Costa Rica: From Border to Border - Birding Tour

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Tour Overview:

This tour is lengthier than our popular Costa Rica Introtour, designed for those with more time on their hands to explore this unique birding country with a plethora of sites to explore. Our Introtour visits the priority, must see, sites in the country like La Selva, Carara, Monteverde and Savegre; and this tour also covers those sites to ensure you have the very best chance at some of Costa Rica’s most highly desired birds like the Resplendent Quetzal, Scarlet Macaw, Great Curassow, Baird’s Trogon, Orange-collared Manakin and Golden-browed Chlorophonia to name but a few; BUT this tour also add sites in the southeast and north for a whole host of extra specialties simply not possible or extremely unlikely on that sister tour. The far north shall offer the extremely local Nicaraguan Grackle and Yellow-winged Tanager, along with two scarce motmots, Tody and Keel-billed; and our very best shots at Sungrebe, Black-collared Hawk and Striped Owl. In the eastern sites unique to this TB Costa Rica tour, such exciting species as the electric blue Turquoise Cotinga, the ghostly Yellow-billed Cotinga; the local endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. A handful of additional spectacular hummingbirds also come into range by venturing into the east, such as Charming Hummingbird, Garden Emerald, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and the spectacular White-crested Coquette. This part of the country is arguably also one of the best places to look for another country endemic, the hard-to-find Mangrove Hummingbird. The timing of this tour also differs from the Introtour. While that one is always set in the heart of the dry season; the slightly later timing of this tour is planned specifically to take advantage of the peak time for calling Three-wattled Bellbirds (usually absent during the Introtour); and also offers us the chance to see the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, with a visit to the only accessible breeding site in the country.

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Other Tour Details:

Length: 19 Days
Starting City: San José
Ending City: San José
Pace: Moderate
Physical Difficulty: Moderate
Focus: Birding, Wildlife

Detailed Itinerary

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Day 1: San Jose

After arrival in Costa Rica’s capital, you will be transferred to a nearby hotel for the night. For those arriving early enough, there will be time for some easy afternoon birding near the hotel.

Day 2: Carara National Park and the Tarcoles River

We’ll drive west out of San José for a little more than an hour towards the Pacific Coast (depending on current stakeouts, we may first look for Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow at dawn before going to Carara). After arriving in Carara National Park, we’ll spend the rest of the morning on one of the forest trails, which arguably offer some of the best birding in the entire country. A host of lowland birds await, many of which are easier to see here than anywhere else. Among the birds we’ll be searching for include Baird’s Trogon, White-whiskered Puffbird, Barred and Black-hooded Antshrikes, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Northern Bentbill, Slaty-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Royal Flycatcher, Orange-collared Manakin, and Riverside and Black-bellied Wrens. After lunch we’ll walk into a section of mangroves, where we’ll be looking for specialties like Panama Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler, and Northern Scrub-Flycatcher. After a short time there, we’ll board a private boat for a tour of the Tarcol River estuary. On this trip we’ll be on the lookout for Common Black-Hawk, Yellow-headed Caracara, Southern Lapwing, Collared Plover, Double-striped Thick-Knee, Boat-billed Heron, Mangrove Swallow, and American Pygmy-Kingfisher, among many others.


Day 3: Carara National Park to Esquinas Rainforest Lodge

The morning will be spent inside the park at Carara, on different trails to those used the day before, targeting whatever we are still missing, before driving south about 3.5 hours to Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, our base for the next two nights. As we approach Esquinas Lodge in the afternoon, we have a good chance of picking up birds along the entrance road like Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Blue-headed Parrot, Brown-throated Parakeet, or Cherrie’s Tanager to name just a few of the many possibilities.


Day 4: Esquinas Rainforest Lodge and Rincón

Esquinas is most famous as one of the readily accessible sites for the Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, one of the few country endemics in Costa Rica, which is confined to the southeast of the country. While this will be our main target, plenty of other birds occur at this lowland, Pacific slope site. Many of these, like Orange-collared Manakin, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, Baird’s Trogon, Costa Rican Swift, and Black-hooded Antshrike, are also shared with Carara, and so gives us further chances at these key species, should we have missed them at Carara. Other possibilities at Esquinas include King Vulture, Laughing Falcon, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Uniform Crake, Blue Ground-Dove, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Suphur-rumped Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Rufous Piha, Buff-rumped Warbler, Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, Scaly-breasted Wren, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Gray-headed Tanager, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, and Red-breasted Blackbird. We’ll spend a full morning birding the trails and clearings around the lodge, and after lunch we’ll drive about an hour to an area of mangroves near Rincón, where we’ll look for the rare Mangrove Hummingbird and search the treetops for ghostly white Yellow-billed Cotingas. We may also catch up with the endemic Golden-naped Woodpecker in the area as well.


