San Gerardo Field Station is a well-maintained but rustic lodge near
the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Preserve. From Santa Elena, a
nearly impassable dirt road winds down to the lodge and the adjoining
trails. One must walk the 2.4 kilometers and bring a pack if the stay is for several nights. The lodge has bathrooms in every bunk-style
room, but there is electricity only from 6 am to 9 pm (as of 2011). All food is
cooked on the premises by a cook and it's generally quite good. No
alcohol is served.
It may be possible to get one of the people
working the lodge to bring guests back on a three-wheeler ($30), but that
mode of transportation is a bit on the wild side. I did it anyway as no one is going to be eager to
go back up that trail on foot - even if the birding on that road is
San Gerardo has a lot to offer in
terms of good birding. It's a
good place for Highland Tinamou, Black-eared Wood Quail, Buff-fronted and Chiriqui quail-doves, Black-headed Antthrush, Zeledon's Antbird, Tawny-throated and Gray-throated Leaftossers, Linneated Foliage-gleaner, and Brown-billed Scythebill. Most of these
birds need some sort of audio playback, but there's a lot of uncommon birds in one
spot if one is willing and in reasonable physical shape. The view of Arenal
Volcano from the
porch is memorable. Hawk-eagles fly over the lodge, and
the forest itself is both imposing and impressive. San Gerardo seems unlike most habitats in Costa
Rica.... or perhaps there's just more of it. When one starts to feel everything has been
slightly Americanized, that's
the time to visit this location.
Bare-necked Umbrellabird, San Gerardo - Kevin Easley
Poas Volcano is a high-mountain
habitat only a short distance north from San Jose. Although my stay there
was very brief - and it got quite cloudy in a hurry - the habitat
around the volcano can be pretty productive and is similar to Irazu Volcano on the south side of San Jose. The look inside the Volcano can be
staggeringly beautiful if you're there before it gets too cloudy.
Fiery-throated Hummingbirds are common, and birding around
the visitor center can be productive. A stay at the
Poas Volcano Lodge can also be productive for birds if one has the time.
La Paz Waterfall Gardens, which recently re-opened after the January 2009 earthquake, is a good place to pick up a wide variety of hummingbirds. It's placement matches two elevational zones and attracts a lot of hummingbird species. A list of their species can be found on their web site, but do not expect to see all of them they have listed. Many are not regular visitors to the feeders at all seasons. There is a rather steep non-resident admission fee at the Waterfall Gardens ($36), but because of a set of productive feeders, it's usually a good stop for the study of hummingbirds. The trails down to the parking lot can also be productive high-elevation birding. I had Tufted Flycatcher, Prong-billed Barbet, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-thighed Finch, and a few others while walking down the waterfall trail system. I had one person tell me that staying overnight at the hotel there can be very productive because one can do a lot of good birding in the morning before the tour groups get there. All the rooms will be over $300 a night but guests have free access to the park.
Here is a
Video of the hummingbird galleries at the Waterfall Gardens that I found on Youtube. Here is a 19-second video I took of those same hummingbird feeders in 2013. Six species showed up while I took this short video. For people actually staying at the Peace Lodge\Waterfall Garden, one is allowed to actually hand feed the hummingbirds with an artificial flower. Here is a video of that experience. You can skip the first 38 seconds,
The Waterfall Gardens also maintain a very good Butterfly Garden and Frog Garden. I enjoyed both of those. They have big cats and monkeys in containment (apparently all animals confiscated from the illegal pet trade and getting a new home here), but I did not visit those exhibits. The Waterfall Gardens is a giant money-making gift shop in the middle of paradise. Plus one has to commit a lot of time to it. I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. But I can say the hummingbird activity at their feeder stations is second-to-none in Costa Rica. I had great looks at Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Green Thorntail, Coppery-headed Emerald, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Green Violet-ear, Brown Violet-ear, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Saberwing. This list will change with the seasons.
Carrillo NP is a huge national park east of San Jose but has only two
significant turn-outs for cars around the highway loop from La Selva.
Neither turn-out is marked well on maps, but both are easy turn-outs
off the highway. Trails are marked, and the birding is generally very good.
Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Irazu Volcano - Jim Peterson
There are not a lot of
accommodations around this park, but it's not a difficult drive from
places around La Selva or even San Jose. Most of the Braulio Carillo
birding sites are only at a 500-700 meter elevation, making it an
interesting ecological zone for overlapping lowland species.
Along with the Virgen Del Soccoro road, and the Arenal area, Braulio Carrillo National Park has become one of the most centralized locations for Caribbean foothill birding and perhaps the easiest access to that habitat from San Jose. There are several species at this mid-level elevation which may prove hard to get at other parks and reserves including Black-and-Yellow Tanager and Lattice-tailed Trogon. Bare-necked Umbrellabird is sometimes seen around the aerial tram during the spring season.
Rancho Naturalista is a superb birding lodge approximately 3 hours south of San Jose. Hummingbird feeders on the public porch balcony produce at least 8-10 species within the first 15 minutes of your arrival. By the end of 3 days - the recommended time frame for visitors - one should have at least 15 species of hummingbirds including the uncommon Snowcap. On my stay in early July (a more difficult
time to bird) we had about 115 species including Dull-mantled Antbird, Checker-throated Antwren, Russet Antshrike, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Long-tailed and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Tawny-chested Flycatcher, Rufous Mourner, Olive Tanager, three species of euphonias, and a wide selection of other birds. An adjoining side trip to the Tuis Valley is a good place for Sunbittern and Fasciated
Tiger-Heron. We also were treated to an unexpected pair of
and at least two Black-crested Coquettes. The very rare Lanceloated Monklet (which will show up on a few trip reports) should not be expected but is infrequently seen if one takes a field trip to the Tuis Valley.
Getting to Rancho Naturalista is not an easy drive even though most all of it is paved. I frankly do not recommend driving there because it almost always entails driving south through San Jose - a sometimes gruesome ordeal. Instead, I recommend hiring a driver from Costa Rica Gateways or some other company. That may be over $200 total, but remember, an unused rental car is simply going to sit there at the lodge anyway.
Tuis Valley at Rancho Naturalista
One's stay at Rancho may seem costly
at first, but when birders add in 3 good meals
a day, a good room, and a very good personal bird guide (for us it was a
guide for two people), then it really turns out to be a bit of a
bargain. The birding is very good, and the feeders are stocked three
times a day.
Bird guides at Rancho are now
pay-as-you-go. Rancho reduced it's rate recently to allow guides to
handle guest requests independently. See the Rancho site for costs.
When one weighs the relatively small
number of good birding lodges in the American tropics, Rancho
Naturalista is a special experience for birders. It's not easy for
individuals who are not with a tour group to reach the property, and it
does require it's own time frame. Because of this, it's not on
everyone's itinerary. Still, if one can add the days to your itinerary,
it will almost certainly reward you with good memories.
Savegre Lodge is just south of San Jose on the south side of Cerro de la Muerte. The lodge is nested in a gorgeous valley at about 2200 meters. The large stands of oaks and protected cloud forest habitat make it an exceptional location to see high-elevation birds.
Savegre Lodge, like Rancho Naturalista, caters to birders but the habitat is higher with different birds than Rancho. The avifauna at Savegre resembles Monteverde, but with a few minor changes and smaller crowds of people. Most birding tours either do Monteverde or Savegre Lodge, but I rarely see a tour company visit both places because of some redundancy with high-elevation avifauna.
Volcano Hummingbird (left), Savegre Lodge - Jim Peterson
Savegre is a more personalized birding experience than Monteverde, but the itinerary will usually dictate which place will be best for independent travelers. Like Rancho, Savegre Lodge is a bit difficult to get to because of the travel problems through San Jose, although it is one of the closest of the true mountain birding lodges from the SJ airport. Both Rancho and Savegre are meant for 2-3 day experiences, and I recommend a shuttle service as a better course of action for both Rancho and Savegre if one is not with a group. For the seasoned veteran of Central American driving, however, it shouldn't be that difficult.
Savegre is a good place to look for Resplendent Quetzal - the ease of viewing
being determined by available food. Birders may be able to seek out
information from people at the lodge as a good number of people
are likely there for just that reason.
