There’s no question that Costa Rica attracts nature-lovers of all types: surfers, hikers, volcano trekkers, divers, snorkelers, white water rafters – the list goes on.
Another huge group on this list is birdwatchers.
Yes, birdwatchers of many different feathers flock together in Costa Rica!
With over 800 species of birds in Costa Rica, it’s easy to see why.
You don’t have to be an ornithologist to appreciate this feather-filled paradise.
Can you imagine seeing an impressive Rainbow-billed Toucan or the sacred Resplendent Quetzal out in the wild and not getting excited? Exactly!
Whether you decide to book a nature tour to see the best birds of Costa Rica or venture off on your own avian treasure hunt, you’re bound to be captivated by Costa Rica’s feathery friends.
Here, you’ll find what you need to know about birdwatching in Costa Rica.
To get you excited, we’ve also put together this list of 17 beautiful birds of Costa Rica.
Birding Costa Rica
Costa Rica boasts some of the world’s best birding, with several birding eco-regions, ranging from foothills to highlands.
This means that some of the most beautiful species of birds are on display in their natural environment, no matter what region you’re in.
On our Costa Rica adventure cruise, we saw many delightful and different birds – from colorful toucans to dive-bombing pelicans – even though birding wasn’t the focus of this cruise.
On several hikes, we were in the same small group with Richard Patterson, a fellow guest and photography buff, who took fabulous bird photos (some are shown here).
Wer’re wannabe birders-in-waiting (we loved watching the antics of the penguins in Antarctica).
Spotting the birds on our cruise – and seeing Richard’s images – inspired us to put together this list of beautiful Costa Rica birds.
17 Beautiful birds in Costa Rica
The following 17 Costa Rica birds are among the most beautiful.
We didn’t include the national bird of Costa Rica, which is the Clay-colored Thrush.
Its birdsong is beautiful, and it’s said to be very friendly. But the Clay-colored Thrush is rather a plain looking little bird – one of the most common birds in Costa Rica – so it didn’t make the cut in our bird beauty pageant.
1) Resplendent Quetzal
Ah, the holy grail of birdwatching!
The Resplendent Quetzal is one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
Considered sacred by Maya, Aztec and other Mesoamerican civilizations, the quetzal was associated with Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god believed to have created the Earth and water.
Today, the Resplendent Quetzal is still highly coveted.
One reason is because it’s rare to see this spectacular bird out in the wild. The species is classified as “near threatened,” with an estimated 50,000 left in the world.
A sighting is definitely something to brag to your friends about!
The quetzal’s defining characteristics are its iridescent green-blue body, vibrant red breast and lustrous long tail. The male’s tail streamers grow to an average of 30 inches but can reach up to an impressive 40 inches in length.
The quetzal is a cloud forest dweller.
Your best bet for catching sight of these unique birds is in national parks, the Central Highlands of Costa Rica and protected areas like the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Los Quetzales National Park is a particularly promising place to see quetzals (and the Resplendent Quetzal).
The Resplendant Quetzal is part of the trogon family. And there are 10 trogon bird species in Costa Rica.
If you don’t spot the quetzal, you can console yourself by spotting other species of trogons, like the Black-headed and Slaty-tailed trogons. You can find them in the Cano Negro Wetlands.
2) Keel-billed Toucan
If you’re on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and hear a boisterous croak, don’t look down for a frog. Look up into the trees. It’s probably a Keel-Billed Toucan!
Of the six species of toucan you can find in Costa Rica, the Keel-Billed is the most popular. With its oversized rainbow beak, bright yellow chest and blue feet, there’s no mistaking it.
When you see Costa Rica bird photos in guide books and travel brochures, this particular toucan is probably the toucan shown.
Among the other species of toucan you can spot throughout the region are the Yellow-eared Toucanet, the Emerald Toucanet (see #13), the Collared Aracari and the Fiery-billed Aracari (see #11).
In the Osa Peninsula, you’re more likely to catch sight of the Black-mandibled Toucan, the largest of all toucans.
While birdwatching in Costa Rica, your chances of seeing one or more types of toucan are pretty good, so have your camera ready!
Just be prepared to look waaaaaay up to spot them. Because those toucans do like to perch high up.
Somehow, we expected them to be flying around at face level. Guess we’ve been spoiled by watching too many National Geographic shows!
Where to stay in Guanacaste? Before our cruise, we stayed in a gorgeous condo on Costa Rica’s secret Papagayo Peninsula
3) Scarlet Macaw
Scarlet Macaws are the most treasured parrots of Costa Rica – their magnificently vivid colors and large size make them exceptionally stunning.
Characterized by the scarlet red that stretches from their head down their back, the white face mask and sapphire blue wings, macaws are on every bird lover’s list of favorites.
They’re usually spotted in twos, as these beautiful birds are known to mate for life.
