Dr Duncan James > Nature Travel Guide > Where > Planet Earth > the Americas > Costa Rica

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Nature Travel Guide

Wildlife of Costa Rica (The Americas)

"Rainforest, cloud forest, mangrove and mountains with large areas protected as national parks."

I recommend the Costa Rica Birdwatching Bingo (premium link) activity.

My favourite locations are Sarapiqui and the Osa Peninsula. Both have large areas of lowland forest with high population densities of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects.

Costa Rica is equatorial. There is not so much seasonality near the equator but I generally refer to January through April as summer and May through December as winter: this reflects the greater amount of rain in the winter months.

Costa Rica is within in Central America with coastlines facing the Caribbean and the Pacific. There are beaches with palm trees, macaws flying overhead and hummingbirds feeding from the flowers. Heading inland leads to forest full of wildlife. Down the centre of the country is a line of mountains which includes volcanoes and the famous cloud forest. Cloud forest is very photogenic but there is less wildlife because the higher altitude means less plant productivity, meaning less food for animals to eat.

A national pride in the wildlife and vast areas of protected national parks makes Costa Rica a popular destination for wildlife watchers. If you pick any random spot there will be things to see but going to a protected area, particularly on the edge of one of the large forests, can mean you see a lot more.

In my experience, single-location wildlife holidays seem much rarer than in other countries. This might be because of a general lack of footpaths away from ecolodges and national parks reducing the options during an extended stay. Undergrowth grows very fast on the equator so the need for very intensive, continuous path maintenance is one of the likely reasons.

  • The Osa Peninsula (location 1) is a vast stretch of rainforest with a rich ecosystem including large mammals such as tapir and Jaguar.
  • San Vito (location 2) is home to mid-elevation forest, coffee plantations and farmland with very good birdwatching.
  • Wildlife watching on the West Coast (location 3) between the Bay of Nicoya and the Osa Peninsula can be excellent. I recommend a cluster of sites at Uvita, a small town popular with backpackers, and the wildlife watching in and around Manuel Antonio National Park.
  • Nicoya (location 4) has wetlands and low-elevation forest. Parque Nacional Carara is particularly popular with birdwatchers.
  • Tourists enjoy the surfing, beach holidays and ecolodges at Guanacaste (location 5). 13 species of bird are only found in Guanacaste; mainly sparrows isolated on the different mountain tops.
  • Monteverde (location 6) is home to cloud forest with famous nature reserves, Resplendant Quetzal, hummingbirds and other wildlife.
  • Cano Negro (location 7) is a large area of lakes and marshes. Many waterbirds and northern-distributed birds are easy to see but access is difficult without a boat. It is a popular place for a day trip on the way between Monteverde and Arenal: these trips often save time and/or money by visiting similar habitats very close to the park.
  • Arenal (location 8) volcano has forest trails and excellent birdwatching.
  • Sarapiqui (location 9) is within a wide loop of river and includes a section of Braulio Carrillo forest. I have really enjoyed the wildlife watching on the edges of the forest here.
  • Turrialba (location 10) is within the central valley and has a wide variety of habitats. I recommend this location for budget birdwatchers.
  • Tapanti (location 11) has forest and farmland in the foothills of the central mountains. Birdwatchers come here to see mid-elevation, Caribbean-side species of birds.
  • The beaches and forest of Cahuita (location 12) are popular with backpackers, particularly when travelling between eastern Costa Rica and Panama. However, in my experience wildlife watchers are more likely to be on the western side of Costa Rica. Spot-crowned Antvireo (Dysithamnus puncticeps), Veery (Catharus fuscescens) and Sulphur-rumped Tanager (Heterospingus rubrifrons) are bird species that are likely to be seen here and not elsewhere in Costa Rica.
  • Gerardo (location 13) has cloud forest with the magnificent Resplendant Quetzal and other high-elevation birds.
  • Poas (location 14) volcano is set within forest and is home to specialised, high-elevation wildlife.
  • Irazu (location 15) volcano is on a high plateau with some high-elevation forest and high-elevation wildlife.
  • Braulio Carrillo (location 16) is a vast forest. Visitors can walk short trails at the ranger station and there are alternative access points to the forest at Volcan Barva and Sarapiqui.
  • Tortuguero (location 17) has forest running down to the sea with lots of wildlife including monkeys, herons, kingfishers and parrots/macaws.
  • La Copal (location 18) is a famous ecolodge http://keytocostarica.com/community/ecolodges/el-copal-reserve.html with similar birds to Tapanti.
  • I have seen a wide range of high-elevation birds in the forest at Juan Castro (location 19) Blanco National Park.
  • The birds and birdwatching in Costa Rica (premium link) are comparable to neighbouring countries but visitors benefit from some excellent tourist infrastructure.
  • The birds of the mountains of Costa Rica (premium link) are different to the species you will see at lower elevations and can be more difficult to see.
  • I have written up the bird identification notes (premium link) for many of the species I have seen in Costa Rica.
  • I have recommended some birdwatching itineraries lasting less than one week (premium link) that are based around the San Jose area. You could also simply choose one of my locations that appeals to you.
  • There are enough good and varied birdwatching locations near to San Jose to make a one week birdwatching itinerary (premium link) with a fantastic variety of birds and habitats.
  • If you have time for a two week birdwatching itinerary (premium link) I particularly recommend a route in the north of Costa Rica.
  • I have a recommended three week birdwatching itinerary (premium link) that includes a wide variety of habitats and species and includes both the south and north of the country.
  • In case you have plenty of time I have tested a three month backpacker-birdwatching itinerary (premium link) around Costa Rica that manages to stay within a tight budget.
  • Even without the very rare, accidental and difficult to see species, I have counted 742 species of birds that are possible in Costa Rica (premium link). Within this list I have included details of where and when each species might be seen.
  • Timing a visit to Costa Rica (premium link) includes issues such as the rainy season on the west coast and crinkly leaves on the floor making quiet walking more difficult in the dry season.
  • For many visitors, transport in Costa Rica (premium link) is mainly about the public and tourist buses.
  • I have combined all the birds that I have seen at these locations into a combined list of birds I have seen in Costa Rica (premium link). Each species has the total number seen, where it was seen, whether it is a summer, winter, passage or resident bird and a rough idea of how common it is.

