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Flying high with the beautiful birds of Costa Rica

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

The sea suddenly boils up with a seething ball of silvery jackfish. 

Brown pelicans, soaring gracefully overhead in a V formation, break apart and dive-bomb into the water.

They shoot down beak-first with such speed we wonder they don’t knock themselves out!

Costa Rica birds

Birds of Costa Rica

Birds of Costa Rica - Brown pelican

Pelicans are some of the most interesting birds of Costa Rica. 

They may not be the most beautiful – that honor should probably go to the resplendent quetzal (we’ll get to that beauty in a sec).

The Quetzal bird is one of the most beautiful birds of Costa Rica

But these pelicans are fascinating to watch.

Uttering whoops of excitement, a couple of fishermen who are also watching this strange scene, dash into the water, toss their lines in – and within the space of a few minutes, haul out four big jackfish.

Birds in Costa Rica: brown pelicans

Costa Rica bird-watching

Pelican and ship

Dive-bombing pelicans are just one of the many species of birds in Costa Rica we marvel at on our adventure UnCruise from Costa Rica to Panama.

Costa Rica is home to more than 850 bird species – and birders go gaga spotting all the different birds found here.

Here are some of the Costa Rica birds you might see.

If you love birds, these photos may whet your appetite to go see them in the wild for yourself…

Brown pelicans

Birds of Costa Rica - brown pelican

Brown pelicans are among the more common birds of Costa Rica;.

They’re spotted year-round on the Pacific coast, especially on the Nicoya Peninsula and Guanacaste.

They’re often seen flying elegantly in line or a V formation.

Large and stocky seabirds, they have long necks and wings and giant bills with a large pouch of skin.

They feed by plunging into the sea to scoop up fish and water into the underside pouch of the bill.

After straining the water out, they tip their head back and swallow the fish.

Costa Rica birds

Where to stay in Guanacaste? Before our cruise, we stayed in a gorgeous condo on Costa Rica’s secret Papagayo Peninsula

Resplendent quetzal

This is the bird that everyone wants to see. But few do as, sadly, it’s endangered.

Quetzal bird in Costa Rica

Considered sacred by the Aztecs, the resplendent quetzal dazzles in brilliant colors of scarlet and teal, boasting two extraordinarily long tail feathers.

Part of the trogon family of medium-sized birds, these gorgeous Costa Rica birds can be found in Arenal Volcano National Park and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

Recommended reading: See sloths, spiders and snakes on a tour of the Arenal Hanging Bridges!

Black vulture

Black Vulture

Did you know vultures are endangered? Learn why wild vultures must be fed in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Tiger heron

Birds of Costa Rica: tiger heron

Chestnut-mandibled toucan

Toucan in Costa Rica


Any Costa Rica birding buffs out there who know exactly what this bird is?

Birds of Costa Rica
birds of costa rica

Mangrove black hawk

Mangrove black hawk in the trees
birds of costa rica - mangrove black hawk



Birds of Costa Rica checklist

See here for a “Birds of Costa Rica” checklist showing the birds officially listed by the Ornithological Association of Costa Rica. (There are lots of them!)

About the Cost Rica bird photography here

All these bird photos (except the quetzal and lead image) were taken by Richard Hall Patterson. Thanks Richard!

On several hikes on our Costa Rica trip, we were in the same small group with Richard, a fellow guest and photography buff. He gamely lugged his Nikon D3S with Tamron 15-600 mm zoom lens along with him – a necessity if you want to take any decent Costa Rica bird photos, we discovered when reviewing our little Sony’s photos.

And birders: Take note!

If you go to Costa Rica for the birds, be prepared to look up, waaaaaay up, to spot them.

Somehow, we expected them to be flying around at face level. Guess we’ve been spoiled by watching too many National Geographic shows…

Those toucans like to hide.

So you’re a birder!

Read our posts on:

Penguins | From regal King penguins to cute Adelies (who slide down snowy hills on their bellies), check out these 7 cool types of penguins in Antarctica.

Vultures | Only a mother could love a baby vulture – they’re so ugly! But vultures need to be fed in Victoria Falls, Africa. Otherwise they could become extinct.

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birds of costa rica

Photo credits: If you want to use any of Richard Patterson’s photos, please give him photo credit. And he’d love it if you made a small donation to a worthy wildlife cause of your choice.

About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Memoirs of a Globetrotter

Sunday 19th of March 2017

I didn't know Costa Rica is home to so many beautiful birds! Seeing your photos has increased my interest in going there!

Janice and George

Monday 20th of March 2017

And it's not just beautiful birds you find in Costa Rica! The country is also home to a huge variety of other critters and creatures. If you want to see sloths, monkeys, snakes, coatis and more, then go to Costa Rica :-).


Monday 20th of February 2017

We will be in Costa Rica next year and look forward to seeing some of the same birds you did. The quetzal would be the ultimate entry on the life list. P.S. It looks like a great blue heron.

Janice and George

Monday 20th of February 2017

Everybody loves the resplendent quetzal! Crossing fingers for you that you'll see one - or more! And you think that egret (??) is a great blue heron? Thanks for the clarification :-).


Monday 13th of February 2017

These are all beautiful, but that photo of the pelican diving is amazing! I love love love birds, so I would just love this trip. I hear what you're saying about having to look way up. The first time I went hiking in the forest in Brazil, I expected to see all the birds that live there but just saw a few feathers way up in the trees :)

Janice and George

Monday 13th of February 2017

We're spoiled by all the nature shows we see on TV. We forget that the photographers and film-makers spend days and weeks of shooting to get the few beautiful images that end up on TV! Guess if we went to a zoo we could get closer views - but seeing the birds in the wild is much more exciting :-).

LC of Birdgehls

Monday 13th of February 2017

I LOVE birds and was in awe over those of CR! A highlight was seeing a quetzal - even if it was from the back.

Janice and George

Monday 13th of February 2017

You're lucky you saw a quetzal! They are so resplendent :-)

Marissa_Travel Greece, Travel Europe

Sunday 12th of February 2017

Beautiful! They are such important and beautiful creatures. Love the photos.

Janice and George

Sunday 12th of February 2017

Yes, beautiful birds! Costa Rica is known for its beautiful birds. Too bad we don't have any good shots of the scarlet macaws though...