Why Costa Rica is a Bird Lover’s Paradise


With binoculars at the ready and field guide in hand, bird spotting in Costa Rica is a walk in Arenal Volcano National Park.

First appeared as “If One Can, Toucan” in the December 2014 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

As a golf cart ferries me up the gentle slope toward my villa at Nayara Springs, the foliage almost swallows me whole. Heliconia flowers dangle to the left, ferns with gigantic leaves form a bridge over the path and, in the distance, a hint of steam rises from the picture–perfect cone of the Arenal Volcano. I feel like I’m in Jurassic Park. I wouldn’t be surprised if a T. rex suddenly appeared – terrified, yes, but not surprised.

This region of Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse in the world, and I’m here with a mission: to see the greatest number of animals possible. My hotel, a series of villas with private plunge pools fed by natural hot springs, is nestled deep within Arenal Volcano National Park. With its softly lit restaurants, walkways strewn with rose petals and lavish bird of paradise arrangements around every corner, it’s an idyllic retreat for lovebirds. But beyond all these romantic trappings, it’s also a place for bird lovers. With dozens of species of wildlife criss–crossing the property daily, even the lazy naturalist will be rewarded. The birds here practically make house calls: You can watch hummingbirds while sitting on your patio, parrots while lounging in the infinity pool and motmots as you drift from patio to pool.

April 22, 2020
A blue heron perched on a branch in the water
A small blue heron perches above the Río Frío.
Ornithologist Hugo adjusting his camera gear
Hugo, the quiet ornithologist, focuses on the property’s feathered residents.

At the morning yoga session, which unfolds in a Japanese–style canopied cabin on stilts, the instructor, Laura, tries to get me to focus by urging me to bring my “scapulas togetherrrrr.” I am seriously distracted. Between rounds of deep breathing and downward dogs, I can’t stop scanning the dense foliage to see if the beak of a chestnut–mandibled toucan might be peeking out between the vines. There are more than 850 bird species in Costa Rica, but this fairly common toucan tops my list: I have a soft spot for this bird that is half beak, half feathers. After class, I take a seat to join my friend on the terrace of Amor Loco restaurant, flanked by a pool that seems to flow off into the jungle, and swallow my first sip of jugo natural (fresh–squeezed juice) under the watchful eyes of several red–lored amazons perched nearby. When the huevos rancheros arrive at my table, I realize I’m not the only one who’s hungry: Carlotta, Nayara’s resident scarlet macaw, takes up a position on the railing and steadily eyes my breakfast. I should check if toucans like tortillas too.

The Costa Rican flag hangs above wooden railing
Costa Rica shows its colours.

Heading north in a small passenger van, past fields of pineapple plants and papaya and banana trees, I study my bible, The Birds of Costa Rica, to brush up on some of the species that frequent the Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge. Our guide, Raúl, who reminds me of a friendly crow with his smoothed–back hair and aquiline nose, abruptly brings the vehicle to a stop, interrupting my research. He swings the door open and then quickly sets up and adjusts his telescope. “Look, a collared aracari,” he says in the same tone of voice I might use to say, “Look, a house sparrow.” Thrilled, I make out the mini–toucan perched on a high branch, its body erect and its head in profile, as though posing for a portrait. “The toucan’s beak is made of keratin, like our nails. It acts like a radiator and regulates the bird’s body temperature,” he notes nonchalantly, as he packs up his equipment.

Tourists on a boat tour in Cost Rica sightsee for spider monkeys
Visitors have first–row seats for a show of spider monkeys in the treetops.

The brown–hued Río Frío, which flows all the way to the Nicaraguan border, looks like a long, lazy river. But its banks are busy with all sorts of birds, monkeys and lizards. Our flat–bottomed boat proceeds slowly, and I can’t sit still on one of the wide benches. Surrounded by so many animal species, I prefer to pace up and down the deck, binoculars in hand, to make sure I don’t miss anything. During the rainy season, the water collects in ponds where thousands of birds, both migratory and native, gather to feed. Soon we come across Amazonian kingfishers in search of their dinner. Farther along, an anhinga cormorant is using its beak to toss around a fish, like a soccer player juggling a ball. Nearby, a Jesus Christ lizard (named for the long legs that allow it to “walk” on water) is lazing in the sun. After identifying three types of herons and admiring a half–submerged caiman, I ask Raúl if he can help me spot something a little more rare. Our search is interrupted by a horrible scream – a cross between a garbage disposal and a string–bending electric guitar – that would be blood–curdling if it weren’t broad daylight. Our boat approaches a portside colony of howler monkeys in the trees. Their cry, amplified by a chamber near their vocal cords, is an effective technique for letting the entire neighbourhood know they’re around. I’m surprised to find them quietly munching leaves and casually letting out a scream or two between mouthfuls.

The pool at the Nayara Springs resort is right off the Amor Loco restaurant
A hop, skip and dive from the resort’s Amor Loco restaurant, the pool at Nayara Springs is nestled in the heart of the tropical forest.
Plantain chips served with a fresh ceviche
Crisped patacones (plantain chips) accompany a fresh ceviche.

