For those of you whom I’ve had the pleasure of guiding in the field, you know I make no secret of my obsession with Costa Rica. The small Central American country, nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, is, geographically, about the size of West Virginia. For those of you in Europe, Costa Rica is about 1/5th the size of the United Kingdom. But, what the country lacks in landmass, it more than makes up for in biodiversity. Though only making up about .03% of the world’s landmass, the country boasts nearly 5% of the world’s plant and animal species.
When I first arrived in Costa Rica in January of 2017, toting about every piece of photographic equipment I owned, I was first interested in the mammals. With about 250 species of mammals, Costa Rica’s roster of furry wildlife includes the likes of giant tapir, jaguar, primates, and a host of medium and large-sized critters running around the forest floor and swinging from the canopy. But after my first few weeks there, it turned out to be the birds that would capture my imagination the most.
Costa Rica is home to nearly 900 species of birds, both migratory and year-round resident species. And though the country is small enough that you can see both Caribbean and Pacific coasts from the country’s tallest peak, Mount Chirripo, Costa Rica’s wide range of microclimates allows for entirely different ecosystems to thrive in different parts of the country. From the Pacific rainforests to 14,000-foot peaks, and the humid jungles of the Caribbean coastline, distinct groups of species live in each zone of the country.
For Backcountry Journeys clients who travel with us to Costa Rica, we’ve developed our tour to capitalize on the enormous diversity of the country’s different ecosystems. This article is a look at each of three distinct zones, the cloud forests of the Talamanca Mountains, the Pacific rainforests of the Osa Peninsula, and the Caribbean coastline of Tortuguero National Park, and a preview of the enormous range of wildlife you will encounter on this trip, specifically the birds!
The Cloud Forest
For almost any birder, a visit to one of Costa Rica’s cloud forests is a must-do. Cloud Forests are one of the most unique ecosystems in the world, boasting far more endemic species than Costa Rica’s lowland rainforests. Nearly half of Costa Rica’s bird species reside in highland forests and some of the most beautiful are only found here, species like the Resplendent quetzal and Blue-throated toucanet (previously called the Emerald toucanet, but was recently discovered to be a separate species).
BCJ’s cloud forest tour takes place near Los Quetzales National Park, perched high in the Talamanca Mountain Range a few hours south of the capital city of San Jose. At an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, the climate here is cool and wet, and every afternoon thick clouds of moisture fill the valleys. The landscape is marked by thickly forested mountains and deep valleys running with cool clear-water streams. Thick iridescent moss hangs from the tree limbs and fruiting trees like avocado and apple line the mountainsides. It is markedly different than what many people envision when thinking of Costa Rica. Instead of tropical beaches and sweaty jungles, the cloud forests are cool year-round. The majority of the precipitation that falls here comes in the form of thick clouds of mist that permeates everything.
Though the other two portions of BCJ’s Costa Rica trip can be defined by the sheer diversity of animals, the cloud forest portion of the trip is all about the birds. Officially, the trip is called the Quetzal Extension, named for the primary target of the trip, the Resplendent quetzal. And though this bird is one of the most beautiful in the world, those who visit the cloud forests can expect to encounter a wide range of other species including a dozen types of hummingbird, Black guan, chlorophonia, the Ornate hawk-eagle, parakeets, toucanets, and more.
The Resplendent Quetzal
But, let us first take a look at the star of the show, the Resplendent quetzal. The quetzal is amongst the most beautiful birds in the world. It is the largest of the trogon family, with a body growing up to 16 inches long. And the male’s enormous tail streamer can reach lengths three times the length of its body. This species features a great deal of sexual dimorphism (males and females look different), but both sexes have iridescent green wings and wing coverts, a crimson breast, and bright yellow beak. But the males have the iconic streaming tail feathers as well as a green crest along its head.
The resplendent quetzal is on the life list of almost every birder I’ve ever met for its iconic appearance. But, the bird also has enormous cultural significance. The quetzal was considered a divine presence by pre-Colombian peoples, the Quetzalcoatl, Aztec, and Mayans. They called it the “God of the air.” In Mesoamerican languages, the word quetzal meant precious or sacred. And even today, the quetzal holds enormous significance in Central America. The country of Guatemala calls its currency quetzals. So if you wish to buy something in Guatemala, the correct question to ask is canto quetzales?
