Focus on Birds in Costa Rica

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14540A, International


  • Learn about birds, wildlife, and neotropical ecosystems from one of Costa Rica’s premier bird guides, who will accompany us the entire trip
  • Stay at beautiful lodges on private reserves in a variety of ecosystems, from coastal mangroves to timberline páramo
  • Enjoy boat tours, sea kayaking, botanical gardens, and hiking in national parks and preserves


  • All meals and lodging
  • All on-trip transportation
  • All activities, guide service, airport pick-up, and tips


DatesFeb 23–Mar 10, 2014
StaffCarol Dienger

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Squawking parrots and roaring howler monkeys awaken the forest at dawn. The haunting call of a tinamou and “tinks” of frogs signal the arrival of dusk.  A nighttime serenade by a pauraque is joined by the persistent buzz of cicadas. These sounds of wildlife invite us to explore the natural world of Costa Rica.  We will focus on birds on this 16-day trip. Expect to be dazzled by jewel-like hummingbirds, flamboyant tanagers and trogons, comical toucans, tail-swinging motmots, and raucous scarlet macaws. And expect to be challenged in the search for skulking antbirds, to identify those frustrating flycatchers, and to separate the calls of woodcreepers. Not only will we see those large spectacular birds that are the icons of the tropics, but we will also see crocodiles and iguanas, coatimudis and monkeys (possibly all four species), sloths napping in cecropia trees, and fist-sized iridescent blue Morpho butterflies. Our destinations will sample a variety of tropical habitats in order to observe the associated flora and fauna of different ecosystems.

This trip’s itinerary will focus in the southern part of Costa Rica, and the first habitat that we explore will be the wetlands, mangroves, and dry lowland forests near Tárcoles on the Pacific coast.  Much farther south in hot and humid coastal rainforest we can float quietly in sea kayaks among the waterways of Golfo Dulce. High in the Talamanca Mountains we will hike in the seldom visited Amistad Biosphere Preserve, a huge, incredibly diverse highland wilderness spread over the continental divide and shared with Panama. Next we live in the midst of a botanical garden at an OTS (Organization of Tropical Studies) station, at mid-elevation on the Pacific slope a stone’s throw from the Panamanian border. Our final destination will be the timberline páramo and the cool cloud forests of Rio Savegre in a landscape shrouded in mist where the most famous of all of Costa Rica’s birds, the resplendent quetzal, is reliably in residence.

As the title suggests, this trip is designed for birdwatchers who wish to expand their birding experience in the Central American tropics.  Our outstanding naturalist guide, Carlos Gomez (“Charlie”) is one of the most respected bird guides in Costa Rica. His keen ears, sharp eyes, and gentle ways will help everyone discover many new species and learn about neotropical ecosystems. This will be a bit of an anniversary trip; the first trip this leader did with Charlie in Costa Rica was 20 years ago and this will be our tenth trip working together.

Christened “the Rich Coast” by Columbus in 1492, Costa Rica is part of the land bridge between North and South America.  In recent decades, this peaceful, biological treasure has become a favorite destination for nature lovers, especially birders, from the world over.  Only 75 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean at its narrowest point, Costa Rica is small enough to permit travel to distinctly different regions in a relatively short time.  Slightly smaller than our state of West Virginia (or California’s Fresno County), Costa Rica has more than 3,000 species of orchids, a world-famous national park system, and more species of mammals and birds than the continental United States and Canada combined.

A democracy since 1889, Costa Rica is politically stable and internally safe. The country’s constitution forbids a standing army, and elections are free and fair. The literacy rate of 96 percent and the high standard of health are subjects of pride for the “Ticos,” as Costa Ricans call themselves. Costa Rica’s natural beauty, comfortable climate, and hospitable people have attracted visitors and immigrants from all over the world; more than 80,000 U.S. citizens have chosen to make their home here.


