December 2, 2022

Costa Rica Birdwatching

Nov 2022

Costa Rica has around 857 species of birds in its 51,000 square km of land.  Costa Rica is ranked 24th in the number of bird species hosted.  Colombia ranks 1st (with 1,878 species).  India ranks 9th with 1,211 species.

Then, what makes Costa Rica the preferred place for birdwatching?  Two reasons:

1.  Costa Rica supports a wide variety of habitats (highlands, cloud forests, rain forests, river valleys etc) within very short distances.  You can drive from a cloud forest to a rain forest within 2 hours (unless your route involves the dense traffic of San Jose).  

2.  Costa Rica is a “stop over” point for birds migrating between North and South America.  The number of transiting species is quite high.

In other words, you get more bang for the buck in Costa Rica than in any other place.

In our ten days tour we were able to see, in natural ambience at distances reachable by a 500 mm lens, more than 60 species of birds; some of them spectacularly colorful.

Costa Ricans think their most beautiful birds are, in strict ranking:
1.  Resplendent Quetzals
2.  Toucans
3.  Scarlet Macaws
4.  Hummingbirds
5.  Motmots

Naturally our best efforts were to see Resplendent Quetzals.  They are quite colorful and the males sport a 1 meter long tail feather to impress females (two feathers during mating season).  Coming across Quetzals is rare.  However, Costa Rica’s Forest protection efforts has seen their population increase to 50,000 in highlands region.  

We went to an observation spot in Talamanca Highlands and perched ourselves in a small terrace.  After an hour’s wait, we got lucky to see what the Aztecs called “God of the Air”.

[Male Resplendent Quetzal with its long streamer feather waving in air]

[Two males fought for the perch.  The victor was settling down after evicting the rival]

We saw the three most popular Toucans in Costa Rica from an observation deck in Laguna Lagarto.  Toucans are birds with black bodies and very large colorful beaks.  The beaks constitute about a third of the bird’s length but weigh far less than the body.  Fun fact:  They use their beaks to toss food as part of their mating ritual.  

[Colorful Keel billed Toucan, earlier known as Rainbow billed Toucan]

[Yellow throated Toucan, earlier known as Chestnut mandibled Toucan]

[Collared Aracari, a Toucan]

One early morning in Sarapiqui’s Selva Varde Hotel we had a very rare visitor: a Motmot.  We were told that this is a rare find.  Our photography maestro, Sudhir Shivaram, gave us the settings to capture the colorful image at the relatively dark hours at the crack of dawn.

Motmots are called so because of their two hoot calls (“coot coot’).


A friend, Dr Sudhir Hasamnis, who had been to Costa Rica earlier told us to look out for the Summer Tanager, which, in his view, is the most beautiful bird, period.  We did.  We saw this visitor from North America trying to acquire market share over fruits/seeds when endemic residents relaxed a bit.

[Summer Tanager, visitor from North America]

We could not see a Scarlet Macaw in the wild.  However, we were able to spot a Green Macaw right at the top of a tall tree.  And could catch a glimpse as it flew away.  Not exactly an easy target for photography with a fast moving subject against the sky as background.  However, we managed to do the best we could.  

Macaws fall in love; and mate for life.  Macaws live long; however parrots are the only birds that live longer than human beings, say around 100 years.  (Longest living animal?  Some Deep sea sponges have lived fore more than 11,000 years! 

[Green Macaw, flying away from atop a tall tree]

We were in a boat ride in Cano Negro.  Our boatman asked us to get ready for an awesome view.  What did we see?  A “bowl” of colorful Roseate Spoonbills.  Within minutes they started flying around the lake and wetland, heads and legs fully stretched.

[Roseate Spoonbills, in Cano Negro]

[Roseate Spoonbill, in flight]

The excitement sent several Black bellied Whistling Ducks flying.  Their noisy flight as a group reminded me of school children on excursion.

[Black bellied Whistling Ducks in flight over river in Canyo Negro]

Ever seen a sloth?  Upside down most of the time, clinging firmly with curved claws to something above, slow in movement and everything else (take 30 days to digest one leaf) with a seriousness befitting a senior investment banker.  This one was different.  He was cheerful at the sight of something to eat.  And, what an expression of excitement and happiness!  Head up too!

[Sloth eyeing at food in Sarapiqui]

We saw an Yellow Eyelash Viper too.  Our guides cautioned us to not get too close.  The venom could kill it seems.  We did not.  Our lens did.

