Best Birding Destinations
Last Updated: Jan 10, 2013
By land area, Costa Rica is smaller than the state of West Virginia, but the country’s nearly 20,000 square miles offer extraordinary biodiversity. More than 850 bird species have been spotted in Costa Rica – that’s 10 percent of the world’s total avian population and more than double that of the United States and Canada combined.
Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems and enviable geography are to thank for so much avian life – the county’s 12 different climate zones serve as a neotropical link between North and South America. Home to the sought-after resplendent quetzal and the endangered scarlet macaw, you’ll also find jewel-toned tanagers, warbling cuckoos, pendulum-tailed motmots, more than 50 hummingbird species, and many other elusive beauties you have yet to check off your list.
North Pacific Avifaunal Zone
Though the north Pacific is typically dry and arid, its Tempisque River Basin is considered the richest freshwater avifaunal zone in Central America. The basin fills the area with estuaries, lagoons and swamps, each supporting a huge variety of waterfowl and other bird species.
- Carara National Park: Carara National Park is a crucial sanctuary for wildlife and serves as a bridge between the southern Pacific’s wet rainforest and the northwest’s dry tropical forest. Here, birders will find more than 400 species – toucans, woodpeckers, jacamars, antbirds, and manakins are common sightings. However, Carara’s most treasured resident is the scarlet macaw – an estimated 450 live within the park, the only area in the north Pacific to host a significant population of this endangered animal.
- Palo Verde National Park: This 45,500-acre park boasts a mosaic of 15 different habitats, including mangrove swamps, marshes, and salt ponds. Home to both migratory and resident waterfowl, up to 250,000 birds reside here at once. The most common species are egrets, herons, storks, spoonbills, ibis, grebes and ducks, but forest birds like parrots and toucans can also be seen.
South Pacific Avifaunal Zone
As Costa Rica’s most biodiverse area, the South Pacific welcomes more than half of Costa Rica’s nearly 900 species. The zone is covered mostly by lowland rainforest, though tropical wetlands and rivers play a prominent role as well.
- San Gerardo de Dota: This spectacular valley, a legend among birders, shares borders with Los Quetzales National Park and Cerro de la Muerte. The area’s tropical cloud forest gives refuge to more than 200 bird species, including several sought-after specimens such as resplendent quetzals, ornate hawk-eagles, collared trogans, emerald toucanets, and several hummingbird species.
- Osa Peninsula: Escape to one of the world’s most biodiverse areas, the gorgeous Osa Peninsula. Discover the zone’s more than 350 bird species at Corcovado National Park, where eagle-eyed observers may spot tinamous, cormorants, anhingas, ibis, hawks, parrots, motmots, and toucans. Corcovado is also home to the largest numbers of scarlet macaws and great curassows in Central America.
- San Vito and Uvita: Wilson Botanical Gardens, located at Las Cruces Biological Station, and La Merced National Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to Ballena National Marine Park, welcome a menagerie of bird species. Manakins, tanagers, and euphonias join barred forest-falcon, streak-chested antpitta, and crested owl to make their home in this lowland rainforest close to the Panamanian border.
Caribbean Slope Avifaunal Zone
Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope is home to one of the most important tropical research centers in the world, as well as some of the world’s best birdwatching sites. Virgin rainforest, humid lowlands, old-growth forest, and disturbed tropical forest support hundreds of bird species. Rustic hiking paths, elevated trails, and hanging bridges are ideal for getting up close and personal with the animals.
- Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui: A small riverside community just 20 miles from the Nicaraguan border, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui is the gateway to some of Costa Rica’s best birdwatching. With almost 4,000 acres, La Selva Biological Station is home to more than half of the country’s bird species, including the bare-necked umbrella bird, rufous-tailed jacamar, and red-capped manakin. Nearby, the Tirimbina Biological Reserve protects more than 300 bird species, including the royal flycatcher, white-necked puffbird, and golden-winged warbler.
- Tortuguero: A wet, tropical forest nestled in Costa Rica’s North Caribbean, Tortuguero boasts a systems of navigable canals and lagoons that offer diverse wetland habitat to the area’s wildlife. Tiger herons, toucans, parrots, blue herons, green herons, anhingas, and northern jacana are common sightings, while osprey, manakins, and trogons also reveal themselves to birdwatchers.
- Cahuita and Puerto Viejo: Costa Rica’s Southern Caribbean is a birdwatching mecca, offering coastal habitats, lowland rainforest, and highland cloud forest. Begin at Cahuita’s Aviarios del Caribe, the world’s only sloth sanctuary, where bird enthusiasts have spotted over 330 bird species. To the west, Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve is the site of one of the most concentrated raptor movements in the world – each year, almost three million vultures, osprey, kites, hawks, and falcons fly south through the zone.
Interior Highlands Avifaunal Zone
Often called the “Switzerland of Latin America,” Costa Rica’s Interior Highlands feature cool winds, misty cloud forests, and high montane forests. Cool-weather birds flourish here and many migrating birds pass through on their way south.
- Monteverde: Almost 400 species of birds make their home in Monteverde’s cloud forests, pine forests, and rainforests. Thirty species of hummingbirds are joined by bellbirds, toucans, motmots, and parrots. The resplendent quetzal, one of the country’s most coveted birds, is most easily spotted in March and June, during its mating season.
- Poas Volcano National Park: This 16,000-acre national park offers more than an active volcano – three marked trails wind their way around the park, promising countless birdwatching opportunities. Poas Volcano National Park is home to more than 80 species of birds, including sooty robins, black guans, the resplendent quetzal, toucans, flame-throated warblers, squirrel cuckoos, bare-shanked screech owl, great curassows, purple-throated mountain gems, golden-hooded tanagers and a variety of hummingbirds.
- San Miguel, Pital, and Boca Tapada: In Alajuela’s San Carlos county, east of Arenal and just west of Braulio Carrillo National Park, San Miguel and Pital offer diverse avian habitats. Lowland rainforest, wetlands, riparian habitat and lagoons create a hospitable environment for birds such as the great green macaw, spectacled owl, tiger heron, great tinamou, and several species of trogon, hummingbirds, and toucans.