Habitats and Birding Locations

Below are a few of the more frequently birded areas in Costa Rica. It is not an extensive list, but all the places mentioned here are the typical birding locations for most birders and all can be accessed by car.

National Parks and Wildlife Refuges Interactive Website

Commonly Visited Birding Areas Discussed Below

Arenal Volcano Guanacaste Region Monteverde Santa Rosa NP
Braulio Carrillo NP Hacienda Baru Osa Peninsula Savegre Lodge
Cano Negro Heliconias Lodge Palo Verde OTS Tapanti
Carara NP La Selva OTS Poas Volcano Rincon de la Vieja
Cerro de la Muerte Manuel Antonio NP Rancho Naturalista Waterfall Gardens

Overview of Habitats

Foothills and Mountains - Much of Costa Rica has a good amount of forested habitat on the interior mountain slopes within a fairly wide elevational zone. Several popular birding destinations are available for those with vehicles. Arenal Volcano National Park, Monteverde, several Tenorio Volcano lodges, and Rincon De Viejo National Park are in the northern half of the country. Most of these places can be long day trips from Liberia and San Jose. Arenal Volcano and Monteverde are very long and difficult day trips for bus tours, yet they do them every week even from several northwest beach hotels and from the central valley. These mountains usually have a very high diversity of bird species from bottom to top. Each ecological zone contains some unique birds habitat-specific to the vegetation growing there. On a good relief map, these mountains make up part of the Tilaran and Guancaste mountain ranges. Further south, one can get good mid-level birding particularly at Rancho Naturalista, or around Tapanti National Park as one moves south into the what is known as the Talamanca mountain range which runs south into Panama (and referred to as the Chiriqui highlands on many maps). While there is equally good birding south of San Jose, there are fewer birding destinations setup with good accommodations and infrastructure, particularly in the mountains.

Poas Volcano - Connie Sandlin

The Caribbean foothills have several elevational zones with sometimes distinct avifauna. Braulio Carrillo National Park is mostly a foothill birding experience with a mid-level wet forest. Most of the birding sites around Braulio Carrillo sit at about a 500-700 meter elevation. Further south, the Rancho Naturalista lodge sits at about 900 meters. The highest lodges, Savegre Lodge at 2200 meters, Bosque de Paz at 1450 meters, and the hotels at Monteverde at about 1440 meters are high enough locations to reach cloud forest habitat.

Central High Mountain Habitat - Some of the highest areas of Costa Rica include Cerro de la Muerte, Savegre Lodge, Irazu Volcano, the higher elevations of Tapanti, and Poas Volcano. The bird species at these highest points around 2000-3000 meters, like Volcano Hummingbird, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Timberline Wren, Volcano Junco, and others, occupy some of the highest ecological zones in Costa Rica. You won't find them in the foothills on either side. I have visited Cerro de la Muerte and Tapanti by using a shuttle service for Cerro de la Muerte and guided field trip in the case of Tapanti. I hired a guide to take me to Savegre. I would be cautious about tackling these places without a driver since they require a drive through San Jose. Costa Rica Gateways can set travelers up with both driver and guide anywhere around the central highlands. The Poas Volcano and Poas Volcano Lodge can be accessed without going through San Jose proper. The Poas Volcano Lodge was structurally damaged due to a 2009 earthquake but has re-opened.

Lowland Tropical Habitats - East and West - Popular natural history locations in tropical forests below 300 meters include Cano Negro Refuge, Tortuguera, La Selva OTS and vicinity, Manuel Antonio National Park, Carara National Park, and Hacienda Baru private reserve. These parks and reserves represent what most of us imagine about tropical birding - hot, steamy, rainforest environments. These areas are bird-rich, but it can sometimes prove to be difficult birding in dark, closed-canopy environments. The edge of Manuel Antonio NP is a nice area with lots of secondary forest but has a sprawling human community. There's only the one trail within in the park boundary that has good, undisturbed habitat. All other locations mentioned here have trails or lagoons set up for viewing a wide selection of bird life.

Dry, Tropical Woodlands in Guanacaste - Palo Verde OTS, Santa Rosa National Park, Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve. All of these areas are situated in the northwest part of Costa Rica. Birds like the Double-striped Thick-knee, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-throated Magpie-Jay, and several others can be found in this dryer, northwest habitat, but will not likely be found in other areas of Costa Rica. The northwestern part of Costa Rica is drier habitat due to the low rainfall and the unabated trade winds. Outside of northwest Costa Rica, the rainfall amounts are more homogenous everywhere. The rainfall and habitat of south-central and southwest Costa Rica on the Pacific side is more like eastern Costa Rica as one gets south of the Guanacaste region. For instance, Carara National Park, on the central west coast, is just south of Guanacaste and no longer in dry forest habitat. Hence, several birds found there can also be found on the eastern side of Costa Rica at the appropriate elevation. 

The first three chapters of the Skutch and Stiles Field Guide offer the best treatment of the Costa Rica climate and it's effect on the avifauna. I don't do it justice here except by over-simplifying it.

