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Costa Rica: Birding with a Camera® (BwC)

Tour Overview:

This unique tour of Costa Rica offers an eclectic mix of both birding sites and bird species. The very best sites for exciting species like Resplendent Quetzal, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Scarlet Macaw, Crested Owl, Three-wattled Bellbird, Turquoise Cotinga, White-crested Coquette, Snowcap, Violet Sabrewing, Spangle-cheeked and Emerald Tanagers, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Flame-throated Warbler have all been included on this tour. A delectable series of tanagers, trogons and hummingbirds are all on the agenda, and for many of these sites have been carefully selected to ensure the best photographic opportunities with these species. Throughout the tour, Costa Rica’s trademark top quality birding lodgings will feature, complete with birding on all of the grounds of all of the hotels and lodges used on this tour. If you are looking for a good birding tour, with a long list of specialties on the bird list, which also allows plenty of photography too, with many top-quality species bound to be photographed within a lengthy selection of “keeper” shots, then this is the ideal tour for you. We also expect to see other aspects of natural history too, whether it be sloth dozing in an open cecropia tree, a Strawberry Poison Dart Frog hopping across the damp rainforest leaf litter, a mob of unruly howler monkeys calling from the treetops, or a camp of tiny all-white bats huddled under a large leaf fashioned like a tent, there will be plenty besides birds to entertain us, even if they will be the primary focus.

Tour Details:

2025

8 - 22 March

$6790; Single Supplement: $750

Length: 15 Days

Starting City: San José

Ending City: San José

Pace: Moderate

Physical Difficulty: Moderate

Focus: Birding, Wildlife, Photography

Group size: 8 + 1 leader

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Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in San Jose

After arrival in San’s Jose’s international airport, you will be transferred to nearby Alajuela, where we will overnight.  If anyone arrives early enough, there will be a short afternoon walk around our hotel property (the meeting time for this would be 3pm at the hotel lobby), in order to look for Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Spot-breasted Oriole or Hoffman’s Woodpecker. The first tour meal will be dinner at 6:30pm in the hotel restaurant.

Day 2: San Ramon & San Luis Canopy to Arenal

Our first morning will involve an early departure (before dawn), as we target several key species early on, to the north of Costa Rica’s capital. First, we will visit a finca (farm), where early in the morning the striking White-eared Ground-Sparrow comes to visit. The same site may also yield Slate-throated Redstart, White-crowned Parrot, or Brown Jay. After that, we shall move on to our main site of the morning, near San Ramon. Here we will visit a viewpoint for one of Costa Rica’s most wanted birds, the spectacular Three-wattled Bellbird. This tour has been timed for when they are present (they arrive in late February typically), and this bellbird site in particular has been selected as it is considered one of the best to photograph this species, which habitually calls from the canopy. Laughing Falcon is also possible at this site. After that, our morning will continue in some style, by visiting the feeding station at nearby San Luis, Canopy where we will be hoping for visitors like Emerald Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia and Crimson-collared Tanager, while the surrounding area holds White Hawk and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush. After lunch, we will travel to Arenal for a two-night stay, where we will stay in view of the dramatic backdrop of Arenal Volcano.

 

Day 3: Arenal

This morning, we will focus on the massive grounds of Arenal Observatory Lodge. The feeders can attract species like Montezuma Oropendola, while the extensive beds of Verbena flowers host hummingbirds, sometimes including Black-crested Coquette, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Crowned Woodnymph and Green Thorntail. Great Curassows are also regular on the property, and so we will be on the hunt for them too.

 

Day 4: Bogarin Trail to Braulio Carrillo

After a final morning in the La Fortuna/Arenal area, we shall make our way east to the foothill of the Caribbean around Braulio Carrillo National Park. In the morning we will focus on the productive area around Sendero Bogarin, where the feeders can yield species like White-throated Crake, Collared Aracari, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Green Honeycreeper. The patchy forest nearby can also be extremely worthwhile, holding birds like Keel-billed Motmot, Yellow-throated Toucan, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and often too a roosting Black-and-white Owl. This is often also a good place to pick up a three-toed sloth too. In the afternoon, we will arrive at Tapirus Lodge on the edge of Braulio Carrillo National Park. We will take an aerial tram ride through the rainforest canopy, which may yield some stellar birds as well as an incredible way to experience the rainforest too. In the late afternoon, we will check the areas around our accommodation for birds like Black-and-yellow and Speckled Tanagers, the rare Bare-throated Umbrellabird (which is perhaps as regular at this site as anywhere else), and also for Baird’s Tapir, which often gets seen around the lodge in the late afternoon or early morning. A single night will be spent at Tapirus Lodge, in the heart of beautiful, lush, primary rainforest.

