Costa Rica: Birding with a Camera (BwC)

This is a Birding with a Camera Tour (BwC). We try to balance seeing as many birds as possible while also trying to take great photos of them. We still target endemics and other specialties. We will also try to see and photograph other animals if any are around. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for a traditional Birding Tour, you should check out our very popular Costa Rica Introtour (however, this BwC tour could still be enjoyable for birders who are not photographers, but are looking for a more relaxed trip.). If you are looking for a hardcore photography tour where the length of the bird list is not a priority, our Costa Rica Photo Tour would be a better option

Costa Rica is a birder’s paradise packed with many excellent sites. This tour has a similar length as our Costa Rica Introtour (Birding Tour), with a different itinerary to increase the number of bird species photographed while still amassing a respectable list of birds seen. This is a superb, short Birding with a Camera (BwC) Tour with plentiful photo opportunities every day.


The tour starts near San Jose looking for the recently-crowned endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow (only found locally in Costa Rica), then moves to one of the country’s best eco lodges, Rancho Naturalista, which understands birders needs and interests like few others. Overlooking forested hills in the Caribbean foothills, this offers the best chance in the World at seeing the seductive Snowcap, which regularly frequents the garden. The lodge grounds and nearby sites often produce well over 100 bird species in a day, and some really treasured ones too, like Sunbittern and the local Tawny-chested Flycatcher. From there the tour heads up into the cloudforests of the Talamanca Mountains, which share a number of endemic species only found with this mountain range that just extends into western Panama. Among these are Collared Redstart, Talamanca and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds (both very easily photographed on this tour), and Black-and-yellow and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers. This is also home to the must-see Resplendent Quetzal, and we shall be staying in one of the best lodges in the world to see this spectacular species, where they regularly nest on the grounds. Following a stint in the highlands we shall drop down the other side of the mountains and spend time in the foothills and lowlands of the Pacific Slope, to add yet more exciting species, like Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas, Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager (a country endemic), Orange-collared Manakin, and Spot-crowned Euphonia, a South Pacific endemic. By the tour end, you will not only have sampled some of the most exciting birding sites in the country, seen plentiful specialty birds of the region (e.g. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow), but also left with photographs to forever remember your trip by.

Our first morning will see us look for one of Costa Rica's few country endemics, Cabanis's Ground-Sparrow, recognised in 2017
Our first morning will see us look for one of Costa Rica's few country endemics, Cabanis's Ground-Sparrow, recognised in 2017 (Sam Woods)

Day 1: Arrival in San Jose. After arrival at the international airport in Alajuela (the official airport of San Jose), you will be transferred to a nearby hotel for the night.

Home of the Snowcap, Rancho Naturalista is included on this tour
Home of the Snowcap, Rancho Naturalista is included on this tour (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 2: San Jose to Rancho Naturalista via Cartago. After a breakfast at our Alajuela hotel, we shall leave for the journey east, stopping in Cartago to bird some ruins for the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, one of only a handful of endemics to the country. After that, we shall continue on towards Turrialba, and World-famous Rancho Naturalista, situated in the foothills of the Caribbean slope. The next three nights will be spent in the very comfortable setting of Rancho Naturalista. That night, there will be an optional search for Mottled Owl and Common Potoo near the lodge for those who wish to do so.

Green-breasted Mango is a regular visitor to the property at Rancho Naturalista
Green-breasted Mango is a regular visitor to the property at Rancho Naturalista (Sam Woods)

Days 3-4: Rancho Naturalista. Rancho is a long-time favorite destination for visiting birders, so much so that many revisit the lodge. The lodge is fantastic, the birding on the grounds themselves is superb and offers some top draw species, and it is also located near other sites (e.g. Tuis Valley and Laguna Angostura), for yet more specialties too. ‘Rancho’ is the so-called ‘Home of the Snowcap’, one of the most beautiful of all Costa Rican hummingbirds. We will scan the extensive lilac Verbena flowers for this species, but also Black-crested Coquette, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Garden Emerald, Green Hermit, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Green-breasted Mango too. There are also both fruit feeders, visible from the dining area while eating, and which attracts aracaris, chachalacas, oropendolas, and tanagers, and hummingbird feeders (White-necked Jacobin) on the balcony, where a constant supply of tea and coffee are available. Other species available on the property include Thicket Antpitta (easier to hear than see!), Bicolored Hawk, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove (the best place for this species, but still luck is required to see it), Collared Trogon, Lesson’s and Rufous Motmots, Brown-hooded Parrot, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Golden-olive, and Hoffman’s Woodpeckers, Crimson-collared Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens, White-ruffed and White-collared Manakins. By casting our net wider, and covering other nearby sites, we also have the opportunity to add Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Sunbittern, American Dipper, Torrent Tyrannulet, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Green-fronted Lancebill, Red-headed Barbet, Black-and-yellow Tanager. The nights will be spent at Rancho Naturalista enjoying not only their delicious food, but also their famous hospitality.

