This article appeared in the January 9, 2012 issue of Matador Magazine
Birding in Costa Rica is spectacular.  There are two reasons for this.  One is that, with a few exceptions, all the birds are new and different.  The second is that the tropics have a well deserved reputation for having evolved much more colorful avian life forms than the temperate zones.  If you’re a birder, especially a U.S. birder, throwing yourself into the tropics to continue your birding, your adult treasure hunt, is . . . well, just imagine a kid being turned loose in a candy store.

As word got out to our friends that we were spending the holidays in Costa Rica, we discovered a lot of non-birders had this small Central American country between Nicaragua on the north and Panama on the south on their bucket list.  We decided to secretly conduct an informal poll as to why.  The number one mention was “great beaches,” and number two was “zip lines.”

We couldn’t help having a little chuckle over this.  Last time I checked there were great beaches in south Florida, along the Gulf Coast, and in southern California.  And did you know there are zip lines in thirty-nine of our very own United States?  Here are a few of the real reasons we think even non-birders should experience Costa Rica:

It’s warm in our winter.  In fact, it’s pretty much the same temperature all year round.

It’s a spectacularly beautiful country, and I’ll try not to use “spectacular” again in this article.  A chain of volcanoes, a couple very much currently active, runs down the center of the country, and these mountains catch a lot of moisture, making Costa Rica very green.  Think Pacific Northwest, only a lot warmer.  And those rains are more sporadic than, say Seattle or Portland.

It’s close and it’s easily accessible.  There’s a five hour direct non-stop from Phoenix to San Jose, the capital.

It’s safe.  Of course everything is relative, but Costa Rica is a democracy with no standing army.

Costa Rica is also a very friendly country.  Most Ticos (the Costa Ricans nickname for themselves) speak English and welcome visitors who “no habla espanol.”

With that out of the way, let’s talk about why birders should visit the “Rich Coast.”  Costa Rica is a country the size of West Virginia, but it has about 870 bird species, nearly 100 more than the entire North American continent.  Unfortunately Costa Rica’s roads are like West Virginia’s too—hilly and winding—and many of them are unpaved.  Driving in Costa Rica is an adventure, but don’t worry.  Most travel companies and some of the ecolodges provide drivers.  And really, don’t travel and adventure typically appear in the same sentence?

Costa Rica is justly famous for its biological diversity.  That diversity is due to the altitudinal changes and the generous rainfall.  Irazu, the highest volcano, is 11,257 feet, and those great Pacific beaches, even on those hilly, winding roads, are just half a day’s drive downslope.  Birds have evolved to fill habitat niches, more niches, more birds.  Costa Rica has a lot of niches and thus a lot of birds, and those 870 species are compressed into a very small geographical area, making it relatively easy to see lots of species in a relatively short time, regardless of the roads.

Here are just three examples of Costa Rican avian diversity.  In the U.S. there are 16 species of hummingbirds, many birders’ as well as non-birders’ favorite family of birds.  All are about the same size, three to five inches.  Two of them are stunning, one male locally known as the “copper bullet” sports bright orange body plumage, the other male bright red candy striping on its throat.  Costa Rica, though, has 48(!) hummingbird species, several of them the size of sparrows, nearly 7 inches long.  One has a sickle shaped bill, decurved 90 degrees and evolved to feed on only one type of Heliconia flower.  One is purple-copper with a snow white crown, aptly name Snowcap.  Costa Rica’s hummers just blow away those in North America

Another suite of birds like this is the tanager family, a group of colorful, medium sized fruit and insect gleaners, three in North America, 29(!) in Costa Rica.  U.S. tanagers come in two colors, red and yellow with black markings.  Costa Rica tanagers cover the rainbow.  Listen to some of the names—Blue-and-gold, Crimson-collared, Emerald, Silver-throated.  The Speckled Tanager, a stunning palette of iridescent greens and blues with sharp black chevrons, may be the coolest bird in Central America.

Then there is a whole family of birds in Costa Rica with no relatives in North America.  These are the antbirds, which follow the huge swarms of army ants that patrol the jungle floor eating everything in their path.  Antbirds, and other species as well, follow the ants to glean the insects trying to escape the swarm.  Birders lucky enough to come across an ant swarm are in for sensory overload, perhaps two dozen species in view at one time, in a feeding frenzy and totally oblivious to human observers.  As many as half of these birds may be lifers, extremely reclusive species hard to see in the jungle undergrowth under normal circumstances.

The two most sought avian gems in this Costa Rican treasure hunt are the Resplendent Quetzal and the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.  The names alone hint at the remarkable uniqueness of these species.  The male quetzal is a fourteen inch package of scarlet and bright green, vaguely reminiscent of a parrot, possessing four extended uppertail coverts that extend some 30 inches out beyond the actual tail of the bird.  The male umbrellabird is black with a large red throat sac, replete with hanging wattles, which it inflates during breeding season to impress females.

Not everything in Costa Rica is wild and exotic.  Remember our opening caveat—“with a few exceptions” Rich Coast birds are new and different?  Those exceptions are North American birds that have migrated south in winter for the same reason many birders do—warm weather.  The interesting thing, however, is that these migrants are wearing their drab winter plumage during the migratory season.  They provide an interesting identification challenge for birders used to seeing them in their breeding finery back home in the states, and it further underscores the stunning colors of the native species on their home ground.

The breathtaking colors found on tropical birds begs the question, “Why?”  The Clif’s Notes version of the scientific answer is that the striking colors of tropical birds, an invitation to predation if they lived in open country, actually works as camouflage amidst the interplay of ever changing light and shadow in the dense vegetation of the tropics.  Bird photography there, for example, can be a nightmare of low light and exposure problems, and a brief but clean look at bright colors in the shifting light of a random sunshaft is really the ultimate reward for birders and photographers alike.

Costa Rica may be the only country in the world with a national expression.  Pura Vida.  Literally it means “pure life,” but what began as a marketing slogan for the travel industry has taken on a resonance of its own even amongst native ticos.  It’s the Spanish equivalent of “It’s all good” here in the states, and Costa Rica is definitely pura vida for birdwatchers.  Upon our return this year I spoke with a non-birding friend who had also been in Costa Rica with family for the holidays, her first time there.  They had gone to the beach and they had zip-lined, but all she could talk about were the toucans she had seen feeding in the trees outside their condo.  She says she’s going back to Costa Rica.  I think she may be going back as a birder.

Pura Vida.