 

Day 5: Donde Cope to Hotel Quelitales

Early in the morning, we will check for tapirs or umbrellabirds, before we check out of Tapirus Lodge and head over to nearby Donde Cope, a private property with a wonderful set of birds available. The feeders lure in species like Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, while a small pond is often home to a pair of Russet-naped Wood-Rails. However, it is Cope’s forest trail that is likely to provide the major highlights of the morning, with chances at seeing roosting pairs of both Spectacled and Crested Owls. Sometimes too, a roosting Great Potoo is available also. The rainforest is also a good place to see and photograph Strawberry Poison Dart Frog and a camp of tiny White Tent Bats too. In the afternoon, we will drive eastwards into Cartago province and stay two nights at Hotel Quelitales, which is one of the best hummingbird sites in the country. In recent years, they have been feeding a family of Scaled Antpittas, with late afternoon often being the best time for this. If they are still coming, we will time our arrival to be on site for that.

 

Day 6: Hotel Quelitales and Ujarras

Hotel Quelitales is rightly famed as one of the most important hummingbird sites in the country. The hotel grounds boast a list of more than 30 species recorded over the years. When you consider that the entire country of Costa Rica holds just over 50 species of hummingbirds, this local list is very impressive indeed. However, not all of those 30 species are present at any one time, as many are elevational migrants, or temporary seasonal visitors. However, we will be on the lookout for regular species such as Green-fronted Lancebill, Black-bellied Hummingbird, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem among the other regulars. In the afternoon, we shall visit some drier areas around Ujarras, where Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, a Costa Rican endemic, and Cabanis’s Wren can be found. A second night will be spent at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales.

 

Day 7: El Copal to Rancho Naturalista

For this day, we will check out very early and head out to El Copal Reserve, about an hour’s drive away, en-route to our next destination, Rancho Naturalista. El Copal is home to one of the most spectacular hummingbirds in all of Costa Rica, the Snowcap. In some years it is easily found on the grounds of Rancho Naturalista, while at other times the banks of Verbena flowers at El Copal are the best place to see and photograph the marvelous bronzy males of this species. On this tour, both sites are included to give us the very best chance at this stunning but very local species that is confined to middle elevations of the mountains of Costa Rica and far western Panama. The forest trails in El Copal are harder work, but hold some great avian prizes, like Broad-billed Motmot, Collared and Gartered Trogons, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, White-ruffed Manakin, Speckled, Emerald, Black-and-yellow, and Blue-and-gold Tanagers, and five species of euphonia. If a swarm of army ants is encountered, there is also the chance of Bicolored, Spotted or even Ocellated Antbirds too. After a full morning in this area, we will head out towards Rancho Naturalista in the afternoon, where will spend two nights at one of the most highly rated bird lodges in all of Central America.

 

Day 8: Rancho Naturalista, Rio Tuis and Laguna Angostura

During the morning, we will explore the grounds right around Rancho Naturalista, where feeders hold species like Gray-headed Chachalaca, Red-billed Pigeon, and Red-throated Ant-Tanager. Sometimes mammals come in to the garden during the early hours, like agoutis, coatis or sometimes too a predatory Tayra. We will also be on the lookout for the well-named Lovely Cotinga, if this rare species should be present at the time, as well as Lesson’s Motmot, White-collared Manakin, Golden-olive Woodpecker, and the very local Tawny-chested Flycatcher. After one of the delicious home-style lunches at the lodge, we will venture out from the lodge in the afternoon, surveying the Tuis River for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and visiting a wetland, where a variety of shorebirds and waterbirds are often present, including Ringed and Green Kingfishers, and Little Blue Heron.

 

Day 9: Rancho to “Quetzal Country”

After some final time around Rancho, chasing whatever we are still missing, we will head  south into the highlands of Costa Rica, and the famed Savegre Valley. The valley is cloaked in Oak-dominated cloud forest, which is home to one of the most revered birds in Costa Rica, the Resplendent Quetzal, which will look for the following day. We will arrive in time to see our first cloud forest birds, which could include Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, Sooty-capped Chloropspingus, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Acorn Woodpecker. The next three nights will be spent in a cloud forest lodge in Savegre or in Cerro de la Muerte (depending on which hotels are available). All of the choices of hotels have wonderful grounds with highland birds right on the doorstep.