Far North Mountain Habitats

North of Lake Arenal, there are several good foothill birding experiences. The road to Upala which cuts through the central cordillera from Highway 1 will have a few options for birders. For a good stop on this road, I recommend a side trip to Carolina Lodge or the Heliconias Lodge both just off the road to Upala\Bijagua and just past the town of Bijagua. The newer Celeste Mountain Lodge has also opened and looks very nice. All of these lodges border the Tenorio Volcano and have a wide variety of birdlife. The Carolina Lodge is rustic and low maintenance but this is clearly by design rather than any sort of neglect. Everything about the grounds seemed well-maintained. I can't recommend the sleeping arrangements since I haven't stayed there, but I can recommend the habitat. I do intend to stay there on a least one trip - it looked very birdy on our short trip around the grounds. It's owned by an American and they seem to welcome drive-in guests. The Celeste Lodge has some trails and exciting architecture, but I have little information about it as a hotel choice. It would be considered a more high-end choice for that area. The Heliconias Lodge is a lodge with interesting span bridges for birding (photo on right). Both the bridge and lodge trails can be accessed with a

fee for walk-in birders. A Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo was photographed there in February of 2009, and Tody Motmots are seen there more regularly than at other locations. The lodge habitat is specific to forest birding and can be difficult birding at times. Many species are vocal but not easily seen unless one finds an ant swarm. A playback mechanism with Costa Rica bird songs is more useful in this kind of habitat. 

The road to Heliconias Lodge (to Upala\Bijuagua) has some interesting birds if one is staying in Guanacaste. Geographically, the road to Upala\Bijagua does not appear to get birders much closer to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, but this road is a direct route to the eastern side of the mountains in a biotic zone entirely different than Guanacaste. Most of the birds from Bijagua to Upala are birds of the Caribbean slope foothills even though one is much closer to the Pacific Ocean than the Caribbean.

Although the Bijagua-Upala road is paved (sometimes good and sometimes horrible), there are no shoulders on the road. One must be very careful about pulling over. The turn-off dirt road that goes up to the Carolina Lodge and Rio Celeste Lodge (discussed above) can be a fairly birdy road all the way up to either one of the lodges. On the road to the lodge, I saw Gartered Trogon, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Baltimore Oriole, Golden-hooded Tanager, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater and a few other birds not usually seen around the Guanacaste province. After making a quick stop at the Carolina Lodge, we had Plain Xenops, Band-backed Wren, Boat-billed Flycatcher and a variety of other birds around the parking lot.We spent less than an hour there and only a couple of hours on the 10 kilometer drive up the dirt road birding from the car. From the lodge property, it is a short drive to the Tenorio Volcano National Park  - a park still unexplored by my wife and I.

Guanacaste National Park

Guanacaste National Park is the northern-most mountain park in Costa Rica, and is just a few miles from the Santa Rosa NP on the Pan American Highway. This park will take you into Caribbean slope birding if one is willing to try unpaved roads. In fact, one should not mistake Guanacaste National Park as having exclusive Guanacaste-type avifauna. Guanacaste National Park is a mid-elevation birding experience, and the eastern slope is more reminiscent of the bird life found closer to the Caribbean.

Many years ago (2001), we hired a guide in Liberia who drove us on the back (east) side of Guanacaste NP. This was very productive, and it was one of our longest days birding in the field. There were no places to eat on those back roads at that time, so take supplies. Birds included Collared Aracari, Laughing Falcon, White-collared Manakin, Piratic Flycatcher, Gray-capped Flycatcher, all three saltators, Passerini's Tanager, Black-faced Grosbeak, Black-cowled Oriole and a wide variety of others.

Guanacaste National Park had no good paved roads within its borders and no real services that I saw when we were there in 2001. However, with a SUV one should have no problem driving through it. The nice thing about it is that, unlike the road to Upala, one can stop the vehicle and bird anywhere. I rarely saw anyone while driving through it.

Rincon De Vieja National Park is a well-visited park especially by hikers, but it also has some lower trails with a nice assortment of birds. Here you can get a few species most often found in the lower Guanacaste elevations like White-throated Magpie-Jay, Elegant Trogon, Thicket Tinamou, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and Turquoise-browed Motmot. Yet, the forest trails also have birds like Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Great Currasow, and the rare Tody Motmot.

This park's lower trail also has some interesting mud pots, hot springs, and volcanic fumaroles.

In my bird checklist, I separate Guanacaste and Rincon De Vieja national parks as the "northern mountain parks." Both parks can be accessed quickly from Liberia and the drier Guanacaste region.

Arenal Volcano, on the south side of Lake Arenal, is also a nice foothill birding experience and most good Guanacaste and Central Valley hotels offer bus tours to Arenal Volcano. On our first trip to Arenal, we stopped on a bridge and watched a Fasciated Tiger-Heron fish for breakfast. Arenal is also the best place to look for Keel-billed Motmot. There is a "Hanging Bridges" span bridge near Lake Arenal (a short drive from most Arenal hotels) that most birders can enjoy. Hanging Bridges provided me with my only look so far of White-fronted Nunbird in Costa Rica and you can reliably see Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots which nest along the trail system in the mud banks. 

