Costa Rica Bird Guide: Explore the Colorful Avifauna of Costa Rica’s Bird Watching Paradises

Costa Rica Bird Guide

Costa Rica is a true birdwatcher’s paradise. With over 900 species of birds across a diverse range of habitats, this small Central American country packs a huge avian punch.

From the misty cloud forests to the steamy lowland rainforests, coastal mangroves to mountain highlands, Costa Rica offers endless opportunities to encounter a stunning diversity of birdlife.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the incredible bird species found in Costa Rica, where to see them, and how to make the most of your birdwatching adventure in this avian wonderland.

Whether you’re a novice just getting into birding or a seasoned pro, Costa Rica will dazzle your senses and ignite your passion for birds.

So grab your binoculars and join me as we delve into the vibrant avian wonders of Costa Rica!

An Abundance of Birds in Costa Rica

With over 900 species recorded, Costa Rica has one of the highest levels of avian diversity per square kilometer of any country on earth.

This is especially astounding when you consider its relatively small land area – at just over 51,000 sq km, it’s smaller than West Virginia.

So what accounts for this incredible concentration of birdlife? Costa Rica’s unique geography and biodiversity play a big role.

As a land bridge between North and South America, it allows species from both continents to co-mingle.

Its coastlines along the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea also provide vital habitats for migratory and shore birds.

And its varied topography, including volcanic highlands, rainforests, cloud forests, and wetlands, offers suitable ecosystems for many species.

Conservation efforts have also been key. With over 25% of its land protected in national parks and reserves, Costa Rica provides critical sanctuary for threatened and endemic birds.

And growing ecotourism focused on appreciating (rather than consuming) wildlife has created economic incentives to keep these habitats intact.

The result is a birding bonanza – with colorful toucans, dazzling hummingbirds, graceful raptors, and over 50 endemic species found nowhere else on Earth.

Let’s discover some of the most spectacular birds you can see in Costa Rica:

Toucans

Costa Rica Bird Guide

Six species of toucans brighten the forests of Costa Rica. The most iconic is the Keel-billed Toucan with its rainbow bill – a favorite photo subject! Other stunning toucans include:

  • Chestnut-mandibled Toucan – black with chestnut bill
  • Collared Aracari – black with yellow chest and white neck collar
  • Fiery-billed Aracari – like the Collared, but with a fiery red bill
  • Emerald Toucanet – small green toucan of the highlands
  • Black-mandibled Toucan – mostly black with a yellow bill tip

Toucans use their huge bills not just for looks – they act as an essential tool to reach fruit on branches while hopping through the forest canopy. Powerful muscles and bones allow them to keep their bills light yet strong. And the serrated edges help them peel and eat fruit quickly before moving on.

Hummingbirds

Violet Sabrewing- Costa Rica Bird Guide

Over 50 species of hummingbirds dart and hover in Costa Rica’s gardens and woodlands. Watch for these dazzling gems:

  • Violet Sabrewing – large hummingbird with violet and green plumage
  • Green Hermit – vibrant green with a long bill
  • Coppery-headed Emerald – metallic green with a coppery head
  • White-necked Jacobin – white breast with blue-black plumage

Hummingbirds achieve their aerobatic flights via wings that beat up to an astonishing 80 times per second! And they have the highest metabolism of any warm-blooded animal – to power their rapid wingbeats, they must eat up to 2-3 times their body weight in nectar each day.

Their needle-like bills and long tongues are perfectly adapted for accessing the nectar inside flowers.

Parrots

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Parrots add a tropical flair with their bright plumage and raucous calls. The stunning Scarlet Macaw and endangered Great Green Macaw are prized sightings. Also keep an eye out for:

  • Crimson-fronted Parakeet – red forehead and bill, green body
  • Olive-throated Parakeet – olive-green with orange bill tip
  • Orange-chinned Parakeet – green with an orange chin

Parrots are known for their intelligence, sociability, and ability to mimic speech. Their strong curved beaks and muscular tongues are ideal for breaking open and accessing seeds inside hard shells and fruit.

Social feeding behaviors help parrots locate and access a wide variety of foods.

Quetzals

Resplendent Quetzal

One of the most sought-after birds is the spectacular Resplendent Quetzal – the national bird of Costa Rica. Its long emerald green tail feathers seem to shimmer in the cloud forest mists.