 

Day 10: Quetzal Tour & Cerro de la Muerte

In the early morning we will make a special tour to go and see a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unlike on a traditional “birding” tour, on this “Birding with a Camera” tour, we will arrange a premium private Quetzal tour with a local quetzal expert, who will prioritize going to whichever site is the best at that specific time for the quetzal. This could be either an active nest site, or a fruiting avocado tree that they are frequenting. Ultimately, the best of the sites will be selected based on getting photos of this must-see bird. The remainder of the day will be spent in and around Cerro de la Muerte, with significant time and lunch spent at Paraiso Quetzal Lodge, which is an excellent bird hotspot, and also superb for getting photos at some of the target species in the area. Among them, we will be seeking Black-and-yellow and Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush. However, it may well be the hummingbirds that leave the biggest mark, as we will aim to photograph Fiery-throated, Talamanca and Volcano Hummingbirds, and Lesser Violetear.

 

Day 11: Casa Tangara Dowii and Savegre area

In the morning, we shall visit a small private reserve below on the Pacific side of the mountains Cerro de la Muerte, which therefore has some birds we will not have seen higher up. Our early departure will be to ensure we are on site for the early feeding time Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, a rare and very difficult to see species for which Casa Dowii is rightly famous as the best site in the World. Other visitors to the feeders could include Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Mountain Thrush, Chestnut-capped Brushfinch and the bird for which the property is named, Spangle-cheeked Tanager (the scientific name is Tangara dowii). The site is also good for Streak-breasted Treehunter and male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem can often be located on the verbena flowers that flank the short driveway. While there we will take a breakfast made by the quirky local landowner, who can also let us know of some of the myriad conservation projects he is involved in within the area. This breakfast is often a trip highlight! In the afternoon, we shall travel down into the Savegre Valley, checking out come feeders for birds like White-throated Mountain-Gem, Scintillant Hummingbird and Silver-throated Tanager. A nearby riverside trail also hosts Ruddy Treerunner, Ruddy-capped Treerunner, Torrent Tyrannulet, Black-faced Solitaire, Yellow-winged Vireo and Flame-throated Warbler.

 

Day 12: Cerro Buenavista to Talari Mountain Lodge

In the morning, we shall focus on whatever we are still missing in the cloud forests of the Savegre Valley or the Cerro de la Muerte area. By late morning, we will drive up to the highest point of the tour (3300m/10,900ft), Cerro Buenavista, for the highest living species in the country, Volcano Junco, which is restricted to a few peaks in the Talamanca Mountain range of Costa Rica extreme western Panama. After that, we shall drive on down, swiftly shedding clothing as we arrive in the foothills of the Pacific side of the mountains, stopping in the Canton of Perez Zeledon to pick up a bright blue male Turquoise Cotinga before we check into Talari Mountain Lodge for a single night stay.

 

Day 13: Chirripo Valley and Los Cusingos to Carara

In the morning, we will travel up into the hills within the Chirripo Valley, where a new site has come to the fore in recent years. This spectacular site, set within the steep foothills of the Talamanca Mountains looking down on the Cihirripo Pacifico River, is home to a diverse set of hummingbird, which we will be after, including Garden and White-tailed Emeralds, and Snowy-bellied Hummingbird. However, it is the male White-crested Coquette, which would be the grandest prize there, and we will scour the banks of Verbenas for any sign of this outrageously adorned hummingbird. Brown Violetear is also possible there too. After an hour or so focused on hummingbirds, we will descend the hill and visit a lower elevation site, Los Cusingos, the former home of famed ornithologist, Alexander Skutch. We will visit a forest trail in the hope of manakins, with Velvety and Red-capped Manakins both possible there, as is Baird’s Trogon. After lunch nearby, we shall travel north along the coast flanking the Pacific Ocean, to a hotel near Carara National Park for a single night stay.