Arenal Volcano (left), Keel-billed Motmot (bottom left),
B. Hallett

As for accommodations, many birding groups prefer the Arenal Observatory Lodge. This particular lodge has trails that can occasionally produce some hard-to-see antbirds. One good army ant swarm on the Saino Trail produced Ocellated, Bicolored, Dull-mantled, and Spotted antbirds, as well as a Thicket Antpitta. The Waterfall Trail produced Streak-crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Song Wren, Bright-rumped Attila, Slaty-capped Flycatcher and a variety of others. With a guide, I also got my first and only look at Lovely Cotinga (a difficult bird in Costa Rica) while scanning the tree tops at the Observatory Lodge.

Arenal National Park adjoins the property around Arenal Observatory Lodge. Both the park and the lodge have a good trail system. Many of the Arenal trails are deep forest birding, and one's experiences here might be better served with a bird guide through Costa Rica Gateways or some known birding guide from the area (I suggest Juan Diego Vargas - see my section on "Guides"). Sometimes birds like Keel-billed Motmots are not easily observed, but guides usually know where the birds are being seen.

Here is a video of Arenal Volcano and Hanging Bridges area.

Monteverde (and the nearby Santa Elena Reserve) is possible in a day from the western coast (about 4 hours) and is equally approachable from San Jose about the same distance. However, it is much better to have at least two-three days of time allotted for the area. It's a popular destination, and there are many places to stay, several trail systems, and a suspension bridge where one can bird. Perhaps more importantly, there is an excellent hummingbird gallery with feeders that shouldn't be missed.

There are several different roads that lead to Monteverde from the Pan American Highway, but if one is driving from Liberia, the best road will be the road from Lagartos. For travelers coming from San Jose, the likely exit will be in Sardinal. The Sardinal road and the Lagartos road quickly become the same road, so there's little difference. Both roads meet near the town of Guacimal. That's the road all the buses take and is perhaps the best maintained (a subjective term in this case). On my second trip to Monteverde, I stayed at Hotel Montana - an average mid-priced hotel. There are many to choose from. Check out the Monteverde web site for more information on accommodations. The average temperature at Monteverde is about 65-75 degrees, usually cloudy and a bit breezy (less windy in summer), and sometimes rainy. Nevertheless, it remains one of Costa Rica's better birding locations. The Monteverde cloud forests have several birds that might be hard to get otherwise - including Three-Wattled Bellbird (part of the year), Prong-billed Barbet, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Resplendent Quetzal, and some of the nightingale-thrushes. The Santa Elena Reserve has similar birds, but the trails are much quieter than the more popular Monteverde Cloud Forest trails.

Quetzals - The Resplendent Quetzal is a highly sought after Costa Rican species, but it's not particularly common even within the narrow zone of elevation where it is usually found. Only two major birding hot spots really advertise a good possibility of seeing the bird - Monteverde and the Savegre Mountain Lodge south of San Jose. Smaller lodges, like Paraiso del Quetzal (close to Savegre Lodge),  also offer a good chance at a sighting if you like places off the more typical tourist path. For birders actively seeking to see the quetzal at Monteverde or Savegre, the chances are good, but it is not a slam dunk.

At Monteverde or any area where quetzals are regularly seen, quetzals will frequent the edge of the canopy sometimes out in the open. At Savegre, they are sometimes found near fruiting trees in the appropriate season. It's worth asking a guide if they know where they're being seen. The guides at Monteverde - even general natural history guides - know that most visitors at the park are eager to see a quetzal. It's not uncommon for the location of a morning quetzal sighting to be passed around from guide-to-guide.

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 fairly good.

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.

The 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. 

Braulio 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 TrogonBare-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 Crested Owls 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 Guanacaste

Santa 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, and 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

Palo 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.

Black-and-White Owl

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 Villa Lapas or the 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.

Manuel 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.

San Gerardo - Children's Eternal Rainforest

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 very good 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 

Hacienda Baru is a private refuge with accommodations about 20 minutes south from MANP near Dominical. One can search their web 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 birds.

Hacienda Baru has several options for birders and offers a couple of different hikes 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 Talari 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
Osa Peninsula - The Osa Peninsula is nearly 6 hours southwest of San Jose, but there are a few good lodges with particularly good birding. Both 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


La 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 at La 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 La 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 expensive LaQuinta 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 El Gavilan and Tirimbina Lodge can be found in close proximity to La Selva. Both places are 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).

Birding Habitats 6-7 hour trips from the NW coast, 2-5 hours or more from San Jose

Other great places like Tapanti, 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.

Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush

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 Puerto Jimenez. La Amistad National Park (near the Panama border) is also a difficult drive and has no paved roads within the park.