How can this small tropical Central American country, the size of West Virginia, be home to so many birds? It claims 903 species, significantly more than all the mainland United States. In thirteen days of what this somewhat out-of-shape, 70 year-old birder would call hard core birding, we saw 381 different birds.
I was fortunate to join my Florida birding companion, Mel, and be guided by Costa Rican Olivier Esquivel as we travelled and sampled most of the various habitats of this beautiful land. The narrow country is bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Shifting tectonic plates have raised towering volcanic mountain ranges aligned along the center of Costa Rica, exactly at right angles to the northeast hot and humid trade winds of the Caribbean.
My initial impression of the land was from the air as we landed at San Jose. Other than the coasts and Central Valley, this is sparsely populated and rugged terrain. As Olivier said, “if they ironed the country flat it would be the size of Texas”. As we careened around the hills and switchbacks, often on gravel roads, this became quite clear to Mel and me.
When the prevailing trade winds meet the the uplands they unload their moisture on the Caribbean slope. This creates the specific wet habitats both in the lowland jungles, and further up the cooler slopes. On the opposite Pacific side the uplands and coast are dry; all this explains the many varied habitats, home to differing and often unique bird species.
We birded and sweated in the steaming lowlands and on the next day donned down vests, birding at 10,000 feet. The various habitats, along with the numerous migrants, make Costa Rica a bird-friendly locale and a paradise for birders.
The country is a safe, stable democracy, being one of only a few sovereign nations without a standing army. Its economy was initially dependent upon agriculture, but more recently has become a Mecca for ecotourism. My visit was a second attempt, the first cancelled in 2021 due to the pandemic.
Olivier and Mel designed an ambitious itinerary of dawn-to-dusk birding, with even an evening session for nightjars and owls. We sampled most of the habitats and rarely entered a restaurant, morning, noon, or night without binoculars or cameras; you never know when a new bird will show up. Our lodging was generally spartan. As Olivier said, why waste money on luxury when we will only be stopping for some sleep. If I go again I might upgrade the accommodations somewhat.
One’s first exposure to the stunning colors of the tropical birds is unforgettable. The Toucans, Parrots, Hummingbirds, Tanagers, and Trogons are spectacular and so different from our home species. You wonder why the bland Clay-colored Thrush is the national bird. As Olivier quipped, “that’s what you get when you let politicians pick the bird”.
Most of our lodges had surrounding gardens, short trails, and feeders that would have satisfied me with photographic opportunities for hours, but Olivier wanted us to also sample the shier species that lived more remotely. We might trek three or fours hours, up hills and deep into ravines in order to find a few more birds, but at the end of the day there was great satisfaction with these more rare sightings.
I can give future travelers a couple hints. Bring rain gear as it can rain at anytime, especially in the eastern half of the country. Bring a flashlight for nighttime birding, but also for power failures at the lodge. Apply fly dope and sunscreen liberally; you’re only a few degrees from the equator. Watch out for poisonous vipers; they may be hanging from trees at perfect head height. And lastly, don’t stand on a highway of army ants as I did. They can spoil your whole trip.
On the last day of our adventure, Mel and I, weary but happy, were looking forward to the flight home. But Olivier, ever the birder, was looking for a few more species to add to our trip list. While I was humming, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” he was pointing out new birds, even in the Walmart parking lot right next to the airport. We could not have found a more energetic and knowledgeable guide.
In future posts I hope to share more observations of Costa Rican birds and describe some of the specific sites we visited. Till then.