Get out your map so you can trace our route as we begin with our arrival at the airport in San Jose, the capital city.  Our first night will be in Atenas, just 20 minutes west of the airport. In the morning we will travel about an hour to our lodge in Tárcoles on the Pacific coast for two nights. Next we drive all the way south on the coastal road (not always in the best of shape) until it meets the Pan-American, then we continue even farther south to the town of Golfito on Golfo Dulce. We transfer by boat to our gulf-side lodge, where we will stay for three nights.  Back on the bus, we will drive to San Vito and then even farther northeast to the Zona Protectora Las Tablas—that little bump of Costa Rica that goes into Panama—for another three-night stay. Our next stop will be two nights at the Wilson Botanical Gardens, located just a few miles south of San Vito.  Now trace the main road to the northwest to San Isidro; it becomes the Pan-Am and then goes “up the hill” to near Cerro de la Muerte (“Mountain of Death”). Look on your maps for Villa Mills or Georgina, bus stops near the side road that descends to Rio Savegre, where we'll stay our last three nights.  On our final day we will return to San Jose for the final night before our international flights in the morning.

The entire trip will be south of San Jose. Throughout our travels, we will ride in a comfortable, small, coaster bus driven by a very experienced birder-driver. When we search for birds and other wildlife on slow-moving rivers and through mangrove estuaries, we will use small, motorized boats.

Day 1: Arrive at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San José, Costa Rica. You will be transfered to our hotel near Atenas. A welcome dinner follows a short reception/orientation meeting. You might see your first “life bird” just sitting in the garden at our comfortable family-run hotel.

Day 2: We hit the road early for the short drive to Carara National Park, where we will spend the afternoon walking forest trails in this very “birdy” habitat, which is the transition zone between the dry northwest and the much moister southern Pacific coast. This will be your “guaranteed scarlet macaw” location. Some other species of special interest at Carara are Great Tinamou, Baird’s Trogon, Turquoise-billed Motmot, Fiery-billed Aracari, Royal Flycatcher, and Orange-collared and Long-tailed Manakins.  At our lodge we will look for the Crane Hawk, Black-and-white Owl, and hopefully, the elusive Yellow-billed Cotinga.

Day 3: Dawn will find us again at Carara, birding on different trails. In the afternoon we will enjoy a boat tour of the estuary of Río Tárcoles and the nearby mangroves. We will see many huge crocodiles in the river and mangrove specialty birds such as Mangrove Swallow, Mangrove hummingbird, Mangrove Warbler, Mangrove Black Hawk—you get the idea. Hopefully we may catch a glimpse of a King Vulture or Zone-tailed Hawk overhead.

Day 4: Time to move on farther south along the sometimes adventurous coastal road. This is by no means a “main highway,” but the scenery can be great, and we’ll pass through interesting agricultural areas. Once we meet the Pan-Am highway, it is only a short distance to Golfito; from there a boat will transport us to our delightful gulf-side ecolodge, which will be like luxury camping—the food is fantastic. 

Days 5-6: We'll have two full days to hike the trails in this isolated piece of coastal rainforest, try out some sea-kayaking on the peaceful Golfo Dulce, and tour more mangroves by boat. A whole new host of birds await in this warm, humid habitat, as well as several of Costa Rica’s species of monkeys, and possibly even a tamandua, a small aboreal anteater. This is the place to look for some hummingbirds with very limited distribution: the tiny White-crested Coquette, the amazing White-tipped Sicklebill, and the Charming Hummingbird.

Day 7: From the ocean to the mountains will be the theme for the day as we return by boat to Golfito, where we rejoin our bus for the drive up into the Talamanca Mountains. Our lodge is situated in the Zona Protectora las Tablas, a part of the Armistad Biosphere Reserve, a 600,000-hectare UNESCO World Heritage site.  In addition to the Zona Protectora, the reserve includes La Amistad and Chirripó national parks, La Cruces Biological Station, and a handful of Indian reservations.

Days 8-9: Two full days to hike trails in the mountains (4,000’ and up), where we will be on the special lookout for an Ornate Hawk-eagle, Black-and-white  Hawk-eagle, Solitary Eagle (It’s eagle country), Turquoise Cotinga, Blue Seedeater, Black-faced Antthrush, Three-wattled Bellbird, and 20 species of hummingbirds. Not only birds—we’ll watch for a Tapir, Peccaries, more monkeys, and the largest grasshoppers (3”) in the world. Our lodge is located on an organic coffee farm and is powered by solar and hydroelectric energy.  Coffee-processing can be observed from the lodge.