I took this photograph of a male Violaceous Trogon in the forest on the Osa Peninsula.

Accommodation

There are a lot of "ecolodges" in Costa Rica. They are relatively expensive, but if you are only staying for a couple of weeks (and depending on your budget) you might use them for some or all of your trip. In general I have mentioned the main ecolodges. However, there are lots more and my top tip would be to simply do an internet search as they generally have good websites. Also, you can look at the itineraries of the main birdwatching holiday companies and see where they go. If you go in the "green season" (so called because it rains a lot on the west side) there are a lot of good offers (such as 3 nights for the price of 2) so that could be a good time to go. I have visited at this time and not lost that many days to rain.

I found Hostel Casa del Parque http://www.hostelcasadelparque.com to be a good, quiet hostel in San Jose and a useful base for doing day trips.

In Costa Rica if you want local, budget accommodation (which in 2017 still generally needed to be booked over the phone in Spanish) you might search online for "cabinas". These are a common form of budget accommodation in Costa Rica.

It is not necessary to stay on campsites to keep the price down in Costa Rica. Prices in 2013 were approximately $4 on a campsite which was not much less than cheap local hotels or backpacker's hostels. Many of the national parks have camping facilities which offer adventurous wildlife watchers confident enough to book in Spanish the chance to get close to the wildlife. So, this really is worth considering if you like camping. To camp in Corcovado National Park you need to hire a guide and this may be the case for some other national parks as well because this is an increasing trend in Central and Southern America.

The Tropical Kingbird is a colourful species of flycatcher seen all over Costa Rica. They often sit on a perch watching intently for an insect to fly past.

Wildlife of Costa Rica

Costa Rica is near the equator with high rainfall and long hours of sunlight. This means plants and animals are abundant. For this reason alone (combined with the excellent tourist infrastructure including lots of dedicated wildlife tourism) it is a very good place to visit for wildlife watching.

I think that the countries near Costa Rica are also excellent for wildlife. For example, in the south of Costa Rica the forest continues into Panama with ecolodges offering very similar wildlife watching.

Costa Rica is perhaps most famous for its well-preserved, large forests. They are often the main focus of a wildlife-watching trip to Costa Rica. The forests are generally large enough to support higher predators such as wild cats (including Ocelot, Puma and Jaguar) which are almost impossible to see for a visitor but indicate that, in general, the forests are in great condition and worth visiting. The famous "cloud forests" are at a higher altitude and beautiful places, however they have less wildlife than the forests that are at lower elevations. Braulio Carrillo (in the Sarapiqui location), Carara and Corcovado are good examples of low-elevation forest that I have enjoyed. Costa Ricans care about their forests and compared to other countries I am impressed by the large national parks.

Costa Rica is also famous for sea turtles that come onto the beaches to lay their eggs. Leatherback, Green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill Sea Turtles can be seen. On the north Pacific coast July through March are reported to be good months to visit; on the south Pacific coast it is August to March and; on the Caribbean coast it is April to October.

Costa Rica is well-known for its large, blue morpho butterflies. Morpho is the genus name and there are in fact 50 or so different species of morpho butterfly. I do not try to identify them to species and just enjoy the spectacle of their strong, slow flight and bright blue colours. Morpho butterflies can be seen all over the country and in most habitats. I typically see 2 or 3 every day. The only places I do not usually see them are at high elevations, in agricultural areas and in urban areas.

I think the most common bird I see in the winter is the Chestnut-sided Warbler. They are quite small and if I do not have my binoculars I see birds such as Great Kiskadee more.

There are 742 species of bird to be found in Costa Rica (ignoring vagrants, very rare birds and birds that cannot be realistically identified with current identification guides). In terms of numbers of species and the size of the country, Costa Rica is often described as one of the best places in the world to go birdwatching. In my experience, Costa Rica is well known with birdwatchers throughout the world. Patrick O'Donnell http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress is a birdwatcher in Costa Rica with an interesting blog.