[Yellow Eyelash Viper in Sarapiqui]

One early morning in Laguna Lagarto, a big bird perched on a feeder station and drove away all other contestants for access to food with one stern look.  He was quite relaxed and not afraid of quick dislodgment by someone with more muscle mass.  The all black Great Curassow was a sight to watch.

[Great Curassow, at Laguna Lagarto]

In the meanwhile, a smaller bird was waiting with patience until big brother vacates the space.

[Black Cowled Oriole in Laguna Lagarto]

Our ever helpful guide with expertise in birds, Magdalene (Magda if you know her well, and Max if you know her really well) told us that the Northern Jacana, a shore bird, can walk on water.  His long legs and big claws spread his tender weight over a larger area.  The Jacana can walk over vegetation in water giving you the impression that it can walk/run on water.

[Northern Jacana, walks/runs on water!]

The region has two Kingfishers:  Amazon Kingfisher, and Ringed Kingfisher.  This one is an Amazon Kingfisher.  Kingfishers dive at high speed into water to catch fish.  They need to do this 100 times a day during breeding season.  Their eyes are specially designed to get 3D perspective and estimate distance accurately under water.

[Amazon Kingfisher in Cano Negro]

The Anhinga has a turkey like body and a snake like neck.  No wonder the Tupis of Brazil call this waterbird as “Snake bird” or “Water turkey”.  The birds have large wings that let them fly, webbed feet that help them swim, but their feathers are not waterproof; so they swim at a relatively slower speed.  Unlike other birds they focus on slow swimming fish.

[Anhinga, turkey like body and snake like neck]

Late evening one day, Sudhir Shivaram challenged us to capture rim lit shots of birds in flight.  I had luck with this one.

[Back lit photograph of a bird in flight]

The Red legged Honeycreeper is a beautiful bird.  Adults sport a bright blue hue.  Juveniles sport a lot more green.  

[Red legged Honeycreeper]

[Red legged Honeycreeper in flight displaying yellow feathers under the wings]

[Green Honeycreeper]

Ever tried capturing a photograph of a hummingbird?  They are hyperactive, very quick, and very restless.  When you do, they are a sight to behold.  Fun fact about Hummingbirds:  They can fly backwards; the only ones that can do so.

[Hummingbird in Paraiso, Talamanca Highlands]

[Hummingbird in flight in Sarapiqui]

Tanagers are the most populous of birds accounting for 4% of all birds and 12% of all tropical birds.  Tanagers have brightly colored plumage.  Flame colored Tanagers are rare.  Scarlet rumped Tanagers are the hardest to find.

[Scarlet rumped Tanager, Laguna Lagarto]

[Flame colored Tanager, Talamanca highlands]

[Silver throated Tanagers, having an argument.  Talamanca highlands]

Another rare sight is a Red headed Barbet.  Short, stout, colorful, and cute.

[Red headed Barbet at Cinchona Falls]

Rufous collared Sparrows are quite small.  Smaller than the house sparrow.  They rarely fly; and prefer walking to flying.  When they fly, they fly clumsily and for short distances only.

[Rufous Collared Sparrow in Talamanca highlands]

The Great Kiskadee is so named because of its three syllabled call.  Great Kiskadee is a flycatcher songbird.  It often “steals” food from the bowls of cats, dogs, and from the hands of unsuspecting human beings.

[Great Kiskadee at Sarapiqui]

We suspected something interesting when a waiter at Laguna Lagarto deck summoned us.  He pointed to a very tall tree and said something in Spanish.  Against the backdrop of a harsh Sun I could not see anything.  Until our guide Supreet walked in and said “Grey lined Hawk”.  Supreet asked me to change my position to acquire a green background, and I got this shot.

The Grey lined Hawk would not have had trouble seeing me.  It can see much farther than human beings and its visual acuity (ability to see clearly) is eight times that of human beings. Do you know ornithologists measure IQ of birds?  The Grey lined Hawk is considered one of the most intelligent birds in the world.  Among raptors, hawks have far more intelligence and agility than owls but owls have far more strength than hawks.  (An owl can pierce human skull).

