Though tropical in nature – with a substantial number of tropical animals such as poison-arrow frogs and spider monkeys – Costa Rica is also the winter home for more than 200 species of migrating birds that arrive from as far away as Alaska and Australia. So don’t be surprised to see one of your familiar backyard birds here feeding alongside trogons and toucans.
With over 850 species recorded in Costa Rica, it’s understandable that birds are one of the primary attractions for naturalists. You could stay for months and you’ll still have scratched the surface in terms of seeing all these species. Birds in Costa Rica come in every color, from strawberry-red scarlet macaws to the iridescent jewels called violet sabrewings (a type of hummingbird). Because many birds in Costa Rica have restricted ranges, you are guaranteed to find different species everywhere you travel.
Though visitors will almost certainly see one of Costa Rica’s four monkey or two sloth species, there are an additional 260 animal species awaiting the patient observer. More exotic sightings might include amazing species such as the four-eyed opossum and silky anteater while a lucky few might spot the elusive tapir, or have a jaguarundi cross their path.
The extensive network of national parks, wildlife refuges and other protected areas are prime places to spot wildlife. But remember that these creatures do not know park boundaries, so keep your eyes peeled in the forested areas and buffer zones that often surround these sanctuaries. Early morning is the best time to see animals, as many species stay still during the hotter part of the day. Nocturnal species – such as Baird’s tapir, the silky anteater and the kinkajou – require going out at night, preferably with a guide.
If you are serious about spotting birds and animals, the value of a knowledgeable guide cannot be underestimated. Their keen eyes are trained to recognize the slightest movement in the leaves, and they can recognize the many exotic calls of the wild. Most professional bird guides are proficient in many dialects of bird, which enhances your ability to hear and see them. Furthermore, a good local guide will often have an idea where certain species tend to congregate – whether because they like the fruit of a certain tree (as the quetzal in the avocado tree), or because they like to catch the fish at the mouth of the river (as the American crocodile). Knowing the habits of your prey vastly improves your chances of finding them.
No season is a bad season for exploring Costa Rica’s natural environment, though most visitors arrive during the peak dry season when trails are less muddy and more accessible. An added bonus of visiting between December and February is that many of the wintering migrant birds are still hanging around. A trip after the peak season may mean fewer birds, but it is a stupendous time to see dried forests transform into vibrant greens and it’s the time when resident birds begin their nesting season.