Birds like Timberline Wren
and Wrenthrush are not generally found on the grounds, but they can be found at
scattered locations a little higher up - just off the highway if you
have a guide or perhaps at
Parisio de Quetzal which is down the road a few kilometers from Savegre Lodge (see "A Bird-finding Guide to Costa Rica").
|Dry Woodland Habitat of
Rosa National Park is mostly a dry woodland habitat with nice gallery forest areas - some evergreen. The park is a large park north of Liberia. One particular trail that follows an old impassable dirt road not far the entrance is especially good. Long-tailed Manakin, Barred Antshrike, Black-crowned Antshrike,
several Rufous-capped Warblers were seen along this trail. A
variety of good deciduous forest birds can be found here. We also found
Nutting's Flycatcher, specific to Guanacaste only and a
troubling identification problem, within this park at another location. Some of
the largest iguana lizards in Costa Rica are also found here.
For birders staying somewhere in
Guanacaste, the best bird diversity can be had while visiting the mountains
along the cordillera east of the Pan American Highway. Both Guanacaste and Rincon de Vieja national parks offer an interesting diversity of Pacific and Caribbean-slope birding. One of the easiest ways to see birds specific to the
Caribbean slope from Guanacaste is to simply drive the road to Upala (highway 6) - (last visited: 2012) the only paved road cutting through the cordilleran valley in the north between the mountains running through Bijagua into the Alajuela Province. Eventually, one will see turnoffs to places like Heliconias Lodge, Celeste lodge, and La Carolina Lodge which all offer some Caribbean-slope birding
Verde National Park is the most
widely visited park in Guanacaste. Palo Verde is the best place in Costa
Rica to see Jabiru.
Although this is generally no problem in the dry season, I'm not
sure it should be expected in the summer wet season (birds disperse all
over Guanacaste and into Puntarenas at that season). If one chooses to check Palo Verde in summer, don't spend all day looking
for Jabiru in the lagoons and marshes where I suspect they are more
regularly seen in winter. Check the bigger trees periodically. I've
seen a single Jabiru high in a tree on our only summer visit to Palo
Verde. A winter visit many years earlier, on the other hand, produced 6-7 birds. I
considered my summer sighting of Jabiru at Palo Verde a lucky sighting. Palo Verde has both good dry woodland trails and a large lagoon. Because of the lagoon, mosquitoes can be a problem here. Bring repellent.
There are lots of
good birds at Palo Verde. Besides Jabiru, Palo Verde is one of the best
places for Limpkin, Crested Bobwhite, Snail Kite, and much
of Costa Rica's waterfowl populations in winter. Along with Carara
National Park, I consider it one of the better birding locations in
western Costa Rica. Be aware, however, that there are certain periods in the dry season - usually March and April - where the entire marsh area can be dry and the birding not quite so good.
Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve is a refuge has similar habitat to that at Palo Verde but without the lagoon and marshy habitat. It is almost geographically adjacent Palo Verde. However, there's a very nice trail near the headquarters that hugs a creek and has some large trees and a running stream - making it a bit different than the marshy areas of Palo Verde. It's best to have a SUV-type vehicle to get there (as well as Palo Verde if you do that refuge). At Lomas Barbudal, we saw Double-striped Thick-knee in the
pastures, Lesser Greenlet, and Olivaceous Woodcreeper which we did not see at Palo Verde or Santa Rosa. Most birds at Lomas Barbudal, however, are birds one might see at Santa Rosa or Palo Verde - which are larger parks.
Black and White Owl (left) - Bruce Hallett
For birders vacationing or on business at a beach resort hotel in coastal Guanacaste, one might consider doing a tour to a place like Rincon de la Vieja National Park which can offer a bit more bird life. Even a few birds specific to Guanacaste, like Elegant Trogon and Plain Chachalaca, are only found easily a few hundred meters above coastal Guanacaste habitat. For a birder's first visit to northwest Costa Rica, one probably won't be unhappy anywhere, but the diversity of species increases dramatically in the habitat around 400-1500 meters.