Day 10: We have only a short drive to Las Cruces Biological Station of the Organization for Tropical Studies near San Vito, where we will actually live in the midst of the extensive Wilson Botanical Gardens. How can it get any better, especially for those with a love of tropical plants?  Heliconias, bromeliads, orchids, bamboos, and especially palms are some of the most outstanding collections.

Day 11: We have all day to fill your camera with photos of plants and to check out the many colorful bird species that call this garden home. We will hope for a mixed flock as well as some local specialties, such as the Brown-billed Scythebill and Masked Yellowthroat.  Evenings we might find some owls—Mottled, Tropical Screech, and Vermiculated Screech Owls are resident.

Day 12: Time to hit the road for our fairly long drive to the highlands of Rio Savegre, our last destination for birding.  We will make some stops along the way for refreshments and for birds.  Our mountain lodge is at about 7,500’ in the San Gerarado de Dota area along the upper section of Rio Savegre.

Days 13-14: Beautiful old-growth oaks are predominant in this tropical cloud forest; a lovely trout stream, Rio Savegre, flows through the valley on its way to the ocean. The forest itself is a massive garden; trees are filled with bromeliads, orchids, mosses, ferns and other epiphytic plants nourished by almost constant mist. While many endemic birds occur in this area, the most sought species has to be the Resplendent Quetzal. Los Quetzales National Park was recently created to protect the headwaters of Rio Savegre. Just above the cloud forest another fantastic habitat occurs, the sub-alpine tropical páramo, with elevations reaching over 11,000’ at the summit of Cerro de la Muerte.  The trip leader could give you an endless list of the birds for this—her favorite habitat in Costa Rica—but she will leave them for you to see yourself.

Day 15: will be hard to leave the highlands, but after lunch it will be time to drive back to San Jose and the Hotel Bougainvillea, becoming known as “the birder’s hotel.” The hotel gardens are a small sample of what we will have seen at Wilson Gardens. (The early owners were friends and exchanged plants.)  In case you still want to add a few more species of birds to your list, this is a great place to search for a couple of ground-sparrows and there will be a few birds from the northwest that we might have missed on our southern itinerary.  We will have a farewell dinner at the hotel.

Day 16: Transfer to the airport for departing flights. Since many flights require a very early morning check-in at the airport, you may want to try for a mid-day flight to have a more leisurely morning.

Please be aware that many factors may cause changes to the itinerary; it could be weather, it could be a closed bridge or a flood, or a flat tire, or it could just be our own desire to adjust the schedule as the trip progresses. Flexibility is part of the fun.



Getting There

The trip begins and ends in San José, Costa Rica.  Plan to arrive in San José no later than February 23—a welcome dinner that night is included.  Your leader will be available at the hotel all that day to help find some new birds in the gardens and/or to take a quick tour to nearby Zoo Ave (“Bird Zoo”).  It is strongly recommended that participants come a day or two before the trip begins to absorb a little San José culture, to rest and relax in the beautiful hotel gardens, to visit nearby naturalist attractions, and to cushion your plans in case of travel delay. 

Most flights from Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José returning to the U.S. leave in the morning. You must arrive at the airport no less than three hours before flight time. Trip members are expected to make their own international flight reservations to and from Costa Rica. If you wish to arrive before the trip as recommended, or extend your stay, your leader and our in-country provider are happy to help with additional arrangements and plans.

Your passport should be valid for at least six months from the starting date of this trip. No visa is required for holders of U.S. passports.  No vaccinations are required, although it is wise to be sure all your inoculations are up to date.

Accommodations and Food

This is not a camping trip, but it is not a luxury trip either.  Our accommodations vary from extremely pleasant lodges to a comfortable hotel.  Rooms are double occupancy, and roommates will be assigned for those traveling solo.  Rooms have private baths, hot water, and electricity almost always.  Windows are screened, most rooms have ceiling fans, and several accommodations provide swimming pools.  Pending availability, single rooms may be requested for a “single-supplement” of $1,431.  Food varies with each location; several lodges are known for exceptional meals.  Expect traditional Costa Rican cuisine with fresh fruits and vegetables, and local seafood and meats.  Vegetarians can be accommodated.  Water is generally safe to drink in Costa Rica.