Day 5: Esquinas/Rincon to Talari

Our morning plan will remain flexible, and we may return to the Rincón mangroves, remain at Esquinas, or if time permits, head towards the Panamanian border to target the extremely local Chiriqui Yellowthroat. In the afternoon, we’ll drive north to Talari Mountain Lodge for the night, just outside the town of San Isidro de el General. We should arrive at Talari in time to look for some of its specialty birds, and with luck we could locate the stunning Turquoise Cotinga and White-crested Coquette.


Day 6: Talari and Los Cusingos to Savegre

Much of the day will be spent in and around Talari. Not only will we bird the lodge grounds of Talari, but will also visit the nearby Los Cusingos reserve, which can often yield some very different species. Talari Mountain Lodge is a middle elevation (800m/2625ft) Pacific Slope site, and our focus here will largely be on the flowering shrubs for hummingbirds, and the treetops for the scarce Turquoise Cotinga; Talari is one of the better sites for this beauty, but we’ll still need luck to find one. The shrubs will be checked for Garden Emerald, Long-billed Starthroat, and Snowy-bellied and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds. If we are very lucky, we may also find the rare Costa Rican Brush-Finch, which is very local but occurs in this area. Later in the morning we’ll stop at Los Cusingos, a reserve located at the site of the home of the late Alexander Skutch, arguably Costa Rica’s most famous ornithologist. We’ll pay particular attention to the flowering verbena flowers, which sometimes attracts the spectacular White-crested Coquette. We’ll bird the clearings and trails here for Great Tinamou, Red-capped Manakin, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Red-headed Barbet, Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, and others. If we run into an army ant swarm we may also encounter Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, Bicolored Antbird or Gray-headed Tanager among others. Open country on the edge of San Isidro can be good for Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and if we are lucky, Pearl Kite. In the afternoon, we’ll drive about 2 hours up into the high mountains to the Savegre Valley (2200m/7220ft), where we’ll spend two nights. En route, we’ll stop at Cerro de la Muerte (“the mountain of death”) to look for Volcano Junco, Timberline Wren, Zeledonia, and perhaps even the erratic Peg-billed Finch.


Day 7: Savegre Valley

Although undoubtedly our main target for our stay in Savegre will be the Resplendent Quetzal, the grounds of the hotel shall offer a range of new species at dawn, which could include Sooty-capped Chlorospingus, Collared Redstart, Ruddy-capped and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Flame-colored Tanager. The hummingbird feeders also regularly attract Scintillant Hummingbird, Green Violet-ear, and White-throated Mountain-Gem. We’ll also keep a close eye on the skies above as Sulphur-winged Parakeets regularly pass over the lodge. Later in the morning, we’ll take a short drive to the latest stakeout for Resplendent Quetzal in the valley; there are usually several of these that are well known to locals at the time. While on the quetzal search, we also have the chance to pick up many other new species, which could include Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Black-cheeked and Flame-throated Warblers, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Yellowish Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Black-faced Solitaire, Mountain and Sooty Thrushes, and Slaty Flowerpiercer. In the evening we’ll check a spot for Dusky Nightjar and Bare-shanked Screech-Owl.


Day 8: Savegre to La Selva

We’ve got a lot to cover today! We’ll start by targeting some of the harder species of the Savegre area, including Silvery-throated Jay, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and Ochraceous Pewee, before we drive several hours back through San José to the Caribbean slope. We’ll have a packed lunch at Braulio Carrillo National Park, where we’ll have our first chance at some Caribbean foothill specialties like Streak-crowned Antvireo, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Tawny-capped Euphonia, and a whole host of tanagers, including White-throated Shrike-Tanager, and Carmiol’s, Emerald, Black-and-yellow, Blue-and-gold, Dusky-faced, and Tawny-crested Tanagers. Other species that can be found here include Lattice-tailed Trogon, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Dull-mantled Antbird, Black-crowned Antpittaa, and White-ruffed Manakin.

After a few hours at Braulio, we’ll move on down the road towards La Selva, but stopping along the way to explore the El Tapir Hummingbird Garden. This small private reserve will offer a first hit of hummingbirds, as the banks of verbena (Porterweed) shrubs draw them like a magnet. The most common species are likely to be Crowned Woodnymph and Violet-headed Hummingbird; although we will be on the lookout for some of the scarcer species like Black-crested Coquette, Snowcap, Green Thorntail, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer. We’ll then continue north to the La Selva Biological Station, a famous birding hotspot as well as a site for many pioneering studies in tropical ecology. In the late afternoon we’ll have time to bird the main clearing to pick up our first La Selva birds like Passerini’s and Golden-hooded Tanagers, and perhaps a Great Curassow or Crested Guan too. We will spend two nights here within the reserve. 