Behaviorally, quetzals are monogamous seasonal breeders. During the breeding season, the males and females build nests in tree trunks, and both take turns tending to young. Outside of the mating season, the males drop their tail feathers live separately from the females until it is time to mate again. Their primary food is young avocados, making quetzals most easily spotted by targeting the trees that have fruit at the best phase for the bird to eat when the avocado is about the size of a walnut.
The resplendent quetzal is reason enough for many bird and photography enthusiasts to venture into the cloud forests of Costa Rica, but to ignore the huge range of diversity that is flying from tree to tree would be a mistake!
Blue Throated Toucanet
One of my favorite birds in the cloud forests is the toucanet. Recently, the Talamanca ranging toucanets were called emerald toucanets, but later research points to them being a separate species from the emerald, and are now being called Blue-throated toucanets.
The Blue-throated toucanet, as with all toucan species, has a very large bill in proportion to its body. Its bill has a black lower mandible and yellow on top with a white ring around its base. Like other toucans, the inner edge of its bill is serrated. The Blue-throated toucanet is covered in bright green plumage, except for the throat which is a deep blue.
Unknown to many people, all toucans, as well as eating fruits and nuts, are voracious predators. They will target other birds’ eggs, hatchlings, insects, and even small reptiles and amphibians. In response to seeing toucans and toucanets targeting baby birds, many Costa Ricans view them as menacing or cruel. But, this does not detract from the beauty of the species. I find these birds to be amongst the most striking in Costa Rica for their vivid colors and outrageous beak.
The ornate hawk-eagle is a powerful raptor that ranges throughout the neotropics. It features an ornately striped breast of white and black that extends all the way down the lengths of its legs. It has a red-sided head and a prominent crest of black feathers. Though quite large for a forest raptor, it is small and slender in comparison to other eagles, like the harpy eagle.
The ornate hawk-eagle is a highly effective predator, which primarily targets medium to large-sized birds. Resplendent quetzals are on the menu, as well as black guan and toucanets. Ornate hawk-eagles and quetzals will often engage in harrowing tail chases through the trees, testing the agility of both species.
Hummingbirds are ubiquitous in the cloud forests of Costa Rica. Over 54 species live in Costa Rica, and over a dozen of them can be found around Los Quetzales National Park in the Talamanca Mountains, species like the violet eared hummingbird, fiery throated hummingbird, volcano hummingbird, and scintillant hummingbird, among others.
Hummingbirds are the smallest types of birds in the world, and partly because of their size and partly because of their lack of downy feathers, they are very bad at temperature regulation. As a result of this, hummingbirds need to consume 2-3x their body weight in nectar every day to have the energy to regulate their temperature internally. In the cloud forests, there are fewer flowering plants than at lower elevations, making competition stiff between hummingbirds for prime feeding areas. So, the birds are fiercely territorial and engage in aerial dogfights to protect their precious flowers.
One of the best ways to view hummingbirds in the cloud forests of the Talamanca Mountains is by visiting a bird viewing platform. Here, caretakers plant bird attracting flowers and trees which brings huge numbers of hummingbirds together in close proximity. One of my favorite techniques for capturing hummingbirds in flight is to take a flower cutting and place it on a stand. Then, a bit of sugar water can be sprayed onto the flower which will bring sure to bring several birds into a predictable area for photographing.
I always say that I estimate my shooting ratio when shooting wildlife is somewhere around 1/20-50, meaning for every 20-50 shutter actuations, I end up with one keeper, depending on the subject matter of course. Some animals are just easier to photograph than others (bears!). But, when trying to capture hummingbirds in flight, that shooting ratio jumps up to closer to 1/500! They are just so darn quick.
