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WARNING – birding and bird photography are seriously addictive!

So you fancy an eco-vacation in Costa Rica, you’re not an experienced birder, but want to see and identify some of the staggering diversity that awaits?

Costa Rica is a good choice, there are 850 different birds here and exotic birds are everywhere. Indeed, in the urban blah of a parking lot, at our airport hotel in San Jose, the palm trees were filled with hundreds of noisy parrots!

Lored Parrots “A little to the left please!”, Costa Rica

Such variety can be overwhelming, so it’s a good idea to set goals. 

Here are mine:

I don’t need to impress friends by rattling off rufous Motmots or yellow-throated Toucans and I am not planning on becoming a world authority on Costa Rican birds. I just want to see some birds and maybe get some good photographs. 

Rufous Motmot, Selva Verda, Costa Rica

Is that about right for you? If so, get some binoculars and download an app to ID birds – more on this later. 

A camera is optional.

Now book the trip. There’s no exam at the end so relax and have fun. 

Let me share my recent experience. 

Shannon has written about Costa Rica (Read it HERE), so I won’t go into great detail about all the different locations, or induce sleep with a list of bird species. I just want to show that it’s easy to have fun and learn about birds, without feeling you’re working on a masters degree! 

Our first three days were in Selva Verde Lodge, set in lowland tropical jungle on the Atlantic (wetter), side of Costa Rica. In the lodge and river area alone, there were constant appearances of toucans, finches, tanagers, (33 different species – we saw 8!), woodpeckers, parrots, humming birds, herons and many more. There are always guides and  tours to help you. 

Montezuma Oropendula, Selva Verde Costa Rica

And then there’s all the other flora and fauna. Ever seen a blue-jean frog? Or a bullet ant – a nasty looking critter, about an inch long that packs the worlds most painful bite, hence the name! 

So three days there and I’ve seen birds aplenty. Photos were challenging due to low light and thick vegetation, but I still took oodles.

White Ibis

On day three, a boat trip down the nearby Sarapiqui river revealed herons, kingfishers, swallows, ibises, hawks, the list goes on! My wife had a running gag with the boat owner whereby if more than a couple of minutes went by without a sighting we get a refund. He wasn’t worried. 

River boat trips like this are ideal for sighting and photographing birds.

After three days at Selva Verde I had shots of many birds, iguanas, lizards, frogs – and of course the flora is worth a trip in itself.

Next stop was two nights at the Manoa Hotel at the Arenal volcano. Whoa, what a beautiful area. 

Morning and evening prowls around the hotels grounds, which were lush and beautiful, yielded many different birds and there was also a lagoon with waterfowl hanging around. Actually, Arenal is where I got most of my bird sightings and photo’s.

One morning we went out to “the Mistico Hanging Bridges”, a national park where, in the thick jungle, our birding guide identified many birds by their calls and/or very brief sightings! 

Slaty-tailed Trogon, Costa Rica

Remember, I am not trying to be a world authority on Costa Rican birds and that’s important here, because while this area is magnificent to find and ID birds, photographing them requires another magnitude of patience. You would need a knowledgeable guide as well as advanced photography skills and gear. The underbrush is dark and often requires tripods and flash – and many, many hours of patience. It’s a job for the pros and after all, the selling feature of the park is the eight spectacular suspension bridges swinging  over the cloud forest. So after a short while, I put my camera to rest and settled into an awesome walk across the magnificent canopy of a Costa Rican jungle, while seeing and/or hearing birds, agoutis, spider monkeys and howler monkeys. A great experience. 

Mistico Hanging Bridges Park, Arenal – Colin is ready for anything!

If you go, get there early, (it gets very busy). It’s a wonderful walk, you will see and hear wildlife, just don’t sweat the bird ID/photography thing, it’s too frustrating. Just enjoy the walk.

And remember there’s lots of fun to be had back in the hotel grounds.