 

Day 14: Tarcoles Boat Cruise and Orotina to Alajuela

In the morning, we will take a relaxed morning boat cruise along the Tarcoles River and into a mangrove lined creek in search of a long list of birds, including (but not limited to), Boat-billed Heron, Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Double-striped Thick-Knee, Southern Lapwing, Roseate Spoonbill, Prothonotary Warbler, “Mangrove” Yellow Warbler and Lineated Woodpecker. We sometimes also find Mangrove Vireo or Panama Flycatcher too. One of the undoubted highlights will be seeing the flights of Scarlet Macaws leaving their mangrove-based roosts to fly into the neighboring forested hills for the day. There should be a few hours to explore nearby Carara National Park in the late morning after our three hour boat ride, and we might pick up an Orange-collared Manakin, if the lek is active during our visit. We shall return to our hotel for lunch and to check out. After lunch, we will visit some dry country near the town of Orotina for a few hours, where we blitz the local birds, many of which are often easy to find. We will be on the lookout for Turquoise-browed Motmot, Pacific Screech-Owl, Black-headed Trogon and Stripe-headed Sparrow. If we are lucky, we might also see a Lesser Ground-Cuckoo too. In the evening, we will arrive back at the same Alajuela hotel (near San Jose airport), where we spent the first night of the tour.

 

Day 15: Cinchona and Departure from San Jose

We will visit one more fantastic site for the tour, a small restaurant in Cinchona, north of Alajuela, where we will spend about three hours in the morning. This is a very relaxing final morning, before late afternoon/evening departures, when we will be birding right from the balcony of the restaurant and take breakfast there on arrival too. The main birds we will be seeking are Prong-billed Barbet, Northern Emerald-Toucanet, and a host of hummingbirds, including Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Hermit, and Green-crowned Brilliant. We will return to our hotel at lunch time to take lunch and have a late check out in the early afternoon in time to connect with late afternoon or evening flights out (flights should depart no earlier than 5pm). If you would rather spend an extra night at this hotel before flying out the next day, please let us know and we can book that for you.

Trip Considerations

PACE: Moderate. The days on this tour typically start with optional, pre-breakfast, birding at 6am, followed by a later breakfast at around 6:30-7am. Early breakfasts are not typically provided in Costa Rica. On around 6 days, an earlier start may be needed to arrive at a birding site at an early time, the timing of which is important in order to find certain, key, bird species (e.g. Bellbird, Quetzal, wood-partridges etc.). On these days a departure time of 5:00-5:30am will be required, with breakfast taken later. On only one of these days will a packed breakfast be required. All of the lunches on this tour are sit down lunches in either the lodges/hotels, or local restaurants/cafes. Sometimes these are buffets, and sometimes these are a la carte. In some places (e.g. Talari), they are a fixed menu, although all dietary restrictions are catered for. Drives of more than three hours are necessary on three days of the tour.

 

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Some of the birding will be on slightly inclined tracks and trails (e.g. For a limited time only at El Copal, Rancho Naturalista, and Los Cusgingos). Trail walking is expected to be taken for some time (but not the entire day) on around seven 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 (3300m/10,900ft), with the highest of the lodges being for three nights in Quetzal Country where we will stay at one of two lodges in the area, at an elevation of either 7220ft/2200m or 8700ft/2650m (the lodge used will depend on the often-limited availability in this very popular area); 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).This tour is timed for the Costa Rican dry season. However, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica (e.g. El Copal, Rancho Naturalista), does not have a distinct dry season, being wet, year-round. Therefore, some rain is expected, especially in these areas or the highlands (Quetzal Country), which are also prone to sudden influxes of wet weather.

ACCOMMODATION: 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. The simplest accommodation is Talari Mountain Lodge for one night, which is a great location for birds. All of the other accommodations are very good to excellent.

 

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 many areas that have feeders (like San Luis Canopy, Arenal Observatory Lodge, Bogarin Trail, Donde Cope, Hotel Quelitales, Rancho Naturalista, Paraiso Quetzal Lodge, Feathers Garden in Savegre, Casa Tangara Dowii, Talari Mountain Lodge, and Cinchona), 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 mirrorless SLR camera helps in darker situations for being able to shoot at higher ISOs and at very low shutter speeds, 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. Tripods are generally not used on this 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 of day 14; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 15; 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 afternoon of day 1 to early afternoon on day 15; 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, or other guests from the same hotel); if the San José hotel has a free airport shuttle, you will be expected to use this and private transfers will not be provided). Ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 15 (for smaller groups the guide will drive and, for larger groups there will be an experienced, local 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.

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