The Osa Peninsula
The Osa is where I first experienced Costa Rica wildlife, and believe me when I say that I am spoiled as a result. National Geographic has dubbed the Osa as one of the “most biologically intense places on earth” in terms of sheer biodiversity. While some parts of Costa Rica is in the process of modernization with large infrastructure projects and resort developments underway, the Osa remains largely untouched, and this is in large part due to Corcovado National Park. The park up 2/3rds of the entire peninsula making the peninsula largely off-limits to large developments and construction. Furthermore, the Osa is in the far southwest of the country, making it remote and less traveled to. This allows wildlife to flourish here in great numbers. It is not uncommon to see anteaters, monkeys, and coati on a short drive anywhere on the peninsula.
Corcovado is also the largest national park in Costa Rica and is the best place for seeing many large mammals, like Baird’s tapir, spider monkey, and puma. It also supports a stable population of jaguar, but these cats are elusive and shy, making them very hard to photograph. But, the birds! It was while living on the Osa Peninsula that the birding bug first bit me. There is nowhere else on earth where you can see scarlet macaws in such numbers and regularity as on the Osa.
There is perhaps no bird more regal, more colorful than the scarlet macaw. It is one of the largest types of parrot in the world, with a total length of almost three feet including its tail. The bird is predominantly scarlet and has a bright blue rump and wing feathers. The upper wing coverts are yellow, and it has a white patch of fatherless skin around its eyes. Males and females basically look the same, though the male is often a bit larger. The scarlet macaw is also a raucous noisy bird, with guttural screeches and caws that can be heard from far off in the distance.
There is some debate as to just how monogamous these birds are as breeders. It was previously thought that the birds were completely monogamous and that when a mate died from a breeding pair, the surviving bird would no longer breed. This has recently been disputed though. It is common to see three macaws flying in a pair, and it was previously thought that one of the three must be a full-grown off-spring that has not yet left the parent birds. Now though, it is thought that the third bird might be another male, and the female is mating with both of them. The topic is still being debated though, and conclusive proof, either way, has yet to be proven. It will most likely be with a genetic study that this issue can finally be put to rest.
Photographically, there are few birds that can leave your audience slack-jawed than the scarlet macaw. Catching that perfect shot in flight is not easy, but your chances are greatly improved if you can find a nesting tree or regular feeding area. The scarlet macaw’s favorite food is the wild beach almond (aka Indian almond) which are common along the beaches of the Osa. Like the resplendent quetzal does in the cloud forests, the scarlet macaw attracts photographers and bird enthusiasts to the Osa from around the world. It is one of the only places on the planet where you are all but guaranteed sightings on a daily basis.
Because of the macaw’s wide range and population, it is listed as least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but U.S. Fish and Wildlife list it as endangered due to habitat fragmentation and predation for the pet trade. The macaw in the wild will usually live for over 50 years, but in captivity, they have been known to reach 90 years and older.
The Yellow-throated Toucan, previously known as the Chestnut-mandibled toucan, is also extremely common on the Osa Peninsula. But, they can be shy and often roost high in the treetops, making sightings less common than that of the macaw.
The Yellow-throated toucan grows to almost two feet long, placing it amongst the largest toucans in the world. Its body is predominantly black with a bright yellow throat. Its tail feathers are a mix of white black, and its eyes are surrounded by a yellow or greenish-yellow skin patch. The beak of the Yellow-throated touch is massive, growing to over half the length of its body. The bill is yellow on top and dark brown on the base. The diagonal line of color on the bill matches the color change of the body, giving it a motley pattern when viewed straight on.
Like the toucanets of the cloud forest, Yellow-throated toucans subsist primarily on fruits and nuts, but they are also highly effective predators. Their preferred quarry consists of birds’ eggs, small birds, lizards, and even small mammals, just about anything that it can fit in its enormous beak.
This toucan is one of my favorites to stalk and photograph. For one, the birds are incredibly photogenic and expressive. Their large serrated beach and big black eyes often give the impression of a laughing (or for the less-secure, a mocking) expression. Secondly, though, I love to find this bird by ear. As it is often high in the trees and is also shy by comparison to the macaw, sightings can be hard to come by. But, by listening to the bird’s tell-tale call, a yelping wobbling yell that resembles the words “Dios te de,” Spanish for God give you.
