Costa Rica: SHORT Introtour

Costa Rica is an amazing country that feels like it has been tailor made for birders. It is small, but packed with numerous varied birding hotspots, ranging from lowlands on the Caribbean side of the mountains (where the world famous La Selva Biological Station is located), to highlands holding their own specialties like the famous Resplendent Quetzal, and steamy lowland jungles on the other side of the Cordilleras, which are home to a healthy population of Scarlet Macaws, and holds one of the most revered sites in the country, Carara National Park positioned in the central Pacific, where diversity is at its zenith, due to the meeting of two great biological zones, the dry Pacific north, and the humid south Pacific. By visiting just three major birding sites in the country will provide you with more than just a mere introduction to the extraordinary birdlife of this extraordinary country that is home to the highest percentage of protected land on Earth. Other wildlife will go unnoticed either, and there are high chances to see sloths, monkeys, and frogs on this short tour too.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a specially shortened version of our “standard” Introtour, which omits one site, to allow people with more limited time to join a Costa Rica tour covering some of the country’s very best sites.


Note: The itinerary is sometimes run in a different order based on lodge availability.

Day 1: Arrival in San José. You will be picked up at the airport and taken to a nearby hotel for the night. The exact hotel depends on availability, but when possible we try to pick hotels with good birding on the grounds, so you can start getting your eye in while you wait for the rest of the group to arrive. For those who arrive early (i.e. before noon), there may be an opportunity to do some local birding in the afternoon, for a small extra fee (dependent on availability of a local guide). If you are interested in this please contact the office.

Keel-billed Toucans are frequently encountered around La Selva
Keel-billed Toucans are frequently encountered around La Selva (Sam Woods)

Day 2: San José to La Selva. Our first morning will be spent in the lower ranges of this enormous national park, birding a forest trail that is about one hour drive from our hotel. As this will be our only time in the Caribbean middle elevations, our main targets will be foothill specialties like Lattice-tailed Trogon, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. At this site many species can be found by searching through mixed canopy flocks; while this can be challenging the rewards are great, with birds like Emerald, Black-and-yellow, Blue-and-gold, Speckled, and Carmiol’s Tanagers sometimes found with these flocks along with other species like White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Spotted Woodcreeper, and Russet Antshrike. Of course, we rarely pick up all of these species on every visit, but this is merely a selection of what might be found within the mixed-species flocks.

Green Thorntail often visits flowers in El Tapir Hummingbird Garden
Green Thorntail often visits flowers in El Tapir Hummingbird Garden (Sam Woods)

Later in the morning, We’ll visit a hummingbird garden; the banks of lilac verbena blooms (Porterweed) attract good numbers of hummingbirds, which are usually easy to view as they forage below eye-level at close range. Here, we have a chance of finding the amazing Black-crested Coquette, the striking Snowcap, and, sometimes Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. Other more regularly occurring hummingbirds include Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Violet-headed Hummingbird. We’ll stop for lunch at a local restaurant, then drive another hour or so to La Selva Field Station; we’ll stay either in the field station or at a nearby lodge for the next two nights. In the afternoon, there should be enough time to begin birding La Selva, picking up some of the regular species around the HQ clearing, which is always active and “birdy”. Regulars in this area include Band-backed Wren, Long-tailed Tyrant, Passerini’s and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Black-faced Grosbeak, and Olive-crowned Euphonia; while keeping an eye in the surrounding treetops may yield Black-mandibled or Keel-billed Toucans, or a Collared Aracari. Note: on some tours, we stay at a nearby lodge for the nights of day 2 and day 3, and visit La Selva as a day trip.

Note: For future trips we are changing day 2 slightly, and instead of birding inside the national park, we’ll instead visit a nearby private forest reserve called Casa de Cope, which has hummingbird feeders, and often roosting nightbirds. Spectacled Owl is the most regular of these, but sometimes Crested Owl and Great Potoo are around too. Besides these birds, there will be plentiful birds on our first day in the so-called ‘Bird Country’ of Costa Rica. Chestnut-headed and Montezuma Oropendolas both nest on the property, and the forest and edges are home to Collared Aracari, Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans, Red-legged, Green and Shining Honeycreepers, Black-striped and Orange-billed Sparrows, and Bay Wren. Occasionally, the rare and elusive Thicket Antpitta can also be seen, with luck.