Day 9: La Selva

Staying inside La Selva allows us to be onsite early and have free access to the trails. We’ll hit the main clearing first, which can be absolutely packed with birds any time of day but is especially good early in the morning. We’ll especially keep an eye out for key species like Snowy Cotinga, the endangered Great Green Macaw among the many other more common species like Keel-billed and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracari, Gartered Trogon, White-necked Puffbird, Chestnut-colored and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, White-ringed Flycatcher, White-collared Manakin, Plain-colored, Golden-hooded, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Black-cowled Oriole, and both Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas. A handful of parrots are found in the area too, and the clearing often offer the best chance to see birds like Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets, and White-crowned, Red-lored, and Mealy Parrots. Later on, the forest trails will also be scoured for shy, interior forest species like Great and Slaty-breasted Tinamous, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Slaty-tailed and Black-throated Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Fasciated and Black-crowned Antshrikes, Rufous Mourner, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and Bay, Black-throated, and Stripe-breasted Wrens. A nearby open grassland site will also be checked for the rare Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, along with Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, the “Canebreak” Wren form of Plain Wren and Thick-billed Seed-Finch. Mammals are also well represented at La Selva with chances to see sloths, monkeys, agoutis, and peccaries there. At night, if it is not raining, there will also be the option to go out nightbirding, with species like Common Pauraque, Short-tailed Nighthawk, Great Potoo, Spectacled Owl, and Vermiculated Screech-owl all occurring in the area.


Day 10: La Selva to Arenal

After a final morning at La Selva, we’ll depart late morning with a packed lunch. We’ll stop off at the small private reserve of Cataratas del Toro where feeders regularly attract Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Green Hermit, and sometimes also White-bellied Mountain-Gem and Black-bellied Hummingbird. The grain and fruit feeders alongside regularly bring in Brown Jays and Melodious Blackbirds, while scarcer visitor include the regional endemic Sooty-faced Finch and Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. We’ll then continue on to the Arenal Volcano for the night, where we spend one night in a great lodge with feeders. We should arrive in time to do some late afternoon birding. We’ll check some Verbena flowers for Black-crested Coquette along with other more common hummers and the fruit feeders can attract numerous species like Montezuma Oropendola, Crimson-collared Tanager, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Brown Jay, and Hepatic, Emerald, and Golden-hooded Tanagers.


Day 11: Arenal to Caño Negro

We’ll spend the morning birding the lush forests around Arenal, targeting a number of neat species like Streak-crowned Antvireo, Spotted Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, Carmiol’s Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Blue-and-gold Tanager, Lovely Cotinga, and more. After lunch we’ll descend from the mountains into the steamy, humid lowlands of Caño Negro, close to the border with Nicaragua, about a three-hour drive. En-route we’ll check fields for any sign of the local Nicaraguan Seed-Finch. As we move into the lowlands, we’ll also target the extremely local Spot-breasted Wren before the end of the afternoon. At night we’ll go looking for Striped Owl; this area is their stronghold within Costa Rica.


Day 12: Caño Negro to Celeste Mountain Lodge

The morning will provide some of the most relaxed birding of the tour, as we take a boat ride within the marshes and wetlands of Caño Negro refuge, and explore the surrounding wooded countryside. Chief among our targets will be the local Nicaraguan Grackle, and the giant Jabiru, which often nests in the area in small numbers. In addition to these birds our morning birding will see us on the lookout for Sungrebe, American Pygmy, Amazon, and Green Kingfishers, Black-collared and Zone-tailed Hawks, Green Ibis, Boat-billed Heron, Pinnated Bittern, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Limpkin, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Olivaceous Piculet, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Grayish Saltator, and Black-striped Sparrow.After a full morning, and lunch in the Caño Negro area, we’ll move southwest to Celeste Mountain Lodge on the slopes of the Tenorio Volcano, and set within beautiful middle elevation (800m/2625ft) Caribbean slope forest. Two nights will be spent at this excellent lodge.


Day 13: Celeste Mountain Lodge

We’ll have the entire day to explore this rich birding area, which holds several specialties unlikely/impossible elsewhere on this tour. Working the forest trails our two main targets will be motmots, as both Tody and Keel-billed Motmots occur here and this is arguably the best area of the country for them; Rufous and Broad-billed occur here too. By working the trails early and late, when the light in the forest is not at its brightest, is the best time to hope to find a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove walking quietly along the trail. Other key species that occur in this area include Yellow-eared Toucanet, Spotted and Dull-mantled Antbirds, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Nightingale and Song Wrens, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Northern Schiffornis, and Carmiol’s Tanager.

Day 14: Celeste Mountain Lodge to Monteverde

After a final morning chasing whatever specialties we are still missing around Celeste, we’ll head southwest to Monteverde; we’ll probably arrive in time for a short period of late afternoon birding around the grounds of the lodge, which could produce Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Emerald Toucanet, Rufous-capped Warbler, Rufous-and-white Wren, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and if we are lucky, Black-breasted Wood-Quail.

