Costa Rica Birds—The Green Season 2021 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Jan 24, 2022

At roughly the size of West Virginia, Costa Rica encompasses only 0.03 percent of the planet’s surface but is still within the top 20 richest countries in biodiversity on Earth in terms of species density. More than 900 species of birds, 240 species of mammals (over 100 of which are bats), 175 species of amphibians (85% are frogs) and 225 species of reptiles are found here. Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity is attributed to the dramatic variation in its terrain. This tiny country has wetlands, mountains, rivers, and arid plains. You can find many different types of forests here, including tropical dry forests, rainforests, and cloud forests. Add to this the fact that approximately 28% of Costa Rica is protected land and it is easy to understand why it is high on most photographers’ travel lists.

Costa Rica has two main seasons. The wet season (a.k.a. the green season) which runs May through November and the ‘not so wet’ season from December through April. It would be difficult to characterize this 2nd season as a true dry season because rains are still common during this time—just a bit less frequent.

For years I had been researching a tour to Costa Rica during the green season. All my research led me to believe that it would be exceptionally fruitful. Our April Costa Rica Birds tours have always been very productive! So it was with much excitement that we were able to arrange a perfect trip at the end of the green season this year.

Our first destination is a lodge in the Caribbean lowlands. The property literally buzzes with the sounds of strawberry poison dart frogs. This diminutive frog, only about ¾ of an inch long, sounds a bit like a soft cicada. They are magnificently colored with a bright red body and blue legs, which gives rise to their other name, the blue jean poison dart frog. As brightly colored as they are, they are often difficult to spot in the leaf litter. So, we followed our ears to locate several of them to photograph. As we stopped for lunch, we passed by a bird feeding station that was alive with activity. Yellow-throated toucans, collared araçaris, two different woodpeckers and a variety of colorful tanagers and honeycreepers kept everyone’s cameras busy. While we ate, a heavy rainstorm hit and lasted maybe an hour. While it was raining, the birds were nowhere to be found. But the instant it stopped the birds flooded back to the feeding area. The frogs also became very active. We found several green and black poison dart frogs to photograph following the rain. The afternoon was full of shooting opportunities for birds and frogs.

Another lowland resident and the unofficial ambassador of the rainforest is the red-eyed tree frog. During the day, they sleep high in the trees above still water ponds only descending to look for mates after dark. Just like the poison dart frogs, the red-eyed tree frogs were more active than ever this time of year. They were calling for mates long before the sun went down. After dinner, we located several of them and everyone captured these rainforest icons with their cameras.

As you travel through the various elevations in Costa Rica, it becomes apparent that some species are found only at certain elevations. Macaws are the largest and most spectacularly colored parrots in the world and are found in the lowlands of Costa Rica. The next morning, we drove to our shooting location in drizzly rain. The rain stopped but the sky remained overcast which kept the temperature relatively cool. The brilliant red, yellow and blue, scarlet macaw and its less common cousin, the great green macaw with its electric blue wings and red and blue tail, flew between perches and trees. Sometimes as individuals and sometimes in groups of up to six, they repeatedly flew past us while our motor drives whirred.

As we began our climb up to the foothills, we stopped at a bird feeding station on private land. Unique to this 
location is a small pond that attracts wetland birds such as wood rails and the occasional kingfisher along with a variety of other birds like a half dozen colorful tanagers, 3 species of honeycreepers, Montezuma and chestnut-headed oropendolas, 3 species of woodpeckers and a variety of hummingbirds. After a successful shoot, we continued to our next destination at around 3000ft. At this elevation, the air is noticeably cooler and drier than it was in the lowlands. But rain showers are still possible at any time. While this location offers us a few more species of bird that we did not see in the lowlands, such as Lesson’s motmot, brown jay and grey-headed chachalaca, our focus here is photographing hummingbirds and bats. We provide all the specialized high-speed flash equipment needed to capture these fast-flying birds and mammals frozen in flight as they come in to feed at our forest flowers.

There was plenty of time for us to settle in and gather for a bat photography tutorial session where we make sure that everyone sets their cameras properly and answer any questions regarding the evening’s shoot. After a gourmet dinner, we headed up into the forest where I had already set up the flash equipment. The bats were now flying to our banana flower. The group quickly set up their gear and the bats put on quite a show. We took a break about every half hour to check a few of our shots to make sure everything was in focus and composed properly. The activity is exceptional, and we shot for about 3 hours before calling it a night.

The entire next day was dedicated to photographing hummingbirds as they flew to our flowers to feed. Using some of the same high-speed flash equipment that we used with the bats, we freeze the wings of these flying gems in mid flap. As the afternoon ends, the hummingbird activity gets even crazier. Just before dusk we stopped shooting. The late day rains that often roll in over the nearby mountains were nowhere to be seen. So, I quickly broke down the flash gear and took it back up into the forest for a second night of bat photography.

From our foothills lodge we continued to climb much higher into the cloud forest at about 9000 feet. We were there for a very special subject—the resplendent quetzal. The daily fog and clouds create a forest of trees covered in lush mosses, orchids, and bromeliads—the perfect backdrop to feature what is considered one of the most beautiful birds in the Americas. I had already heard from our local guide that he had two very good spots for us to see and photograph the quetzals as they feed on the olive-sized avocados that they prize. The resplendent quetzal belongs to the family of birds known as trogons. It is about the size of a crow and its colors can only be described as electric. The male is bright green with a vibrant red breast. Depending on how his head is turned it can look iridescent green to black. The most noteworthy feature of the male is the very long covert feathers that can extend 3 feet beyond its actual tail. At our first spot, there were no fewer than 5 males feeding on the mini avocados and vying for the attention of two females. With two additional quetzal shoots scheduled for the next day, everyone came away with excellent shots of quetzals perched on epiphyte-laden branches and even a few shots of quetzals in flight.

Typically, our Costa Rica tours end in the highlands. But this time, we would end back in the Caribbean lowlands at one of our most productive locations. We arrived at our lodge in late afternoon. There is what can best be described as an explosion of bird activity on the property. Keel-billed and yellow-throated toucans as well as their smaller relative, the collared araçari were all vying for position on natural bromeliad-covered perches near a cluster of bananas. Smaller tanagers in a virtual rainbow of colors, orioles, oropendolas and 3 species of honeycreepers waited for their opportunity to grab a mouthful of fruit. On the ground, the turkey-sized great curassow made its presence known. Not the typical one male and one female that I am used to seeing, but at least 10 males and 10 females including the somewhat rare striped female. The next two days had us alternating between shooting at the perches, photographing king vultures from a blind, safely capturing close-ups of frogs and snakes, including venomous eyelash vipers and the fer-de-lance and at local feeding stations designed to attract smaller birds like tanagers and honeycreepers. Our Costa Rica tours are always high-volume shoots. The green season was no exception.

What I had been hearing about visiting Costa Rica during the green season was true! The variety and quantity of birdlife far outweighs the risk of an extra rain shower or two. I’m so glad we are making the Costa Rica Birds—the Green Season tour a regular offering.