Red-eyed Treefrog can be found on the property of our hotel beside Carara
Red-eyed Treefrog can be found on the property of our hotel beside Carara (Sam Woods)

Day 3: La Selva. Bird activity around the cabins and cafeteria can be so intense in the early morning that it is hard to make any progress down the trails, and often the day is over before you know it. Montezuma Oropendolas, White-crowned Parrots, and Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans are some of the more impressive species, but the smaller and more brightly-colored birds are also mesmerizing. Passerini’s, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, several euphonias, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-cowled Oriole, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar are all usually easy to see here. If we are lucky we might also see one of the tame Crested Guans or Great Curassows around the edge of the clearing as well. This area can also be good for finding White-collared Manakin, and Black-cheeked, Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers. Venturing farther into the reserve, we’ll walk some of the wide, flat trails, where we get into tall rainforest where we’ll search for other species like Great Tinamou, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Violaceous and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, White-ringed Flycatcher, both Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens, and the local Plain-colored Tanager. We’ll also search the open country at the edge of the forest for the rare Great Green Macaw, and also check here for Laughing Falcon, Gray Hawk, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. As well as birds we’ll be on the lookout for sloths, howler monkeys, agoutis, and peccaries too. It is also a great place to see the Strawberry Poison Frog. For those who wish to search for night birds, we can do so, with Pauraque being the most regular, but other possibilities including Spectacled Owl, Great Potoo, and Short-tailed Nighthawk.

Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatchers are found in highland cloud forests
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatchers are found in highland cloud forests (Sam Woods)

Day 4: La Selva to Savegre. We’ll have a final morning in La Selva targeting whatever we still need, before departing for Savegre in the Talamanca mountains. Much of the afternoon will be spent driving, although there should be time to check out some hummingbird feeders shortly after arrival. The hummer feeders in the area regularly attract Scintillant and Magnificent Hummingbirds, Green Violet-ear, and White-throated Mountain-gem. On this night or the following night, there will be an optional night foray to look for Dusky Nightjar or the scarce Bare-shanked Screech-Owl. We’ll spend two nights at one of the lodges in the Savegre Valley.

Collared Redstart is a handsome highland bird found around Savegre
Collared Redstart is a handsome highland bird found around Savegre (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Savegre Valley. The Savegre Valley is surrounded by magnificent oak forests, home to many species restricted to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama, (known as “Chiriquí endemics”). Mixed species flocks here can be fantastic, with many of these special birds moving together, including Collared Redstart, Black-cheeked and Flame-throated Warblers, Ochraceous Wren, Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-colored and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, and Yellow-thighed Finch. The real star of Savegre is the astounding Resplendant Quetzal, without a doubt one of the world’s most spectacular birds. There are usually several stakeouts in the valley at this time, and nowhere else do we stand a better chance of finding Costa Rica’s flagship species. Our main focus of the day will be to track down this must-see bird. Other species we are may find while birding the valley include Band-tailed Pigeon, Sulphur-winged Parakeet, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Acorn Woodpecker, Mountain Elaenia, Black-capped Flycatcher, Mountain Thrush, Black-faced Solitaire, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and Sooty-capped Chlorospingus. Some of the rare species in the area include Silvery-throated Jay, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and Ochraceous Pewee.

Female White-throated Mountain-Gems are more attractive than the males
Female White-throated Mountain-Gems are more attractive than the males (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Cerro de la Muerte to Carara. Today, after breakfast, we’ll pack up and head up to the stunted treeline forest and grassy páramo over 10,000 ft (3000 m), which will be the highest point reached on the tour. The weather can be forbidding, and only a few hardy birds, like Volcano Hummingbird, Sooty Thrush, Timberline Wren, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Volcano Junco can make a living up here. If we’re lucky we may also track down some of the scarcer residents in the area, like Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher, or Peg-billed Finch. We’ll stop at a nearby restaurant where we should see the lovely Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and a quick look down a short trail may give us the chance for a Wrenthrush or Buffy Tuftedcheek. After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll drive on to Carara, in the lowlands of the Pacific Coast, where we’ll stay for the following two nights. After checking in to the hotel in the afternoon, there may be some time for late afternoon birding, where we can look for the stunning Fiery-billed Aracari, and may get our first views of the impressive Scarlet Macaw.