Sadly, due to rapid deforestation (and consequent habitat loss) in Central America and South America, the Scarlet Macaw is a threatened species. So as a bird lover, you’ll appreciate being able to experience their splendor in their natural habitat, thanks to rigorous conservation efforts.
Even if you don’t see them at first, their blaring squawk is bound to give them away!
The most common places to see macaws in Costa Rica are at Corcovado National Park, Jaco and the Osa Peninsula.
4) Blue-crowned Motmot
There are a few species of motmots in Costa Rica, of which the Blue-crowned Motmot is the most common.
It’s known for its lovely blue and green plumage, black eye mask and prominent bright blue crown.
The motmot’s habitat ranges from tropical forests to shady coffee farms across Central America and Mexico. In Costa Rica, they’re commonly spotted in northern Puntarenas and Guanacaste.
We saw a Broad-billed Motmot at the Arenal Hanging Bridges. (Before our Costa Rica cruise, one of the places we stayed at in Costa Rica was Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa near Arenal Volcano National Park.) This motmot has a reddish-brown chest and head – and is also a beautiful bird.
The most charming feature of the motmot is their thin long tail that ends in two racket-shaped feathers.
When they perch and swing their tail, it resembles a pendulum. They’re thus nicknamed “clock birds.” A Blue-crowned Motmot is often difficult to see until it starts wagging its tail.
5) Fiery-throated Hummingbird (and other Costa Rica hummingbirds)
If there’s a type of bird which Costa Rica isn’t lacking, it’s hummingbirds!
Hummingbirds are common Costa Rica birds.
There are over 54 different species of hummingbirds in Costa Rica, four of which are endemic to the region. Big and small. Red to purple and every color in between. You name it. Costa Rica’s home to them.
But the Fiery-throated Hummingbird is truly special.
When you catch it in the right light, you’ll see that its throat and breast feathers include every color of the rainbow – the only type of hummingbird that can boast this feature!
For guaranteed hummingbird spotting, Selvatura Park in the Monteverde Cloud Forest has a dedicated Hummingbird Garden, where you can observe over 14 species of hummingbirds. They even land on your hands while they sip from feeders!
6) Bay-headed Tanager
The color block pattern of the Bay-headed Tanager is quite distinct. With a red head, green wings and blue underbelly, this little songbird is a fun find!
Tanagers are found only in the Americas. While they eat insects, their favorite food is fruit.
They’re common in Costa Rica, with over 50 species native to the region. The Blue-gray Tanager, for example, is another common tanager, powder blue in color, that can be found near human development and doesn’t mind nesting near or on buildings.
The tanagers in Costa Rica range from small to medium-sized, and they’re very colorful.
The Bay-headed species is a medium-sized tanager. It can be seen on the Southern Pacific slopes of Costa Rica and in the Caribbean foothills at mid-elevation.
7) King Vulture
Okay, you can’t say this Costa Rica bird is “beautiful” in the traditional sense of the word. But you’ve got to grant that it’s very interesting looking!
You have to set aside any pre-conceived notions you might have about vultures.
When in Zimbabwe, we learned that vultures are critical for a healthy eco-system. By nibbling on dead carcasses, they help stop the spread of dreaded diseases. Unfortunately, vultures are almost extinct in Africa, and so there are vulture feedings in Victoria Falls (and hopefully other places too) to help keep them alive.
Of the four species of vultures in Costa Rica, the King Vulture is the most distinguishable.
Their large black and white-patterned wings and brightly colored heads set them apart from the rest. The head and neck display a magnificent mix of red, orange, purple and yellow skin. And, yep, they’re completely bald from the neck up!
They’re also very large! The King Vulture is the second largest type of vulture after the mighty condor. Their wingspan can reach up to six feet in length.
The tropical lowlands are their preferred habitat.
For the best vulture sightings in Costa Rica, check out Boca Tapada, the Maquenque Mixed Reserve and Tortuguero National Park.
8) Rufous-naped Wren (or Rufous-breasted Wren)
As far as wrens go, the Rufous-naped Wren is quite large, averaging almost seven inches long.
It’s beloved by birders as a songbird with a rich song that consists of deep whistles and chatters, often delivered in a harmonious duet.
The characteristic features of the Rufous-naped Wren are its tawny brown upper body feathers streaked with white and black, and its black-and-greyish-white wings and tail. Its underparts are all white.
This chatty species is mostly found on Costa Rica’s Pacific side in open woodlands and forests.
9) Great Green Macaw
The Red Macaw’s impressive green counterpart is the Great Green Macaw, also a native Costa Rican bird.
Brilliant green feathers cover this gorgeous parrot’s head and back, extending down to a bright blue-tipped underbelly and wings.
The Great Green Macaw is also the largest parrot species in Costa Rica, averaging 35 inches in length.
Even greater than its size is the volume of its squawk. You’ll certainly hear them coming before you see them!