Tropical Lowland Birding
Carara National Park The real change in bird life while
driving south from Guanacaste into the state of Puntarenas is Carara National Park on the west-central coast. This is an easy
place to bird, an easy place to drive to, an easy place to get a
guide (they wait for tourists at the gate of the River Trail
or sometimes at the visitor's center and offer their services). It's almost
always productive and anywhere around Carara is good viewing for Scarlet Macaw. In other words, this should be a primary birding
stop for everyone. I've seen a lot of birds at Carara and I see new
birds every time I go there. Carara NP is about 2-4 hours
from most places in Guanacaste and about 2 hours from San Jose. Staying overnight is possible at
Cerro Lodge both of
which are very close to Carara NP and sit on good birding property.
We were able to see
several Boat-billed Herons at Carara NP on the River Trail near the lagoon
on two occasions during two separate July visits. In summer, the Carara River Trail may be the most reliable location for this
species in Costa Rica.
Antonio NP and Hacienda Baru Refuge -
Manuel Antonio NP (4 hours
south from Liberia, 2.5 hours southwest from San Jose) and Hacienda Baru
refuge (near Dominical about 20 minutes south of Manuel Antonio) are
just south of Carara NP. I have visited both spots,
Manuel Antonio several times since it serves the purpose of giving us
real vacation time after some intense birding.
Manuel Antonio NP
(MANP) does not have easy access to a lot of great birding habitat, but it does have
one fairly nice trail in the national park. It's a pretty crowded park entrance although the trail
itself is not so crowded. Just before the park
entrance is a bohemian marketplace of sorts, so one must get to the trailhead early. MANP is growing with
lodges and people. It's a beautiful place so it's obvious why
people build there. In a natural history sense, I recommend it only as a nice place to stay, a
place to see monkeys and sloths, and to hike along the one walking trail in the park.
It's also pretty good for Fiery-billed Aracari around some of the better hotels. On the
trail, we had Golden-naped Woodpecker, Brown-hooded Parrot, and
Black-bellied Wren among the usual suspects. If one is a
serious birdwatcher, it might be advisable to avoid this park and move on to other areas. But for Costa Rican beauty, it's hard to find a prettier coastal experience. There
are very nice accommodations here although tourists frequently don't see them
from the main road.
Children's Eternal Rainforest below Monteverde - Bruce Hallett
is a private refuge with accommodations about
20 minutes south from MANP near Dominical. One can search their
site where they have a
bird checklist. Hacienda
Baru has several trails and we had nice looks at Charming Hummingbird, Yellow-headed Caracara, King Vulture
(flying over) and American
Pygmy Kingfisher. I saw a Blue Ground Dove on the road as
we drove over. Unlike Manuel Antonio, it's a good place for forest
Hacienda Baru has several options
for birders and offers a couple of
just to watch birds (we didn't do either of these guided tours). The
road from Manuel Antonio to Hacienda Baru is now paved as of 2010, and
maps may show it incorrectly as a dirt road. If you were serious about birding, and your
beach-loving wife owed you a favor from when you grabbed that 10-inch lizard
out of the bathtub in your Liberia hotel room, then I would suggest
Hacienda Baru over Manuel Antonio National Park for the birding.
South of Dominical is the town of
Uvita. Uvita has several places to stay and it's a
reasonable networking spot for south-central Costa Rica. From here one has access
to the Osa Peninsula and birding lodges like
Esquinas Lodge and
Bosque de la Tigre Lodge. The locally owned refuge of Oro Verde is 5
minutes from Uvita. The mountain habitats of
Lodge, Skutch's farm (Los Cusingos Neotropical Bird Sanctuary), and Quebrada Biological Reserve are about 2 hours away and Hacienda Baru is less than a half an hour from Uvita.
Osa Peninsula - The
Osa Peninsula is nearly 6 hours southwest of San Jose, but
there are a few good lodges with particularly good birding.
Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge and
Esquinas Rainforest Lodge have access to good trails and
good bird habitat. Both lodges should be able to give
birders access to the endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
as well as observations of a few hard-to-see birds
generally only found in the southwest.
