Costa Rica, the bridge between the two Americas

Costa Rica, the bridge between the two Americas

Costa Rica boasts the most extensive network of national parks and reserves in Central America- almost 30% of the territory is under protection. The great majority of birds here are tropical residents , most of whom undertake local, seasonal migrations in search of abundant food sources (flowers, fruit and insects).

These birds include some of the most spectacular representatives of the Central American avifauna. The variety is staggering, featuring some of the most attractive species, boasting a spectacular array of plumage and song.

Prime place for stunning plumage goes to the mythical bird opf the Mayas and Aztecs, the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) known simply as Quetzal in Costa Rica, where it is relatively common and easy to observe if you get to know the right areas to see it.

Other spectacular, though less well-known, tropical species are found in this tiny country. Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus), known locally as “bell-bird”, has an arresting metallic call that rings out over large distances and also has very attractive plumage.

Another marvel for its incredible dress and courtship displays is Bare-necked Umbrellabird (Cephalopterus glabricollis), known locally as “sun-shade bird” or “tapir bird”.

As well as these three species, there is a multitude of other tropical gems to be seen in Costa Rica’s natural spaces, making a short trip across the country an unforgettable experience.

The great variety of microhabitats and the way bird species have adapted to them has given the Neotropics the most diverse avifauna of anywhere in the world.

Resplendent Quetzal

Three-wattled Bellbird

There are more than 600 resident bird species in Costa Rica, and an additional 250 or so pass through on migration. This makes the country a prime location for witnesssing some of the massive displacement of migrating birds that takes place twice a year between North and South America. These movements are very diverse, each species having its own migration strategy. As the country is split down the middle by high mountain ranges, the migration routes can roughly be dividied into two: the Pacific route and the Caribbean route.

The Pacific route involves large numbers of waders and waterbirds, and a variety of smaller birds such as flycatchers, warblers and vireos.

However, where the migration really transforms into a spectacle is along the Caribbean route, mainly along the coastal plains.

During migration periods, huge groups of more than 50,000 American vultures and raptors appear. The coast itself is frequented by diurnal raptors and birds like pelicans, nightjars, swifts and swallows. Nocturnal migration of passerines is abundant, with huge “falls” of grounded migrants in adverse conditions common during those seasons in the Caribbean.

The southern Caribbean coast near Panama is an outstanding bird migration hotspot. Many species congregate along the coast due to the bottle effect brought about by the nearby cordillera, the highest mountain range in Central America: the almost permanently cloud-covered, 4000m-high Talamanca range.

Thus the visitor can see skies full of groups of raptors, and flocks of swifts and swallows here, and they can also find a huge variety of smaller birds in the abundant surrounding vegetation. It is this variety that makes this particluar area such a bird-rich hotspot for bird observation in Costa Rica.

American Swallow-tailed Kite

Turkey Vulture

The most frequent diurnal migrants are Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus) and Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) which form huge flocks of thousands of individuals. Smaller groups of American Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea) and Mississippi Kite (Ictinia misissippiensis) can be seen along with lesser numbers of other hawks, falcons, sparrowhawks and fish eagles. On occasion Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) have been observed flying with the raptors.

Other noteworthy diurnal migrants are the enormous quantities of swallows and swifts that follow the coast, and groups of American nightjars are frequently seen. Flocks of warblers, vireos and tanagers provide flashes of bright technicolour against the green backdrop.