With enough practice, the call can be imitated by an experienced guide, initiating a call and response session with a distant toucan. The call can then be followed until the bird is found and photographed, a fun way of finding your photographic quarry!
The mealy parrot, also known as the southern mealy parrot, is one of the largest parrots in the Americas, only being surpassed by macaws in size. It grows to about 16 inches in length and is predominantly green. It gets its name “mealy” from the light white dusting of color on its nape and back as if covered in a thin layer of flour, or meal.
Like the macaw, this is one vocal parrot. But instead of the raucous, guttural sounds of the macaw, the call of the mealy parrot is high pitched and rhythmic, especially when in flight. Like the macaws, the mealy parrot is a monogamous breeder (or near monogamous anyway), and share responsibility between male and female of tending to young.
The mealy parrot is a quintessentially tropical parrot of Central and South America, and its bright green coloration and large size make it an excellent photographic subject.
From the same family as the resplendent quetzal, there are four types of trogons that call the Osa home, especially within the confines of Corcovado National Park. They are the Black-throated trogon, the Slaty-tailed trogon, Baird’s trogon, and the Violaceous trogon.
All four species are of a similar size, growing up to over 9 inches long. All four are also sexually dimorphic (females and males look different), and similar to the resplendent quetzal, nest in hollowed out tree trunks.
Of the four species in Corcovado, my favorite is the Black-throated trogon for its bright yellow breast, black and white banded tail, and distinct eye-rings. All four species are regularly sighted sitting on horizontal branches in the lower canopy. When nesting, a mated pair will take turns digging out a hollow in a tree and keeping watch for predators. They are vulnerable to raptors and snakes primarily.
Osa Honorable Mentions
I could go on and on listing out my favorite of birds on the Osa, but this article would turn into a field guide several pages long. So, instead, I’ll briefly mention some of my other favorites.
Red-Capped Manikin: Unlike many of my other favorites, this is a small bird. But, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in interesting behavior. This small blackbird has a brightly colored red head and is best sighted in Corcovado. What makes it so interesting is its the male’s courting ritual when trying to attract a mate. Nicknamed the Michael Jackson Bird, the red-capped manikin males will dance along branches to impress females, executing what can only be described as a perfect bird moonwalk. If you’ve not seen it, look it up on YouTube, Now!
King Vulture: This is a bird I am still working to get a great photo of. Unlike the black vultures and turkey vultures that are so common everywhere in Costa Rica, the king vulture has a bright white upper body with black wing coverts and tail. Excluding condors, it is the largest vulture in the Americas, but what makes this bird so interesting are its bizarre facial colorations. Like other vultures, its head is largely featherless, to make sticking its head into carrion easier. But, the skin consists of shades of red and purple on the head, vivid orange on the neck, and yellow on the throat. It is one bizarre and beautiful bird. Capturing close-ups of its brilliantly colored head is tough though; I’m still working on getting one after three years in Costa Rica.
Great Curassow: Growing to over three and a half feet tall and 11 pounds in weight, the great curassow is a giant amongst rainforest birds. The males are predominantly black with a curly crest of black feathers and bulbous yellow knob of inflatable skin on its bill. Females are typically barred with black and white bands, but rufous color morphs also exist. What makes this bird so amazing is its stealth and size. Often times when hiking through the jungle, a small twig break will be the only clue to its presence until you look over to see this enormous turkey-sized bird with its iconic curly head crest.
Tortuguero National Park
The latest addition to the BCJ Costa Rica trip is a three-night stint on the Caribbean coast in Tortuguero National Park. Tortuguero holds a special place in the hearts of many Costa Ricans, because it was the country’s first national park. It was created in 1975 by then-president Daniel Oduber.
The mythology around the creation of the park goes something like this. International conservationists working in Costa Rica had been lobbying the government for some time to protect crucial ecosystems to Costa Rican wildlife. Throughout most of the 20th century, the country’s primary exports were pineapples, bananas, and wildlife products, such as pelts and crocodile skins. Deforestation was a major issue, as well as destructive commercial gold mining. As a result, much of the precious wildlife resources were hanging by a thread.