The grounds of Paraiso Quetzal Lodge are often good for Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers
The grounds of Paraiso Quetzal Lodge are often good for Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers (Sam Woods)

Day 5: El Copal to the Talamanca Highlands. After reluctantly leaving Rancho early this morning, we shall visit another excellent area of forest in the Caribbean foothills, El Copal. While this will offer yet further chances to enjoy the adorable Snowcap within the blooms surrounding the headquarters, as well as other hummingbirds like Green Thorntail and Crowned Woodnymph; the trails that snake through the forest are excellent for mixed flocks that hold species like Black-faced Grosbeak, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and a dizzy assortment of tanagers like Tawny-crested, Speckled, Black-and-yellow, Emerald, and Bay-headed Tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Russet Antshrike, Ash-throated Chlorospingus, and also sometimes the scarce Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. The area also holds a number of birds in the understorey, which require work to see, like Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Dull-mantled Antbird, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and White-crowned Manakin. If we are fortunate enough to find a swarm of army ants, then we may also have the chance to see Ocellated, Zeledon’s or Spotted Antbirds in attendance at the phalanx. Other species we’ll be on the lookout for include Gray-headed Kite, Purple-crowned Fairy, Gartered Trogon, and Broad-billed Motmot. In the afternoon, we shall drive into the hhlands, and stay at one of several great lodges in the area. That night, we will check if any of the local Dusky Nightjars are in attendance.

The Talamanca Mountains are home to the cute Collared Redstart
The Talamanca Mountains are home to the cute Collared Redstart (Sam Woods)

Days 6-7: Talamanca Highlands – ‘Quetzal Country’. We will be staying in one of the best areas in the country for the must-see Resplendent Quetzal, during a time when they are frequently nesting on the property, and so this species will undoubtedly be our focus for the morning. However, the lodge and its surroundings are home to many species that are regional endemics, only shared between the southern mountains of Costa Rica and far western Panama (the so-called ‘Chiriqui highlands). These include, Black Guan, Collared Redstart, Flame-throated and Black-cheeked Warblers, Black-and-yellow and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, Yellow-winged Vireo, Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches, and Sooty-capped Chlorospingus. The hummingbird feeders at the lodge are sensational, bringing unbeatable looks and photographs of two local specialties: Fiery-throated Hummingbird and the local Talamanca Hummingbird, while Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush and Sooty Thrush, both also regional endemics, often hop right around the lodge building. Some of the rarer species in the vicinity, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, Ochraceous Pewee, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, and the monotypic family, the Wrenthrush. We will also visit a nearby higher elevation site either on this day or the following one to add Volcano Hummingbird and Volcano Junco to the list. On this night we can search, again, for Dusky Nightjar, and see if we get very lucky with one of the local Unspotted Saw-whet Owls.

Flame-throated Warbler is an abundant specialty in the Talamanca Mountains
Flame-throated Warbler is an abundant specialty in the Talamanca Mountains (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Talamanca Highlands to Talari Mountain Lodge. After some final time in the beautiful cloudforests within the Cordillera Talamanca, we will head downslope to the Pacific foothills near the town of San Isidro del General. We will be based for the next two nights at the wonderful Talari Mountain Lodge. Time permitting, in the late afternoon we shall visit a place near the city of San Isidro de General for the dazzling Turquoise Cotinga, as late afternoon is often a good time to spot this species; (we have further chances for this species the following day too). At the end of the day, we will arrive at Talari Mountain Lodge, our comfortable base for the following two nights. At night, there will be an optional search for Tropical Screech-Owl on the lodge property.

Recently split from Magnificent Hummingbird, the spectacular endemic Talamanca Hummingbird
Recently split from Magnificent Hummingbird, the spectacular endemic Talamanca Hummingbird (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Talari and Los Cusingos. A full will be spent exploring not only on the lodge grounds but the nearby home of pioneering ornithologist Alexander Skutch, Los Cusingos, which is now a well-established bird sanctuary and birding hotspot. At the lodge, the feeders and garden will be our focus, which can attract birds like Fiery-billed Aracari, an endemic to the South Pacific and extreme western Panama, and also Golden-hooded and Cherries’ Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, and even Lesson’s Motmot too. Other possibilities in the immediate surrounds, include Snowy-bellied and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, Garden Emerald, Red-crowned Woodpecker, Scaled Pigeon, Costa Rican Swift, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and Streaked Saltator.

A South Pacific specialty: Spot-crowned Euphonia
A South Pacific specialty: Spot-crowned Euphonia (Sam Woods)

At Los Cusingos, the forest and gardens at the forest edge are superb; this area is arguably the best place in the country for the rare White-crested Coquette, and also hosts birds like Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Long-billed Hermit, Long-billed Starthroat, Charming Hummingbird, Orange-chinned Parakeet, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Golden-naped, Pale-billed and Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Tawny-winged and Ruddy Woodcreepers, Black-hooded Antshrike, Black-faced Antthrush, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Green Shrike-Vireo, Red-capped and Blue-crowned Manakins, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and Spot-crowned Euphonia. It is also a good place to observe the normally shy Great Tinamou. At the end of an action-packed day of birds, we shall overnight once more at Talari Mountain Lodge.

