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