Tropical Birds of Costa Rica

Manakin Magic

Sun filtered through the verdant canopy. The air temperate was 80 degrees in the middle of January. It was hard to believe.

I was hiking with my girlfriend on an abandoned road in Nosara, Costa Rica. Soon, we heard a faint but mesmerizing sound from the underbrush to our left. Transfixed, we moved closer to peek through the thick tangle. We waited. Then we caught glimpse of a black bird smaller than a sparrow sitting on a low branch. Soon, we heard two, singing with each other in bubbly notes.

For a brief moment the bird sat in plain view, under the full light of the midday tropical sun—it was long enough to absolutely shock us both.

We tried to get a better look at the birds, but in the shaded undergrowth all we could make out was a tiny black spot on a stick. About ready to give up and move on, suddenly one of the black spots shot toward us. It emerged into the bright sunlight in the roadway. For a brief moment the bird sat in plain view, under the full light of the midday tropical sun—it was long enough to absolutely shock us both. I think my jaw fell open when I saw the small black bird reveal a stunning azure back, a brilliant red cap, and two tail feathers twice as long as the bird itself.

Click on image above and others in this post to enlarge them.

This surprise was a male Long-Tailed Manakin (see above right; female or immature left). The encounter with my first Long-Tailed Manakin was a lesson not to judge a bird by its initial appearance and not to give up at trying for a better look—especially not in Costa Rica!

A Special Abundance

Discovering brand new birds is a recurring dream for me. As in, I actually have dreams about unique birds flying all around me. In those dreams, I usually make futile attempts to get pictures, sidetracked by an overwhelming joy.

Where better to make dreams become a reality than thousands of miles south—away from the cold, dark winter of Maine?

Although Costa Rica is smaller than West Virginia, it hosts over 900 species of birds—more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Most of those species can never be found in northern latitudes.

Trogons, for example, are a spectacular and funny-looking family of birds that prefer the tropics. They don’t migrate much, eating fruit and bugs in the dry forests and tropical rainforests. (One species of trogon is occasionally seen in southeastern Arizona, creating a frenzy in the Chiricahuas).

This consistency of food is one of the reasons that Costa Rica and other tropical countries support more bird life than northern countries. With relatively constant daylight hours and temperatures yearlong, tropical plants, insects, and other creatures don’t have to worry as much about a lack of food in the off-season.

Green Hermit. A large hummingbird with long white central tail feathers and a stretched out, downwardly curved bill.

Hummingbirds, for example, are a specialized bird—they require nectar or insects. In Costa Rica, where tropical temperatures and sunlight support flowering plants year-round, hummingbirds are in heaven. That’s why you could find about 50 different species of hummingbird in Costa Rica. In the northeastern U.S., only one species migrates in for the summer.


But why aren’t there 50 species of hummingbird in, say, Florida? It is the “Sunshine State” after all. But while Florida does support more birds than Maine, Costa Rica is at geographically different level.

One of the most important factors in Costa Rica’s incredible biodiversity is its varied topography within a small tropical zone. The spine of Costa Rica is the impressive Talamanca Mountain Range, the highest peak of which is over 12,000 feet.

Resplendent Quetzals. A rare bird, the quetzal is coveted by birdwatchers for its beauty. The female, left, is a shimmering emerald color and the male sports brilliant blues, reds, and streaming tail feathers. These photographs are from a brief glimpse in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

The great span of elevation in such a small area has a tremendous impact on local temperature and rainfall. This topography creates numerous climates, or zones of intense rain, or heat, or humidity, or other conditions. In turn, climatic zones combine with local factors like surface water and soil type to create a variety of habitats that support many different species.

Some species live only in certain sections of Costa Rican cloud forest, where the unique conditions and isolation created by extreme elevation creates a condition known as a “sky island.” Sky islands are unique patches of habitat suspended on the sides of Costa Rica’s highest mountains, places where many endemic species live. Endemic species are found nowhere else on Earth.

Slate-Throated Redstart
Slate-Throated Redstart, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica

A Bird Hotspot

Many factors add up to give Costa Rica an abundance of birds: a tropical climate, extreme topography and varied rainfall, and its unique position on the land bridge between two continents.

Within a single tropical country like Costa Rica, the biodiversity far outweighs the majority of countries worldwide. For that reason, we lose a global heritage if biodiversity hotspots within countries like Costa Rica fail to gain extended protections and global climate change continues to wreak havoc on temperatures and rainfall patterns. If current trends continue, the Earth will forever lose incredible species.

Orange-Fronted Parakeet.

Like an elaborate performance on the global theater, the supporting characters of the forest birds, mammals, and even insects will fall away, no longer providing the incredible variation, richness, and hope and possibility to the world, ending their unique branches on the tree of life. If played out, it would leave the main character surrounded only itself.

I want my grandchildren to not only dream about being in a new place with unique birds flying all around them, but to have that dream remain a possible reality for them—and not in a zoo.

There’s much we can do. Species have proved more resilient than we give them credit for. It all starts with pressuring our local and national policymakers to sustain actions that create a more just, fair, and sustainable global economy and pushing to change the fabric of a society stuck in the age of consumption.

We can each protect the rich life in this world, even if most of it seems to be living in countries far away. It all starts with our approach right here at home.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions about the trip, feel free to contact me. If you enjoyed any of the photos above or elsewhere on the site, you can purchase cards and prints of any photo, any size you’d like.

All the best,