With that soundtrack of hideous cries in the background, I scan the foliage for red, yellow or blue feathers. I feel like a little kid; the more colours there are, the happier I am. At this point, Raúl steps in to give me a crucial lesson in ornithology: You can’t judge a bird by its colour. The most interesting birds are not necessarily the most colourful. “A great potoo is perched at the top of this dead tree,” he says. Squinting, I can only see a tree trunk and a bunch of bare branches. Raúl grabs his mirror and aims a reflection at one of the branches. “Look at the tip of the branch. The great potoo isn’t on the branch; he is the branch,” he explains. With big yellow eyes and a minuscule beak projecting above a large open mouth, the great potoo looks like an angry Muppet. Its feathers blend into the bark, so that when it closes its eyes and points its beak skyward, it becomes part of the landscape. It’s like playing Where’s Waldo? in a land of Waldos.

A motmot searching for something to hunt
Pausing on a branch, this broad–billed motmot searches for prey.

The next day, we leave the animals behind to mingle with another species, Homo sapiens. A few kilometres from the city of La Fortuna, our driver stops at a bridge and drops us off at the Río El Salto, a shallow river with a waterfall that attracts both locals and tourists for picnics and swims. I’d like to stretch out and relax to the sound of the water, but a group of kids are monkeying around, swinging from a rope, doing backflips and plunging in. When they notice that their acrobatics have caught my attention, they try even more dangerous stunts, even diving into the water from a reverse handstand. A tico (Costa Rican) with a big smile and a bandana, introduces himself. “Want to jump through the falls?” he asks, pointing to the drop, several metres high, behind him. We swim toward the rocky wall and sidle along it to get behind the curtain of rushing water. Scaling the slippery rock face barefoot is challenging enough; it doesn’t help that I’m also getting a cold shower in the face. After a few attempts, my new acquaintance gives me a boost – translation: he grabs one of my feet and gives me a solid push on the backside – and I manage to scrabble awkwardly up onto the rock that will be my launching pad. Running up to and over the edge in a borderline–graceful manoeuvre somewhere between taking flight and diving, I emerge from the waterfall like a flying fish.

An employee at Centaura Ranch tends to a horse
To amp up the adrenaline, Nayara Springs offers horseback outings to Centaura Ranch.
A man and woman birdwatching at the Centaura Ranch
Scanning the skies for toucans at Centaura Ranch.
A Jesus Christ Lizard perched on a branch
A heavenly encounter with a Jesus Christ Lizard.

I’m still basking in the previous day’s aquatic accomplishments when I make my way to the hotel lobby at dawn to meet Hugo, who is taking us around the property for some serious birding. Carrying his telescope over his shoulder, this ornithologist of few words is a veritable Lucky Luke – faster than his own shadow, whipping out his telescope well before I’ve seen a thing or even heard a peep. Carlotta is following us from afar, disappointed not to be the centre of attention. In less than an hour, I record over 20 species in my notebook. “This tree is like a buffet for birds,” says Hugo, pointing his lens at a fig tree. It’s also a feast for the eyes: Seven different types of bird drop by in the space of a few minutes, including a violaceous trogon, the yellow and purple cousin of the quetzal. Before we leave, Hugo shows me a fern that, when pressed against the skin, leaves an imprint like a tattoo. Then he points out a red gum tree whose reddish–orange bark seems to be peeling. “We call it the tourist tree,” he says, waiting for my reaction. I ask him why, and he points to my sunburned shoulder: “Because in a few days, you’re going to look just like it!”

Two brown horses standing beside a palm tree
Beneath the palm trees at Centaura Ranch, these two horses are seeing eye to eye.

In the evening, slightly fuzzy after a five–course meal with wine pairings at Nostalgia, the hotel’s wine bar, I head back up the path to my villa. The stars are out, twinkling beyond the overhanging leaves. All of a sudden, there’s a crackling noise in the shadows. I cock my head toward the shrubs, convinced that this is it, my moment of glory: Some amazing animal is going to show its face. I can already picture myself running to my friend’s villa to gloat about my incredible encounter, sure to eclipse the armadillo he reported earlier. It’s not to be. The rustling gives way to disappointment as a marmalade cat saunters onto the path and shoots me a glance that says, “What were you expecting, a jaguar?”

Boats docked at the Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve in Costa Rica
Caño Negro Wildlife Reserve has what it takes to float your boat.
A boy swinging on a rope over the water at Río El Salto
A local teengaer gets into the swing of things at Río El Salto.

On my final day, I make my way down the stone path to the lobby. The birds are singing, but my binoculars, notebooks and field guide are packed away in my luggage. I sit down near a guardrail and let my feet dangle above the abyss, daydreaming under the canopy. Hold on. My eyes lock onto a branch in the distance, a branch that is moving up and down, making a soft noise. I figure it’s probably just the wind. But as the sound continues, I peer attentively at the forest before me until I spot a patch of black plumage that appears to be attached to a section of yellow beak. I don’t even have a chance to let out a victory whoop before the bird flies off. With a smile as big as a toucan’s beak – and proud as a peacock – I rejoin my friend who eyes me quizzically. “You look like you’re in seventh heaven,” he says. “That’s because I just saw an angel,” I say, “with a very long beak.”