Esquinas Lodge is
easier to get to if one is driving, but there are no lodge
guides for birders. Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge is another
hour on the road and the accommodations follow a more ecolodge tradition, but the
guide\owners and the property itself are particularly
birder-friendly. The Bosque del Rio Tigre experience may
also give birders the possibility of Turquoise and
Yellow-billed Cotinga sightings within walking distance
of the lodge. I have seen Little Tinamou and
Black-faced Anthrush by merely looking over the lodge
balcony on the second floor. Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
sometimes come to the fruit feeders, and Marbled
Wood-Quail call from most of the trails. A non-birder
would almost certainly prefer the accommodations at Esquinas,
but the guided services at Bosque generally make it the
preferred choice of hard-core birders and bio-bums.
Cano Negro Refuge
is a lowland habitat east of Upala (and in the Alajuela Province)
in far north-central Costa Rica. It can have
some Caribbean lowland birds, but an overnight is required for some land birding. Most day tours from the hotels are doing boat tours. Cano Negro is a good place to see Nicaraguan
Grackle, Green Ibis, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Black-collared Hawk, Spot-breasted Wren, and a few others that
might be target species. We also had a nice look at two Bat Falcons,
several Bare-throated Tiger Herons, Gray-necked Wood Rail,
and a surprising Snowy Cotinga perched in a tree on the lagoon, all from the boat.
There are at least two lodges available in town while I was there in 2006, and were still there again in 2013... both were quite clean as I've
looked at both. The
Cano Negro Natural Lodge appeared to be best suited for small groups.
There is also another very good marsh near Los Chilies about a 25-minute drive from Cano Negro Refuge. This marsh is locally referred to as the Medio Queso wetland and supports good numbers of Pinnated Bitterns and low-flying Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures most of the year. It may also be a good place to try for Yellow-breasted Crake if water levels are right.
Medio Queso Wetland near Los Chilies
Cano Negro is not really a
well-visited refuge, but I found the little town around the lagoon
clean and inviting. There are no land trails, so birders will need to bird the
small dirt roads before or after the boat
trip. While birding on the roads around the lodge before the boat trip,
my wife and I had Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Mealy Parrots, Collared Aracari,
Gray-fronted Dove, and Spot-breasted Wren, as well as the usual suspects. Paraques were common on the roads after the sun went down - but are strangely quiet in summer. This refuge is geographically closer to Liberia than San Jose.
To date, I have seen
no other location in Costa Rica for observing Nicaraguan Grackle
except on a Cano Negro boat trip, but other trip reports suggest
observations of the bird on the roads around Los Chilies (which is generally the same area as Cano Negro but just a few
kilometers further northeast).
The Nicaraguan Grackle is simply a smaller Great-tailed Grackle in every respect. It has a shorter tail with a more equilateral triangle shape. Our boat guide knew the difference, but we picked the bird out before our guide did so the bird is identifiable to birders assuming one has seen enough Great-taileds to use as a barometer. We saw perhaps 8-10 birds, most in tall reeds out in the lagoon during the wet season.
One of the small boat trips at Cano
Negro could be done for $25 a person in 2006. In 2013, we paid $70 for two of us for a more specialized trip. We always include a generous tip. It is easily worth it. There are several places
to get a boat tour by just asking around - and I
think a boat guide would do it any time of day on the spur of the moment if
necessary. We took a July boat trip out of a small hotel using a combination guide\driver. He knew no English, but he knew his birds. We had a bird guide manage the boat trip in 2013, and he selected a specific boat and driver. Most boats usually have a canopy and seat several people. Boat tours can be done from most regional hotels (even at Arenal) with advance notice. The guides on the bigger tours will generally speak pretty good English.
For other comments on specific birding
identification challenges in Costa Rica, see the Bird Notes page
Selva - For some of the best introductory birding, the classic place for low-elevation Caribbean birds of Costa Rica (some of the richest bird life in CR) is found
Selva OTS Biological Station (lowland habitat - 5 hours from
Guanacaste and 2 hours from San Jose).