[Grey lined Hawk at Laguna Lagarto]

Baltimore Orioles have an interesting story on how they came to be called so.  Lord Cecil Calvert Baltimore, the Patron of Maryland colony, had a coat of arms that sported yellow and black.  The orioles actually sport an orange and black color.  But that did not prevent ornithologists from calling the birds Baltimore Orioles.  Oriole derived from Auroleus, Latin for Golden.  Baltimore Orioles visit Costa Rica during North American winter and return home for Summer; in both instances to the same spot.  Baltimore Orioles are considered very intelligent and highly trainable. 

[Baltimore Oriole, on the right, at Laguna Lagarto]

Red winged black birds are aplenty.  Estimates suggest North America alone could have more than 5 million of these polygamous songbirds.  

[Red winged Black bird in Talamanca highlands]

The Mountain thrush may not be colorful.  However, its calls are quite melodious.  Costa Rica has exceptionally colorful birds (such as Quetzal and Toucans) and yet its national bird is the dull Clay colored Mountain Thrush.  Why?  The Thrush’s melodious calls announce the change of season; and Costa Ricans chose the bird for its practical benefits.  A single swallow may not make a summer.  However, a single call from the Thrush does announce winter!

[Mountain Thrush at Laguna Lagarto]

Parakeets (a type of parrots) are smart enough to recognize their names, mimic words they hear (one London Parakeet knew 2,000 words!), express their emotions quite well, and perform tricks taught to them.  Parakeets are the friendliest birds in the world.  Parakeets in captivity become one-person pets. 

[Parakeets at Cope’s home in Sarapiqui]

Brown hooded parrots are astonishingly beautiful and rare.  World has just 20,000 of them.

[Brown hooded parrot in Laguna Lagarto]

One morning, our guides took us to a well camouflaged observation bunker to observe King Vultures and Black Vultures.  We had an uninvited Cara Cara Falcon too drop in.  It was fun observing them claim and retain territory; maintain social order (King Vultures trump Black Vultures; Adult males trump females; and everyone trumps the babies in access to food).  The Cara Cara is a rank outsider but tolerated.  He had to snatch a piece of meat on the sly and decamp to safety to enjoy his breakfast.

[King Vulture commanding his space on the only perch giving him a view of everything around]

[Black Vulture with ambitions]

[King Vulture drives away a Black Vulture aspiring for perch space]

[King Vulture flying around to ensure everyone knows who is the boss]

[Caracara falcon snatching away a piece of the breakfast to safety/enjoyment]

Great Egrets are awesome to watch when they stand.  Quite a graceful and erect posture.  Even more awesome to watch when they fly.  They fly slowly and powerfully.  Just two wingbeats per second can send them on a cruising speed of 40 km per hour!

[Great Egret, standing erect at Cano Negro]

[Great Egret stretching]

Tiger Herons are cool birds with tiger like stripes on their body and herringbone feathering.  Their bark like calls can be heard throughout the mangroves.

We saw one Tiger Heron taking sudden interest in a spot on the wetlands; walk slowly toward it; stand and observe; and do an ultra swift peck to snatch a big fish; hold it in its beaks; walk away to dry land; gulp the fish in one go (with the neck swelling to hold the fish), move it down to stomach quickly; and look around with satisfaction.  The scene was priceless (except for the fish).

[Scene 1:  The Tiger Heron looks]

[Scene 2:  The Tiger Heron snatch]

[Scene 3:  The Tiger Heron Gulp.  Fish in throat]

In the meanwhile two woodpeckers were at their job of pecking wood.

[Hoffmann’s Woodpecker at Sarapiqui]

[Black Cheeked Woodpecker at Laguna Lagarto]

The ten days we spent in Costa Rica in various ecosystems with varying climates were one of the best we ever did traveling with our cameras.

What made it twice enjoyable?
1.  A world class photographer, Sudhir Sivaram, accompanying us to provide guidance on camera settings for most shots; lessons that improve the quality of our pictures, lessons that stay with us for life.
2.  Knowledgable and helpful local guides Supreet Sahoo and Magdalena.  Magdalena is an expert on birds.  Supreet has expertise on birds, even more on photography, and a lot more on customer service.
3.  Eight companions with diverse backgrounds with far more expertise on photography and far better equipment; who could inspire you and teach you without humbling you.  Outstanding company.


  1. Very very interesting read,TRS. You have documented our ten day tour to perfection. Not to forget your amazing shots

  2. Superb documentation and clicks, TRS! Surely a great way to relive those ten wonderful days in CR. Thanks for sharing.

  3. That is a beautiful capture of Green Macaw, rim lit shot, wonderful. And the accompanying anecdotal comments. :-)


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