Trip Difficulty

To enjoy this trip you need to have a strong interest in birds. You must be in reasonably good health and be able to hike at least three miles at a “birder’s pace” over muddy, sometimes steep, irregular trails. You can count on early morning starts each day to take advantage of those precious hours when birds are most active.  When birds are resting in the early afternoon, we may also rest, but when the rain or heat of the day is over, we will be out birding again, sometimes until after sunset.  This is not a strenuous trip and could be classified as leisurely, except that some days will be very full and we might even be in the field from dawn to dusk.  Elevation gain and loss on our hikes will be minimal.  Heat and humidity in the lowlands at first may bother those not used to it.  While all hikes are optional, the trip will be more satisfying to those physically able to participate in all activities and willing to enjoy the wet weather that does come as part of the tropics.  A good-humored and flexible attitude toward traveling in Latin America is required. The unexpected does happen, like earthquakes or landslides or floods; it is all part of the great adventure.

Equipment and Clothing

You must have a good pair of birding binoculars. These should be gas filled to prevent moisture from getting inside. This trip would be a good excuse to treat yourself to a new, excellent pair of binoculars, but be sure you take plenty of time to test them well and to get thoroughly used to them before the trip. You will need a day pack, boots for muddy trails, raingear and an umbrella, and clothes for both warm, humid climate and cooler days in the highlands.  A packing list and many more details will be provided later.


An expanded reading list will be sent to all trip participants. The best map of Costa Rica is by International Travel Maps. (Available from

  • Stiles, Gary and Alexander F. Skutch, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica.
  • Garrigues, Richard and Dean Skutch, The Birds of Costa Rica, a Field Guide.
  • Henderson, Carroll, Field Guide to the Wildlife of Costa Rica. (Features our guide, Charlie)
  • Beletsky, Les, Costa Rica, the Ecotraveler’s Wildlife Guide.
  • Schafer, Kevin, Costa Rica, the Forests of Eden.
  • Fogden, Michael and Patricia, Hummingbirds of Costa Rica.
  • Fogden, Michael, Patricia Fogden, and Adrian Forsyth, Rainforests, Costa Rica and Beyond.
  • Forsyth, Adrian and Ken Miyata, Tropical Nature.
  • Krichler, John, A Neotropical Companion.
  • Hilty, Steven, Birds of Tropical America.


Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources, both locally and globally.  Our work is accomplished by volunteers, aided by a salaried staff, encouraging grassroots involvement. Our outings seek to empower participants toward environmentally understanding parallel concerns at home and abroad. 

In Costa Rica, we will get an up-close look at the effects of positive conservation action. The country has long been committed to protecting, rather than exploiting, its natural resources. Indeed, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Cahn puts it, the Costa Rican park system is “In some ways the most remarkable national park system in the world.” All told, it contains some 190 protected areas, including 35 national parks. When all forest reserves, Indian reserves, wildlife refuges, and “buffer” zones are included, protected federal lands total about 27% of Costa Rican land area, which is a larger proportion than any other country in the world.

There are severe problems, however, and signs of a weakening in this protection. Outside of the national parks and preserves, almost the entire country has been deforested. The nation’s forests were falling at a faster rate than anywhere else in the western hemisphere, but in recent years the rate of deforestation seems to be gradually slowing. Illegal tree felling continues even within national parks. Expansion of agricultural pursuits, additional land cleared for grazing, colonization by landless peasants, and logging of tropical hardwoods are the causes of much of the deforestation. Forests will not be truly safe until they provide realized economic benefits to the local people. As we travel the country we will learn about the successes and pitfalls that the Costa Ricans have encountered. We will also learn more about how outsiders may be able to help.



A birding enthusiast and naturalist, Carol Dienger began leading trips over 40 years ago. For more than 20 years, her trips in Alaska, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil have focused on natural history, and in particular, on birding. Now retired from the field of architecture, Carol spends her so- called “new leisure time” gardening, birding, woodworking, studying Spanish, exploring digital photography, and enjoying the grandkids. She has great passion for the unique hummingbirds of the Americas and includes “seeing them all” on her life list of things to do.

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