Fortunately, Costa Rica’s birds are not shy. Seeing them is relatively easy. Depending on season, location, and luck, you can expect to see many dozens of species on any one day. Many tour companies offer guided bird-study tours. The country is well set up with mountain and jungle lodges which specialize in bird watching programs.
The deep heart of the jungle is not the best place to look for birds because you cannot see them well amongst the complex, disorganized patterns cast by shadow and light. For best results, find a large clearing on the fringe of the forest, or a water source where birds are sure to be found in abundance.
There are four major “avifaunal zones,” which roughly correspond to the major geographic subdivisions of the country. These are: the northern Pacific lowlands, the southern Pacific lowlands, the Caribbean lowlands, and the interior highlands. Guanacaste’s dry habitats (northern Pacific lowlands) share relatively few species with other parts of the country. This is a superlative place however for waterfowl. The estuaries, swamps, and lagoons which make up the Tempisque Basin support the richest freshwater avifauna in all Central America. Palo Verde National Park, at the mouth of the Tempisque, is a birdwatcher’s Mecca.
The southern Pacific lowland region is home to many South American neotropical species, such as jacamars, antbirds, and, of course, parrots. Here, within the dense forests, the air is cool and dank and alive with the sounds of birds.
In fact, many birds are easily heard but not seen. The three-wattled bellbird, which inhabits the cloud forests, is rarely spotted in the mist-shrouded treetops. However, the male’s eerie call, described by one writer as a “ventriloqual `bonk!'” (it is more like a hammer clanging on an anvil), haunts the forest as long as the sun is up. In addition, the lunatic laughter that goes on compulsively at dusk in lowland jungles is the laughing falcon.
Fortunately other species, like the tanagers, brighten the jungle, and you are likely to spot their bright plumage as you hike along trails. The tanagers’ short stubby wings enable them to swerve and dodge at high speed through the undergrowth as they chase after insects.
The sheer size of Costa Rica’s bird population has prompted some intriguing food-gathering methods. The jacamar snaps up insects on the wing with an audible click of its beak. One species of epicurean kite has a bill like an escargot fork, which it uses to pick snails from their shells. The attila, like its namesake a ruthless killer, devours its frog victims whole after bashing them against a tree.
Other birds you might expect to see include the boobies, the rare harpy eagle, (the largest of all eagles, renowned for twisting and diving through the treetops in pursuit of monkeys), pelicans, parakeets, oropendolas, and woodpeckers. In addition, there are a host of other birds you may not recognize, but whose names you will never forget: scarlet-thighed dacnis, violaceous trogons, tody motmots, laneolated monlets, lineated foliage-gleaners, and black-capped pygmy tyrants.
With approximately 850 recorded bird species, Costa Rica boasts one-tenth of the world’s total. More than 630 are resident species; the remainder are transients, who fly in for the winter. Birds that have all but disappeared in other areas, still find tenuous safety in protected lands in Costa Rica, though many species face extinction due to deforestation. The nation offers hope for such rare jewels of the bird world as the quetzal and the scarlet macaw, both endangered species yet commonly seen in protected reserves.
The two best “Birding” books to buy are: “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch, and “Travel & Site Guide to Birds of Costa Rica With Side Trips to Panama” by Aaron Sekerak. The second book has excellent coverage of where to go in Costa Rica and a comprehensive breakdown by region.