Carara is home to Northern Ghost Bat
Carara is home to Northern Ghost Bat (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Carara area. Before breakfast, we’ll bird near the hotel, checking the blooming shrubs for any hummingbirds, like Rufous-tailed and Steely-vented Hummingbirds, or Blue-throated Goldentail, while other parts of the property may hold Muscovy Duck, Rose-throated Becard, Painted Bunting, or Riverside Wren. We’ll also keep an eye overhead for Costa Rican Swifts hawking insects above. After breakfast we’ll drive a few minutes to one of the forest trails within the national park. A huge list of target birds are found in the area, and we’ll be on the lookout for Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon, Riverside Wren, Orange-collared Manakin, Great Tinamou, Gray-chested Dove, White-whiskered Puffbird, Barred Anthshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky and Chestnut-backed Antbirds, Slaty-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Black-bellied and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, and Bay-headed Tanager.

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron is often found on the Tarcoles Boat Cruise
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron is often found on the Tarcoles Boat Cruise (Sam Woods)

If we are lucky, and encounter an army ant swarm, we may even find Gray-headed Tanager, Bicolored Antbird or Tawny-winged Woodcreeper in attendance. After lunch, we’ll take a relaxing afternoon boat ride on the Tarcol estuary and in the nearby mangroves, adding swathes of new birds. We’ll be on the lookout for Double-striped Thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, Roseate Spoonbill, Yellow-headed Caracara, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Boat-billed Heron, Common (“Mangrove”) Black-Hawk, Panama Flycatcher, “Mangrove” (Yellow) Warbler, and Mangrove Vireo. If we are very lucky we may even run into the rare Mangrove Hummingbird. Note: due to tides, we sometimes take the boat trip in the morning instead of the afternoon.

Fiery-billed Aracari can sometimes be found in our lodge garden near Carara
Fiery-billed Aracari can sometimes be found in our lodge garden near Carara (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Carara to San Jose/DEPARTURE. We have another morning to bird in Carara, trying different trails for any missing birds. After lunch, we will drive directly to the airport for afternoon departures (5pm or later).

Resplendent Quetzal; aptly named
Resplendent Quetzal; aptly named (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, with breakfast usually starting at around 6:30am or 7:00am; after breakfast the main morning birding will begin. Except for days that we travel between lodges, there will usually be some downtime after lunch to relax. 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 or more hours are necessary on two days.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding at the lowland sites will be on flat or slightly inclined tracks and trails (and many of the trails at La Selva are paved). On day 2, there is a more difficult trail that is moderately steep and sometimes slippery. A walking stick can help prevent falls on the mountain trails. 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 (10,500 ft/3200 m), however all accommodation is located at 7200 ft (2200 m) or lower.

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: Moderate to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity. Wi-fi is also available in all lodges, though often it only works in the public areas and not the rooms. For the La Selva section of the trip we will try to be located in the La Selva Biological Station, which is of a lower standard of accommodation to Savegre and Carara, but is situated right in the forest and so is the preferred choice. On some tours, when it is not possible to stay there, due to only limited space for tourists at this research site, we will stay in a lodge just outside the reserve and travel in each day.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds at feeders in a few places (e.g. Savegre area and Paraiso Quetzal), and on the mangrove boat tour in Carara. Although hhotography inside the forest in La Selva is much more challenging, there are often good opps around the restaurant clearing there, when shrubs are in fruit. Birders with cameras often join this tour, and people with cameras are welcome to join this tour, although the general focus is on getting a good number of birds over visiting the very best bird photography sites.

Serious bird photographers should check out our Costa Rica Photo Tour.

WHEN TO GO: We often offer a longer version of this tour in February and July, and both are great months to visit. February is the high season in Costa Rica, and it averages drier (though some rain can still be expected, especially at La Selva). The July tour is timed for when there is often a mini “dry season” in the middle of the rainy, or “green” season. This tour is timed when it is generally drier on the Caribbean side (i.e. La Selva) than when our other tours run, and wetter on the Pacific side (i.e. Carara). One of the payoffs of traveling this season is less crowded birding sites, and lower numbers of people at the lodges. This usually means we can get our first choice lodges, which is not always possible in the high season, and also be able to run the tour in its most convenient order. There is a bit of a myth that Costa Rica must be visited in January to March, as this is perceived as the “dry season”, although this is not true for the Caribbean slope, which can be very wet at this time, but is usually dry in this season. We have led a number of very successful tours in this season, and therefore due to high demand of Costa Rica tours, were keen to offer this for those who have both less time, and at a different time of year, as this may be more convenient for some people.

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 of day 7; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 8; 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 morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 8; 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 8 (for smaller groups the guide will drive and, for larger groups there will be a driver); one afternoon mangrove boat cruise on the Tarcol River for the group on day 7; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; 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 TROPICAL BIRDING 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.