The Resplendent Quetzal plays an important role in both Costa Rican culture and cloud forest ecology.

Their tail feathers were treasured by Mesoamerican civilizations and associated with sacred snake gods. Today the Quetzal represents freedom and independence.

Mating pairs work together to nurture their young, alternating regurgitating fruit to feed their chicks.

Tanagers

Blue-gray Tanager

Tanagers are a diverse group known for their vibrant colors. Stunners to spot include:

  • Blue-gray Tanager – pale blue-gray with darker wings
  • Silver-throated Tanager – blue back with silver throat
  • Flame-colored Tanager – bright red plumage

There are over 40 Tanager species native to Costa Rica. Their small triangular bills are perfect for nibbling on fruit, nuts, and seeds.

Tanagers help disperse seeds through their droppings as they forage at different forest strata, which helps regenerate the woodlands.

Trogons

Black-headed Trogon

The elusive trogons are favorites for their colorful plumage and haunting calls. Species in Costa Rica include:

  • Resplendent Quetzal – the iconic national bird
  • Slaty-tailed Trogon – black with red belly and long tail
  • Black-headed Trogon – metallic green head, yellow belly

Trogons use their sharp bills to snatch insects and small prey in midair or pluck them from leaves. But you’re more likely to hear these shy rainforest birds than spot them.

The rufous-tailed species have intricate tail feather tips that spread like a fan, possibly to signal mates.

Kingfishers

Green Kingfisher

Kingfishers frequent the waters of Costa Rica, plunging to catch fish. Notable species are:

  • Ringed Kingfisher – large with a white collar
  • Belted Kingfisher – blue-gray with a chest band
  • Green Kingfisher – small bright green kingfisher

Kingfishers have excellent vision to detect fish underwater. They can precisely time their dive bombs into the water to snatch their prey in an instant – coming up soaked but with a meal in their beak!

Their wide bills help them swallow fish whole.

Herons & Egrets

Jabiru

Herons and egrets abound in wetlands and mangroves. The majestic Jabiru – one of the tallest flying birds with a 6.5 foot wingspan – is always an impressive sighting.

The long legs and necks of herons and egrets enable them to patiently stalk and spear fish in shallow waters.

Watching them stand motionless for long periods before a lightning strike with their dagger-like bill is a sight to behold!

When feeding, they help control populations of aquatic prey like fish, amphibians, and other small wetland animals.

Raptors

Harpy Eagle

Raptors like hawks, eagles, and falcons rule the skies. Magnificent species include the huge Harpy Eagle and the colorful Orange-breasted Falcon.

The powerful talons, sharp curved beaks, and excellent long-distance vision make raptors formidable hunters.

The Harpy Eagle can snatch sizeable sloths and monkeys right out of the rainforest canopy!

When not actively hunting, raptors spend long periods perched on high branches scanning for prey movement below.

Their role as apex predators helps maintain a balanced ecosystem.

Owls

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Under the cloak of night, you may hear the haunting calls of owls like the Mottled Owl or the tiny Ferruginous Pygmy Owl.

The huge facial discs around an owl’s eyes help channel soundwaves towards their ears, aiding these nocturnal hunters in locating prey in darkness.

Prey caught by owls includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even large insects like beetles.

Perching silently with prey firmly caught in their talons, owls seem like mythical creatures when encountered in the beam of a flashlight at night.

Motmots

Motmots sit patiently on branches, often balancing their racket-shaped tails. Watch for the colorful Turquoise-browed Motmot and the larger Rufous Motmot.

The tail-wagging behaviors of motmots are intriguing to observe – scientists hypothesize this may flush out insect prey or signal social dominance.

Their turquoise and rufous plumage blends remarkably well into the forest as they sit motionless scanning for prey.

Motmot’s wide serrated beaks are perfect for consuming larger insects, small amphibians and reptiles.

Wrens

Black-bellied Wren

Over 50 species of lively wrens flit through Costa Rica’s forests. The bold black and white stripes of the Black-bellied Wren make it stand apart.

From tiny energetic birds like the Nightingale Wren to more cautious spotted species, wrens are everywhere in Costa Rica’s forests.

