If good things come in small packages, tiny Costa Rica is a prime example. Roughly the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire, this verdant Central American country preserves an incredible variety of habitats and a wealth of wildlife that dwells within its borders. In fact, tiny Costa Rica maintains the highest percentage of ecologically protected land of any country in the world.
"Outstanding in all aspects—from the variety of colorful birds, frogs and critters to learning new techniques for photographing hummingbirds. The leader displayed boundless energy in providing photo opportunities.
With so many incredible wild places to explore, and so many wonderful ecolodges to choose among, selecting from the best to include in a 2-week-long bird photography itinerary is a difficult task. From the lush rain forests of Costa Rica's Caribbean Lowlands—the country's largest eco zone—to the epiphyte-laden cloud forests of the highlands, over 800 species of intriguing birds provide exceptional photo opportunities. These include several species of toucans, colorful tanagers, honeycreepers, parrots and macaws, a multitude of hummingbirds and, the star of the show, resplendent quetzal—considered by many to be the most beautiful bird in the Americas. Our trip is timed to photograph quetzals at the height of their nesting season, making their movements more predictable.
Birds aren't the only banquet on our photographic menu. Our photo tour encompasses a broad range of photography styles and subjects, from macro images of extraordinary tree and poison dart frogs, butterflies, leaf-cutter ants (and a variety of other insects), to wide-angle shots of forest interiors and broad mountain vistas, and fast action photography of jewel-like hummingbirds. And—if conditions permit and the creatures of the night are accommodating—we also have the opportunity to photograph frogs and nectar-feeding bats after dark.
All of our selected lodges have well-established bird feeding stations where we are able to entice many species of dazzling birds onto attractive and photogenic natural perches. Sugar-nectar feeders attract hummingbirds—numerous species and in big numbers—that we photograph "frozen" in flight with the aid of our brand-new multiple flash systems that allow high-speed shooting with a deep depth of field to capture the entire bird in sharp focus, with a light-balanced background.
Costa Rica is just a short hop from the United States. The country is politically stable—as many as 50,000 American retirees live there drawn by the country's miles of unspoiled tropical beaches, its exceptional biodiversity, and relaxed lifestyle. For those who want to experience their first photography foray into the tropical Americas, Costa Rica is a great starting point!
On this trip we believe we have achieved the perfect combination of a thoroughly productive itinerary with carefully selected photography locales, a broad selection of target-rich habitats, and an ample amount of time at each place to fully capture their neotropical bounty with our cameras.
Be sure to check out the 2016 Costa Rica Trip Report by Mark Thomas
Day 1 (Apr 5)
Participants fly to San Jose, Costa Rica. Our hotel offers complimentary shuttle service from the airport. We meet this evening for dinner and an introduction to the days ahead. (D)
We drive to our lodge in the Caribbean Lowlands. The lodge is set alongside the Sarapiqui River on 500 acres of lowland rain forest preserve. Several well-stocked bird feeders bring a variety of colorful subjects close to our cameras. But birds aren’t the only attraction here. Colorful poison dart frogs are found throughout the grounds, making wonderful macro subjects for our cameras. The emerald basilisk lizard, iridescent green and sporting its three impressive dorsal crests, is frequently found here and is a very cooperative subject. The warm, wet climate of the lowlands is the perfect habitat for the red-eyed tree frog, another rain forest icon. In the evenings, we use special lighting techniques to photograph them as they come out to court and feed. We visit a nearby property where we are likely to see and photograph macaws. The following morning we visit an eco center that has well-established fruit and hummingbird feeding stations whose frequent visitors include the red-legged honeycreeper, green honeycreeper, blue gray tanager, crimson-collared tanager, golden-hooded tanager, Passerini’s tanager and a host of others. Along the river, sunbitterns and fascinated tiger-herons are regularly seen. We are likely to photograph several toucan species, including keel-billed, chestnut-mandibled and collared araçaris, plus Montezuma oropendolas, brown-hooded parrots, and numerous tanagers and honeycreepers. Howler monkeys, agoutis, coatimundis and neotropical river otters are among the interesting mammals we may encounter here. (BLD)
On the morning of Day 5 we take a short drive to a nearby biological research station. This area offers the highest bird diversity in the Caribbean Lowlands. We spend the morning hiking and photographing on the local trail system with a knowledgeable local guide. Here we may see remarkable great green macaws, bare-necked umbrellabirds and great potoos. Fruiting trees throughout the property are often visited by flocks of colorful parrots. Toucans, honeycreepers and tanagers are also regulars here. After lunch we continue to our next lodge in the Central Caribbean Foothills.