But, that would all change under Daniel Oduber’s presidency. One night, international conservationists took Oduber to the beaches of what is now Tortuguero National Park to educate him about the devastating effects caused by the poaching of turtle eggs and the killing of nesting sea turtles. While standing on the beach, they noticed a green sea turtle emerge from the surf. But, something was wrong. She was dragging something behind her and was dropping her eggs as she walked, a very abnormal behavior. Upon closer inspection, they discovered that the turtle had been attacked by poachers. They had cut away her plastron (lower shell) to be used in a soup. They then chucked the turtle back into the sea to die a slow agonizing death. But, driven by instinct, the mother turtle continued her journey to her nesting beach. She was dragging her entrails behind her and was dumping her eggs involuntarily.
This so moved Oduber that shortly after this experience he created Tortuguero National Park to protect the nesting beaches of these sea turtles, along with other sea turtle species like leatherbacks, hawksbill, and black sea turtles. This bold decision led to a wave of green legislation that today has resulted in the protection of over 25% of Costa Rica’s landmass. Now, the number one export for Costa Rica is eco-tourism, resulting in the elevation of the country’s economic status and positioning it at the top of Central American countries in terms of economy and political stability.
In 1975, the park primarily consisted of the nesting beaches. But, over the years it has been expanded to include the adjacent rainforest and the complex system of canals and rivers that run through it. The name Tortuguero actually means turtle hunter.
Trips through the Tortuguero rainforest are primarily done from a boat, which makes exploring huge swaths of wilderness efficient and easy. Tortuguero is home to an enormous range of wildlife, from tapir and jaguar, monkeys, sloth, and a huge range of marine and tropical birds. Let’s get to the birds!
Great Green Macaw
The top of my list for Tortuguero birds is definitely the great green macaw. It is magnificently colored in iridescent green plumage, a red forehead, and bright blue feathers on its wings and tail. It is also enormous. It is the largest parrot in Costa Rica and the heaviest parrot in the world, at three feet in length and weighing in near three pounds.
Like the scarlet macaw, it is highly vocal with raucous, loud “aahk, ehraak” vocalizations. A monogamous breeder, the green macaw is most often observed in pairs or small groups of three or four birds. Also, like the scarlet, it loves beach almonds, but the Great green macaw has a stronger beak than the scarlet and can, therefore, break open and eat larger nuts than their scarlet counterpart.
Great green macaws are graceful fliers, often swooping in formations of several birds above the canals and treetops. To target these birds, like the toucans, I like to follow the calls, as you will most likely hear them before you see them. Check out almond trees along the beaches, especially in the late afternoon when the sun is not so hot. Though you can find Scarlet macaws in Tortuguero, you will not find the Great green macaw anywhere in Costa Rica but the Caribbean coastline.
The collared aracari is a photographer’s favorite. A member of the toucan family, this large-billed bird has a black head and dark back. Its chest is bright yellow with a round black spot in the center of the breast and a red-tinted black band across the belly. On its back, it also has a red collar from which it derives its name.
Behaviorally, it is very similar to other toucans in that it subsists primarily on fruit and nuts but will take live prey as well as eggs from time to time. They are usually found in small flocks from 4-12 birds. They nest in tree hollows and males and females share duties of incubating the eggs.
Though this bird is fairly common on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, it is a strange and beautiful member of the blackbird family. Additionally, its presence is impossible to ignore while on the canals of Tortuguero. Their bizarre vocalizations are accentuated by the birds swinging vertically underneath their perches as they call. The call revs up from an initial clicking into a long resonant GLUUuuuuu sound.
Adult males are mainly chestnut with a blackish head and rump and a bright yellow tail. They have a bare blue cheek patch and a bright pink wattle. Sexual dimorphism manifests in these birds as to their size with the males being almost twice the size of females at 20 inches long.