Their thin pointed bills and skulking habits help them probe into crevices and undergrowth to catch insects and spiders.

The vibrant, bubbling calls of wrens enliven the dawn and add to the medley of rainforest sounds.

Woodpeckers

Rufous-winged Woodpecker

Woodpeckers like the Hoffmann’s Woodpecker and Rufous-winged Woodpecker use their chisel-like beaks to drill for insects in trees.

The extraordinary anatomy of woodpeckers allows them to rapidly hammer away at wood without injuring their brains.

Their long tongue, sticky saliva, and angled bill tip all help extract tasty wood-boring insects. By foraging on dead and dying wood, they help recycle decaying tree matter back into the ecosystem.

Waterbirds

Waterbirds

In wetlands and waterways, diverse waterbirds can be found like ducks, grebes, cormorants, anhingas, gulls, terns, and shorebirds.

Prime spots for waterbird watching include Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge and the riverbanks along the Tárcoles River.

Ducks are a common sight, including the striking Black-bellied Whistling Duck with its long pink bill and vocalizations.

Grebes dive below the water and use their feet to propel them in pursuit of fish. Cormorants also dive but use their wings as well as feet underwater.

Anhingas are snake-necked divers that dry their feathers while perched statuesquely with outstretched wings.

Along the coasts, gulls and terns abound, soaring over the surf and making raucous cries. In the mudflats, long-legged shorebirds like egrets, herons, sandpipers, and plovers probe the sediments for invertebrates.

There are endless waterbirds to discover across Costa Rica!

This is just a small taste of the avian diversity in Costa Rica! With so many species across a range of habitats, you’ll surely be dazzled by these feathered wonders.

Top Bird Watching Destinations in Costa Rica

Carara National Park

Now that you have an idea of some of the incredible birds to see, let’s look at the top destinations to spot them in their natural habitats:

Monteverde Cloud Forest

The lush cloud forests of Monteverde are famed for Resplendent Quetzals and hummingbirds like the Violet Sabrewing. Over 400 species have been recorded here.

La Selva Biological Station

This research station near Puerto Viejo protects vital lowland rainforest. See toucans, trogons, parrots, and the endangered Great Green Macaw.

Carara National Park

Transition forest habitat along the Pacific coast attracts Scarlet Macaws, motmots, toucans, and tanagers.

Corcovado National Park

The remote Osa Peninsula holds some of the last remaining Pacific lowland rainforest. Spot all 6 toucans here along with the iconic Scarlet Macaw.

Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge

A vast wetland near the Nicaraguan border, Caño Negro teems with herons, kingfishers, storks, and migratory waterfowl.

Tortuguero National Park

Boat through jungle canals to spot monkeys, crocodiles, and over 300 bird species like toucans, parrots, and the elusive Harpy Eagle.

San Gerardo de Dota

This high elevation valley provides essential habitat for the Resplendent Quetzal and other highland species like the Costa Rica Volcano Junco.

Mangroves of Tárcoles

Flocks of egrets, herons, pelicans, and other waterbirds feed along the muddy banks of the crocodile-infested Tárcoles River.

South Pacific Coast

The coastline along the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce harbors frigatebirds, boobies, terns, shorebirds, and other seabirds. Scan offshore for magnificent soaring frigatebirds and diving boobies.

Arenal Volcano Area

The diverse habitats surrounding Arenal Volcano like rainforest, pastures, cloud forest, and wetlands make it a birding hotspot. Local lodges and guides can lead you to the best spots.

Sarapiquí Region

The lush lowland rainforest around the Sarapiquí River holds over 600 bird species including motmots, toucans, trogons, and the endangered Great Green Macaw.

Guanacaste Beaches

Coastal Guanacaste offers vital wetlands for waders and shorebirds along with dry forest woodlands. Head to sites like Palo Verde National Park and Marino Ballena National Park.

With so many world-class birding destinations, Costa Rica offers endless possibilities to explore! Work with expert local guides to plan your route and experience the best sites for your target species.

Birdwatching Tips for Costa Rica

To make the most of your birdwatching experience in Costa Rica, keep these tips in mind:

Pack Lightweight Binoculars & Field Guides Good binoculars and field guides are a must for properly viewing and identifying all the birds you’ll encounter. I recommend the lightweight, high-quality Vortex Diamondback binoculars.