SummerTanager, Costa Rica
Rainbow-billed Toucans, Costa Rica

We had a great day and a half of birding and hiking the Mystic Hanging Bridges in the Arenal area.

The last leg of the trip was Tamarindo, on the Pacific side (dryer), for a lazy 10-day beach holiday. Tamarindo is a busy town and birding and wildlife took a back seat, although on the hotel grounds there were doves, kiskadees, wrens, woodpeckers – one of whom was nesting in a support pillar  – and howler monkeys, one of whom narrowly missed me with a mango! (Incidentally, the first time you hear howler monkeys going at it full throttle, is a life event!)

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker with a breakfast of mango for junior.

An early, sunscreen slathered, walk south along the beach, away from town, yielded many shore birds. Meanwhile, to the north, it’s a twenty minute, sunscreen slathered, walk to a mangrove reserve, where for $26 I took a boat and guess what? There’s plenty of birds.

Costa Rican Kiskadee at our resort.

In the end I got photos and IDs of a modest 55 different birds, but saw countless more. OK so my PhD on Costa Rican birds ain’t happening yet, but that’s just fine, because it was great fun and I learned a lot.

And there’s only 795 birds to go.

Anhinga Heron, Costa Rica

So get some binoculars – Nikon Monarch is an excellent choice, but there are good cheaper ones too. Assuming you have internet access – and most places in Costa Rica do – there are many birding apps, some very detailed and expensive, but I strongly suggest “Merlin Bird ID”. This is a great free app, courtesy of Cornell University. It’s easy to use, has a regular ID function – using colour, size, location etc – plus photo and sound ID, which, if you can get a reasonable photo or sound recording, will name your bird. I hate carrying bird books around when I’m birding. There were people toting thick bird books. It takes forever trolling through such books, especially at first when you don’t know a tanager from a vulture, (trust me on this one, I’ve been there!). To each his own, but birding apps just get better and better and are ideal for non-experts.

N.B. – As time goes by, most parts of the world have at least some internet access, although on a more recent trip to Antartica there was none and yes, I had to resort to those dreaded tomes. Very tedious!

Red Lored Parrot, Costa Rica

For photography, cellphone cameras won’t cut it. 

You’ll need a camera with zoom and a good bridge camera with adjustable zoom, (20 x zoom or more), will do the job well, for under $1000. 

If you already have a fancy mirrorless or DSLR camera, you’ll need a minimum 300mm, (but preferably >400mm), zoom lens. They’re expensive.

Amazonian Kingfisher

You’ll see lots of birds but they don’t come pre-ordered, so I always have binoculars and a camera, on hand. If I get a photo op, I concentrate on getting a good shot and worry about ID later – a reasonable photo can usually be ID’d by Merlin’s photo ID function.

Rufous Wren Costa Rica

And that’s all you need so what are you waiting for? Costa Rica is a fabulous place to bring out your inner bird!

Colin Rankin – The Birdman from Langley, BC, Canada for TRDB

The Birdman from Langley, BC

Other articles by Colin Rankin you might enjoy:

Wildlife in Antarctica – a Photographer’s Dream! (Penguins)

What Makes The Falkland Islands Worth Visiting? (Albatross, penguins, caracaras)

Birding in San Blas, Mexico

Wonderful Woodpeckers

A Cluster of Buntings (Lasuli and Snow Buntings)

A Pleasant Surprise (The Cape May Warbler)

Birding Rio Lagartos (Mexico Birds)

“Keepers” – what makes a great photo?

Even More LBJ’s – The Bewick’s Wren (Little Brown Jobs)

Puffins (Newfoundland)

Hey! That’s My Fish! (Ospreys in British Columbias)

Little Green Jobs

Bird Photography – Novice no More!

Revenge of the Water Thick-Knees

Other articles on Costa Rica you may enjoy:

Pura Vida Costa Rica

Thinking about Costa Rica – Maybe you should be.