Due to Tortuguero’s position on the sea and its complex labyrinth of freshwater canals, the abundance of its marine bird population cannot be overstated. If you’re from North America, there are many familiar faces in the crowd, such as the great blue heron and Yellow-crowned night heron. But, you will also see roseate spoonbills, great white egrets, Bare-throated tiger herons, ibis, little blue herons, green herons, boat-billed herons, amongst others.
Additionally, there are Northern jacana, Brown pelicans, Brown boobies, cormorants, Magnificent frigate birds, and one of my favorites, the Anhinga. A member of the cormorant family, the Anhinga is a large marine bird with a long, twisting neck. Males are predominantly black with gold and silver-tipped wings. I’ve taken to calling them submarine birds due to their behavior of swimming nearly completely submerged with nothing but their snake-like neck above the water.
The number of marine bird species in Tortuguero is daunting, and I couldn’t begin to list them all out here in succinct form. But, rest assured knowing that if marine birds are of interest to you, there will be no shortage of photographic subjects for you at very close range in Tortuguero National Park.
Tortuguero Honorable Mentions
Tortuguero National Park and the surrounding area is truly a birder’s paradise. The beautiful swamp forests, freshwater canals, beaches, river mouth, and primary and secondary forest habitats support over 300 resident and migratory bird species. Here are a few honorable mentions.
Keel-billed Toucan: This toucan is a bit smaller than their yellow-throated counterpart, but their bill is a vibrant mix of blue, orange, and red, with dark stripes, accentuating its serrated edge. They are not easily found on the pacific coast, so be sure to look out for them in Tortuguero.
Osprey: Though usually associated with cooler climates, osprey (also unofficially known as a fish hawk) is common in Tortuguero. They like to perch on branches hanging over canals to scan for fish that venture too close to the water’s surface. Tortuguero is a great place to capture these birds in flight as they dive into the water hunting for prey.
Laughing Falcon: This neotropical raptor is a snake specialist. It has a white body, black wings, and a black mask. It gets its name from its somewhat disturbingly human-sounding call, resembling someone laughing, “Ha ha ha hawr.”
To Bird or Not to Bird
You may be asking yourself, “I’m not really a birder, is this the right trip for me?” If so, let me assure you that the birds of Costa Rica are only one of the many types of animals we encounter every day when touring the country. You will leave with memory cards full of images of monkeys, sloth, coati, anteaters, tree frogs, snakes, and if lucky even tapir or puma. But, if you’re like me, witnessing the incredible beauty and behavior of Costa Rica’s bird population might just turn you into a birder.
If you’ve made it this far, you can surely see that over the years, I’ve developed such an affinity for the bird-life of Costa Rica. The sheer diversity of it is mind-boggling, and each region of the country, even though small, contains starkly different ecosystems and animals therein. A single trip to Costa Rica, especially if traveling to multiple regions as we do at Backcountry Journeys will yield images of dozens of species and sightings of far more.
My advice for anyone wishing to photograph the birds of Costa Rica is to pick out the specific species you’re targeting. It is easy to get caught up in everything that flies by your camera lens. But, by creating specific goals in your mind and relaying those to your guides, you will greatly enhance your experience and the thrill of the hunt.
If Costa Rica is on your bucket list (as it should be), then during this time of pandemic when traveling is on hold temporarily, use this moment to research the birds of each of the three zones in this article, familiarize yourself with what is out there and get your life-list ready to start checking off some species.
Ben Blankenship was born in Nashville, Tennessee. As a young man, he studied ceramics and fine arts. In college, he pursued filmmaking, writing, and photography. After graduation, he worked for nearly a decade in broadcast television as a video editor, photographer, and cinematographer. Over the last several years, he has transitioned into working full-time as a photojournalist and travel photographer. He has worked abroad in Costa Rica, Belize, and Uganda. His photographic passions include wildlife, conservation, travel, events, and documenting social and political events around the world. His work has been published in the New York Times, The Oregonian Newspaper, and by Photographers Without Borders. He currently splits his time between living in Costa Rica and Tennessee. See the most recent work on his website here: www.ben-blankenship.com
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Image Review: Wildlife
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, October 12th, 2021
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time