The Birds of Costa Rica by Richard Garrigues is the best field guide in my opinion.

Start Early to Catch the Dawn Chorus Bird activity peaks at dawn when their dawn songs fill the air. Aim to be out by 5:30-6:00 am to witness this magical time.

Head to Higher Elevations in the Afternoon As the day heats up, bird activity shifts to higher, cooler elevations. Spend mornings at lower elevation spots, then head up in the afternoon.

Work with Local Guides
Hiring a local birding guide is invaluable for finding key species and learning about behaviors and calls. Many lodges have excellent on-staff guides.

Move Slowly and Stop Frequently
Walking quietly and pausing frequently gives you the chance to spot more elusive species. Set up near fruiting trees or streams to let birds come to you.

Record Your Sightings Keeping track of dates, locations, and species seen helps you learn and refer back to your memorable sightings. Ebird is a great free app to use.

Use Playbacks Judiciously Recorded bird calls can help attract species into view but should be used infrequently and only when appropriate so as not to excessively disturb birds.

Focus Your Senses Sharpen your observation skills by noticing key field marks, listening intently to vocalizations, watching behavior patterns, and simply appreciating the tranquility of being surrounded by birds!

Birding Lodges & Accommodations

The right lodge can maximize your birdwatching experience. Ideal lodges offer proximity to top locations, experienced guides, and comfortable accommodations.

Here are some of my top recommendations for lodges and accommodations for birders in Costa Rica:

Aninga Lodge

  • Located in Tortuguero canals near Tortuguero National Park (400+ species).
  • Rustic yet comfortable rooms amidst the rainforest.
  • Offers tours, boat trips, and guides to experience abundant birdlife.

Macaw Lodge

  • Nestled in lush rainforest near Turrialba Volcano.
  • Well-maintained trails winding through diverse habitats.
  • Eco-friendly practices like waste reduction and renewable energy.

Hotel Villa Lapas Jungle Village

  • Near Carara National Park and Tarcoles River Estuary birding hotspots.
  • Bungalows and spacious rooms with rainforest views.
  • Prime location for macaws, toucans, herons, egrets, and more.

Laguna del Lagarto Lodge

  • Scenic lagoon setting surrounded by rainforest.
  • Comfortable rooms with amenities like private bathrooms.
  • See Keel-billed Toucans, Scarlet Macaws, Great Green Macaws, Resplendent Quetzals.

Rancho Naturalista

  • Top birding opportunities and passionate expert guides.
  • Accommodations catering to birders with forest views and library.
  • Diverse species like toucans, tanagers, Snowcaps, and Lovely Cotingas.

Savegre Hotel, Spa & Nature Reserve

  • Stunning natural surroundings with lush forests, rivers, and mountains.
  • Range of lodging from rainforest lodges to luxury resorts.
  • Many offer birdwatching tours and knowledgeable guides.

Arenal Observatory Lodge

  • In a prime location near Arenal Volcano and national park.
  • Comfortable rooms and service focused on nature tourism.
  • More than 500 species of birds found in the diverse surroundings.

Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge

  • Next to Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve on the Osa Peninsula.
  • Perfect for seeing colorful macaws and rare endemic species.
  • Guided tours, trails, and observation platforms facilitate birdwatching.

La Quinta Sarapiquí Lodge

  • Situated along the Sarapiquí River near Braulio Carrillo National Park.
  • Spacious bamboo bungalows immersed in a botanical garden setting.
  • Expert guides lead tours focused on birds, monkeys, sloths, and more.

Rio Perlas Lodge

  • In lowland rainforest along Rio Perlas near Carara National Park.
  • Ideal for observing scarlet macaws and toucans.
  • Includes naturalist guides, boat trips, and meals.

With the diversity of species and lodging options, Costa Rica offers unforgettable birdwatching for all skill levels.

I hope this Costa Rica bird guide inspires you to visit and experience Costa Rica’s spectacular birdlife for yourself!

Let these stunning avian wonders awaken your passion for birds. With so many species across diverse ecosystems, Costa Rica offers endless rewarding adventures for birders of all levels. Have an amazing trip!

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