Watch out! Once you start seeing rare, vibrantly colored tropical birds in their natural environment in Costa Rica, birdwatching might become an obsession! From tiny, glittering hummingbirds to scarlet macaws, Costa Rica has over 600 resident species of birds. Add to this over 300 migrant species that fly to Costa Rica to spend the winter months.
When I arrived in Costa Rica, I had a fledgling interest in birds. I loved the soaring eagles and woodpeckers seen in Western Canada but was not well-versed in tropical birds. With sightings of a roseate spoonbill, different kinds of toucans, and colorful trogons, I expanded my avian repertoire and found myself scanning the trees, listening for birdsong, and traipsing through the rainforest on birding expeditions.
A friend of mine traveled to Costa Rica and remarked on her return, “I didn’t see any birds in Costa Rica.” Remember, the birds don’t just line up and reveal themselves to you. Be observant and listen for their calls. Stand by a fruit tree and see who flies in for a snack! Once you see a few toucans or motmots, you might just discover that you have a passion for birding too.
This list of tropical birds, some of my favorites, is a mere introduction to the magnificent bird species found in Costa Rica.
1. The Resplendent Quetzal
The resplendent quetzal has been around for centuries and was sacred to the ancient Maya and Aztec cultures. Today, the national bird of Guatemala, the resplendent quetzal, is endangered mainly due to loss of habitat.
Setting your eyes on the resplendent quetzal is a sight you will never forget. Its turquoise back, emerald green feathers, and deep red chest create a splash of marvelous hues in the forest. The resplendent quetzal is quite a small bird but the male’s twin turquoise tail feathers can be up to 3 feet long. I love the resplendent quetzal’s head. The feathers appear a little ruffled and make the resplendent quetzal seem adorable!
You may spot a resplendent quetzal on a branch in the cloud forest or peeking out from a tree hollow where they make their nests. I would recommend taking a guided tour. The local guides have quick eyes for spotting this unique bird and will also carry a scope to zoom right in for a close-up look.
Where To See The Resplendent Quetzal
The Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, Santa Elena Cloud Forest, and the Curi Cancha Reserve are the prime places to see the resplendent quetzal. Read more about Monteverde here.
Pro Tip: In mentioning Guatemala’s national bird, it seems fitting to mention Costa Rica’s national bird. It is the commonly seen clay-colored thrush and is quite unremarkable in appearance.
2. The Violaceous Trogon
Costa Rica has ten species of trogons, small birds easily distinguished by the color of their eye ring, vibrant chest feathers, and the pattern on their tail feathers. The male and female birds are very different in their coloring so a field guide to birds of Costa Rica may come in handy when trying to identify trogons.
The resplendent quetzal, mentioned above, is the most beautiful member of the trogon family but the other nine species are well worth looking for. The best luck I had spotting trogons was on the Osa Peninsula in Drake Bay and Corcovado National Park.
The violaceous trogon has a bright yellow and blue chest and a distinctive yellow eye ring. The underside of the tail feathers is a remarkable black and white striped pattern.
Where To See Trogons
Trogons are found in many places in Costa Rica. I was happy to have a guide help me spot them as in the dense rainforest it takes an eagle eye to catch these vibrant birds.
Pro Tip: Keep your eyes on alert for the slaty-tailed trogon with its red breast offset by an orange eye ring and an orange beak. The color combinations of the trogon species are spellbinding.
3. The Keel-Billed Toucan
I’ll never forget seeing the pair of keel-billed toucans arrive in the trees outside my blue jungle house near Puerto Viejo. They started picking berries with their large, rainbow-colored beaks and jumping from branch to branch with their blue feet. Keel-billed toucans have a bright yellow neck and chest, red feathers at the tip of their tail, and that unmistakable beak that can range in size from 4.5 — 6 inches long. Keel-billed toucans are social birds and live in small flocks. They are playful and love to toss a piece of fruit in the air, which a friend might just seize!
You might actually hear keel-billed toucans coming before you see them. Their distinctive call sounds like croaking frogs.
Where To See Keel-Billed Toucans
Three places you might spy keel-billed toucans in Costa Rica are on the Caribbean Coast, in Tortuguero National Park and its environs, and in the area around Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve.