Esquinas Rainforest Lodge is a great place to find the striking Orange-collared Manakin
Esquinas Rainforest Lodge is a great place to find the striking Orange-collared Manakin (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Pacific Foothills to South Pacific lowlands. Today, we’ll move from the foothills of the Pacific slope to the lowlands, near the coast, and Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, our base for the next two nights. Before we leave the foothills, we’ll check for Fork-tailed Flycatcher and Pearl Kite locally. In the afternoon, we will visit nearby Rincon, where Yellow-billed Cotinga and Mangrove Hummingbird are found in the mangroves there. Other species in this area include Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Yellow-headed Caracara, King Vulture, Common Black-Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Red-lored Parrot, White-necked Puffbird, Prothonotary Warbler, Isthmian Wren, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. This is also a good time of day to see Scarlet Macaws on the wing, as they labor their way to roost in the mangroves, and it is also a good site for kingfishers, with Ringed, Amazon, and Green all possible. At night, there will be an optional excursion to look for nightbirds, most notably Spectacled Owl or the rarer Striped Owl.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager is endemic to Costa Rica
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager is endemic to Costa Rica (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Esquinas Rainforest Lodge. We will have a full day to explore the trails and roadsides at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, check out some nearby more open country sites, and also to revisit Rincon (if needed) too. Esquinas and the surrounding area is home to some rare or local species in the country, not least the Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, which is a Costa Rican endemic. Aside from this species are Veraguan Mango, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, and Uniform Crake. Other exciting possibilities in this rich birding area of the South Pacific, include Little Tinamou, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, White Hawk, Baird’s and Black-throated Trogons, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Blue Ground-Dove, Blue-headed and White-crowned Parrots, Bronzy Hermit, Purple-crowned Fairy, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Scrub Greenlet, Northern Bentbill, Royal Flycatcher, Rose-throated Becard, Rufous Piha, Black-bellied Wren, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater.

Great Curassow occurs around Esquinas Rainforest Lodge
Great Curassow occurs around Esquinas Rainforest Lodge (Sam Woods)

Day 12: South Pacific to San Jose. After some final birding in the South Pacific in the morning, and lunch in the area, we shall drive back to Alajuela, close to San Jose airport, where we spend one night.

Day 13: Departure. The tour ends this morning; transportation will be available to the international airport.

Los Cusingos is one of the most reliable sites for White-crested Coquette
Los Cusingos is one of the most reliable sites for White-crested Coquette (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. This tour is designed to be an introduction to Neotropical birds, and is run at a fairly relaxed pace; the guide will attempt to show you representatives of all the major Neotropical families, even if they are common birds. While finding the regional endemics is a secondary focus of the tour, you will still see quite a lot of them, and you certainly do not have to be a novice to enjoy this trip. Lodges in Costa Rica don’t usually offer early breakfasts, and depending on breakfast times, there may be an optional pre-breakfast walk at 6:00am, with breakfast usually starting at around 6:30am or 7:00am; after breakfast, the main morning birding will begin. There will be a couple of nightbirding outings, but they are completely optional if you prefer to relax in the lodge instead. Drives of three hours or more are necessary on four days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:Moderate. Some of the birding will be on slightly inclined tracks and trails (e.g. For a limited time only at both Rancho Naturalista and Esquinas Rainforest Lodge). Trail walking is expected to be taken for some time (but not the entire day) on at least four days of the tour. You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average, and the walking is done at a rather slow pace. A few hours of one morning will be spent at high elevation (10,500ft/3200 m), with the highest of the lodges being Paraiso Quetzal (2 nights), at an elevation of 8700ft/2650m; all other lodges are much lower in altitude.

CLIMATE: Quite variable; in the lowlands, it is quite humid and temperatures usually vary from about 68°-95°F (20°-35°C). At the higher elevations it is much cooler, with temperatures ranging from about 46°-75°F (8°-24°C). Some rain can be expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24hr electricity. Wi-Fi is also available in all lodges, though often it only works in the public areas and not the rooms.

PHOTOGRAPHY: As a Birding with a Camera (BwC) tour, this trip chases the maximum number of species in the given areas, but also offers up good photo opps, as it visits some areas that have feeders (like Rancho Naturalista, Talari Mountain Lodge, and Paraiso Quetzal Lodge), and photography of birds in Costa Rica, in general, is relatively easy over some other Neotropical countries.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential. A 300 mm lens with teleconverter(s) or a 100-400 mm zoom work well in most areas. A full-frame camera helps in darker situations for being able to shoot at higher ISOs, but is by no means required. Longer lenses such as 500mm or 600mm are fine if you have them, but they can be tiring to carry on some of the walks.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all Western European countries. Visas are currently only required of nationalities mainly in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 12 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals (if eating at a restaurant that includes no drinks reasonable non-alcoholic beverages will be provided for that meal); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 11; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight; if the San José hotel has a free airport shuttle, you will be expected to use it and private transfers will not be provided). Ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 11 (for smaller groups the guide will drive and, for larger groups there will be a driver); a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; flights; airport departure tax; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.