For travelers or recent expatriates from the United States or Canada, the many familiar bird species found in Costa Rica may be surprising. The warblers, tanagers, and buntings that we associate with our northern homes may suddenly appear at our side amidst tropical nature, expanding our understanding of nature’s vast panorama.
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Yet many species that are commonly encountered in Costa Rican rainforests are unique to the tropics. Because of the region’s incredible biodiversity, most Costa Rican bird families are represented by several species at least, and some have dozens. A few families can more consistently be encountered than others. The list below has been designed as an introduction for those interested in learning about some of the more conspicuous and frequently sighted birds of the rainforest.
Trogon (Trogón in Spanish)
The trogons are common in all Costa Rican forests, from the dry northwest to the steaming lowlands and chilly cloud forests. Each species is strikingly colored, with combinations of red, yellow, and blue, yet despite their loud attire, only an observant visitor will spot one. Trogons remain incredibly still while perched mid-canopy. A careless or rushed hiker may pass right beneath a trogon without noticing its dazzling plumage.
The most famous of the trogons, and perhaps of all Costa Rica, is the resplendent quetzal. Even with its grandiloquent plumage, the most arresting of all neotropical birds, a quetzal can easily be overlooked as it remains motionless in its misty cloud forest home. The best time to search for quetzals is March through May when they nest and feed on the fruiting aguacatillo tree, a wild avocado, and favorite food.
Motmot (Momoto, Pájaro Bobo)
Another sedate bird of Costa Rica’s tropical forests, the six species of motmots in Costa Rica blend the colors blue, green, and rufous in their plumages. Their most notable feature is their tail. In every species except one, there is a bare section of the feather shaft near the end of the tail, a unique feature among all bird families.
The blue-crowned motmot, with its bold blue eyebrow, is the most commonly seen species in most of Costa Rica. The turquoise-browed motmot, a national bird of Nicaragua, is another beautiful species with a cerulean eyebrow, flushes of ochre on the back and belly, and an azure tail with an especially long featherless shaft. Look for it in the forests of Guanacaste.
Toucan (Tucán, Cusingo, Tucanillo)
Among the most iconic birds of neotropical forests are the toucans, all easily recognized by their huge beaks. The toucan uses the serrated edge of its enormous bill for eating a variety of fruits. Regrettably, toucans also use their beautiful bills to raid the nests of other birds and eat their chicks or eggs. For example, emerald toucanets, an elegant and frequently seen inhabitant of the cloud forest, are a consistent predator of infant quetzals. The chestnut-mandibled toucan, the largest species in Costa Rica, sometimes even eats baby monkeys and coatis.
In Costa Rica, most of the six species are commonly sighted where they occur, including the colorful keel-billed toucan with its multihued bill, which is found all along the Caribbean, as well as the northwestern part of the country and in some areas of the central valley. The smaller collared araçari shares a similar range, while the Fiery-billed araçari makes its home in southwestern forests.
No less than fifty-two species of hummingbirds have been seen in Costa Rica, about a sixth of the total number of world species. Hummingbirds can be found from Alaska all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, and everywhere in between, including several Caribbean islands. However, the hummingbirds are another family that strictly belong to the western hemisphere.
Every species of hummingbird is gorgeous, but their value does not end with their beauty. Hummingbirds are among the most important pollinators in the tropics, especially in the cloud forest where less insect and bat species tolerate the cold. One of the fascinating aspects of the hummingbird is their varied bills, which permit them to feed on different species of flowers. Their beaks vary from short and straight to sharply curved to nearly longer than their entire body. In Costa Rica, one of the most commonly seen hummingbirds is the Rufous-tailed.
It’s hard to imagine a tropical land without flocks of green parrots screeching overhead, and Costa Rica is no exception. From tiny parakeets to huge macaws, parrots from seventeen species can regularly be seen and heard throughout the country. Despite how loud and conspicuous parrots tend to be, they can be challenging to identify as they feed high in the canopy or quickly fly past. When possible, look carefully at the bird’s facial markings, especially around the crown and forehead area, to help identify the species.
The largest and most charismatic of parrots are the macaws, and there are two species in Costa Rica. The scarlet macaw was once widespread throughout much of Costa Rica but is now almost entirely confined around Carara and the Osa Penninsula, although there are a few of them in the Palo Verde area and the bird may be recolonizing parts of the Caribbean. Look for them around tropical almond trees, a favorite food. The great green macaw is rare throughout its remaining range in the Caribbean lowlands.
Some of the flycatchers in Costa Rica migrate from northern lands, but there are seventy-eight species in Costa Rica, making it the most widely represented family of birds in the country. Identifying flycatchers is not for the faint of heart. Most have drab colorations of yellow, olive, and gray, and many species have only subtle differences distinguishing them. Some can only be differentiated by song. Nonetheless, some flycatchers are beautiful, like the elegant scissor-tailed flycatcher of the northwest.
One of the most commonly observed species is the great kiskadee. It can often be spotted while perched on telephone lines virtually throughout the entire country except at the highest elevations. The Kiskadee is easily recognized by its onomatopoeic call, which it often sings. Beware though, the great kiskadee has no less than five other flycatcher lookalikes.
Possibly the most wondrous family of birds in Costa Rican forests and gardens is the tanager family. A handful of species, like the western tanager and summer tanager, are migrants who spend only part of the year in Costa Rica, but most are year-round residents. Most tanagers are brightly colored and interact with each other with remarkable cordiality as they feed in fruiting trees or bird feeders.
At least a dozen species in Costa Rica can be called beautiful, but some of the exceptional among them are the scarlet, Golden-hooded, and speckled tanagers. One of the most common species throughout all of Costa Rica is the blue-gray tanager. The two species of dacnis and three honeycreepers, all of them gorgeous, also belong to the tanager family.
The aesthetic appeal of tropical birds combines with the often rigorous challenge of distinguishing between similarly plumaged species to make bird watching in the tropics a richly rewarding endeavor for the enthusiastic beginner and the seasoned veteran alike. Whether Costa Rica is your native, temporary, or adopted country, cultivating an ability to recognize at least the more commonly sighted bird families is an excellent way of becoming intimate with the land.
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