To give an idea of how good Costa Rica is for birds, this is a list of all the species I saw in 30 minutes watching a small patch of trees and flowers from a hotel balcony in the middle of the town of San Vito:- (I also saw unidentified tanagers, warblers and a wren.) Black-mandibled Toucan, Cherrie's Tanager, Buff-breasted Saltator, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Red-lored Parrot, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Tenessee Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Clay-coloured Robin, Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Mourning Warbler.

Mammals generally require larger areas to live. For this reason the extended protected areas of Costa Rica are very good for mammals. Monkeys are a highlight for many visitors and they can sometimes be seen begging for food near tourist areas and are a relatively common sight throughout the rural areas. My personal preference is to see monkeys in wild places (such as nature reserves) where they behave more naturally and are exciting to watch. Coati (medium-sized scavengers with long tails) and agouti (rodent-like mammals approximately the size of rabbits) are two of the other, more common mammals that can be seen all over the country and in lots of different habitats including urban areas. Peccaries (a type of wild pig) and raccoons can also be seen depending on where you are. Rarer mammals, such as tapir and wild cats, might be seen if you are very lucky (with slightly less luck needed if you go to a "hotspot" such as the coastal section of Corcovado).

"The Mammals of Costa Rica" by Mark Wainwright is my recommended identification guide book for mammals. I find it an interesting read and also easy to flick through if I am trying to identify a mammal from its appearance. Because there are not too many species of mammal it is also possible to manage without an identification guide; You could just use my mammal-watching activities, the information boards, books at your accommodation and the internet to find out what you have seen in a particular day. However, if you have the space in your luggage, it is nice to have a group of animals that you can fairly confidently identify with just one guide book.

The climate and high productivity of the plantlife makes insects very common. Because it is warm they also grow to relatively large sizes. Seeing large insects such as grasshoppers, beetles and ants is one of the highlights of a visit to Costa Rica. Particularly because many of them are camouflaged, you have to really keep your eyes open for them perched/hiding in vegetation or on the ground. One of my favourite sights is the lines of industrious leaf-cutter ants marching to and from their giant mud nests.

Reptiles are impressive in Costa Rica. Lizards often grow to over a metre in length and are particularly common in trees and around streams/rivers. There are many species but you can get away with calling the large ones in trees "iguanas" and the ones by water "basilisks" and you are not far wrong. My personal favourites are actually the smaller lizards, some of which I think have incredible camouflage.

Epiphytes are common in forests nearer the equator. These plants live on trees and rely on the rain and any moisture and soil on the tree for nutrients. This is different from being parasitic because they do not necessarily take energy directly from the tree.

Tent-making bats chew large leaves in a line near the stem to make the two sides of the leaf collapse and form a tent. They can vary their roost site from day to day. I occasionally spot them when out hiking in the forest.

Finding Monkeys in Forest

Monkeys are tricky to find in wild places but with experience you can see them more often. A good approach I have found is to look for the slight movements of branches and listen for the pitter patter of feeding debris falling from the tops of trees. After acclimatising to the "sounds of the day" (meaning listening and watching carefully for the first 30 minutes or so to get used to the natural noises the forest is making) I find I can start picking out when there is something unusual. I will then stop and wait for up to 5 minutes even if I don't hear anything else. Animals that make similar noises include squirrels and aracari birds.

Monkeys often move very slowly, eating as they go. This means that a few minutes can pass before they move to an open spot. Once in view I can usually then follow them (perhaps with my binoculars) even once they are behind lots of leaves again. I find that the key is spotting them initially.

Some groups of monkeys are louder and, with a bit of luck, this means you can spot them much more easily. For example, in Costa Rica I find White-throated Capuchin Monkeys to be the easiest to find as they are noisy eaters. The howls of the Howler Monkeys means they can also be easy to find. It can also be easier to see monkeys near well-used paths or towns because these monkeys are often used to humans. They may even sneak up to steal food!

Many people will claim that the monkeys always see you first. In my experience this is only true if you are in a large group and/or making a lot of noise. I once watched a group of monkeys for about 5 minutes before one of them looked at me with complete surprise and immediately told the other monkeys in the group that I was there: they obviously had no idea I had been watching them. Is it worth the effort to look for monkeys in more remote areas of forest where they are more difficult to find? I would say yes because I feel like I am seeing more naturalised behaviours and I find it more exciting.

I saw this Three-toed Sloth in the rainforest on the Osa Peninsula. They are everywhere but are often easiest to see in crowded national parks, such as Manuel Antonio, where there are lots of people looking out for them who can then tell everyone else.

This article is part of the Nature Travel Guide and was published on December 10th 2017.

Larger-scale information relating to this page include the Planet Earth and the Americas articles.

Even more articles including detailed site descriptions, illustrated wildlife-watching activities, self-guided walks, itinerary recommendations, birdwatching overviews and mammal-watching overviews are available in the premium eBooks.

The Nature Travel Guide has numbers next to many of the animal names and other advanced features for keen readers. Find out more with the reader's guide.

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