We arrive in late afternoon at our foothills lodge situated at 3,000 feet in Costa Rica's Cordillera de Talamanca. Toward dusk we relax on the lodge balcony with a drink, enjoying the view and watching the birds as they fly to their evening roosts. In the mornings, we shoot birds from this same balcony while sipping our morning coffee or tea. Many species visit the lodge’s fruit-filled bird feeders, including blue-crowned motmots, lineated woodpeckers, golden-hooded tanagers, scarlet-rumped caciques, keel-billed toucans, and many more. Conditions permitting, in the mornings we travel a short distance to a nearby river in pursuit of the beautiful sunbittern. At the hummingbird feeders we are likely to see green thorntails, white-necked jacobins, green-breasted mangos, black-crested coquettes, snowcaps and rufous-tailed hummingbirds.
We set up our high-speed flash stations in the afternoon where everyone gets a chance to rotate/share the equipment to capture hummingbirds “frozen” in flight. After dinner, we have the rare opportunity to photograph nectar bats in flight as they maneuver through the forest to feed. (BLD)
Following breakfast on Day 8, we depart for the highlands. Driving up the winding mountain roads we enter thick cloud forest. The area is home to the superlative resplendent quetzal—one of the world’s most spectacular birds! Our trip is timed for optimum quetzal activity during the nesting season. The aptly-named “resplendent” quetzal is like no other bird on earth. The brilliant red and green male has fantastic elongated upper tail coverts forming a feather train that make him three-and-a-half-feet long from head to tail. Our destination is San Gerardo de Dota where our lodge is located at 7,200 feet in a valley at the edge of mature oak forest and the Savegre River. While quetzals are regularly seen and photographed here, the lodge also has wonderful hummingbird feeders that regularly attract numerous species, including gray-tailed mountain gems, green violetears, and magnificent and volcano hummingbirds. Many species restricted to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama are also found here, including sulphur-winged parakeets, Costa Rican pygmy owls, black-capped flycatchers, flame-throated warblers and flame-colored tanagers, to name a few.
On the morning of Day 9 we photograph at a nearby feeding station a short drive up the mountain. The station was designed, built and maintained by a photographer with bird photography in mind. It has both fruit feeders and hummingbird feeders and the perches are all natural and situated perfectly for uncluttered and pleasing backgrounds. (BLD)
This morning we return to the bird feeding station located a short distance up the mountain for a second opportunity to photograph at this productive site. After lunch we drive further into the highlands to our final lodge located at nearly 8,700 feet in a habitat with a variety of high-country species, including monotypic and extraordinarily colorful fiery-throated hummingbirds. This afternoon we take our first trip to a nearby quetzal nest site. Our guides have full knowledge of all of the active nest sites in the area—and know what we are looking for as photographers. (BLD)
Today is dedicated to photographing resplendent quetzals. We have scheduled morning and afternoon excursions with our guide to visit the nesting sites that offer the best photographic possibilities. Our guides are in direct contact with the local farmers and landowners and are able to bring us to the best locations for photographing this magnificent bird. With luck, we capture that desirable quetzal flight shot. (BLD)
This morning we photograph the high-altitude bird species near our lodge—or make sure our memory cards are downloaded and files backed up. After lunch we travel back to our airport hotel in San Jose. (BLD)
The Costa Rica tour was superb. We visited, enjoyed and photographed a tremendous variety of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, etc. at various elevations and lighting conditions. It was a rewarding experience, led by Mark Thomas, a knowledgeable, energetic and sharing guide/mentor.
This is truly a great workshop. You learn at least 3 photo techniques that are not usually used: flashlight for red eyes frogs (instead of using flash), multiple flash set-ups to arrest wings of hummingbirds, night shots of bats in flight—and you get the opportunity to photograph the quetzal—the bird of Central America.