Day 15: Monteverde to San Gerardo

Monteverde is world famous as one of the finest areas of cloudforest anywhere, and we’ll soon learn this after a morning in the reserve. We’ll spend the morning working the reserve parking lot, some of their forest trails, and checking the hummingbird feeders on site. Some of our targets will include Prong-billed Barbet, the country endemic Coppery-headed Emerald, Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Orange-bellied Trogon, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Mountain Elaenia, Black-faced Solitaire, Three-striped Warbler, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia. In the afternoon, we’ll head directly for San Gerardo Station, which will involve an easy, three kilometer, two-three hour hike. We’ll be birding our way down as we descend in altitude by 400m/1310ft, as we move our way along a forested track to get there, which can produce birds like Black-thighed Grosbeak and even Resplendent Quetzal. After arriving at the station, we shall go directly to the lek site of the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, which, while easier at dawn, sometimes turns up in the afternoon. A single night will be spent at the rustic San Gerardo Station. If anyone prefers to skip the night in San Gerardo, you may choose to stay in Monteverde and relax or bird on your own.

Day 16: San Gerardo to Monteverde

The morning will be spent in and around the foothill forests of San Gerardo. Our main target of the morning will be the rare and difficult Bare-necked Umbrellabird, although plenty of other specialties occur in the area too, not least the Three-wattled Bellbird, which we shall also search for on this morning. Other possibilities include Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Ocellated Antbird, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, Black-and-white Becard, and further chances at Black-and-yellow and Blue-and-gold Tanagers and Tawny-capped Euphonia. After lunch, we’ll hike back out to where we’ll connect once again with our driver and head back to our hotel in Monteverde. There may be time for some easy birding in the afternoon.


Day 17: Monteverde to Hacienda Solimar

We’ll have another morning at Monteverde. The exact plan will depend totally on what we are still looking, but will likely involve visiting one or more of the private reserves in the Monteverde area, or even leaving early to get a head start on the dry forest species. After heading down out of the mountains, we’ll reach Hacienda Solimar. This ranch boasts extensive grounds for both masses of waterbirds, as well as wooded sections for a host of dry country songbird species too. While driving around the vast grounds of Solimar, we hope to see Bare-throated Tiger-Herons, Jabirus, Snail Kites, Crane Hawks, Least Bitterns, and Double-striped Thick-knees. At dusk we are likely to see Lesser Nighthawks on the wing, while after dark we can go on the hunt for Spectacled Owl and Pacific Screech-Owl.


Day 18: Hacienda Solimar to San José

The majority of the day will be spent in the Pacific lowlands in and around Hacienda Solimar. As it becomes very hot by even the middle of the morning, we will take advantage of the cool early morning hours birding, taking boxed breakfast in the field. Checking the grasslands and tracks early in the morning may produce the scarce Crested Bobwhite, while the woods and scrubby areas will be checked for Black-headed Trogon, Plain-capped Starthroat, Cinnamon Hummingbird, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, Rose-throated Becard, Spot-breasted and Streak-backed Orioles, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. In the afternoon, we’ll drive back to San José, where, depending on current stakeouts, we may be able to search for Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow if we still need it.


Day 19: Morning departures from San José

The tour ends this morning with transfers to the international airport.

Trip Considerations

PACE: Moderate to intense. This tour with try to see as many birds as possible, with special focus on the regional and country endemics. Some days will be quite full, and there are more one-night stays than on most of our other tours. In the places where we spend two nights, there will usually be some downtime after lunch. 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 several nightbirding outings, but most are optional if you prefer to relax in the lodge instead. This tour covers a lot of ground, and there will be drives of 3.5 hours or more on at least four days of the trip.


PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy to moderate, but with a few more difficult walks. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average. At least five days of the trip will involve some more difficult trails with some steep and occasionally slippery sections (a walking stick can help). 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: Except for one night in a basic field station, it is very good to excellent, with private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, 24h electricity, and Wifi (sometimes only available in certain areas). At the field station, there are six rooms, each with two sets of bunk beds. Some of the rooms have private bathrooms, while other rooms have shared bathrooms. There is cold running water, and electricity is supplied by solar panels. Single rooms are unlikely to be available here, and it is possible we may have to sleep more than 2 people in a room.


PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds at feeders in a few places, and on the mangrove boat tour. Photography inside the forest is much more challenging. Serious bird photographers should check out our Costa Rica Photo Tour.

Other Information

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 18; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 19 (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 morning of day 2 to the evening of day 18; 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 18 (for smaller groups the guide will drive, and for larger groups there will be a driver); one mangrove boat tour on the Tarcol River for the group; 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 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.


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