The best place to see these beautiful big birds in action is in the lowlands on the northern Caribbean coast side of Costa Rica.
In particular, the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge – which has many almond trees – is one of the largest habitats for Costa Rica’s green feathery friends. Almonds are a favored food for these macaws, which can be found feeding and nesting in the almond trees.
10) Acorn Woodpecker
If you’re able to fixate your binoculars to the exact spot where a loud tap-tap-tap comes from the treetops, you’ve found yourself a woodpecker!
And if that said woodpecker has a bright red cap and white-masked black head and beak, you’ve spotted a lively little Acorn Woodpecker!
There are 16 species of woodpeckers in Costa Rica, of which the Acorn species can commonly be seen in the highland areas.
11) Fiery-billed Aracari
Aracaris are medium-sized toucans that display the signature large toucan-style bill. The beak is about four inches long, almost a quarter of the size of the bird’s whole body.
The Fiery-billed Aracari is endemic to Costa Rica’s Pacific side and is known to sleep in small groups of up to five inside tree holes.
It’s admired among birdwatchers for its rich coloring. The bird’s head, neck and chest is a slick black with a deep red band that wraps around the middle.
Compared to its sister species (the Collared Aracari), the Fiery-billed displays a striking blend of red, yellow and orange across its prominent bill. (The Collared Aracari has a dull yellow upper beak with a black saw-tooth pattern on the cutting edge.)
12) White-naped Brush Finch
This striking Costa Rican bird is a handsome little devil!
You’ll know you’ve spotted one if you see its characteristic white stripe along its crown (which stands out prominently against its black head feathers) and lemon yellow throat.
You may see the White-naped Brush Finch foraging through dense weedy brush in the Talamanca Mountains or hear its high-pitched smooth song from the bushes or trees.
13) Emerald Toucanet
The Emerald Toucanet is among one of the six toucan species in Costa Rica we mentioned above (see #2 on the Keel-billed Toucan).
And unlike the Keel-billed, the Emerald Toucanet is quite difficult to spot!
That’s because they’re small – the smallest of all toucans, standing at 10 inches high. (Toucanets are the little guys in the toucan family.)
Also, their bright green chest and stomach gives them natural camouflage in the trees.
The Costa Rican Emerald Toucanet is also different from its counterparts in South America and Mexico. The ones in Costa Rica have a distinctive dark blue throat, so they’re sometimes also referred to as Blue-throated Toucanets.
These toucanets live in elevations from 2,600 feet to 7,800 feet. They’re most commonly found in areas like Monteverde, the Caribbean mountains and Turrialba.
14) Brown Pelican
Brown Pelicans are some of the most interesting birds of Costa Rica.
They’re a common sighting year-round on the Pacific Coast, especially on the Nicoya Peninsula and Guanacaste.
This avian species is 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.
On our Costa Rica trip, we were captivated watching them dive-bomb into the water.
They shot down beak-first with such speed that we were amazed they didn’t knock themselves unconscious!
15) Violet Sabrewing
If you love hummingbirds (and who doesn’t?), seeing the dazzling Violet Sabrewing in its natural habitat is quite a treat!
If you spot one, the first thing you may notice is that they look unusually large for a hummingbird. The Violet Sabrewing is one of the largest hummingbird species in the world and generally reaches six inches in length.
The males are especially captivating with the vibrant violet plumage that covers their head, back and underbelly. Glittery green spots dot their wing coverts and lower back.
Females are less distinctive, but still beautiful. They’re primarily dark green, with a violet throat and grey underside.
You’re most likely to find this violet beauty by streams and ravines in the mountain forest. The various hummingbird feeders placed in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve are a great place to check this sighting off your list!
16) Crimson-collared Tanager
For a dazzling color display of crimson red and jet black, look no farther than the striking Crimson-collared Tanager. Color is its forte, just like its fellow tanager species, the Bay-headed Tanager (listed above in #6).
As its name suggests, the plumage of the collar that covers the bird’s nape, neck and chest is brilliant crimson, as are its tail coverts. The final magical touch of crimson is in the iris of the eye!
The rest of the body and tail is black.
Meanwhile, the beak is an unexpected shade of pale blue and the legs are a bluish-gray.
The Crimson-collared Tanager’s preferred habitat is the tropical lowlands, and it likes to forage in pairs.
17) Gartered Trogon
Like the majestic Resplendent Quetzal (#1), this colorful little guy is also part of the trogon family.
Characteristic of trogons, the Gartered Trogon has a colored eye ring and undertail pattern.
The eye ring is a bright yellow in the male bird. But in females, it’s a broken white pattern.
In both sexes, the undertail is white, striped with distinct horizontal black bars. The belly is yellow and the top feathers display a magnificent mix of dark blue, royal blue, dark grey and green feathers.
