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Bird watching in Costa Rica: An alternative luxury safari holiday

Osa Peninsula - Toucan - source Remanso.jpg

What does the word safari mean to you? Africa? The "Big Five"? Grassy plains and dramatic sunsets? While these are common associations with the notion of going "on safari", the chances are that Costa Rica in Central America didn't spring to mind.

The more modern use of the term "safari" is focused on the act of seeing wildlife. On this basis, Costa Rica - which is the most bio-diverse country on Earth with five per cent of the world's species crammed into just 0.03 per cent of the Earth's total land area - takes some beating in terms of places well suited to the wildlife connoisseur.

Although this lush and tropically warm Central American country is home to big cats like the jaguar, as well as monkeys and sloths, the main focus of a wildlife holiday here is most likely to be bird watching.

One of the premier birding destinations on the planet, Costa Rica's lush primary forests are home to more than 800 species, many of them spectacularly coloured and several being very rare.  

What birds can I see in Costa Rica?  

Undoubtedly one of the most prized sightings of all during a birding holiday in Costa Rica is the resplendent quetzal– arguably the world's most beautiful bird.

You will never forget the first time you lay eyes on the male's magnificent green iridescent upper body, metre-long tail feathers and bright yellow beak set beneath a spiky Mohican haircut – more so if you've been searching for one for several hours or even days!  

These members of the trogon family are elusive and sparsely spread creatures that work in pairs and reside in hollowed out branches and tree trunks, often 20-30ft above the ground. Catching a glimpse of one can be quite a challenge, but knowledgeable local birding guides can pinpoint nesting sites which, with quiet patience at a sensible remove, often offer the best sighting opportunities.

Perhaps you'll be lucky enough to catch a male regurgitating the seed of an avocado - their favourite snack - which they swallow whole. If such a site happens to be near a hanging bridge that elevates you into the treetops, encounters can be spectacular, close-quarter affairs.  

Another often frustratingly elusive bird is the incredible three-wattled bellbird. You'll hear this bizarre-looking beast long before you see it – its ear-deafening honks carry for miles. If you can't pinpoint its location, the calls have the potential to drive you mad!

But, again, a skilful guide is the key to the best chances of success and, with luck, helping you get that all-important line of sight through the foliage. Through a spotting scope you'll marvel at its three dangling strands of skin that give it its name. 

More familiar, but no less special sightings can be made of the iconic keel-billed toucan, with its enormous beak, and the majestic scarlet macaw.

Other species to watch out for include numerous tiny hummingbirds, the kite-tailed blue-crowned motmot and playful emerald toucanets – smaller, green versions of the keel-billed toucan.  

Where can I see these birds in Costa Rica?  

If it's quetzals you're after, Monteverde cloud forest has most often been suggested as a great location. However the region has become more populated in recent years and so sightings have become rarer.

Better still is the San Gerardo area further south which represents one of the best opportunities for seeing nesting pairs in action, alongside the three-wattled bellbird and hundreds of other species.  

Scarlet macaws are found in forests closer to the coast, including the Corcovado National Park in south-western Costa Rica and in more recent years also in the beautiful Piedras Blancas National Park on the other side of the Golfo Dulce.

Speaking of the coast, seabird enthusiasts can enjoy sightings of flocks of brown pelican and soaring frigate birds.   

What other animals can I see in Costa Rica?  

Just because you're on a bird watching holiday doesn't mean you won't encounter a variety of other genera as you trek through the forest. Watch out for agouti - giant guinea-pig-like creatures - scurrying in the undergrowth, howler monkeys swinging in the canopy and sloths hanging from the treetops.

Costa Rica is also great for families, and a night tour with the children to watch green turtles nesting at Tortuguero, on the Caribbean Coast, is great for wildlife viewing during the summer school holidays, as is the opportunity to spot humpback whales in Golfo Dulce and around the Osa Peninsula.

Scuba enthusiasts can even take a break from birding to explore the warm waters off the south-west coast that are home to the likes of sea turtle, manta ray and shark.

Costa Rica is varied and truly splendid!