Pro Tip: The Keel-billed toucan is not the only toucan in Costa Rica. Costa Rica has six species of toucans. Keep your eyes open for the chestnut-mandibled toucan with its glossy, bicolored bill — bright yellow on top and reddish-maroon on the bottom.
4. The Blue-Crowned Motmot
I admit quite freely that I had never heard of a motmot before I lived in Costa Rica. But once you see the tail of a motmot, nicknamed “clock birds,” you’ll be scanning tree branches for this lovely, small bird. The blue-crowned motmot is the most commonly seen of the six species of motmots found in Costa Rica. It has a distinctive bright blue crown, a black eye mask, and beautiful blue and green feathers.
What makes a motmot’s tail so unique? There are two long, skinny, featherless shafts that hang down and at the end of each is a racquet-shaped feather. When the motmot is perched and perceives predators, they swing their tails like a pendulum. Nature is magnificent!
Where To See The Blue-crowned Motmot In Costa Rica
Motmots are found in the dry forests of the Guanacaste region and the northern part of Puntarenas. The blue-crowned motmot I saw was at the Curi Cancha Reserve in Puntarenas (near Monteverde).
5. The Scarlet Macaw
You’ll hear the scarlet macaws long before you see them. Their loud raucous squawk is easily recognizable. When they fly into view, it’s a jaw-dropping sight. Fire-truck red bodies accented with vivid blue and golden wings and tails, and a large white eye patch. The scarlet macaw is indeed a riot of color. Scarlet macaws are highly social and live in family groupings. They mate for life and it is not unusual to see a pair canoodling high up in the trees.
There are less than 2000 wild scarlet macaws left in Costa Rica due to loss of habitat and poaching for the illegal pet trade.
Best Places To See Scarlet Macaws
The best places to see the scarlet macaw in Costa Rica are on the Osa Peninsula including Corcovado National Park and in Carara National Park just outside of Jaco.
6. The Great Green Macaw
A piece on magnificent birds has to mention the critically endangered great green macaw. Found only on the Caribbean Coast in Costa Rica, these stunning birds can be visited at the Great Green Macaw Reintroduction Centre. It’s an unforgettable experience watching the great green macaws arrive for feeding time. Read more about this endangered tropical bird in this article.
Where To See Great Green Macaws
At the Reintroduction Centre near Puerto Viejo. I did find in my research that they are returning in the wild around Tortuguero National Park.
7. The Golden Hooded-Tanager
Are tanagers the most beautiful of all the birds in Costa Rica? Their vibrant names alone will spark your curiosity — emerald tanager, scarlet-rumped tanager and silver-throated tanager are a few of the gorgeous tanagers found in Costa Rica.
The golden-hooded tanager, one of my favorites, is distinguished by its golden head, blue cheeks, and black eye mask. Its mostly black feathers are accented with stunning turquoise-blue feathers. For such a small bird (about 5 inches), it packs a vibrant punch! Golden-hooded tanagers often travel in pairs and love eating fruit.
Where To See Golden Hooded-Tanagers
Golden hooded-tanagers are often found in gardens and will visit feeders. They are also found high in the forest canopy and in openings near the forest edge.
Pro Tip: The blue-grey tanager is the most commonly seen tanager in Costa Rica. As its name suggests, it is a light blue-grey in color and often seen in gardens.
Pro Tips For Bird Watching In Costa Rica
- The best times to see birds are early in the morning and late afternoon (I’ve never regretted the effort to rise before I’d like to and go on an early morning birding expedition!)
- Go quietly and listen for them calling to one another
- Bring a lot of patience, try sitting in one spot and watching for forest activity
- Bring binoculars
- For the best photographs have a zoom lens and a tripod
- Bring a field guide to birds of Costa Rica to help identify the species
- You might consider purchasing the app Costa Rica Birds: A Field Guide
- Bring water, a hat, sunscreen, and insect repellent
- Wear comfortable, sturdy footwear
- Hire a guide who brings along a scope that magnifies the birds — it’s an amazing way to see close up details of these unique birds
Costa Rica is a biodiverse country. Check out: