yellow-billed Cotinga. This snow-white silent member of the cotinga family is often seen flying back and forth from fruiting trees in the forest to the mangroves where they breed. We’ll also have a chance for the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird, which requires the piñuela tree, found only in this country’s Pacific coast mangrove forests. The roadside birding, as we pass north through a mosaic of forest and agricultural land, could produce Southern Lapwing (a recent immigrant), Brown Capuchin, or even a Three-toed Sloth in roadside cecropia trees. Stopping at bridges has resulted in eye-popping views of Red-legged Honeycreeper below eye level - deep purple with a shiny sky-blue crown - several species of kingfisher and Mangrove Swallow, while wet ditches and roadside ponds have been good bets for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Northern Jacana, and groups of Wood Storks and Roseate Spoonbills. We’ll arrive at our next hotel in the late afternoon, leaving us time to enjoy the grounds. Night near Carara.
Day 8: We’ll have a couple of early morning hours on a boat ride on the Tárcoles River and through the mangrove forest, where Southern Lapwing, Collared Plover, Black-necked Stilt, Mangrove Vireo, and Yellow-naped Parrot are some of the target birds. In the late morning until lunchtime we’ll pass through pastureland and patches of tropical deciduous forest where we could see such new species as Cinnamon Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Rufous-naped and Banded Wrens, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Olive Sparrow, Double-striped Thick-knee, and possibly the elusive Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, with lunch at a lodge on the Gulf of Nicoya coast. We’ll spend the afternoon driving to a more comfortable elevation in the Cordillera de Tilarán. Night in Monteverde.
Day 9: We’ll spend most of today in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a 7,400-acre tract of mid-elevation forest traversed by the Continental Divide and one of the best-known birding localities in Central America. In spring the preserve is famous for its nesting Resplendent Quetzals and calling Three-wattled Bellbirds - audible a mile away. We’ll search for these, of course, and for many other species including Orange-bellied Trogon, Prong-billed Barbet, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Tawny-throated and Gray-throated Leaftossers, Azure-hooded Jay, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Costa Rican Warbler, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. If we’re lucky we may encounter one of the area’s difficult-to-see specialities, such as Black-breasted Wood-Quail or Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. We’ll also visit the Hummingbird Gallery at the entrance to the cloud forest reserve, where we’re likely to see up to eight species of hummingbird including numerous Violet Sabrewings and Coppery-headed Emerald. Night in Monteverde.
Day 10: We’ll begin our final morning at Monteverde with a visit to the decidedly drier forest of the private Santuario Ecológico. The birds in this type of forest are quite different from those found only a couple miles away in the wetter preserve, and we’ll have a chance of seeing Long-tailed Manakin, Golden-crowned Warbler, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and possibly Chiriqui Quail-Dove and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush. In recent years this has been the best area for bellbirds when they are calling. Before lunch we’ll depart for the Caribbean lowlands, passing around the reservoir of Lake Arenal, and approaching the volcano of the same name. In the forest near the volcano we’ll see lowland species such as Slaty-tailed Trogon, White-fronted Nunbird, Keel-billed Motmot, and the adorable Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. We’ll have the late afternoon to explore these foothill habitats around the volcano on the way to our lodge. If it’s clear, the view of the volcano from our rooms is breathtaking. Night near Arenal Volcano.
Days 11–13: We’ll spend the morning of Day 11 birding trails in the Arenal region. The trail here takes us through an excellent patch of foothill forest, where we hope to find Dull-mantled and Spotted Antbirds, Carmiol’s and White-throated Shrike-Tanagers, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and perhaps the rare Lattice-tailed Trogon. Great Curassow is now more common and confiding than in the past, making it almost a certain thing. After lunch near Arenal Volcano, we’ll continue to the Sarapiquí region for two full days.
On one day we’ll visit La Selva, a biological station operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies. This roughly 1,400-acre reserve is adjacent to Braulio Carrillo National Park and is managed as a natural research laboratory. About 475 species of birds have been recorded at La Selva, and although we won’t see that many in a one-day visit, we’ll certainly experience the avian richness of the region. La Selva is an excellent place to see Great and Slaty-breasted Tinamous, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Keel-billed Toucans, Pied and White-necked Puffbirds, Great and Fasciated Antshrikes, Black-throated and Gartered Trogons, Snowy Cotinga, White-ringed Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, Plain-colored Tanager, Black-headed Saltator, and Chestnut-colored, Cinnamon, and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, among many, many others. Our visit to La Selva will be an especially memorable part of the trip.
On another day we’ll visit Braulio Carrillo National Park. This park, which protects one of the last untouched expanses of Caribbean foothill forest in Central America, is only a 25-minute drive from our hotel. We’ll have all day to search the forest trails for such specialities as Lattice-tailed Trogon, Yellow-eared Toucanet, White-ruffed Manakin, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Blue-and-gold, Black-and-yellow, Emerald, Carmiol’s, White-throated Shrike-, and Tawny-crested Tanagers. With luck we may see one of the truly rare species found in the park, such as Sharpbill or Lanceolated Monklet. We’ll likely have time to stop at a patch of roadside flowers where in past years we have found Snowcap and Black-crested Coquette. Nights in the Sarapiquí region.
Day 14: There will be time for a leisurely exploration of the often very birdy grounds of our lodge. Snowy Cotinga might be feeding in the fruiting cecropia trees near the entrance, while a check of the gravel bars on the river might reveal a Sunbittern or a Fasciated Tiger-Heron. We’ll depart in time to have lunch at the famous La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where a few more hummingbirds might welcome us. We’ll arrive at our hotel in Heredia, a suburb of San José, in time to pack and enjoy a farewell dinner. Night in Heredia.
Day 15: The tour concludes this morning in San José.
Updated: 17 November 2020