Gartered Trogons prefer humid lowland forest. You should be able to spot these colorful birds at Palo Verde National Park.
Birds of Costa Rica checklist
See this checklist for a complete list of the birds of Costa Rica, showing the birds officially listed by the Ornithological Association of Costa Rica. (There are lots of them!)
Best birding lodges in Costa Rica
There are several lodges in Costa Rica which specialize in birdwatching.
At these, you can see many bird species right from the deck of the lodge. Guided birding tours are also offered on walking trails around the lodge.
The following are some of the top Costa Rica birding lodges.
Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve & Spa:
You want to see the Resplendent Quetzal? The Savegre Hotel, Natural Reserve & Spa is the place to stay.
In San Gerardo de Dota, just a few miles from Los Quetzales National Park, the lodge is set in a veritable flower-filled Garden of Eden, where parrots, quetzals and hummingbirds flock. Excellent guides accompany you on miles of bird-watching trails.
Cabin suites have fireplaces and deep soaking bathtubs. Massages and other treatments can be had in the riverside spa.
Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge:
An upscale eco-lodge hugging a stretch of the Pacific Ocean, Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge is found in Piedras Blancas National Park. A short boat ride across the Golfo Dulce from the Osa Peninsula gets you there.
Accommodations are in cabins or balcony rooms in the main lodge. All power is solar or from recycled vegetable oil.
Guided and self-guided hiking, kayak and paddleboard tours are offered.
More than 250 species of birds have been seen, including Scarlet Macaws, toucans, trogons, herons and parrots.
Rancho Naturalista is another one of the premier places in Costa Rica for birding.
Located in its own private reserve on the slopes of the Talamanca Mountains, near Turrialba, it has 15 rooms and cabins. The food is gourmet.
Built in traditional Spanish colonial style, the main lodge building has its world-famous birding balcony.
Some 250 species have been seen from this balcony alone, among the 450+ bird species recorded in the area. You’ll be in hummingbird heaven here, as large flocks of hummingbirds are drawn to the balcony.
A professional resident birding guide can help you find specific birds you want to see.
Hacienda Baru Lodge:
Surrounded by 815 acres of tropical rainforest and wetlands, Hacienda Baru Lodge (in the private Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge) offers cabins at mid-range prices, along with a swimming pool, hiking trails, butterfly garden and an 8-cable zipline. The beach is a 10-minute walk from the lodge.
Over 360 species of bird have been spotted here – from macaws, toucans and hummingbirds to pelicans and frigate birds.
Near Carara National Park, Cerro Lodge has basic but clean rooms with quirky outdoor showers, plus a small pool.
You’ll see lots of squawking macaws (especially Scarlet Macaws) – it’s common to see them while eating breakfast.
About 5.6 miles from Los Quetzales National Park, the 23-room Trogon Lodge is located on a 105-acre farm, set amid lovely gardens beside a meandering trout-filled river.
More than 195 bird species have been spotted here.
It’s a particularly romantic hideaway for spotting Quetzels and hummingbirds.
Selva Verde Lodge:
Selva Verde Lodge is found in the midst of the 500-acre Sarapiqui Rainforest Preservation Area in the lowlands of northeastern Costa Rica.
The eco-lodge’s buildings are perched on stilts and connected by raised wooden platforms and elevated walkways that blend in with the surrounding forest. Some bungalows have air conditioning (which can be hard to find at other rainforest lodges).
Mot-mots, Keel-billed Toucans, Great Green Macaws and Blue-gray Tanagers are just a few of the birds inhabiting the rainforest here.
Costa Rica birding tours
If you prefer to go on guided birding tours to get in-depth information from your avian exploration, you can find birdwatching expeditions everywhere from the central highlands to the coastal jungle.
There are also guided visits through Costa Rica’s many nature reserves, national parks and private sanctuaries.
Check out the Costa Rica birdwatching tours offered by the following reputable birding companies:
Best time of year for birding in Costa Rica
With Costa Rica’s warm tropical weather, you’ll find wonderful birding opportunities all year round.
For the best months, consider the fall season from August through November when over 200 bird species travel south from North America to Central America for the winter.
The spring months from February to May, when the birds return to their breeding grounds, also make for prime-time viewing of Costa Rican birds.
There you have it, bird lovers!
As you can see, the variety of bird species that call Costa Rica home is as diverse as the country’s landscape.
Whether you choose to explore cloud forests, dry forests, mangroves, coastal jungles, volcanoes or mountains, you’ll find birding opportunities in every treetop.
We hope you found this information about birding in Costa Rica and our list of some of the most beautiful Costa Rican birds helpful.
Remember to keep your ears open, your binoculars handy and your camera in hand… Happy birdwatching!
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Photo credits: 8 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2, 18, 19 Richard Patterson | Lodge photos courtesy of the respective Costa Rica birding lodges