Three-toed Sloth - Jim Peterson
For birders new to Costa Rica, the La Selva
OTS is worth it for tropical low-foothill species. One can get there a couple of different ways without getting
on unpaved roads, so even a small car can make the trip. The sheer
volume of bird activity around the dining hall can be staggering. La Selva offers an
early morning guided
bird tour at 5:45 AM for a fee, but advanced confirmation is
required. I strongly recommend the early morning bird walk. Otherwise operating hours begin at 8:00 and a second round of
natural history tours begin (also for a fee). Lunch can be purchased in
advance from their web site. Food is family style at the research dining
hall. The OTS designation means that it's a tropical research station (as is
Palo Verde) and ongoing research projects have to be protected from
visitors. I recommend the
Selva users guide for a good understanding of the facilities. For a seasoned tropical birder, La Selva is high-priced and target birding is almost out of the question. It may not have the value one is looking for. But for birders new to Costa Rica, birders will likely get birds there that cannot be easily seen elsewhere. It's also within striking distance of several good high-elevation birding destinations just up the road about 30-45 minutes (Poas Volcano, Cinchona, the Waterfall Gardens, and the road to Virgen del Soccoro).
We stayed at the
Selva Verde Lodge - only
a few minutes from La Selva OTS - but there are several places around the
vicinity (including the La Selva OTS itself if one doesn't mind camp bunking). If staying at Selva
Verde Lodge, I personally would choose the lodge accommodations over
the optional bungalows. We enjoyed the bungalows, but there's no
great advantage to staying in them that I could see.
Selva Verde Lodge has
their own guides that can be hired to bird around the
lodge property. It's a good place to see endangered Great Green Macaws
flying over or a Sunbittern along the river. Instead of Selva Verde Lodge, many birding tour groups stay at the less
Sarapiqui also near La Selva and seem to be very happy there.
Birdwatching around the grounds there seems equally as good.
Several less expensive options, like
Tirimbina Lodge can be found in close proximity to La Selva. Both
conveniently located a few kilometers from La Selva. Tirimbina is on the newly developed
Costa Rica Birding Trail. I can't recommend Tirimbina's accommodations or food options, but it does have some nice trails in a deep forest environment. A
little bit more about Tirimbina and
El Gavilan can be found on their web site.
Other locations for lowland birding not
commonly on birding itineraries but still known for good birding:
Laguna Del Legarto Lodge (northeast), and
Selva Bananito Lodge (southeast).
6-7 hour trips from the NW coast, 2-5 hours or more from San Jose
Other great places
Cerro de la Muerte the Savegre Mtn Lodge (on the south slope of Cerro de la Muerte), have relatively easy access in terms of distance from San Jose, but birders are forced to drive through San Jose proper when approaching from the metropolitan area or the international airport. Corcovado,
(Osa Peninsula) and Tortugero, are
fairly long distances from any international airport. They have
specific travel problems to try in a short amount of time from Liberia,
but are possible from San Jose.
Although I have done both Cerro de la Muerte and Tapanti in summer, it was done using San Jose as a home base. On one occasion I was on tour with an ABA birding group, and on the other occasion I had a natural history guide service take me and a friend on a day trip to the top of Cerro de la Muerte. One can make that call from almost any hotel in San Jose. There are several natural history companies that have flyers in most hotel lobbies.
My Savegre Lodge trip
was done using Costa Rica Gateways guide service, and my
Rancho Naturalista trip was done using Costa Rica Gateways
shuttle service from the airport. Needless to say, I avoid
San Jose traffic like the plague. But remember, one can take
a shuttle to places like Savegre, be picked up
three days later, taken back to an airport car rental,
and then rent a car and take off in another
direction without having to deal with San Jose.
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush - Jim Peterson
Places like Tortugero, the Osa Peninsula, and areas
south of the peninsula like La Amistad National Park, have special
problems even outside of the distance when trying to access those
places by car. Tortugero is mostly accessed by boat once inside the
park, and the Osa Peninsula is just a lengthy stretch from San Jose regardless. Both places are strenuous drives to the outer reaches
of the Costa Rican infrastructure. The Osa Peninsula is a quicker access by small plane although they've added some paved road recently
that makes it a bit more comfortable up to the town of
La Amistad National Park (near the Panama border) is also a difficult
drive and has no
paved roads within the park.